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The Parallels Between Brad Emaus and Dan Uggla

While the team has made no official announcement, it has become clear this week that the Mets intend to name Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus the starting second baseman. The first indication came on Monday, when the team released Luis Castillo. Then this morning they sent Justin Turner to minor league camp and also informed Daniel Murphy that they’d work him around the diamond in the next few weeks while they play Emaus at second. At this point it’s almost too easy to draw a comparison to another second baseman Rule 5 pick: Dan Uggla.

The similarities start right at the origins of their careers. Both were college players, Uggla from University of Memphis and Emaus from Tulane. Uggla was a 2001 draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Five years after they drafted him, the Marlins selected him in the Rule 5 draft. Emaus, too, was an 11th round pick. The Blue Jays selected him in the 2007 draft. He didn’t last quite as long in the system, though, as the Mets selected him in the Rule 5 four years later.

While they took different paths through the minors, the results ended up being similar. After a respectable partial season debut in 2001, Uggla struggled during his first full season, producing a .608 OPS between low- and high-A levels. Emaus, though he didn’t perform well following the 2007 draft, hit exceptionally well in high-A ball in 2008, a .843 OPS that included a .380 OBP. Uggla would have to wait a year before a similar breakout, as he produced a .850 OPS, on the strength of a .504 SLG, in high-A ball in 2003.

With the old rules in place, Uggla would have been Rule 5 eligible after that 2003 season, but since it came in A ball there was little chance he’d be selected. He didn’t help his case in 2004, when he struggled after a promotion to AA. Under the old rules Emaus would have been Rule 5 eligible after the 2009 season, but no team would have selected him. His torrid 2008 season earned him a full-season promotion to AA, but he hit just .253/.336/.376 there. It would take another year — well timed, indeed — before Emaus would make his case.

During his first full season in AA, Uggla excelled. In 569 PA he hit .297/.378/.502, which was enough for the Marlins to take a chance. The team had just completed a fire sale and had plenty of open spots. Why not take a chance on an underrated second baseman who had just dominated the Southern League? That obviously worked out for them, as Uggla hit .282/.339/.480 in his debut season and then showed improvement in later seasons. Those five seasons in the bigs ended up netting him a 5-year, $62 million contract with Atlanta this winter.

Emaus’s underwhelming AA performance meant he was to repeat the level in 2010. It didn’t take long before he earned a promotion to AAA. In his first 170 PA he hit .272/.402/.434, showing he was ready to move on. In the Pacific Coast League he was sure to produce even better numbers, and he did not disappoint, hitting .298/.395/.495. It came as something of a surprise that Toronto didn’t protect him in the Rule 5. He was, after all, a 24-year-old infielder who had already produced two outstanding offensive seasons. It was a given that a team would take a chance on him, and the Mets took that opportunity with the 10th pick.

Heading into spring training it appeared uncertain whether Emaus would get his chance to become the next Uggla. The Mets set up a competition for the second base spot that included the veteran Castillo, the versatile Murphy, the farm product Turner, and the adjective-defying Luis Hernandez. But as the Mets find fault in each of the competitors, Emaus has become the clear choice for the job. Starting April 1 in Miami he’ll get his first big league start.

While Emaus and Uggla present similar cases, it’s obviously silly to think that Emaus will necessarily turn out the same way. The Marlins got incredibly lucky with Uggla. He was a 26-year-old who hadn’t yet cracked AAA and who had just two quality seasons under his belt. Still, it’s difficult to ignore the parallels. Maybe the conditions are again ripe in 2011. That would be quite the lucky break for the Mets, a franchise that, as our own Jonah Keri put in his book, The Extra 2%, has an “inability to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.” The new management is supposed to help reverse that. What better way to start than with Emaus?