Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: The Top 10 New York Mets Who Never Lived Up To the Hype
The New York Mets have a history of over-evaluating prospects, of hyping up their rookies and top draft choices.
The franchise, especially back in the '80s, loved the "can't miss" studs coming up out of high schools and colleges, and just when they looked to be ready for the next big step, they exploded under the lights of New York City.
There are so many players in Mets history that were destined for greatness. Destined to lead the club for years to come.
They should have been stars, would have been champions, could have been legends.
From Steve Chilcott and Alex Escobar to Lastings Milledge and Dwight Gooden, here are the top 10 Mets who never lived up to their potential.
Honorable mention: Bill Pulsipher
Pulsipher decided to play pro baseball instead of taking up a full university scholarship at Old Dominion. It may have been the worst decision he ever made, even if he never knew it at the time.
He posted a 2.84 ERA with the Pittsfield Mets in 1992, and he followed it up with a 2.19 ERA with the Capital City Bombers and St. Lucie Mets in 1993.
He won 14 games in the Eastern League with the AA Binghamton Mets in 1994, and he threw a no-hitter in the playoffs just a few months after being selected to the All-Star Game as a starting pitcher.
He was rated as the 12th best prospect in America at age 20, and he made his debut on June 17, 1995. He finished the year with five wins and a 3.98 ERA. A sore elbow degenerated into a torn ligament which then required Tommy John Surgery. His confidence was shot and depression soon set in as he struggled with his command in the minors.
He was finally called back up to the majors in 1998, mostly in relief, before being shipped out to the Brewers, where back surgery ruined his chances there. They didn’t find a use for him, and he returned to New York in 2000 before stints at the Red Sox and White Sox. After 2001, he returned to the minor leagues and even the Mexican League where he has failed to shine. Now age 35, he continues to pitch with the Northern League, working as a pitching instructor in the offseason.
Injuries and depression certainly ruined the career of one of baseball’s promising teenagers.
Also receiving consideration were Alex Ochoa, Aaron Heilman, Darryl Strawberry, and David West.
10: Barry Lyons
The Mets drafted Lyons in the 15th round of the 1982 draft, 12 months after he decided not to sign with the Tigers when they took him in the 25th round in 1981.
He was a key cog for the Columbia Mets and Lynchburg Mets (both single-A) in 1983 and 1984, the Jackson Mets (AA) in ’85, and the Tidewater Tides (AAA) in 1986, winning Minor League championships at all three levels.
He may have had his shot with the big club sooner, but when the Mets traded for Gary Carter in 1985, Lyons was one step further down the picking order. He became the third string option in 1986 when fellow Tides catcher Ed Hearn got the nod to become Carter’s understudy.
Lyons saw time behind the plate when Hearn was traded to Kansas City in 1987, but he fell back down once again in 1988 and ’89 with the acquisition of Mackey Sasser. Even when Carter missed 10 weeks of the season with surgery, Lyons failed to make the most of his opportunity to start and he injured his foot.
Wikipedia notes that on Carter’s release in 1989, Lyons was in a two-man race for the starting job behind home plate. But while Lyons batted .238, Sasser batted .307 and all but ended Lyons’ career. He was a fantastic prospect and a star at all levels in the Minor Leagues. He was highly thought of within the organization, but he just never got the chance to prove himself. When the chance finally did come, he flailed. Another over-hyped rookie unable to fulfill his potential.
9: Paul Wilson
The Mets had five of the top 64 picks in the 1994 draft, and they spent their No. 1 overall pick on Paul Wilson from Florida State.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but other guys drafted in the first round of this year’s draft include now newly-retired Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, and Jason Varitek.
Wilson was a stud in college where he recorded 161 strikeouts in 143 innings in his junior year, compiling an ERA just north of 2.00 and a solid 13-5 record for the Seminoles.
After a rough first year playing single-A ball (0-5, 5.06 ERA) he picked up 11 wins, a 2.41 ERA, and 194 Ks in 186 innings the following season between Binghamton and Norfolk. He had developed into the stud the Mets had hoped when they put him on a pedestal 12 months earlier on draft day.
