This was an abysmal season to be a fan of the New York Mets. Roger Cedeno continued to amaze with his play in the outfield, Tom Glavine complained that umpires actually wanted him to throw the ball in the vicinity of home plate, and Ty Wigginton was the only player to accumulate 500 at-bats. In the midst of disaster, however, shone the bright light of Jose Reyes. The 20-year-old shortstop hit .300 in his major league debut, justifying the hype surrounding his arrival and raising the expectations for the organizational savior. Reyes was the first of the Mets’ “Big Five” prospects to arrive on the scene, beating Aaron Heilman by a few weeks, and has already earned the expectation of stardom from the faithful at Shea.

However, this column is not about Reyes. The subject of this piece is David Wright, who may just be the most under-appreciated prospect in the game. While Wright does not come with the excitement factor that Reyes’ blinding speed brings, there is an argument to be made that Wright is the better bet for a productive major league career. The young third baseman, in two-and-a-half years of professional baseball, has established himself as a premier offensive talent who is improving at all facets of the game.

Year    League  Age    BA    OBP   SLG  AB    2B   3B   HR   BB   K
2001    Rookie  18    .300  .396  .466  120   7    0    4    16   30
2002    Low-A   19    .266  .367  .401  496   30   2    11   76   114
2003    High-A  20    .270  .369  .459  466   39   2    15   72   98

Wright was the 38th selection in the 2001 draft from Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. He drew comparisons to Michael Cuddyer at the time, though that had more to do with their shared home state than their similarities. He earned accolades for his swing and his defense at third base, though questions about his power arose. Had he been able to convince scouts that he would develop legitimate major league power, he likely would have been a top-10 pick, but the Mets gladly scooped him up when he fell to them in the supplemental first round.

His professional debut in the Appalachian League was limited after a slow negotiation process, but he impressed once he arrived. Wright showed the pure swing from the right side that got him drafted and had few problems adjusting to wooden bats. His defense was lauded as the best in the league at the hot corner, and he impressed teammates and opponents alike with his work ethic and maturity.

He made the jump to the South Atlantic League in 2002 and made strides in every area of his game despite fairly mediocre numbers. He showed advanced pitch recognition and a balanced approach at the plate for a player with his experience. He improved his bat speed, though it did not translate into as many hits as expected. His defense also took a step up, and his hands at third base were good enough for some to invoke the name of Corey Koskie. The questions about his power remained unanswered, though the Mets were confident that he simply needed time and experience.

Wright’s assignment to the Florida State League was a test, as it is notorious for being tough on hitters. Wright responded well, holding his batting average, on-base percentage, and walk rate steady while showing a strong power spike and simultaneously cutting down on his strikeouts. While the improvement isn’t as obvious in his raw numbers, below are his ratios for his two years in full-season ball.

Year    League  Age  BB/AB  K/AB  BB/K  XBH/H   ISO   EqA   MjEqA
2002    Low-A   19   0.15   0.23  0.67  0.33   .140  .298   .209
2003    High-A  20   0.15   0.21  0.73  0.44   .190  .314   .224

Despite moving into a tougher environment for hitters, Wright improved his power across the board, and his ratio of extra-base hits suggests even more development to come in the future. Wright is not a developed hitter with inflated slugging percentages coming from large home run totals. Rather, he consistently drives the ball into the gaps and off the walls, portending good things for his future power output. Had he not spent the season in St. Lucie, his numbers would look even better. Below are his home and road splits, showing the impact that his home park had on dragging down his overall numbers.

        AB      BA    OBP   SLG   2B   3B   HR   BB   K
Home    250    .244  .344  .408   18   1    7    38   54
Road    216    .301  .396  .495   21   1    8    34   44

Wright alleviated some of the concerns about his future power, which projects him as complete a hitter as you will find in the minors. The average should come up as he makes adjustments to hitting right-handers. He already has the plate discipline and the power is developing. He’s also a solid baserunner with deceptive speed. In his three professional seasons, Wright has 49 stolen bases in 60 attempts, good for an 82% success rate.

It gets even better. Wright’s work with the glove is ahead of his offense, and it isn’t hard to imagine him being one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. His reactions are above average and complement his soft hands, strong arm, and intelligence about positioning that is not often found in the minor leagues. He definitely has the tools to be an asset in the field.

So, we have a complete hitter who can also run well and play a mean third base? How about a comparison with a player who just happened to spend his first two and a half years of professional baseball in the same leagues as Wright:

Scott Rolen
Year   League   Age   BA    OBP   SLG  AB   2B   3B   HR    BB    K
1993   Rookie   18   .313  .429  .375  80   5    0    0     10    15      
1994   Low-A    19   .294  .363  .462  513  34   5    14    55    90
1995   High-A   20   .290  .392  .487  238  13   2    10    37    46

And, while we’re here, let’s look at those rate numbers:

Year    League  Age     BB/AB   K/AB    BB/K    XBH/H   ISO             
1993    Rookie  18      0.13    0.19    0.67    0.20    0.06    
1994    Low-A   19      0.11    0.18    0.61    0.35    0.17
1995    High-A  20      0.16    0.19    0.80    0.36    0.20

Rolen walked about the same amount and struck out a little less, but you can call their plate discipline markers just about even. Rolen had more developed power, as more of his extra-base hits were clearing the wall, but they project evenly in the power categories through three seasons.

Going into the 1996 season, Rolen was considered a good prospect, but not among the best few in the game. It was his extraordinary breakout upon reaching Double-A that put him on the map as a future star.

Year  League    Age   BA    OBP   SLG   AB   2B   3B   HR   BB   K
1996  Double-A  21   .361  .445  .591  230   22   2    9    34   32

That is a classic example of making The Leap. We cannot project Wright to have similar improvement next year, though it is certainly in the range of possibility. If Wright follows a more normal development path to the major leagues, he should be fighting for a major league job in the summer of 2005. However, the elements of potential for The Leap are definitely there. In the best-case scenario, Wright could be manning the left side of the infield at Shea next July.

It is not nearly as important when he gets there as how long he stays, however. With his combination of skills, tools, and maturity, there are few reasons to think that Wright won’t have a long, productive career manning the hot corner for the Mets. He still needs to show that he can make the necessary adjustments to Double-A, but I believe he will do so with few issues. While Jose Reyes may get the publicity as the savior of Queens, David Wright just may turn out to be a better player.