Throughout their history, the Mets have had trouble filling certain slots on the diamond. For a long time third base was considered the biggest problem and they traded Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan chasing a solution. Then there was the stretch of 20 or so years where no one held down right field for more than two years at a time. Now, the goal is to get a center fielder who’s not an embarrassment with either the bat or the glove.
FanGraphs lists 18 CFers in team history to amass at least 1,000 PA. But that list includes Michael Conforto, who’s seen the vast majority of his playing time in an outfield corner. Only three have amassed over 3,000 PA.
Part of the reason that CF has been a problem for the Mets is that they didn’t consider it a priority in the draft. Now, you’re much better off taking best available player rather than targeting a certain position, but one would expect just by chance that a decent number of those guys would be center fielders. Especially since if a player is good in center as an amateur, he can move more easily to another position than, say, a first baseman should the need arise.
For this piece, I looked at all of the Mets’ drafts (regular June phase) since the procedure started in 1965. The idea was to look at all of the team’s CF picks in the top 100 overall, since theoretically that’s where the majority of the best players would be. The problem was that until the 1990s, everyone is labeled as an OF, rather than one of the three specific positions.
Even with that, in the first 25 years of the draft, the Mets only picked and signed 15 outfielders in the top overall 100 picks. And with fewer teams in the 1960s to 1980s than there are now, the Mets were consistently picking four or more guys each year in the top 100. They made five picks each year of the draft in the 1960s in this range. In 1994, they had eight picks in the top 100 and had six in both 1980 and 1983.
Of the 15 outfielders selected in the top 100 before 1990, only seven can be confirmed quickly as a center fielder. Since 1990, there were 11 CFers drafted by the club in the top 100. And four of those came in the last decade when Sandy Alderson was in charge. Additionally, there were two guys chosen who ended up playing center in the majors but who were selected as amateurs at another position. Preston Wilson was drafted as a shortstop and played third base his first two years in the minors before switching to the outfield. And Terrence Long was drafted as a first baseman.
Here are the center fielders drafted by the Mets in the top 100 of the draft who ended up making the majors:
Lee Mazzilli, 1973, #14 overall pick
Made his MLB debut in 1976 and played with the Mets through the 1981 season. In the dark ages after the midnight massacre deals in 1977, Mazzilli was one of the bright spots for the club. He was the team’s All-Star representative in 1979 and drove in the tying run in the eighth inning and the go-ahead run in the ninth yet somehow didn’t win MVP. Mazzilli was traded away prior to the 1982 season in a deal that helped fortify the team that would eventually win the World Series in 1986. Mazzilli returned to the Mets as a reserve in that championship season and participated in nine postseason games.
Mookie Wilson, 1977, #42 overall pick
Ended up supplanting Mazzilli as the team’s center fielder at the MLB level and placed seventh in the Rookie of the Year balloting in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He became the team’s best homegrown basestealer up until that point, as he amassed 158 steals in the 1982-84 seasons. Injuries truncated his 1985 campaign and he was never a true full-time player after that. Became a coach for the Mets after his playing career ended and remains one of the club’s top ambassadors.
Billy Beane, 1980, #23 overall pick
Made his MLB debut in 1984 and had cups of coffee with the Mets in both that season and ’85 before being sent to the Twins in the deal that netted the Mets Tim Teufel. Played parts of two seasons with the Twins and then saw brief time in the majors with the Tigers and A’s. His MLB career totaled 315 PA and he recorded a .542 OPS in that span.
Terry Blocker, 1981, #4 overall pick
He got into 18 games with the Mets in 1985 but spent all of the next two seasons in the minors. Following the 1987 season Blocker was dealt to the Braves in a low-level trade. He made it back to the majors with Atlanta, playing parts of two seasons with the Braves. His final MLB line was 258 PA and a .509 OPS.
John Christensen, 1981, #38 overall pick
His career as a Met was undistinguished but he played a big role in team history, as Christensen was part of the package sent to the Red Sox in November of 1985 that netted the club Bobby Ojeda. Christensen never played in the majors for Boston but had cups of coffee with the Mariners and Twins before his career ended. In 335 PA in MLB, Christensen posted a .654 OPS.