He entered the 1996 season as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, as rated by Baseball America, but his 5-12 record and 5.38 average was not what the Mets had bargained on, even as a fifth starter behind fellow 23-year-old Jason Isringhausen.
Between 1997 and 2000, Wilson languished in obscurity down on the farm, rotating between the Gulf Coast League and AAA squad.
He never got another shot with the big league club, and he was eventually traded to the Devil Rays who released him as a free agent two years later. He finished his career with Cincinnati in 2005 with one win in nine starts and an ERA of 7.77.
8: Grant Roberts
Unlike some of the other players in this list, Roberts was not a first-round draft pick. He wasn’t even a 10th-round pick. The Mets picked him up in the 11th round of the 1995 draft. Remember, you don’t necessarily need to be the best college kid to be over-hyped.
Roberts blossomed as a pitcher in his latter teenage years. He went 9-1 with a 2.10 ERA in just 13 starts in 1996 playing rookie ball, and he continued his growth playing for the Capital City Bombers where he went 11-3 with a 2.36 ERA.
He went into the 1998 season as a top-30 prospect, and he was seen as one of the best arms in the organization’s farm system. He went to the All-Star Game and was voted the league’s Most Outstanding Player, but he needed elbow surgery and never really recovered until 2000.
Wikipedia notes that he went to the All-Star Futures Game in 2000, but that was one of the few bright points. After getting called up in July, he got battered in his first—and last—Major League start by the Montreal Expos to the tune of seven runs on six hits and three walks in two innings.
Roberts had a handful of relief appearances in 2001, but finally shone in 2002. He made the 25-man roster out of spring, and he dominated at the start of the season He didn’t allow a run until his eighth game, and he had a 0.59 ERA in June.
Then injury problems struck again, first with a rotator cuff problem, and then with tendinitis. He was on and off the DL for the next three years before violating MLB’s steroids policy in 2005.
He had one last hurrah with the Yankees, but never pitched in the Majors again.
7: Shaun Abner
The Mets took Abner as the first overall pick in the 1984 draft…another “can’t miss” stud who was a star at both baseball and football at his Pennsylvania high school. To be fair, the draft class this year was pretty slim, although Mark McGwire came into the Majors here, 10th overall by the Oakland A's.
Abner played 295 games in the Minor Leagues up to AA ball for the Jackson Mets, but he never got the call-up to the big club and was traded to the San Diego Padres in December 1986.
He finally got his call to the show in ’87 and he would go on to have a distinctly average career as a fourth outfielder with the Padres, appearing in 254 games over the next four-and-a-half years.
Abner, now 44 years old, works for a beer distributor near where he went to school in Mechanicsburg, Penn.
6: Gary Rajsich
Oh Gary Rajsich, what a tease you were. Drafted by the Houston Astros in the 11th round of the 1976 draft, Rajsich grew into a pretty good power hitter by his mid-20s. He hit 20 home runs for Columbus and Charleston in AA and AAA in 1979, and he hit 21 bombs with 14 triples, 99 RBI, 12 steals, and a .321 average for Tucson Toros in the Pacific Coast League in ’80.
He was traded to the Mets the following year to no-name John Csefalvay—a career Minor Leaguer who never advanced past the AA level—and the Mets thought they had struck gold.
Rajsich, who could play first, second, or the outfield, hit 24 home runs in 74 games for the Tidewater Tides in 1981 before being called up to the Major Leagues for the ’82 season.
But Rajsich failed to make the adjustment, batting just .259 with two home runs in 80 games. Maybe he just needed another year of seasoning.
The following year, there was even more reason to hope. He hit a career-high 28 home runs in the International League but never got enough playing time at Shea to make an impact. His career with the Mets whimpered out with one home run and three RBI in 11 games, and his contract was picked up by the Cardinals.
He hit 41 home runs in the two years before coming to the Mets’ organization, and 52 in the two years he spent on the Mets farm. But in a total of 149 Major League games spanning four seasons, Rajsich hit just three in total. Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. I guess past performances do not guarantee future results.
5: Lastings Milledge
Hello, Lastings Milledge. He is probably one of the biggest shoulda, woulda, couldas in Mets history.
