Three weeks after the trade deadline, the consensus among talent evaluators is that Mets GM Billy Eppler did well in bringing back top prospects that have added needed depth, though not necessarily potential star quality, to the farm system.
But the praise comes with a caveat: for the farm system to provide a base for sustained success in the coming years, which is owner Steve Cohen’s stated goal, the Mets’ front office is going to have to get creative in taking a surplus of position players and turning it into some quality pitching.
As it is, the infusion of talent has only steadied a system — at least in the eyes of those who do the rankings — that in recent years has lost blue-chip prospects via trades and big-league promotions.
MLB Pipeline and Baseball America recently did their mid-season re-rankings of farm systems, slotting the Mets at No. 11 and No. 14, respectively, the same as pre-season for MLB Pipeline, and nine spots lower for Baseball America, the only ranking that included Kodai Senga as a prospect.
And Keith Law, the former Toronto Blue Jays front office executive who ranks players and systems for The Athletic, had the Mets at No. 15 going into the season, and told me, “The Mets are still below the median” after their recent trades.
The reason is obvious in looking at how heavily the top end of their system tilts toward position players.
“They’d be a Top 10 system if they had better pitching,” said Jim Callis, one of the MLB Pipeline’s analysts.
To which a rival team executive added:
“If the Mets are going to contend in the next couple of years they’re going to have to find a way to acquire pitching to supplement what’s in their system.”
That was the one criticism of Eppler’s deadline deals: he didn’t bring back any top pitching prospects. But evaluators don’t knock him for it, saying it’s smarter to get the best value, regardless of need, which seems to be what the Mets GM did in acquiring position player prospects, most notably infielder Luisangel Acuna from the Texas Rangers for Max Scherzer and outfielders Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford from the Houston Astros for Justin Verlander.
“I think what the Mets did was smart,” said Callis. “You would have preferred to get some pitching but if you try and force it you end up making lesser trades. Acuna and Gilbert are Top 100 prospects, and some of the Astros’ people think Clifford is a better prospect than Gilbert.
“So if you put Clifford in there too, I know from ranking systems that when you get two or three Top 100 prospects, that can have a huge impact.”
Others temper such optimism to some extent.
Law says Gilbert “can really play center field so he’ll definitely be a big-leaguer, but he’s probably a lower-ceiling guy overall.”
As for Acuna, Law says, “He should be a good big-leaguer for a long time but I don’t think he’s a star. He’s not Ronald.”
Whatever the ceilings of the new acquisitions, the depth could be especially valuable considering the Mets already have other highly-touted position-player prospects such as Ronny Mauricio, Jett Williams, Kevin Parada, and 2023 first-round pick Colin Houck, a high school shortstop that Callis called “a steal” at pick No. 32 for the Mets.
Callis said Houck slipped in the draft because more good college hitters were available than usual, stemming from that five-round draft in the Covid year of 2020, which forced more high school players than usual to play in college, and many teams seized on that opportunity.
In any case, add those prospects to rookies Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty (“He’ll hit eventually,” said Law, speaking to Baty’s recent demotion to Triple-A), and Mark Vientos, and the Mets have plenty of flexibility to trade for pitching at some point.
“It’s hard to do what the Orioles did,” said Law, referring to Baltimore’s rise to prominence this season with a rebuild of almost entirely position players. “I’m fine with a system that’s skewed toward position players, but at some point you need some pitching. You need to at least produce your own No. 4 and 5 starters, as well as your own bulk guys.
“The Mets are fine there but they don’t have any high-end pitching. Now if Mauricio turns out to be a star, and Jett Williams and Colin Houck turn out to be stars, along with the young guys they have in the big leagues, then it’s going to be fine. All of their prospects don’t have to play for them for their acquisitions to be considered a success.
“I don’t think the next (Jacob) deGrom is in their system, so maybe they go trade for Mitch Keller in the offseason. A lot of people in the game seem to think the Pirates will trade him (two years ahead of free agency), so you go get him and if you like him you sign him long term.”
That type of creativity essentially could enhance the impact of Eppler’s deadline deals, and the key there is obviously making the right call on who to trade and who not to trade.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that Law, in particular, thinks Mauricio ought to be in the big leagues at this point, to find out if he will eventually overcome his plate discipline issues and make good on his potential as an impact hitter.
