The Conforto Effect

On June 5th, the die-hard baseball fans had the opportunity to sit down and watch the annual MLB Draft. While it doesn’t have the grandeur of the NFL Draft or even the NBA Draft for that matter, baseball’s big night for high school and college players is much different than its professional counterparts, yet equally important. Football players and basketball players are drafted based on immediate need. A quarterback may be taken and slotted in for a Week One start or a shooting guard may come right into basketball and have a 30 point game. Baseball is different. Baseball, to be fair, is a much more complex game than any other major professional sport and requires a multitude of different skills and an even higher IQ to be successful.

While it has been done before, it is an extremely rare case for an amateur baseball player to come in off the draft board and start professionally on the major league roster without doing a tour in the minor leagues. So rare, in fact, that it has only happened 7 times in the last three decades, most recently with Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake [2010] (Jim Abbott [1989], Darren Dreifort [1994], Xavier Nady [2000], John Olerud [1989], Chan Ho Park [1995], and Ariel Prieto [1995] are the other answers, for all you trivia buffs). With all that said, you can understand why the MLB Draft does not generate the same type of buzz that the other professional drafts may bring in. The players are projects, some less than others, but are generally at least 2 to 3 years away from reaching the MLB, if they ever do. However, it is still an important aspect of the game as many of the great Mets players have been taken in the first round of the MLB Draft, most notably pitching phenom Matt Harvey (2010) and franchise cornerstone David Wright (2001).

It has also become a philosophy that teams are using to build their franchise. For every giant free agent contract that is dished out, it has become more common for teams to offer its prized possession a contract many years before they even reach free agency to ensure they stay away from the evil big budgets of teams such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox. For every Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann free agent signing, there’s a Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria not far behind. The latter is an example of teams looking to lock up its draft day investment for a more team friendly deal. Simply put, the draft is still important.

Sandy Alderson, New York Mets General Manager

Sandy Alderson, New York Mets General Manager

New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson has not had any sort of pay off for his first four drafts (yet), but this year’s selection could be the one that sets off the dominoes. The Mets selected Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto with the tenth pick of the MLB Draft. Widely regarded by scouts and writers as the best hitter in the entire draft class, Conforto hit .345 with 7 home runs and 56 RBIs in his junior year for Oregon State this season, but perhaps more eye opening for the Mets was his excellent .508 OBP. He will help bolster a farm system that has produced and stockpiled some fantastic pitching prospects that we continue to see excel at the major league level, but has also fallen short in terms of position players.

With Jon Heyman of Newsday confirming that Conforto and the Mets “will agree to a deal”, let’s look at what has been said about the power hitting outfielder:

  • MLB.com: “While there is some swing-and-miss to his game, he’s shown the ability to work the counts, square up the baseball, and could have above-average power at the next level. He might be limited to left field given his defensive profile, but he should have the bat to carry him to the highest level.”
  • ESPN.com (Chris Crawford): “Conforto might be the best pure hitter in the class; a left-handed hitting outfielder with plus power and an outstanding approach at the plate. He’s not going to be among the UZR leaders in the outfield, but he’s improved there, and should be able to handle left field at least in the short to medium turn. The Mets outfield isn’t exactly murderer’s row, so he could move quickly through the Mets system, perhaps helping New York late in 2015 if things go right.”
  • Baseball Prospectus (Nick J. Faleris): “There’s more pull-side power in the bat than his seven home runs would indicate, and he gets to it easy thanks to a pronounced uppercut in the swing and raw strength that allows him to generate easy lift and carry. The tradeoff is a diminished overlap of swing and pitch plane due to the barrel’s quick passage through the hit zone. He can struggle adjusting to secondaries away, and there is risk the hit tool will lag at the next level as he is more consistently challenged with quality off speed stuff. Defensively, it’s a left field profile whose nose for the ball outdistanced the physical tools he uses to chase them down. He’s a below-average runner with average arm strength that should be able to provide adequate defense at the seven spot, but lacks the arm for right or the coverage for center. He profiles as a power-first middle-of-the-order bat capable of 25-plus home runs a year. While the on-base production this spring has been staggering, the walks will likely drop some as more advanced arms challenge him in the zone.”

Those are just three of the many, many scouting reports done by professional scouts and writers, but let us break this down to the most simple of terms. This kid provides the Mets with power that they don’t have in the farm system right now. The Mets, the last three years, have taken position players in the draft but they are all projects drafted out of high school and need ample time to develop. It took three years for 2011 first round selection, outfielder Brandon Nimmo to show the production that he’s showing this season. As of June 16, 2014, Nimmo is batting to the line of .321/.444/.448 with 4 home runs and 24 RBIs. He is showing definite progress both at the plate and in the field, and a promotion to AA is soon in his future. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto begin a race to the major leagues, which is something the Mets haven’t had from their farm system since David Wright and Jose Reyes. In no way am I saying that Nimmo and Conforto will come up and make the same impact as Wright or Reyes, but it is refreshing to hear about position players for the future of this team. ESPN minor league analyst Keith Law had recently mentioned in his ESPN Insiders Only blog that he actually ranked Michael Conforto above Noah Syndergaard as the immediate #1 prospect in the farm system. If there was one phrase that could capture the collective attention of Mets fans, that is it.

Sandy Alderson and his collective crew of former GMs he has working alongside him have not made a single signing in their Mets tenure (since 2011) that has been successful, the bargain bin signing of Marlon Byrd notwithstanding, plus the most recent signings getting a grade of incomplete. They have, however, done a tremendous job of stockpiling the Mets farm system after Omar Minaya left the team with a depleted system that only had minimal prospects and was ranked by writers and professional scouts in the bottom 10 of the major leagues. Outside of his draft selections, Sandy has traded major league talent for prospects.

The first big move was trading Carlos Beltran, who had 2 months left at the time on his current Mets contract and almost certainly wouldn’t be open to coming back, to the San Francisco Giants for prized pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. He followed that up by trading reigning Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and backup catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas to the Toronto Blue Jays for top 100 prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. In 2013, he traded Marlon Byrd, a surprisingly productive comeback player, to the contending Pittsburgh Pirates for reliever Vic Black and second base prospect Dilson Herrera. Earlier this season, the Mets ended the Ike Davis experiment by trading him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for 25 year old reliever Zack Thornton and 2013 MLB Draft second round selection Blake Taylor. Over the last three to four seasons, Sandy has turned a depleted farm system into a farm with some great talent, combining the mix of acquired and homegrown players.

It’s easy to understand the frustration of a Mets fan, believe me, I’ve been one for over 20 years and have seen some pretty bad times, but the future is potentially bright. We might not be far away from the time to put up or shut up, to truly grade Sandy’s biggest moves and by drafting a college player like Michael Conforto, all of these young and exciting prospects will be following each other to the show. Forget the flashy signings, forget the star players. This front office has stubbornly shown they aren’t about that. This is the future we keep getting promised by ownership and front office personnel. This is the result of the patience we were asked to follow. This will turn out to be the legacy of Sandy Alderson. Now let’s see how it plays out.

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