He helped Team USA to a gold medal in the International Baseball Federation’s World Youth Championships, and was named the best 16-year-old player in America.
He was highly touted as the next big thing, mentioned alongside the likes of Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, and Nick Markakis as a star in the making.
He was forced to transfer schools in his senior year over allegations of having sex with a minor, and he eventually fell to the Mets as the 12th overall pick…a big drop form the top three spots where he was expected to land.
He played just seven games with the rookie level Kingport Knights in 2003, and he broke his right hand in pre-season scrimmages in 2004, limiting his progress with the Capital City Bombers.
Despite missing six weeks of action, he hit .340 with 13 homers and 23 steals before getting called up to the A+ club in St Lucie. Milledge was rated the No 9 prospect in all of baseball entering the 2006 season, and he was the leadoff batter for the Norfolk Tides where he continued to his showcase power and speed. He even added half a dozen outfield assists as he matured into a five-tool gem. Twice he was named the Mets top prospect and would later be mentioned in trade deals for then-Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez. The Mets decided they didn’t want to give that much up.
He made his Mets debut in May 2006, but quickly became the focus of attention for the wrong reasons. In just his fifth game with the team, Milledge hit his first home run, a game-tying shot in the 10th inning of a game against Armando Benitez and the Giants. Still excited, the rookie high-fived the fans down the first base line as he came back out of the dugout to take his place in the field.
2007 wasn’t much better for Milledge. He started the season on the 25-man roster, but was sent down to AAA after just three games. Wikipedia says it was during this time that he appeared in a rap song, Bend Ya Knees, by Manny D, a childhood friend. The song contained the words "bitch," "ho," and "nigga". The Mets organization responded by saying, "We disapprove of the content, language and message of this recording, which does not represent the views of the New York Mets."
Milledge was eventually called back up to the Majors in July, but he was traded to Washington in November. Six years after being called the best 16-year-old in the country, Milledge’s Mets career was over after 115 games, 11 home runs, four steals, two injuries, an ill-conceived high-five, and his music debut. He was one of those prospects that just never panned out.
4: Tim Leary
Leary was drafted No 2 overall by the Mets in the 1979 draft out of the University of California.
In his first year in the minors, the 22-year-old won 15 games with the AA Jackson Mets in the Texas League. He threw 11 complete games and six shutouts, compiling a 2.76 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 173 innings.
Unfortunately, there just wasn’t room for Leary in the rotation, and he would pitch just 65 1/3 innings in the Majors over the next four years. He started 10 games between ’81 and ’84, going 4-4 with a 3.80 ERA.
It’s not like the Mets had a star-studded pitching roster either. Craig Swan was the team’s only 10-game winner in 1982, Tom Seaver was 38 years old in 1983 and Ron Darling and Dwight Gooden didn’t burst onto the stage until 1984. Oh, what could have been.
Leary played on a number of teams during his career, including the 1988 World Champion LA Dodgers (where he was a 17-game winner) and 1994 AL West division-winning Texas Rangers.
He also had spells in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New York (where he lost a league-high 19 games), and Seattle, before retiring in 1994 with a 78-105 record.
3: Dwight Gooden
Gooden could have been the guy who turned the New York Mets of the mid-'80s into a dynasty. He was one of those prodigies that only come around once in a blue moon, and he lost himself to drugs, depression, and violence.
Gooden was drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 1982 draft, and he immediately made a name for himself. Pitching for the single-A Lynchburg Mets in the Carolina League, Gooden went 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA, and 300 strikeouts in 191 innings. Yes, three hundred!
He didn’t bother playing AA or AAA ball. He jumped effectively from the fourth grade to college.
The first three years of his life in the Major Leagues was something special, indeed. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1984 with a 17-9 record, a 2.60 ERA, and 276 strikeouts. He had arguably the most dominant season of any pitcher in the modern era in 1985 when he won baseball’s triple crown. He won 24 games (24-4), posted a 1.53 ERA, and struck out 268 batters. 16 of his 35 starts were complete games, and eight of them went for shutouts. He had a WHIP of less than 1.00 (0.97) and he could have have even more wins, but he pitched back-to-back nine-inning shutouts and received no decisions both times.
