The potential missing piece of the mid-2000's

With the beginning of each baseball season, no matter if your team is expected to contend or looking to retool for the future, each franchise’s minor leaguers offer the same narrative: that the team’s future days are going to be bigger and brighter. Met fans have witnessed this each year since 2012 with Matt Harvey, up to this past season, with the debut of #1 shortstop prospect Amed Rosario.

For the Mets teams of the late 1990s-early 2000s, before the rise of Jose Reyes and David Wright, the farm system was filled with highly valued outfield prospects such as 1998 First-Round pick Jason Tyner and Top 100 ranked prospects Jay Payton (‘95.’96,’97), Preston Wilson (‘93,’94,’96,’98) and Alex Escobar (‘99,’00,’01,’02). Yet, the player who offered the highest potential as a future superstar was a 5’9’’ outfielder drafted in the 18th round in the ‘98 draft, Brian Keith Cole.

Cole’s story has been well documented in recent years, courtesy of the Sports Illustrated story The Best Player You Never Saw.  A complete five tool player despite being only 5’9’’ and around 170lbs, the legend of Cole is told through stories from All-Stars such as CC Sabathia, who states Cole was the reason the big hurler learned he needed to develop a breaking pitch, and Albert Pujols, who raved about Cole’s gap to gap power and blaring speed. There were stories of Cole stealing home multiple times in his rookie season in Kingsport – impressive feats in their own right, he also did so by crossing home standing. Sabathia also shared the story of his start on July 23, 1999, during which Cole ripped a Sabathia pitch off the Columbus Red Stixx scoreboard. In a season where Sabathia allowed only 47 hits, 25 earned runs and 0.5 home runs per 9 innings, the shot spoke to Cole’s potential to produce against the game’s top upcoming talent.

Cole was on the rise through the Mets’ minors system, ranking as their third best prospect going into the 2001 season, topped only by the highly touted Escobar and the organization’s’ pitcher of the year in 2000, righty Pat Strange. Former General Manager Jim Duquette even stated that the organization planned on having Cole become one of the pillars of the organization heading into the future.

“We were planning on David Wright at third base, Jose Reyes at short and Brian Cole in the outfield. We were hoping that somewhere around 2002 he would be on the scene as a rookie in the major leagues,” Duquette has shared speaking in retrospect of a great trio of talent. It wasn’t just Cole’s tools and potential, it was also his bulldog demeanor which exemplified his major league caliber potential. Growing up as a smaller player, Cole played with a chip on his shoulder, quoted in 2000 saying: “I played with older guys growing up. I’ve always been overlooked because of my size…That drives me. You don’t have to be 6-3, 220 pounds to be an athlete.” He was a self-described hitter, who could hit the ball anywhere he wanted to. He was motivated by his draft status and unafraid to face his talented counterparts.

Pat Strange, a 6 foot 5 inch righty, shared a story of once suggesting to Cole that he keep the ball on the ground and use his speed to get on base, a suggestion to which 5’ 9” Cole responded: “Shut the f— up and worry about throwing strikes.”

Slated to start the ‘01 season in AA Binghamton, Cole would never suit up that season. On his way home to Meridian, Mississippi before the start of the season, Cole was involved in a car accident on March 31, 2001 which would cost him his life. The player who not only attracted the attention of the organization, but captivated everyone who ever met the young man would never get a chance to reach his potential.

While Cole’s persona and production have been well chronicled, prospects are prospects for a reason- they are never sure things. At the same time as Cole ascent, his fellow minor leaguers began to hit their developmental peaks. Escobar was stuttering in his development due to injury concerns, which would eventually lead to the 2001 number eleven overall MLB prospect only appearing in 125 games across four MLB seasons. The same can be said for Tyner, the player drafted by the Mets 17 rounds before Cole in ‘98. Tyner, also blessed with blazing speed, was never able to develop any sort of power, and he was limited to only 53 extra base hits across 440 career MLB games, including only one career home run.

Cole’s game on the other hand left no gaping holes to be found, drawing resemblance to other rising outfielders in Cole’s ‘01 Baseball America Top 100 prospect class: Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells and Josh Hamilton. During his 2000 season spent at single-A Charleston, Crawford, ranked #72, batted .301 AVG, .342 OBP with 21 doubles, 11 triples, 6 home runs and 55 stolen bases throughout 135 games. Wells, ranked #12, spent parts of his 1999 season in both single-A and double-A where had 127 hits in 97 games, swatting 14 home runs while driving in 60 runs and stealing 19 bases; never battling less than .340 or having an OBP of less than .400 at either level. Hamilton, who was the consensus #1 prospect at the time, appeared in 96 games at single-A Charleston producing to a clip of a .347 AVG with a .378 OBP, 118 hits, 23 doubles, 10 home runs and 48 RBIs. All three players would go on to win silver sluggers, gold gloves, multiple all-star game appearances and in Hamilton’s case, an MVP.

But then there was Cole.

In his 2000 season, split between advanced-A St. Lucie and double-A Binghamton, Cole would produce similar to greater results compared to his fellow all-star prospect class counterparts. In 91 games for single-A St. Lucie, Cole dominated to a .312 AVG and .356 OBP. He had 117 hits which included 26 doubles, 5 triples and 15 home runs, driving in 61 runs, stealing 54 bases and displaying good plate discipline, striking out only 51 times. Cole would then be promoted to double-A Binghamton where he got off to a slow start before catching fire, finishing 46 games with 49 hits, 9 doubles, 2 triples and 4 home runs. In the process he drove in 25 runs and stole an additional 15 bases.

