NEW YORK -- As has been their practice, the Mets will select the best talent available -- collegiate or scholastic -- when they choose ninth in the First-Year Player Draft on June 7. Gary LaRocque, the club's vice president for player development and scouting, sees this year's field of top prospects almost evenly split between high school and college players with "more pitching on the board, but quality position players at the top end."
"Because the college players receive greater exposure," LaRocque said, "they tend to move up on the board as we get closer to draft day."
But the Mets will be looking in all directions and at both levels, trying to balance performance with projection.
Projection, of course, is an inexact exercise. It comes with greater risk and usually with greater rewards. Neither one is absolute, i.e., no player is all about one or the other. And some, Darryl Strawberry, 1980, are about both.
But the entire process is inexact. "Less than 50 percent of the first-round picks have made it [to the Major Leagues]," LaRocque said, "Never mind the impact they have had when they got there."
Still, the Mets are ambitious and committed drafters.
"The more preparation, the better the odds," LaRocque said. Whether it's signing undrafted Heath Bell shortly after the 1998 draft or being prepared to select -- and sign -- Scott Kazmir in 2002 when his place in the draft plummeted because of perceived signability issues, it doesn't matter. "You have to be prepared for all possibilities," LaRocque said.
As was the case in 2002 and '03, the Mets have no selections in the second and third rounds because of free agent signings. Bringing in Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran was expensive in ways that have nothing to do with finances.
So LaRocque and his staff prepare for this draft in an unusual way with which they are quite familiar. The Mets have the ninth selection. And they don't act again until the 121st pick. It's a far cry from the 1994 draft when they had eight selections among first 98 choices and came away with Paul Wilson, Terrence Long and Jay Payton.
"You prepare for every player," LaRocque said, "because you never can tell what's going to happen. But in the end, you focus on the players you think will be available when you pick."
So the Mets must be ready for the top talent and aware that, after they select ninth, they will have to sit on their hands while a lot of talent moves to other clubs. Those will be the moments when they will soothe their angst by thinking of Beltran gliding into left-center field to make a running catch and Martinez winning his first showdown with John Smoltz in April.
"Do your homework. Know the families, know the players," he said. "You can't shy away because you can't say which factors will enter into another club's thinking about a player you like. Then you have to be creative and flexible."
And deep pockets don't hurt.
The Mets are committed to the draft, but the immediate needs of the Major League team occasionally interfere with the commitment. LaRocque recalls a five-year period in which the Mets selected 16 players in the first three rounds. In the same period, the Braves, having lost a number of players to free agency, chose 27.
"There's a balance you try to stike," he said. "And it's a great challenge."
The Mets forfeited their second- and third-round rights in the 2002 and '03 drafts when they signed free agents. But the players they have chosen in the first round made those drafts and the two surrounding them quite productive. Their first-round selections in 2000, '01 and '02 have reached the big leagues. Aaron Heilman, chosen in 2001 out of Notre Dame, and David Wright, selected later in the same first round out of high school, have contributed significantly to the Mets this season.
LAST THREE TOP PICKS
Phillip Humber, RHP, 2004, selected No. 3: An abdominal strain suffered in April interrupted Humber's first professional season. Assigned to the Mets' most competitive Class A team -- St. Lucie in the Florida State League -- Humber, 22, has resumed his season and begun to progress as expected, demonstrating the resiliency the club found so appealing when he was pitching for Rice University. "We're seeing his talent now," LaRocque said. "He just needs innings and consistency." He remains the club's primary pitching prospect.
Lastings Milledge, CF, 2003, selected No. 12: Milledge, a high school draftee who turned 20 in April, remains the club's primary prospect among position players. The Mets are pleased with the progress he has made with St. Lucie and consider him "right on track" in the development of his many skills. "He's learning more pitchers have more stuff at this level," LaRocque said. "And he's making the adjustment."
Scott Kazmir, LHP, 2002, selected No. 15 (traded to the Devil Rays in 2004): Not every organization thought it could afford Kazmir out of high school, so he dropped in the draft. The Mets didn't think they could afford to bring him to the Major Leagues as quickly as the Devil Rays did. His talent is conspicuous, so too his inexperience. This is very much on-the-job training. But the Devil Rays are in a world different from the Mets'.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.