“I don’t do comps very often but when I watch Mauricio I can’t help but think he could be Alfonso Soriano. He has enough bat speed, he’s enough of a bad-ball hitter, and he has the same wiry strength, the same super-quick wrists. Soriano surprised a lot of people by having a really good career, and it makes me look at Mauricio this way,” Law said.
“It’s possible his lack of plate discipline will catch up with him, but why hasn’t he been called up? It’s okay if he struggles. At this point he’s not going to get any better in Triple-A and you can’t protect him forever. If he comes up and gets exposed then it’s on him to make the adjustment, with help from the coaching staff. If he can’t make the adjustment, then you know.”
A scout I spoke to agrees about Mauricio.
“If they’re thinking maybe he has more value as a trade piece before he plays in the big leagues, I don’t buy it,” said the scout. “Everybody has the same reports on him, the concerns about chasing out of the strike zone.
“Mauricio is at the point where the only way to create more value is calling him up and hoping he has the athleticism and enough strike-zone awareness to show he can hit big league pitching. If so they have to decide if he’s worth more playing another position (other than his natural shortstop) or as a trade piece for pitching.”
Even if they do make a trade or two the Mets are still going to have to rely on their pitching prospects to some extent, and the good news there is that, after graduating very few pitchers from their own system the last few years, at least they have a group of them getting close to being major league-ready, even if it’s mostly regarded as low-ceiling talent.
“My concern is they have a lot of guys who don’t have a true plus-pitch,” said Callis, referencing the scouting term for dominant. “They have some command guys who project as mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starters or maybe relievers.
“I would say (Blade) Tidwell is the possible exception. He’s their hope. He would have been a first-round pick if he hadn’t had shoulder problems his final season at Tennessee. He throws high velocity with a good slider. The Mets did well getting him in the second round (in 2022). But he just got promoted to Double-A so he needs time.”
So far Tidwell, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, has struggled since the promotion to Binghamton, posting a 6.46 ERA in three starts, giving up 16 hits and eight walks in 15 innings, with 14 strikeouts.
The prospect who may be closest to the big leagues is 6-foot-5 right-hander Mike Vasil, who recently took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of a Triple-A start but otherwise has largely struggled in 10 starts at Syracuse after having success at Double-A this season.
“In Double-A he commanded three or four pitches well and showed a feel for pitching,” one scout said. “In Triple-A he’s shied away from contact a little more and pitched defensively. Eventually he should be a No. 4 starter, maybe a 3 if he shows more growth.”
Evaluators said much the same about the Mets other top pitching prospects, from Christian Scott to Dom Hamel to Justin Jarvis, the right-hander acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for Mark Canha at the trade deadline.
Meanwhile, the prospect who has had a breakthrough this season is 6-foot-9 right-hander Tyler Stuart, who pitched to a 1.55 ERA at High-A Brooklyn but hasn’t had nearly the success in six starts in Double-A, as his 1.414 WHIP and 4.34 ERA indicate.
“He used his slider a lot in High-A,” said Callis. “But I don’t know if he has a true plus-pitch. Until you get to Double-A, you just don’t get a good feel for how a pitcher’s stuff plays.”
If there is a wild card among the top prospects, evaluators agree it’s likely 6-foot-3 right-hander Brandon Sproat, the Mets’ second-round draft pick this year out of the University of Florida, the same pitcher declined to sign with the Mets as their third-round pick in 2022.
“If you get him on the right day, he looks like a Top 10 pick,” said Law. “I saw him one day (at Florida) when he was unbelievable. He was up to 99 (mph); he threw a four-hitter in two hours. Walked one hitter. But he’s just not consistent with his command or even his control. He’s always been able to overpower guys rather than locating and changing speeds, so he might be a guy who has to realize at some point he needs a new plan if he’s going to be more consistent.”
To which Callis adds, “If Sproat can find consistency, and that’s a big if, he can be a guy who can pitch toward the front of the rotation.”
So there you have it, a look at many of the Mets’ top prospects from the point of view of evaluators and scouts. To sum it up, the Mets have a brighter future after their trade deadline deals, but how much brighter probably depends on what the front office does in the coming offseason and beyond.
Can Eppler (and whomever Cohen hires as president of baseball operations) spin a surplus of position players into quality major league pitching? That would make the 2023 sell-off memorable indeed.