By Mike Steffanos
Joel Sherman had an interesting piece on his spring training blog yesterday entitled Be Cautious About Prospects, where he threw a little cold water on the gaudy expectations local fans have for Mets prospects Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber and Yankees wunderkind Philip Hughes:
In 2002, the top pitching prospects in order were Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, Juan Cruz, Ryan Anderson, Dennis Tankersley, Nick Neugebauer, Jerome Williams, Jon Rauch and Ty Howington. That is five years ago, more than enough time for a class of prospects to graduate and prove themselves. Yet of that group only Beckett has come close to fulfilling such gaudy expectations. Prior, in many ways, is a cautionary tale because talent evaluators were so universal in their admiration. It was amazing how many scouts told me they were watching the second coming of Tom Seaver.
Why bring this up now? Well, spring is the ultimate time of hope in baseball and while I do not want to douse that optimism, I do want to suggest wariness about projecting only the best-case scenarios.
... Both the Mets and, especially, the Yankees have recognized the value of loading up as many pitching prospects as possible. And that is because both organizations know the hard truth, which is that if you think you have 10 really good pitching prospects, you probably have two. It is very, very tough to be a successful major league pitcher. Just ask Edwin Jackson or Greg Miller, Jesse Foppert or Gavin Floyd, and also all of those guys behind Josh Beckett.
So those starry-eyed fans who just expect that Hughes or Pelfrey will step into rotations in New York in pennant races and be stars, well, be cautious. Sometimes you get that with a Justin Verlander. But most times you do not.
As someone who is a big supporter of the Mets new commitment to player development, you might expect me to take some exception to Sherman's post. Actually, I agree with it completely. Without a doubt, one of the toughest things to do in sports is to develop pitching talent. This is why sub-mediocre pitchers with a pulse were able to land huge contracts this past off-season, and pitchers who are actually accomplished in their art can practically write their own ticket.
Pitching prospects fall by the wayside for many reasons. The most common stumbling block is injuries, as the pitching motion is stressful and unnatural. Repeat it thousands of time and many arms will give out under the strain. Add to this that injuries, however minor, to a different part of the body can lead to a change in the pitcher's delivery that can put extra strain on an elbow and a shoulder and cause that to give out.
If a young pitcher survives all of the potential landmines from a physical standpoint, there are more hurdles to overcome. In the case of a Mike Pelfrey, there is the need to develop complementary pitches to that tremendous fastball. For others, such as Oliver Perez, there is the challenge of getting your stuff over for strikes. If, as a maturing pitcher, you develop your other pitches and throw enough strikes to give yourself a chance to win, your next challenge will be to keep those strikes away from the heart of the plate. No matter how good your stuff is, professional hitters will tee off on it if you make your pitches too fat.
For youngsters that can survive the physical pitfalls and master all of the above, there is still another challenge along the way to being a decent major league pitcher -- consistency and mental toughness. It's not enough to pitch 3 or 4 overpowering innings only to lose it all with one bad one. You must be able to maintain a level of concentration throughout your entire outing. Moreover, you have to be able to change your pitching patterns as the game goes on and the hitters have already seen what you got. If you can do this through 5 or 6 innings, you can be a major league starting pitcher. If you can take it even deeper into games, you can be a very good one.
If you take it another step and find a way to repeat good performance every fifth day, and manage to give your team a chance to win when you're not at your best, then you have pretty much become all that anyone could ask from a major league starting pitcher. Meanwhile, along the road to that point, you've seen many prospects that had as much, if not more, talent than you fall by the wayside. This is why starting pitchers who are only average are still worth so much on the open market.
If it is beyond question that developing dependable starting pitching from prospects is a difficult task, it is also becoming more and more apparent that teams who wish to remain competitive will do exactly that. If a Team A is forced to shop in the current marketplace for pitching while another team in their division, Team B, is able to develop some of their own young pitchers, Team A will find themselves at a huge competitive disadvantage. First of all, with the money they save on pitching Team B will have more to invest in other positions and player development. Secondly, even if Team A has fairly deep pockets, there is no guarantee that they will be able to land the best pitching. The current market and solid financial picture in baseball encourages more teams to hold onto their own talent, diminishing the pool of available pitching. This has combined to raise the value of young pitching -- particularly quality prospects -- to a point where teams are unwilling to trade these kids, despite the odds against any one prospect becoming even an average starting pitcher.
So while I agree with Joel Sherman that you need to be careful with your expectations towards pitching prospects, I still wholeheartedly endorse a team philosophy that places a high value on these kids. Sherman is correct in that it is always a numbers game with young pitching, but to my mind that's why only disciplined franchises that have a clear philosophy of developing talent will be able to succeed. I think the Mets organization has finally reached a point where they are equipped to develop some of their own talent again. Equally as important, they have started to stockpile some arms in the organization for both the rotation and the bullpen. While there is no guarantee that any of these kids -- even Pelfrey and Humber -- will make it, more talent in the Mets system increases the odds that some of these kids will make it in New York. While some Mets fans may get discouraged if the phenom that they read so much about doesn't pan out, it's important that the organization doesn't let talk radio chatter influence what they do going forward.
So while it is important to be realistic about pitching prospects, it's equally important to understand that the only way for the Mets to have some success with their kids is if we are all willing to live with the failures. I guess that's why I get such a headache when people drag up Generation K as a reason to trade away pitching prospects. To me, the tragedy wasn't the failure of Wilson, Pulsipher and Isringhausen to lead the Mets to the Promised Land; it's the failure of the organization to develop a single true impact starting pitcher in all of the years since.