With the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 First Year Player Draft, the Mets selected Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto. Although technically he has the option to return to Oregon State, he’s overwhelmingly likely to sign with the Mets (even telling a local reporter that he had “probably” already played his final college game). If and when he does so, will he begin his professional career with the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Savannah Sand Gnats or some other affiliate? Brooklyn, probably, but really, it does not matter much. It matters more how he finishes 2014.
Comparing Conforto to recent similar draftees can paint a fairly clear picture of his likely progression through the minor leagues.
Conforto’s path, like so much of player acquisition and development, will be driven by the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. The most recent collective bargaining agreement, finalized on November 16, 2011, has two major pieces that impact Conforto immediately. The CBA sought to hold down signing bonuses for amateur players by limiting teams to tightly controlled bonus pools for their entire draft class. Have no fear for Conforto’s bank account – he will soon sign a seven figure contract – although it probably would be much larger in the absence of restrictions on amateur spending. Second, and more importantly for this discussion, the new CBA moved up the signing deadline for amateur draft picks from mid-August to mid-July (this year it falls on July 18).
The new system, with a July deadline, is better developmentally because even players who hold out until the deadline still get a month and a half of minor league baseball in their first season. Under the old system, players — who would maximize their bonuses by waiting until the deadline — would have not played a competitive game of baseball for two to three months, which meant that they were not in game shape when then signed. So, there are two major advantages for first year players in their draft year under the new CBA: 1. they are closer to game shape, 2. they have more season left.
How do the Mets generally handle college position players picked in the top half of the first round? That’s a tricky question. Conforto is the highest drafted college position player the Mets have taken in the last 20 years. Sure, there were higher drafted players (Philip Humber was No. 4 overall in 2004 and Matt Harvey was No. 7 in 2010), but they were pitchers. The highest drafted collegiate position players were Ike Davis (No. 18 in 2008), Reese Havens (No. 22 in 2008) and Jason Tyner (No. 21 in 1998). Davis and Havens’ selections and initial assignments played out under a different GM and front office and Tyner was a lifetime or two ago in baseball terms.
Since Sandy Alderson took over the Mets’ reins in before the 2011 season, the Mets have sent their advanced college draft picks to Brooklyn, with one notable exception. The highest drafted collegian, Kevin Plawecki, in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft, began his professional carer in Brooklyn. However, SS Matt Reynolds, drafted in the second round that year, began with Savannah that same summer. The top collegiate position players from the Mets’ 2013 draft class — fourth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli and fifth-rounder Jared King — both began their Mets’ lives as Cyclones. None of these players matched Conforto in terms of draft stature or potential as a hitter.
Since the new CBA took effect, before this draft, there have been seven college hitters taken in the top 20 picks in the June draft (Kris Bryant, Colin Moran, Hunter Dozier, D.J. Peterson, Hunter Renfroe in 2013 and Mike Zunino and Tyler Naquin in 2012). We will focus on the early career progression of this septet for clues for Conforto.
Six of the seven began their professional careers with their team’s short-season Single-A affiliate, the equivalent of the Brooklyn Cyclones for the Mets. The only one of the seven who did not: Colin Moran, the Marlins’ selection at No. 6 overall in 2013. Assigned to Greensboro in the South Atlantic League, Moran hit .299/.354/.442 with 13 extra-base hits and solid strike zone control (15 BB/25 K) in 175 PA over 42 games in 2013.
Of those seven players all but one — Naquin — earned a promotion to a full-season league in the season in which they were drafted. Four of these seven players finished in Single-A, Kris Bryant finished in advanced Single-A and Mike Zuninio, selected by the Mariners with the third overall selection in 2012, finished up that year in Double-A after the Mariners skipped him over both Single-A levels. He more than held his own, hitting .333 over the final 15 games with Double-A Jackson adding three doubles and four home runs. As a group, in their exposure to short-season baseball, these players had strikeout to walk rates around 1 and showed power with isolated slugging percentages better than .200. Naquin had some of the plate discipline (17 BB/36 K) but not the power – .110 ISO in 36 games with Mahoning Valley in 2012.
Every single one of these seven players began their first full season after their draft year at advanced Single-A or higher. The ones who played above advanced Single-A were Bryant, who began this year in Double-A, and Zunino, who made his MLB debut last June, began 2013 with Triple-A Tacoma. (Bryant, by the way, is hitting a stupid .357/.460/.722 in the Double-A Southern League with 18 doubles, 22 homers and 39 walks against 72 strikeouts in 63 games for the Tennessee Smokies.) By advanced Single-A, the underlying differences in the players’ skills starts to become more pronounced – some guys hit for lots of power (Bryant, Zunino, Peterson, Renfroe) while other do not (Moran, Dozier, Naquin).
The most successful hitters in this group – Bryant (18), Moran (0), Peterson (29), Renfroe (25) and Zunino (29) – all played fewer than 30 games in short-season Single-A.
So, the Mets can send Conforto out to Brooklyn when he signs and let him get a taste of minor league baseball in the big city, and introduce him to professional baseball in the more controlled and comfortable environment of the New York Penn League.
However, the experience of draftees similar to Conforto is that they have been ready for a full-season league after less than a month. The hitters who are off to successful starts to their professional career showed major secondary skills in short-season ball, controlling the strike zone and hitting for big time power to earn promotions to full-season baseball in a month.
Thus, expecting Conforto to finish 2014 with Savannah or St. Lucie is not just a reasonable expectation. Rather, doing so, is a positive marker on his developmental pathway to the big leagues.
Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog.com breaks down the 2014 Mets first-round draft pick outfielder Michael Conforto…