As I write this, the Mets are a couple games back from a National League wild-card slot. They’re also just a couple games out of first place in the NL East, and they’re beating the Nationals in the eighth inning. As I wrote that, the lead was blown, and now things are all tied up, but the bigger point is that things are close. Regardless of how the game ends today, the Mets have a good shot at going to the playoffs. It’s true that the Nationals have been hurt by injuries. But the Mets, too, have had to deal with a lot of problems, so it’s not like they’re just benefiting from Washington’s misfortune. It’s a winnable division, and oh, by the way, here’s a screenshot of Bryce Harper, and a screenshot of his subsequent swing:
So there’s a sense of urgency. I see now the Mets are losing to the Nationals, 4-3. That’s bad. Anyway, there’s a sense of urgency, as people want the Mets to upgrade so that they don’t waste the pitching they’re getting. Due in part to all those injuries, the lineup has struggled. The Mets could use a bat, and in left field, they’ve got an aching Michael Cuddyer and a handful of backups. There are some rumors connecting the Mets to second-tier outfielders on the market, like Gerardo Parra and Will Venable. Yet there’s also some momentum to stay internal. The Mets, it seems, are now thinking more about promoting top prospect Michael Conforto. It could even happen within the next 24 hours. The hope is that Conforto might provide the jolt the offense so desperately needs. It would save the front office from having to make a trade.
Conforto, without any doubt, is an excellent hitting prospect, and his stock has only gotten higher since the start of the year. He was the best hitter on his team in Brooklyn. He was the best hitter on his team in St. Lucie. He’s been the best hitter on his team in Binghamton. The power is coming along, and the discipline is present. At every level, Conforto has hit about 20% better than average, when you account for the ballparks. This is a guy who’s shooting up prospect lists.
The question has to do with his readiness. Few people doubt that Conforto could be good, soon. More people doubt that Conforto could be good, tomorrow. He’s a college pick, a polished bat, but still, he’s not even at 50 games of experience above single-A. The Mets weren’t planning to move Conforto so fast. It’d be a rush job, compelled by the context of the standings. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It’s worth wondering, then: what could the Mets expect of Conforto?
To be honest, every prospect has to be evaluated individually. Everybody’s different, with different skills and different brains. The Mets know Conforto better than I do. But I can at least generate some numbers. I decided to try something, building from Baseball America’s track record of top-100 prospects, going back to 1990. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve got.
I started with all those preseason top-100 prospects. (Conforto, before the year, ranked No. 80.) I eliminated all the pitchers, and I also eliminated all the catchers and middle infielders, to get rid of guys who might’ve had a lot of value tied up in their defense. From what was left, I identified the players who, that year, made their big-league debuts, and came to the plate at least 50 times. It gave me a sample of 180 names. These are guys who were selected to play in the majors. It’s true that Conforto’s stock has improved from last winter. He wouldn’t rank close to the No. 80 prospect now. But you have to figure other guys who got to the majors, too, mostly had improving stocks. Someone on the decline is less likely to debut in the bigs. Anyway, you care less about this, and more about the numbers.
As I said, I was looking at 180 debuts. These were made mostly by bat-first prospects. Overall, they averaged an 89 wRC+. Those who batted at least 100 times averaged a 93 wRC+. Of the players, 37% posted a wRC+ of at least 100. Narrowing down further, 20% posted a wRC+ of at least 120. The tendency has been for the players to struggle. This has also been far from a rule. Mike Trout didn’t have a sparkling debut. Neither did Jim Thome. On the other hand, check out Kris Bryant. Recall the original Jeff Francoeur. Immediate success isn’t unheard of.
As you might’ve noticed, this didn’t select for players with limited upper-minors experience. Bryant, after all, played the equivalent of a full season in double- and triple-A. But perhaps other teams would’ve been more aggressive with their minor-league Conforto assignments, out of college. And there are still success stories, scattered among the rougher debuts. Say what you will of Francoeur’s career, but when he was a rookie sensation, he came straight from double-A. Albert Pujols practically came straight from single-A. John Olerud never went to the minors at all, and he was a solid rookie. More recently, Yasiel Puig went from Cuba to the majors, stopping only briefly in the minor leagues. And Miguel Sano has been a good hitter, so far, even though he missed 2014, and he’s never seen triple-A.
It’s unlikely that Conforto would embarrass himself at the plate. He is quite advanced for his level, and if the Mets were to select him, that’d be evidence that they believe in him. Still, there is more to it — Conforto is a left fielder, and while some think he has the skills to handle right, he’s not a defensive plus, and because he’s a corner outfielder, that means his value has to come from his bat. If he posted an 89 wRC+, or a 93 wRC+, he wouldn’t be good. If he posted a 100 wRC+, he still wouldn’t be much. He’d maybe help, but not by a lot, so unless you think more of Conforto’s defense, you’d want him to immediately be an above-average hitter. That’s far from impossible, but that’s a lot to ask of a guy being promoted aggressively toward a big-league debut, in a pennant race.
There’s reason to believe Conforto could help. And maybe he’s particularly advanced, relative to other previous top prospects. That’s on the Mets to determine. Conforto isn’t on the 40-man roster, but space could easily be made, and while this would start the service clock, maybe that’s a thing that would start out of camp next year anyway. It’s a pretty simple path that Conforto could take to left field right away.
Yet, based on the history, Conforto would probably debut as a slightly below-average hitter. A slightly below-average hitter, without much in the way of defensive value. Perhaps that experience would be good for Conforto in the long run, but given the reality of things, it does seem like the Mets would be better off swinging a trade, assuming the price isn’t too bad. Venable, I have to imagine, projects better than Conforto would. Ditto Parra, in the short-term. Conforto is the long-term asset, but the Mets also want to be able to win now. Maybe Conforto would be that guy, but it seems more probable he isn’t.
Most importantly, the time for a decision is now. If the Mets really believe in Conforto, they need to bring him up. And if they really prefer someone else, they need to just get that done. Michael Cuddyer isn’t making anything better. There’s been more than enough of the status quo.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.