In their 58-year history, the Mets have made 68 first round picks. We’ve had a few years with no top round pick and a few where we had more than one, hence the big, crooked number. Of those 68 picks, 22 were chosen among the top 10. While the odds of making a smart pick that high are a little better than among later first round picks, success is still far from guaranteed.
Of these 22 top 10 first round picks, only about a third of them enjoyed noteworthy MLB careers. Meanwhile, half of them are names the average fan has never heard of and I’ll bet some of you reading this, as knowledgeable and devoted as you are, may not recall them either.
From 1965 to 1969 the Mets had a run of futility in the draft. Chosen among the top five each year in that span were pitchers Les Rohr, Jon Matlack, and Randy Sterling, shortstop Tim Foli and catcher Steve Chilcott. Matlack, who was the 1972 Rookie of the Year and a three-time All-Star was clearly the cream of this crop. The Pennsylvania-born lefty had a career ERA of 3.18 and won 125 games over 13 seasons with the Mets and Rangers.
If Matlack was the leader of this pack, Rohr and Sterling were the caboose. The lefty Rohr, the Mets first top draft pick, suffered an elbow injury in his first relief appearance in 1967. After missing significant time, the Mets nearly traded him but a physical revealed a more serious back injury that ended his career just as it was beginning. Over parts of three seasons, Rohr pitched just 24.1 innings. The righty Sterling was even less prolific, tossing 9.1 Major League innings, all in 1974. Sterling, from Key West, Florida of all places, did manage a few solid seasons for the AAA Tidewater Tides.
Chilcott was a highly-touted catching prospect out of California. The Mets made him the number one overall pick in the 1966 draft. Chilcott holds the dubious distinction of being just one of three retired first round picks who never played a day in the Majors. The others, for you trivia buffs, are Brien Taylor and Mark Appel. Chilcott played seven minor league seasons, but injuries, including a brutal shoulder injury sustained on the bases, prevented him from ever advancing beyond AAA.
Surely you’ve heard of Tim Foli. The journeyman infielder lasted 16 years in the Majors, playing for the Mets (twice), Expos, Pirates (twice), Giants, Yankees, and Angels. Foli was a career .251 hitter with no power. He was a very typical shortstop of the 70s and 80s. He had a solid glove and could make contact, but he never once had an OPS over .700. Later in his career, he saw some time at second and third base.
In the early 70s, due to their 1969 World Series win and 1973 pennant, the Mets didn’t have any top 10 picks. That changed in 1975 when the Mets drafted a catcher from Tallahasse, FL with the sixth overall pick. If you guessed Butch Benton, you win a cigar. Benton made 105 plate appearances over four seasons – 25 with the Mets in 1978 and 1980. You can’t say he made the most of his ABs, as the righty batted .162 with 0 home runs, good for a career WAR of -0.9. Yikes. Benton does have one claim to fame though. For a moment, he was the youngest player in the league. In 1978, injuries forced the Mets to bring him up from AAA to be their backup catcher for four games. He was barely 20.
From 1978 to 1983 the Mets reaped the rewards of being lousy in the 70s with six top five picks. In 1978, the Mets used the third overall pick to draft an outfielder from Arizona State University named Hubie Brooks. A Queens fan favorite, Brooks played his first five seasons for the Mets, mostly at third base. Brooks was the central piece in the trade that brought Gary Carter to the Mets and he went on to have his best seasons in Montreal, including two All-Star appearances. In all, Brooks played 16 seasons and finished with a lifetime slash of .269/.315/.403.
In 1979, the Mets used the number two overall pick on a pitcher from California named Tim Leary. The right hander made 10 starts and 13 relief appearances for the Mets before moving on to the Brewers, Dodgers and several other teams. Though he had a few good seasons with the Dodgers in the middle of his career, the journeyman really struggled later on and it’s a wonder he hung on for 13 years.
In 1980, the Mets used the top overall pick on the Southern California kid known as “the black Ted Williams.” I never understood that moniker as Strawberry’s long, loopy swing was never conducive to a batting title. Despite his never reaching his much ballyhooed potential, Strawberry did provide us with some highlight reel home runs and was a major contributor to our mid- to late- 80s dominance. Strawberry was a worthy number one pick, in spite of being one of the most overrated players in history (one blogger’s strong opinion). To those of you who just sat up in your chairs, ready to fire off a strongly-worded comment, consider that the word “zero” is the answer to all of the following: number of Strawberry MVPs, significant records broken, 40-home run seasons, and .290 or higher batting average seasons. He had some good seasons that were held up by exciting hot streaks, but he never put together the big year we all expected.