Cole’s time in double-A is a drop off from his extreme single-A production, but they do not tell how Cole finished off the season after an adjustment period. Over his final 30 games in Binghamton, Cole mashed a .349 average with all four of his double-A home runs, leading the team to a 26-4 record to capture the division title. He put his bulldog mentality to work and became the spark plug of the team’s division title run; becoming someone who the organization was going to have to start paying more attention to, even over the likes of Tyner and Escobar.

Overall, Cole would finish the season playing in 137 game collecting 166 hits, 35 doubles, 7 triples, 19 home runs and 86 RBIs. He also stole 69 bases while only striking out 79 times, finishing with a .301 average and .347 OBP. When compared to the future All-Stars in his prospect class, Cole finished with the most home runs, most doubles, most RBIs and highest amount of steals, with almost an identical batting average and OBP to Crawford. With comparable and somewhat better numbers than that of his fellow prospects, there is reason to believe Cole would have at the very least been a capable run producer in the 6th spot of a batting order, as Baseball America foresaw as his floor at the time. At his peak he could have been a great number 2 or 3 hitter at Shea, potentially as soon as the second half of the 2001 season / beginning of the 2002 season. While deploying players such as Roger Cedeno, Jeremy Burnitz and Richard Hidalgo during the early 2000s, all with holes in their respective games, Cole would have had an immediate impact in Flushing.

What makes the legendary potential of Cole even more fascinating and curious is how he would have been hitting his peak production seasons during the 2005-2008 seasons, years in which the Mets were at the peak of their performance during the Omar Minaya era. With Reyes and Wright headlining the rebirth of the Mets, the team was also graced with the presence of a future Fall-of-Farmer: Carlos Beltran.

Beltran was once a top prospect in the Royals system, appearing in Baseball America’s Top 100 in both 1997 as the #93 prospect, and in 1999 as the #14 prospect. A five-tool player in his own right, Beltran was a force in the middle of the lineup for the Mets after a rough transition in 2005. Blossoming into the star the Mets knew he would be in ’06, his performance helped lead to that season’s post-season run, and the following seasons when the Mets were in contention for the post-season. When looking at Cole’s minor-league career and looking to project his future, the minor-league career of Beltran strikes a strong resemblance to that of Cole’s.

Both Cole and Beltran appeared in a similar amount of games in their minor league careers. Despite playing in 21 less games than Beltran, Cole outperformed Beltran in every statistical category. Cole produced 395 hits to Beltran’s 315, 90 doubles to Beltran’s 61, 9 more triples, 5 more home runs, 11 more RBIs and 83 more stolen bases. Cole also had Beltran beat batting .306 to .265 and got on base at a higher clip: .347 to .341. While Beltran played in different leagues across his time in MiLB, Cole’s performance when measured against one of the great Mets outfielders of all time once again shows the magnitude of the talent Cole possessed.

So if Cole was preparing for a late 2001, or 2002 debut, his potential begs the question of how the roster dominos would have fallen in the upcoming seasons. In 2002, the Mets deployed outfielders Cedeno, Burnitz and Timo Perez, each of whom had deficiencies in their games, leaving plenty of room for Cole to step in. The same could have been said for ‘03 when the Mets’ were running failed centerfield prospect Jeff Duncan and Perez out on a regular basis, had traded Burnitz and left Cedeno in a position to continue producing mediocre results. However in ‘03, the Mets added Cliff Floyd who would go on to be a steady producer during his Met tenure. By 2004, the Mets added Mike Cameron to patrol centerfield, but he would be offset by Beltran the next offseason.

By 2005-2006 Cole would have been in his age 26-27 seasons entering the prime of his career. And knowing the Mets were one win away from the World Series in ‘06, there are an abundance of questions to be asked on how Cole’s presence in the organization could have had on the franchise. The first: where would Cole have played? In his career, he spent time in time at all three outfield positions, but had the most time at center and left field. If the Mets’ would have still signed Floyd, that would have pushed Cole to center or right field. Would Jim Duquette still have signed Cameron the following offseason to play center? Or would the plan of attack been to pursue an outfielder such as Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez or Gary Sheffield to round out the outfield? Or would the team have instead allocated all of their resources at other top free agents, such as Luis Castillo to fill the second base position Duquette granted to little Godzilla: Kazuo Matsui?

The same line of questioning could then be directed toward if Minaya would still have targeted Beltran to patrol centerfield for the long-term beginning in 2005, which creates even more of a “what if” chain of events. Cameron or Beltran? Would Cameron be on the team to trade for Xavier Nady, who would then be traded for Oliver Perez at the deadline in ‘06? Would the Mets employ Shawn Green or Moises Alou in the outfield over the next few seasons? While all speculation, a player with the potential of Cole would have caused a great shift within the organization’s future direction when building a playoff contender. With Reyes and Wright cemented in the organization by ‘05, a three headed monster of Reyes, Wright and Cole would have granted the Mets three cost controlled stars ready to lead the team to greatness.

Players’ like Brian Cole do not graduate from prospect status every season. Players who can demonstrate complete control of their tools and put them to use. If he continued to put up numbers similar to his minor league totals, Cole could have been a Mike Trout caliber player with the size of Jose Altuve. He could have had the media attention of a Bryce Harper, but with a kid-like persona which could light up a room similar to Jose Reyes. With the New York City market, Cole could have risen to a height of David Wright status as the face of the organization, and the three headed monster of Reyes, Wright and Cole would have captivated the league in a similar way the current Cubs young sluggers have.

The world would be robbed of Brian Keith Cole and all the gifts he had to give to this world. While his on-the-field production fails in comparison to the impact on those he met as outlined in the Sports Illustrated story, the potential of Cole allows for a unique look at the early to mid 2000s Mets and how they could have been constructed around a potential megastar.

Prospects are prospects for a reason, and sometimes it sucks.

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