Stan Jefferson, 1983, #20 overall pick
He made it to the majors with the Mets in 1986 but was not on the postseason roster. After the year, he was part of the package sent to San Diego to acquire Kevin McReynolds. Jefferson saw significant playing time for the Padres in 1987 but did not hit enough to keep his job. After two years in San Diego, he bounced around to play for the Yankees, Orioles, Indians and Reds. Overall, Jefferson had 920 PA in the majors with a .601 OPS.
Shawn Abner, 1984, #1 overall pick
Was included in the McReynolds deal before he ever appeared in the majors. He had a promising late-season debut for the Pares, putting up a 116 OPS+ in 49 PA in 1987 as a 21 year old. But he never followed up with anything remotely like that ever again in the majors. The Padres gave up on him during the 1991 season and he finished out his career with the Angels and White Sox. In 902 PA in the majors, Abner had a .591 OPS.
Jay Payton, 1994, #29 overall pick
Injuries kept Payton from fulfilling all of his promise but he still ended up with a 12-year MLB career. He made his debut with the Mets in 1998 and got an additional cup of coffee in 1999 before finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2000 as a 27 year old. He was one of the bright spots for the Mets in the World Series that year, as he hit .333 and had a HR. But a hamstring injury impacted his 2001 season and he was dealt midseason in 2002 to the Rockies for bullpen help. Colorado agreed with Payton, as he ripped 26 XBH in 181 PA for the Rockies the remainder of ’02. After a solid year for Colorado in 2003, Payton was a free agent and signed with the Padres. After putting up a 110 OPS+ in ’03, Payton fell to an 88 OPS+ in ’04. He bounced around the majors after that, ending his career back with the Rockies in 2010, where he put up a 120 OPS+ in 20 games at age 37.
Jason Tyner, 1998, #21 overall pick
This was a case where the Mets drafted for need but the need wasn’t a position as much as it was a type. The Mets wanted a leadoff hitter and Tyner was considered the best option. He made it to the majors in 2000 but was dealt to the Rays, along with former overall #1 pick Paul Wilson, for Bubba Trammell and Rick White near the trade deadline that season and did not play in the World Series. Tyner had an extended MLB career but never materialized into a top leadoff hitter. His claim to fame was going a considerable amount of time without hitting a HR. That streak ended in 2007. Tyner finished his career with 1,467 PA, a .637 OPS and the one home run.
Lastings Milledge, 2003, #12 overall pick
Made his MLB debut for the Mets in 2006 as a 21 year old in 2006 but did not participate in the playoffs. Was solid in 2007, putting up a 104 OPS+ in 206 PA at age 22. But he was not a popular player, with either fans or his own teammates. Following the 2007 season, he was dealt to the Nats for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. It was considered a significant drop in trade value in what he might have fetched a few years earlier. But it ended up being a good haul, as Milledge was never able to put it all together in the majors. Perhaps if another organization drafted him, it could have ended up better. But the Nats, Pirates and White Sox didn’t get anything out of him, either. Milledge finished his MLB career with 1,659 PA and a .723 OPS. Afterwards, he played four years n Japan and another in the Mexican Winter League. His pro career ended in 2017 with the Atlantic League, where he put up a .675 OPS.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, 2008, #100 overall pick
When he wasn’t striking out, Nieuwenhuis was a pretty good ballplayer. He bucked the odds making it to the majors after playing collegiately at an NAIA school. Always a streaky hitter, Nieuwenhuis had the great good fortune to hit well right away in the majors, as he put up an .824 OPS in his first 31 games with the Mets in 2012. This established him as a fan favorite. And it also helped that he was better than advertised defensively, which allowed him to carve out a lengthy career in the majors, despite all the whiffs. He played six years in the majors and put up a .695 OPS, despite striking out 366 times in 978 ABs.
Brandon Nimmo, 2011, #13 overall pick
In Alderson’s first draft, he swung for the fences with his first pick, as Nimmo was considered a raw player with five-tool potential. A track star in high school, injuries robbed him of his early speed. Those continual injuries also slowed his ascension to the majors, causing many people to consider him a bust. But a healthy Nimmo has proven to be a very useful player. He may not have elite speed and something happened to his arm along the way, too. But guys who can put up a .400 OBP don’t grow on trees and it will be interesting to see if last year’s neck problems are completely behind him whenever 2020 gets underway.
Others drafted as center fielders by the Mets in the top 100 since 1990 are: