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How a shift in philosophy has helped Mets develop pitching pipeline they've always desired

As recently as a year ago the uncomfortable question that hung over the Mets’ organization was as obvious as Steve Cohen’s spending spree on 40-year old pitchers was a sign of desperation:

Why can’t the Mets develop pitching?

Their farm system was brimming with blue-chip position-player prospects, but the void in homegrown pitching for several years had left Cohen with little choice but to overspend on the likes of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, only to eventually pay to make them go away.

Thus the pitching question loomed as criticism of the organization, which their former scouting director, Marc Tramuta, says was a fair point.

“Absolutely fair,” Tramuta said over the phone recently. “I would take some blame for that. As the scouting director you can’t run from that.”

That’s easier for Tramuta to admit now, not so much because he moved on last year to take a front office job with the Blue Jays, but because the tide has started to turn for the Mets due to the strength of their drafts the last three years.

Even off his first less-than-impressive start on Friday night in Miami, Christian Scott has emerged as a shining star for the organization, a fifth-round draft pick who ascended more rapidly and with a higher ceiling than expected. It’s a credit to the scouting department for targeting a college reliever they liked that early in the draft and the player development side for incorporating vital changes to his repertoire and delivery.

That both sides can take pride in Scott’s success is notable because a lack of coordination between the departments played a significant role in the failure to develop homegrown pitching for a time, according to various people I spoke to in the organization.

More on that momentarily, but suddenly the outlook appears brighter on the pitching front. There is a buzz about several other top pitching prospects, most notably Blade Tidwell, Brandon Sproat, Tyler Stuart, Jonah Tong, and Nolan McLean, who are also ascending and could be factors for the Mets in the next couple of years, in addition to Triple-A pitchers such as Jose Butto, Dom Hamel, and Mike Vasil.

“There’s a wave coming,” said Tramuta. “And then another wave that people aren’t even aware of yet. I’m not there anymore but I’m proud to see some of our work is coming to fruition. There’s a really good group of scouts there and you’re going to see some really good results.”

Blade Tidwell
Blade Tidwell / Photo Courtesy of Bronson Harris/Binghamton Rumble Ponies

Two scouts from other organizations concurred that the perception of the Mets’ pitching future is changing quickly.

“The difference for me is they have some high-ceiling guys that have begun to emerge,” one scout said. “And they’ve got more quality depth, which they haven’t had for years.”

Apparently the improvement isn’t coincidental. It started with the scouting department’s conscious decision to begin drafting college pitchers, bypassing high schoolers who may have projected as the better long-term prospects, in part because such immediacy was a better fit for what player development was doing.

Tramuta sums it up succinctly: “A few years ago we realized something had to change.”

In fact, a lot has changed under Cohen’s ownership to make the Mets a more cutting-edge organization. He has poured money into scouting and development, both in adding manpower and investing in technology, including the much-publicized pitching lab that new president of baseball operations David Stearns experienced success with as GM in Milwaukee and as an executive in Houston with the Astros as well.

Perhaps most importantly, the changes have created more of an alliance between player development and scouting, departments that apparently had operated without much communication or collaboration for several years.

Cohen and Stearns have made some key hires toward that end, including former Houston Astros scouting director Kris Gross to oversee amateur scouting, former major league manager Andy Green as Senior VP of player development, and Eric Jagers as director of pitching development.

Another important figure is Andrew Christie, who was promoted to director of player development a few years ago and has done much to facilitate a more productive relationship between departments, according to Mets’ people I spoke to.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do, connect player development and scouting,” Christie told me recently. “Our guys have been awesome about it and that’s made it fun for me to connect those folks.”

Why does that matter? Christie, among others, hints that egos may have gotten in the way of what was best for the organization in terms of drafting and developing pitchers.

“Instead of being in a battle for credit, we should all take credit,” Christie said. “Some of the divisions kind of clouded that in the past. Now our development process is better and our scouting processes continue to improve.”

The result seems to be a more tangible connection between the types of pitchers being drafted and the improvements that player development is making with them, with Scott being the most visible example.

