Friday, March 10, 2023

Prospecting for Gold

The Mets' top prospects are having a productive spring training. The toughest challenges still lie ahead.

God help me. Did the Post's Joel Sherman really grab for the clickbait gusto, dipping his ladle into the tired waters of the Jarred Kelenic well yet again? Tragically, yes. Although Kelenic's struggles — and the terrific season Edwin Díaz enjoyed in 2023 — have combined to dim the usefulness of this story recently, Sherman assures us that the deal can still turn out to be a big winner for Seattle. After all, back in 2020, Sherman actually compared Brodie Van Wagenen's folly with the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi deal, as if young Kelenic was Cooperstown-bound before he even took a major league AB. Joel's most recent piece didn't go quite that far, but I can't believe he's still trying to get some mileage from this stale saga.

I elected not to link to the piece from Monday's Post, as I am unwilling to contribute to the clicks for which it is so obviously trolling. I'm just done playing this game with the local pundits. Joel Sherman is one of the finest baseball writers in the country, but he can feel free to just suck citrus when he serves up something like this. Better yet, just go back to writing about the Yankees. Seriously, this sh*t is getting so freaking old. With everything going on with the Mets this spring, Joel Sherman chooses to write about a deal made under previous ownership by a GM who has already had two successors?

Here's a memo for any writer who feels the need to chase clicks with this tired old saga: I am among the majority of Mets fans who are happy with Edwin Díaz. To his credit, the Mets' closer has won the fans over. Edwin is an integral part of the fabric of this ball club. Jarred is a Seattle Mariner. This damn trade is ancient history. It happened more than five years ago. Whatever swing change Kelenic has made that might help him fulfill his promise does not merit my attention as I do not desire to relentlessly live in the past, nor am I a Mariners fan. Move on, folks. Nothing to see here.

Back in the bad old days — the Fred and Jeff era — writing about a talented ballplayer that got away was an effective way to troll Mets fans, myself included. Our team's roster usually just wasn't good enough to genuinely compete for the playoffs. Letting a talented future Major Leaguer go was an irredeemable tragedy. Apparently, the local pundits failed to get the memo that things have changed since November 2020. No matter how it turns out for Jarred Kelenic, the Mets will be just fine without him. I feel comfortable knowing that Steve Cohen's club will do what is necessary to field a competitive roster. Obsessively looking backward at (perhaps) a mistake made seems so much part of the old way of being a Mets fan.

Beyond my momentary annoyance with the piece, it made me appreciate how things have changed around the Mets these last few seasons since Steve Cohen took over. Whoever you happen to think "won" the trade that brought Díaz and Robinson Canó to Queens, it undoubtedly didn't reflect a good process on the part of the Mets.

I've gone into this before. I'm not against trading prospects. It's something that winning clubs have to do. But a successful club really needs to understand the actual value of their own prospects — not only which to keep and which to deal, but also when to trade them. Holding on to Jarred Kelenic one more year would have seriously increased his value to the Mets as a trade chip. The same thing happened with Pete Crow-Armstrong during Zack Scott's brief run calling the shots. Pete would have been worth much more in a deal if they held onto him for one more year rather than shipping him out for Javier Báez.

Particularly in the last couple of years, the Mets have made massive organizational changes in player development. Beyond the obvious importance of transforming some of these raw, talented kids into future Mets, having the right people evaluating these kids will ensure the best possible judgments in the value of who the Mets deal away. We'll be much less likely to see a talent like Crow-Armstrong, currently ranked 28th in MLB.com's Top 100, traded out for a 2-month rental. Another in the Top 100, Endy Rodriguez (55), was part of the 3-team trade for Joey Lucchesi — before the Mets really knew what they had. Having regrets about a player traded away will always be part of the game, of course, but a better internal evaluation process will help limit these mistakes in the future.

However, rest assured if a mistake occurs, it will be brought up repeatedly by some in the local media. You'll receive more updates on the kid's progress than you'll see for some of the Mets' prospects. Meanwhile, these same media figures will complain that the Mets' front office is "too timid" about trading prospects when they don't make a splashy deal. I don't know — if you're the type that enjoys beating yourself up for something that you can't change and have zero control over, feel free to dig in and wallow in the misery. For myself, I'd rather keep my attention on players who are still in the Mets' organization and have a chance to contribute.

This is an exciting year for those of us nerdy folk who get a little revved up whenever Steve Cohen talks about sustainability. It's been since 2019, when Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil debuted, that the Mets had young players really make an impact at the major league level and establish themselves as regulars. After several years of waiting for the most talented youngsters to mature through the Mets' system, 2023 seems like it will be the season that some of them contribute to the big club. Having several prospects crack the top 100 lists is all fine and dandy, but it ultimately doesn't mean much if the Mets can't finish the job of turning them into contributing major leaguers.

