When Pulling the Trigger Means Shooting Yourself in the Foot
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s an amazing thing what a little youth will do for a ballclub.
A couple of summers ago, it was pretty common, when you picked up a newspaper or tuned your AM dial to the sports leader, to come across someone insisting that the Mets had to trade Scott Kazmir, Jose Reyes, or David Wright for random players like Manny Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Victor Zambrano, or Clay Bellinger. You know the argument: “If you’ve got a chance to make that deal, you’ve gotta make it. You’ve gotta pull the trigger. Period,” etc. etc.
Unlike Gregg Jeffries, Alex Escobar, Jay Payton, and their ilk, Wright, Reyes, and Kazmir turned out to actually be great young players. Between their production and low salaries, Wright and Reyes are at least as responsible as any other two players on the team for the Mets being contenders right now. Had the Mets not pulled the trigger on Kazmir and ended up blowing their own foot off, they’d be the best team in the league by a mile.
Unsurprisingly, everyone caught religion. The fans and pundits who were talking about bullets and chambers two years ago are in a feverish trance. General manager Omar Minaya was even caught out in public speaking in tongues. He compared top pitching prospect Michael Pelfrey to Phillies phenom Cole Hamels, telling the Post that Pelfrey would “probably” force his way up to the majors, as Hamels did.
Hamels did indeed force his way to the majors. The big 22-year-old lefty, who’s missed time over the last few years due to a variety of strange but unrelated injuries, struck out 65 batters in 43 1/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A, running up a 1.04 ERA. With a hole in their rotation, the Phillies, gaining rapidly on the Mets, had to call him up, and he promptly rewarded them with five scoreless innings in his debut last Friday. Good call, Phils.
It’s nice to think Pelfrey might do the same thing. The 6-foot-7-inch, 22-year-old righty was considered the best pitching prospect in last year’s draft, but fell to the Mets because teams were afraid he’d want more money than they were willing to pay. When he signed in January, he instantly became the team’s best pitching prospect, and he’s done nothing to make anyone think badly of him since. In 43 2/3 IP at Single-A and Double-A, he’s recorded 50 strikeouts with a 2.88 ERA.
Those are nice numbers. They’re not really anywhere near as good as Hamels’s, though, especially considering Hamels is about a month older than Pelfrey and was pitching at lower levels. Nor are they too reminiscent of the numbers put up by Mark Prior, the last top college prospect to force his way into the majors after just a handful of starts in the minors: In 2002, Prior threw 41 innings at Double-A and Triple-A and struck out 79, then started pitching for the Cubs.
Of course, the numbers don’t really matter so much – I’m just giving them as a point of reference to compare Pelfrey to guys who forced their way into the majors. Pelfrey isn’t in the minors to run up a pretty stat line, he’s there to work on his secondary pitches. The problem with Pelfrey coming out of college (aside from his wanting to be paid well) was that he had a reputation as a fastball-only pitcher, with a breaking ball and change-up that were more like rough sketches than fin ished pitches.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing – his fastball is said to have been clocked at 98, to sit at 92, and to have great sink.
Prior has been a heck of a pitcher with little more than a fastball that meets that same description, something that kind of looks like a curve if you squint hard (he throws it maybe five times a game), and a change-up that’s been seen once or twice.You might see the problem, here, though: For a guy to blow through the minors straight out of college and become a top pitcher immediately, he has to have the fastball, command, and intelligence of Prior,who was regarded as a once-in-a-generation pitcher in college.
Or, he can have what Hamels has – a fastball in the 90s, a hammer curve, and a change-up that was regarded as of quality equal to the 10 best in the majors while he was still in high school. Guys with a great fastball and a couple of pitches they throw in the 80s are generally called minor leaguers.
None of this is a judgment of any sort on Pelfrey’s status as a prospect.To think he’s going to start destroying everyone in the minors and force the Mets to call him up within the next couple of months (aside from the difference he’d make by simply not being Jose Lima), though, you have to either think that he’s going to suddenly turn into Mark Prior or that he’s going to be able to refine a secondary pitch to major league quality and then use it effectively in the middle of a pennant race. He could do that. I wouldn’t count on it.
There’s a middle ground between looking to fire bullets out of the chamber and thinking that every top prospect is going to do what David Wright did. It’s nice to dream and even to hope, but baseball is hard, and the Mets need a fifth starter capable of dominating Double-A. The light switch can flip for a prospect like Pelfrey at any time; until it does, the Mets should be less worried about holding a spot open for him than about finding one of the 734 pitchers in baseball better than Lima and stuffing him into a uniform.