Jun 30, 2021; Omaha, Nebraska, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores pitcher Kumar Rocker (80) pitches in the fourth inning against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs at TD Ameritrade Park.
Jun 30, 2021; Omaha, Nebraska, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores pitcher Kumar Rocker (80) pitches in the fourth inning against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs at TD Ameritrade Park. / Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Tramuta says the tipping point came from a conversation he had in 2021 with VP of scouting Tommy Tanous, when both agreed it was time they changed their philosophy a bit to be better aligned with player development.

“We shifted our strategy so that we were not going to project as much when it came to drafting pitching,” said Tramuta. “We had taken a lot of high school pitching, and maybe we were projecting too much. So we started taking more college pitchers with ‘now’ stuff.

“I don’t want it to sound like an excuse, because I look at it as a criticism of myself, but maybe we weren’t set up as well to develop high school kids. Taking college pitchers put us more in alignment with what player development was doing.”

Starting with that 2021 draft, then, the Mets have drafted mostly college pitchers. The most famous was first-round pick Kumar Rocker, a decision that backfired when the Mets decided not to sign him, based on their medical exam, but in that same ’21 draft they selected Hamel, Scott, Vasil, and Nate Lavender, another fast-riser who was making a strong case for a spot in the bullpen as a lefty reliever before an elbow injury sidelined him for the 2024 season.

In 2022, the Mets targeted Tidwell as a second-round pick, in part because one of their scouts, Nathan Beuster, made such a strong case to take him, according to Tramuta, despite an arm injury at the University of Tennessee that lowered his draft status.

Then last year the Mets took another high-ceiling college pitcher in Brandon Sproat as their second-round pick out of University of Florida, one year after taking him in the third round and failing to sign him.

Sproat raised his profile publicly with a strong outing in the Prospects Game in spring training, and he was so dominant at Class A Brooklyn over five starts that the Mets promoted him to Double-A Binghamton, where he pitched five shutout innings in his first start there last week.

The promotions of both Sproat and outfielder Ryan Clifford to Double-A, along with even more recent promotions of Tidwell to Triple-A and McLean to Double-A, are another reflection of change.

For years the Mets have been conservative in promoting players, and while Scott is an obvious example of being more aggressive at the major league level, Christie says the minor league promotions are reflective of a new organizational philosophy.

“On the minor league side we have made a conscious decision to be aggressive this year,” Christie said. “We want to push guys, challenge guys, so that they’re pushing themselves to the point of the type of pressure they’re going to face eventually in the major leagues. Guys are going to fail along the way and we want to prepare them for that mindset.”

In addition to the better results the Mets seem to be getting from the draft, they’re committed to finding more pitching via international signings, as they’ve built a player academy in the Dominican Republic, while also incorporating more use of analytics in that market.

Christie cites the work of Steve Barningham, director of international scouting, saying he has “leaned into the use of technology as well as scouting in assessing players.”

As it is, the Mets have had success signing pitchers out of Venezuela, including Butto, who has proven he can contribute at the major league level, Joander Suarez, who currently has a 2.17 ERA in Double-A Binghamton, and Raimon Gomez, a 22-year-old right-hander who was throwing 99 mph in Class A Brooklyn last year before needing Tommy John surgery.

The bottom line is the change in personnel seems to be paying off, in conjunction with Cohen’s commitment to improving all areas of the organization.

As Christie said, “I would love to say that I and others did this amazing sell job on Steve about the importance of scouting and player development, but he preaches it to us. He saw what was working with other teams and he wants that for the Mets.”

With that in mind, Tramuta put a bow of sorts on the subject, making the point that the arrival of Stearns to work under Cohen, after the coming and goings of a few different GMs in recent years, should prove vital for much-needed organizational stability.

“When you have as much turnover in the front office as there was for a few years,” said Tramuta, “you had multiple farm directors, multiple pitching coordinators, different types of organizational philosophies. Now there should be a level of consistency that helps everybody.’’

A year ago, with the various changes making an impact, Mets people were saying privately that good, young pitching was in the pipeline, with results soon to follow. Now, suddenly, there appears to be a lot more reason to believe them.