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Mets looking for diamond in the rough

Mets hope No. 62 will prove lucky this year

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As most clubs prepare for the First-Year Player Draft, fantasies of choosing the next Albert Pujols or another Scott Kazmir run through their minds. Why not add some wishin' and hopin' to the inexact process of scouting, selection and development?

For the Mets, the fantasy is a variation of that theme. They imagine selecting the next Jason Isringhausen or Mike Piazza, some fall-through-the-cracks guy who sneaks past the first round of the draft, through the sandwich selections and through most of the second round.

The Mets are one of the first-round wallflower clubs in 2006. Come June 6, they will sit on their corporate hands and wait while other clubs pick through top talent. For the Mets, the first round will be the consolation round, and their consolation won't happen until Billy Wagner warms up in the visitors' bullpen at Dodger Stadium that night.

Such is life for a club that cherrypicks in the previous free agent market. It's a pay-then ($43 million), pay-later process, but one with conspicuous upside potential. The Phillies, compensating for losing their closer to free agency, will exercise the 18th selection, the one Mets would have had if not for their successful pursuit of Wagner.

New York will wait until 61 players have been chosen. Imagine that, the number 62 and the Mets reunited after all these years. The first time 62 and the Mets had a relationship, it was a train wreck -- 120 losses. The club expects something better this time, even without a first-round selection.

"You know going in, there's no way to project anything," assistant general manager Tony Bernazard says. "But you prepare the same way as if you had the first pick. We blanketed the country. We saw every player we thought we should see, even though we have no pick in the first round."

Any why not? The Mets selected Isringhausen in the 44th round of the 1991 draft. And the Piazza draft saga is well-documented. The Dodgers selected him -- as a favor to a friend of Piazza's father named Tom Lasorda -- in the 62nd round.

Morever, the Mets are waiting for the 62nd pick, not the 62nd round.

"There is definitely talent at that pick," Bernazard says. "You don't have to hope a guy got passed over. That's probably not going to happen with 60 picks. But you don't know, so you prepare."

The Mets experienced the same delayed-gratification process in 1999. They had signed Robin Ventura out of the free agent market. Their first selection, pitcher Neal Musser, came in the second round. Musser didn't develop as the club had hoped and has moved on. But first-round selections come with no guarantee. See Al Shirley, 1991; Kirk Presley, 1993; Geoff Goetz, 1997; Jason Tyner, 1998.

But in more recent years, the players the Mets have chosen in the first round have developed. Three have reached the big leagues and prospered. Aaron Heilman and David Wright were selected before the second round, Wright a sandwich pick in 2001. And Kazmir was the Mets' 2002 selection.

The subsequent drafts have imported three players New York sees as part of its future core:

Lastings Milledge, 12th overall pick, 2003:
A five-tool, right-handed-hitting outfielder who already has reached the threshold of the Major Leagues. Milledge, 21, is the player other clubs inquire about most often. He tore apart the International League in April in his first exposure to Triple-A pitching. He has cooled considerably since then. The Mets have not cooled on him.

Philip Humber, third overall pick, 2004:
A 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who reached Double-A in 2005 despite a lack of success that could be measured statistically. Humber made one Double-A start before becoming too well-acquainted with the name Tommy John. He underwent reconstructive elbow surgery on July 19, 2005, and he has yet to return.

Mike Pelfrey, ninth overall pick, 2005:
A 6-foot-7, 22-year-old, fully-equipped right-handed pitcher who may make his big-league debut before the midpoint of this season. By the time he made his ninth professional start on May 20, after impressing the staff in Spring Training, Pelfrey was under consideration for recall. He has velocity, stuff and makeup.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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