Prospect Retrospective: Gregg Jefferies
25 years ago, in the summer of 1987, Gregg Jefferies was the hottest prospect in baseball. He was considered a sure-fire future All Star and an expected mainstay for the New York Mets. Take Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar, combine them, and you have an idea about how much hype Jefferies was receiving. And he deserved it, too; he was a remarkable prospect.
Jefferies was drafted by the Mets in the first round in 1985. The 20th-overall selection, the high school infielder from San Mateo, California, was considered a pure hitter with a chance to stick at shortstop. His career got off to a good start with a .343/.396/.530 mark in 47 games for Kingsport in the Appalachian League, followed by a .281/.324/.422 mark in 20 games for Columbia in the Low-A Sally League. He hit .326/.375/.500 overall in his pro debut, stealing 28 bases in 29 attempts. He would have been a Grade A- prospect, possibly a pure Grade A.
Jefferies dominated three levels in 1986 at the age of 18: hitting .339/.385/.545 in 25 games in Low-A, .354/.402/.549 in 95 games in High-A, then .421/.476/.579 in five games of Double-A. His overall line was stunning: .353/.401/.549, 32 doubles, 11 triples, 16 homers, 57 steals in 66 attempts, with 44 walks and just 41 strikeouts in 521 at-bats. He needed some defensive polish, but given his age, it was a remarkable performance and he would certainly have been a Grade A prospect. He was named Minor League Player of the Year.
The Mets gave Jefferies a stable season in 1987, sending him to Double-A Jackson in the Texas League for the whole campaign. He continued to thrive, hitting .367/.423/.598 with 48 doubles, 20 homers, 101 RBI, 26 steals, 49 walks, and only 43 strikeouts in 510 at-bats. He got into six games for the Mets late in the year, going 3-for-6 with a double. Once again, he was Minor League Player of the Year and a pure Grade A prospect.
Moved up to Triple-A Tidewater for 1988, he saw a power decline, hitting just seven homers; the International League was more difficult than the Texas League. His overall .282/.322/.395 line was still solid (especially at age 20 in Triple-A), he stole 32 bases, he struck out just 34 times in 504 at-bats, and he hit .321/.364/.596 in 109 major league at-bats for the Mets down the stretch, seeing most of his action at third base. Again, he would be a pure Grade A prospect.
Handed the second base job in 1989, Jefferies didn't live up to his press clippings, hitting .258/.314/.392 with 12 homers and 21 steals, with a 39/46 BB/K ratio in 508 at-bats. He took some flak for not being an immediate star and his defense wasn't impressive, but he did post a positive OPS+ at 106 and WAR at 1.3. His production as a sophomore (.283/.337/.434, WAR 3.0) was better, but after a mediocre junior season (.272/.336/.374, 1.8 WAR) he was shipped off to the Kansas City Royals, where he played one season (.285/.329/.404, WAR 2.5).
In the spring of 1993, the Royals traded him east across I-70 to St. Louis, where he finally had the star-caliber season people were looking for: .342/.408/.485, 5.5 WAR. He remained an effective hitter for the Cardinals and Phillies (signing as a free agent for 1995), but his value sagged as he moved the wrong way on the defensive spectrum, eventually winding up as a first baseman with insufficient power for the position. Worn down by injuries, he ended up retiring in 2000 at the age of 32.
Although Jefferies was a disappointment compared to the hype he received in the minors, he did have a 14-year career in the majors, hitting .289/.344/.421 with a 107 OPS+. His OPS+ was better than league average every year until age 28 when injuries struck, and he had particularly good years in 1993 (.342/.408/.485, 142 OPS+, 5.5 WAR) and 1994 (.325/.391/.489, 130 OPS+, 1.9 WAR in the strike year). He stole 193 bases, was a two-time All Star, and posted a career 21.9 WAR.
He wasn't a great player, but he had value.