It would be impossible to repeat this success the following year, but he still went 17-6, helping the Mets to their second world championship, even if he wasn’t at his best in the playoffs. A dynasty was ripe for the picking. The only problem was that nobody told Doc.
It was reported that Gooden missed the Mets victory parade because of a cocaine binge the previous night, and some believe he had slipped further into substance abuse by the time he was arrested that winter for fighting with police in Florida.
He tested positive for cocaine in spring training in 1987 and missed the first two months of the season in rehab, but responded well and still finished with 15 wins.
The 1988 season will be remembered for the NLCS game-tying home run he gave up to the Dodgers Mike Scioscia in the ninth inning of Game 4, and his star power with the Mets started to fade.
A shoulder injury meant he could only start 17 games in 1989, and although he was his brilliant self in 1990, injuries, drug abuse, and a heavy workload were cited for a sub-par 1991 season.
He posted back-to-back losing seasons in 1992 and 1993, and he was suspended for 60 days in 1994 for cocaine use. He had a 3-4 record with a 6.31 ERA at the time.
To make matters worse, he tested positive during his suspension, giving the league office no choice but to ban him for the entire 1995 campaign.
It was reported that Gooden was so distraught by the ban that he sat on his bed with a loaded gun and considered suicide. Only his wife walking into the room may have saved his life.
His career with the Mets was over, although he did return to baseball to pitch for the Yankees, Indians, Astros, and Devil Rays.
Dwight Gooden was one of the brightest young stars to ever play the game. But as brightly as he shone, you can only wonder just how far he could have gone. He burned out before he even entered his prime years, and that’s a tragedy not just for him, but for the game as a whole.
2: Alex Escobar
For someone who was named the Mets’ top prospect for three years in a row, he certainly did have a way of flailing.
He was one of those guys that had a little of everything…decent pop, good speed, and a solid average. Unfortunately he also had two of the biggest enemies a player can have…the inability to stay healthy and a propensity for striking out.
The Mets signed him as a free agent in 1995, and when he finally got past the plateau of rookie ball, he was actually very good.
He hit 27 home runs, batted .310, and stole 49 bases in the ’98 season for the Capital City Bombers, but his hype was short lived as he appeared in just six games the following year.
He was solid again in 2000 for Binghamton, and he made the jump to AAA in 2001 where he progressed as expected. He was rewarded with a spot on the Major League roster that summer, but he only played in a handful of games before being traded to the Cleveland Indians in the deal that brought Roberto Alomar to Shea.
Injuries resulted in a stop-start career in Cleveland and after missing the entire 2005 season, he was picked up by the Nationals as a free agent. Three times the Nationals granted him free agency. Three times that re-signed him the following year. He was finally let go permanently in July 2008, having played just 125 games in four seasons.
1: Steve Chilcott
A lot of Mets fans probably won’t know anything about Chilcott, especially the younger generation who have grown up without seeing the club hoist a World Series.
Let me enlighten you. Steve Chilcott was the uber-prospect the Mets selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 draft, ahead of Reggie Jackson. Yes, that Reggie Jackson.
The Mets needed a catcher and, from what I have read, the day the team sent Casey Stengel to scout him, he went a perfect 4-for-4.
Chilcott has the distinction, for lack of a better term, of being the first amateur player ever selected first overall in the draft pick never to play a single game in the Major Leagues.
The Mets tried him in the Appalachian League and New York-Pennsylvania League as a 17-year-old, the Florida State League as an 18-year-old, and the California League the following two years. He only hit more than two home runs once, and his batting average was below .200 in three out of five years.
He was marginally better at the AAA level in 1970—then again, he did have an awfully low starting point—but he was sent back down to single-A in 1971 where he played out his last season as a Met before being sent for a year of further disappointments in the Yankees’ organization.
He suffered career-ending injuries as a 23-year-old and never picked up a bat again. But with a lifetime .248 average and just 39 home runs in seven seasons, I don’t think he would have ever made the cut. His star faded the moment the Mets jumped on it.