From 1981 to 1983 the Mets had three top five picks. One is a Mets legend. The other two might not even sound familiar. In 1981 and 1983, the Mets used their number four picks on outfielder Terry Blocker and third baseman Eddie Williams. In 1985, Blocker spent a little time on the Mets roster and managed one hit in 15 at bats before moving on to the Braves organization. The career .205 hitter found little success there either. Williams, meanwhile, managed to stick around for parts of 10 seasons. He bounced around six teams, but never wore a Mets hat. Between those two years, the Mets used the number five pick on a kid named Dwight Gooden. Shawon Dunston was the top pick that year and the three guys drafted between them were named Augie Schmidt, Jimmy Jones, and Bryan Oelkers. Don’t worry, they don’t ring any bells for Matty Mets either. After electrifying New York, winning Rookie of the Year, a Cy Young Award and a World Series ring, Gooden is an all-time Mets great and arguably the best draft pick we ever made.
In 1984, the Mets again had the number one pick in the draft. Mark McGwire went in this draft, as did Terry Mulholland, Billy Swift, Jay Bell, and Norm Charlton. The Mets, however, opted for a high school outfielder from Pennsylvania named Shawn Abner. Abner was traded to the Padres along with Kevin Mitchell and others in the Kevin McReynolds deal. While that trade turned out to be terrible for other reasons (it also included Kevin Brown going the wrong way), Abner was not the reason. He went on to bat .227 as a reserve outfielder over parts of six seasons.
The Mets had their next high draft pick in 1992 when they selected Preston Wilson with the ninth pick. Wilson’s tenure with the Mets organization was short-lived as he was part of the package sent to the Marlins for Mike Piazza. Wilson had a nice career with the Marlins and Rockies, including one monster season in Colorado when he had 141 RBI, yet finished 16th in the MVP voting. Remember the steroid era?
In 1993, the Mets used the eighth pick in the draft on Mississippi pitcher Kirk Presley, who never made it to the Majors. This one stings because 1993 was an all-time draft packed with future All-Stars. Among those chosen after Presley include Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Chris Carpenter, Torii Hunter and Jason Varitek. The next year, the Mets had the number one pick again and the chance to make up for this swing and miss. They chose can’t miss pitcher Paul Wilson. Following a rookie season in Queens in which he struggled with control, Wilson suffered a shoulder injury that would sidetrack his career. After a year of rehab, he spent several mediocre seasons with the Devil Rays and Reds.
In 1997, the Mets had another shot to land an ace pitcher but somehow settled on Geoff Goetz with the number seven pick. The righty from New Jersey lasted seven years in the minors and never even made it to AAA. The Mets should have drafted Jon Garland who went four picks later. In 2004 and 2005 the Mets used back-to-back high picks on big right-handed pitchers – Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey. In 2004, the top pitching prospect was Justin Verlander and the Mets would have loved to take him, but he was chosen one pick sooner and Humber was the consensus number two. We can’t have chocolate ice cream, so let’s settle for a stale tea biscuit. Humber didn’t last too long in Queens as the Mets sent him to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade. He went on to enjoy a rather unspectacular career, making 97 starts over eight seasons. He did enjoy one pretty good season with the White Sox though that included an unlikely perfect game.
Mike Pelfrey was a likable Met and a rotation workhorse for four seasons in Queens. He was a solid mid-rotation starter who never quite made the leap to reliable number two. He was known for his imposing size, childish smirk, obsession with licking his hands, and a hard, sinking fastball. In 2012, with the Mets out of contention and Pelfrey in a walk year, he was obvious trade bait, only he tore his UCL, ending both his season and tenure with the Mets. After rehabbing, he hung on to pitch a few more years in the American League, but was never quite the same.
In 2010, the Mets again went for a power right hander, this time selecting Matt Harvey out of UNC with the number seven pick. For a while there, it looked like this might be the best pick the Mets ever made as Harvey looked poised to become the heir apparent to the Franchise nickname. For a few seasons, he was our Joe Namath, but as Elton John sang, his candle burned out long before his legend ever did.
In 2014, the Mets got lucky when the top ranked hitter in the draft fell in their laps at number 10. Sweet swinging Michael Conforto has been a fixture for the Mets in right field and if ownership is smart, they’ll make sure he’s our new David Wright.
2018 was the last time the Mets had a top 10 draft pick. They used the number six pick on a Wisconsin high school outfielder said to have five-tool talent – Jarred Kelenic. This was widely hailed as a smart pick at the time. The promising prospect was sent to Seattle as part of the blockbuster trade that netted us Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. Time will tell if this will turn out to be the worst trade we’ve ever made or just the answer to another Mets trivia question.