The quartet of Francisco Álvarez, Brett Baty, Ronny Mauricio, and Mark Vientos are all on the verge of making it onto the big club in 2023. They've been showing up on the prospect lists for a while. Vientos (2017) and Baty (2019) were drafted out of high school, while Mauricio (2017) and Álvarez (2018) were international signings as teenagers. At this point, it feels like I've been reading and thinking about them forever.

It's exciting to imagine all four becoming stars for the Mets. Of course, that's unlikely to happen. Of all the challenges involved in finding and developing talent, getting them over the final hurdle and making productive big leaguers out of them may be the toughest. Some may indeed become very good ballplayers, but outcomes range from success stories down to complete busts. In a piece I wrote about Jon Daniels after the Rangers handed their long-tenured leader a pink slip last year, I had an excellent quote on the subject from Brian Goff on Forbes.com:
Whether in baseball, economics, epidemiology, meteorology, or many other pursuits, forecasting the future is error-prone. That's the nature of forecasts. However, that is the GM's job. It is another reason for holding on to a lot of young players, or, at least, trading for other solid, young prospects. What I mean is that because forecasting player development is error-prone, building a large base of solid players in development is more likely to turn out some big hits than placing all the chips on one or two numbers.

This development-by-masses has been the Dodgers approach in recent years. Not only does alleviate the need to be a forecasting savant, but as some of these players develop, it provides for a relatively inexpensive core of productive players. Then, the free agent signings can help plug in some gaps here and there. Its the recipe that the Yankees used to build their core in the 1990s.

Goff is a Professor of Economics who has written extensively on sports. The point that he is making here is that developing prospects is a form of forecasting. No one ever gets it 100% right. In baseball, it's important to build a wide base of prospects from which you hope a few emerge as contributors. While the Mets need to do everything in their power to help Álvarez, Baty, Mauricio, and Vientos succeed, it's impossible to know with certainty exactly how it will turn out with these guys. The club is aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but there is still an unpredictable range of outcomes for these kids and others further down in the Mets' system.

It's something to keep in mind as these prospects begin to get their shots with the Mets. Some of them will surely disappoint. Making the final jump to the majors is a huge obstacle to overcome, as the difference in talent from Triple-A to MLB is huge. Sometimes you'll get lucky, and have a kid like David Wright, who became a star almost instantly. For most, there's a longer adjustment period as they figure it out. Some never do, while others are derailed by injuries.

What will complicate things for the Mets in this and future seasons will be the difficulties that arise when trying to integrate young talent into a team that is winning and wants to keep on doing so. How does a club help them through their growing pains when the imperative is to try to win every day? It's a lot harder than it is to bring up young players when the major league club is out of a pennant race, as the Mets were in 2004 when Wright was first promoted. The fans just aren't going to be as patient with a kid who isn't getting the job done. Meanwhile, the media is going to start asking questions like: "How much longer are the Mets willing to live with Joe Prospect's struggles?" The pressure is ratcheted up for the player, the coaches, and the front office.

Tim Britton had an excellent piece in The Athletic this week, looking at the challenges for the Mets in getting some of these prospects into the majors this season. I think Tim does a great job of getting to the crux of the matter here:

Bringing up young players is hard anywhere, anytime. That challenge is steeper when you're trying to win in the short term, and it becomes downright dizzying when you're trying to win in a big market with a less patient fan base.

"You have to be cognizant of the makeup of your players," said Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "Can they handle the booing? They're going to have tough moments."

The minor leagues can prepare a player for how to encounter 100 mph fastballs, 2-0 sliders on the black, and hitters with two-strike approaches. But no minor-league ballpark seats 40,000-plus with an upper deck. No minor-league strikeout and no minor-league error lead to cameras and beat reporters gathering around your locker. No minor-league at-bat commences with boos from the home crowd.

How do you prepare players for that?

It's not going to be easy and, as I said earlier, some of these kids will surely disappoint. When that plays out, I'm certain some in the media will opine, "why didn't the Mets trade Joe Prospect when they had the chance?" The answer, of course, is because they were playing the numbers game with their kids — shepherding as many of them as practical to the gates of MLB with the hopes that a few would make it through to be the next Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, or Brandon Nimmo.

I'm excited about this season. It's not only because the Mets should contend, although that's important, of course. I'm also intrigued by how the club handles their kids in 2023, now that all of them are in a place where they should be able to contribute. I want them to succeed, of course, but mostly I want to see a good process in place. As the club continues to up its game in evaluating and developing talent, I hope to see much improvement in the final piece of the prospect puzzle. There's no way to guarantee success, but a good process will make success more likely, now and in the future.

Thanks for stopping by. Please be well and take care. Let's go Francisco, Brett, Ronny, and Mark! Let's go Mets!

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