By: Brian Mangan
Let’s get one thing straight: Wilmer Flores and Noah Syndergaard are stud prospects banging down the door to the major leagues. They are not Lastings Milledge, or Mike Pelfrey, or Alex Escobar, or any other recent failed Mets prospect that you’d like to compare them to as a “cautionary tale”. Flores and Syndergaard (and a few other current Mets prospects) have already done more, at a higher level, with a better track record than almost any “failed” prospects that Mets fans would like to compare them to.
Even if they weren’t clearly better prospects (which they are) than many of the flops, a full 53% of Mets prospects who made the MLB Top 50 from 1992 to 2009 made an All Star team at some point in their career, and 26% of them received MVP votes in at least one season.
I understand the hesitance of my fellow Mets fan to embrace a good thing. We have been burned before. But it’s time to see these guys for what they are, and not worry about the worst-case scenario alternatives.
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Wilmer Flores hit .311 and slugged .494 in Double-A in his age 20 season. He followed that up by hitting .321 and slugging .543 in Triple-A before his 23rd birthday. In 162 games in Triple A, he’s notched 28 HR and 143 RBI, which had led to Wally Backman calling him the “best RBI guy I’ve ever seen.” Concerns about his glove have a reasonable basis, but there is no reason to doubt his bat.
Noah Syndergaard rocketed through the system and reached Triple-A at an even younger age than Flores. Syndergaard posted a 3.00 ERA and 11.5 K/9 in Double-A when he was only 20, and then held his own with a 4.60 ERA and 9.8 K/9 in Triple-A at age 21. Only two starters in the entire PCL had a better K/9 than Syndergaard did last year, and that combination of stats and plus pitches are the reason MLB.com ranked him the 10th best prospect in all of baseball.
Both Syndergaard and Flores have proven all they can in the minors, and are merely awaiting their call to the big leagues.
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The Mets prospects that people like to mention in order to temper expectations are simply not comparable. Despite this fact, you may be surprised to learn that most of the players on the Mets to crack the MLB Top 50 list since 1992 have panned out quite well: Todd Hundley, Jeromy Burnitz, Bobby Jones, Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson, Preston Wilson, Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jason Isringhausen, Alex Escobar, Octavio Dotel, Jose Reyes, Scott Kazmir, Aaron Heilman, David Wright, Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey, Fernando Martinez, Deolis Guerra, Wilmer Flores, Jenrry Mejia, Travis D’Arnaud, Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey (#54).
Almost all of these players actually had, or are in the midst of, good MLB careers. In fact, 53% of the players on that list up from 2009 or earlier have made at least one All Star appearance in their careers. The number is even higher if you include Matt Harvey, Carlos Gomez, and Carl Everett, who skirted outside the Top 50. Even most of those who didn’t make All Star teams have had impressive careers:
- Preston Wilson had a seven year prime where he averaged 30 HR per 162 games played with a 107 OPS+.
- Octavio Dotel’s earned $41M over a long career, notching 1,143 strikeouts.
- Aaron Heilman spent three years as one of baseball’s premier set-up men, putting up a 3.86 ERA over 501 IP in a strong six year stretch.
Meanwhile, Hundley, Burnitz, Wright, Reyes, and Alfonzo have been stars worthy of MVP consideration (26%).
However there are a few notable failures, which pessimistic Mets fans hang their hats on as “proof” that prospects don’t pan out. But focusing on those few ignores the success stories — not to mention that they ignore the success stories that come out of nowhere, like Jacob DeGrom, Juan Lagares, Lucas Duda, and Daniel Murphy, who never made a Mets Top 6, much less an MLB Top 50.
Even a cursory glance at a couple of the “failures” shows that are not comparable to the current crop of Mets prospect.
- Mike Pelfrey was called to the major leagues essentially right away, after only a dozen Double-A starts, and posted only lackluster numbers in Triple-A the next year (6.8 K/9, 1.35 WHIP). Scouts liked him because he was drafted from college and was close to the majors, but Pelfrey never had or developed a strong secondary pitch (although nine years in the Major Leagues is nothing to be ashamed of).
- Lastings Milledge had a stronger minor league resume, but it was mostly a mirage. He hit .337 in Double-A at age 20, but it was fueled by a ridiculous .427 BABIP. When his BABIP came back to earth the next year in Triple-A, he had a respectable .277 with little power. Milledge still should have panned out, but he was a small-ish corner outfielder with only decent defense who never hit more than 11 home runs in a season above Low-A.
- Alex Escobar hit .267 in Triple-A and struck out 146 times in only 397 at-bats.
- Deolis Guerra had not even gotten past Single-A when he was named a Top 50 prospect.
- Generation K is somewhat of a different case, as injuries befell all three of those promising young arms. Nonetheless, there was only one in the trio whose minor league resume matched that of Noah Syndergaard. Bill Pulsipher was not the same caliber of prospect (or Steven Matz, or even Rafael Montero). Pulsipher’s best season was in Double-A in 1994, but even then he only struck out 7.66 per nine innings and had a 1.33 WHIP. The one that is a true disappointment is Paul Wilson, who put up a 2.17 ERA in Double-A and a 2.86 ERA in Triple-A at the age of 22. Wilson had strong peripherals and plus pitches, but as everyone knows, his bad mechanics (and 186 innings in his first minor league season) doomed him.
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The Mets will likely have 7 prospects in the Top 100 when the final lists come out: Syndergaard, Kevin Plawecki, Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Dilson Herrera and Matz. Of these, a strong argument can be made that four of them (I’d so with Syndergaard, Matz, Herrera and Plawecki) belong in the Top 50 overall.
Plawecki put up an 864 OPS in Double-A at age 23 (better than Hundley ever did) and Matz put up a 2.27 ERA in Double-A, and Herrera forced himself into MLB at age 20. These guys are good.
No prospect is guaranteed, but history has shown that players of this caliber are not lottery tickets. Some will flame out because of injury or for no explanation (Paul Wilson, Milledge) while others will go on to pedestrian careers (Pelfrey, Ochoa). But the critical mass of them will become MLB regulars (Jones, Burnitz), and some will become stars (Reyes, Wright, Kazmir, Harvey).
Of those seven above, will four turn into All Stars? Will a few of them get MVP votes? History says that they will. So, the next time you hear a person say that Noah Syndergaard might be the next Mike Pelfrey, send them this article. He might be the next Pelfrey, but he’s more likely to be the next Kazmir.
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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.