NEW YORK -- It started with Matt Harvey, the college product with the big right arm. Then Jeurys Familia began outpitching his projections, and one became two. Soon after, the Mets traded Carlos Beltran for another top arm, Zack Wheeler, and two grew to three.
Since midseason, those three right-handed starting pitchers have been linked together as the Mets' top overall prospects, the organization's best hopes for a quick return to winning baseball.
Now those three pitchers have numerical proof. Wheeler, Harvey and Familia all landed on MLB.com's 2012 Top 100 Prospects list, released Wednesday, with Wheeler topping the list at 28th overall, Harvey clocking in at 38th and Familia at 90th.
"I rant and rave about the pitching staff," Triple-A manager Wally Backman said Tuesday, likening this generation of young pitchers to when Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez made their Mets debuts within a year of each other in the mid-1980s. "These are quality arms, and they know how to pitch."
This year's edition of MLB.com's Top Prospects list has expanded from 50 to 100 players. The annual ranking of baseball's biggest and brightest young talent is assembled by MLB.com's Draft and prospect expert Jonathan Mayo, who compiles input from industry sources, including scouts and scouting directors. It is based on analysis of players' skill sets, upsides, closeness to the Majors and potential immediate impact to their teams. The list, which is one of several prospect rankings on MLB.com's Prospect Watch, only includes players with rookie status in 2012.
It was Mayo's first two criteria -- skill sets and upside -- that boosted Wheeler above his peers, despite being younger and less experienced than both Harvey and Familia. In his first half-season in the Mets' organization, Wheeler posted a 2.00 ERA in six starts for Class A St. Lucie, striking out 31 batters in 27 innings and walking just five. Selected sixth overall by the Giants in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Wheeler features what Mets vice president of scouting and player development Paul DePodesta called the farm system's "best wipeout stuff."
"If a hitter has two strikes, he's probably the most dangerous," DePodesta said.
Not far behind is Harvey, who rebounded from a tough Double-A debut to go 5-0 with a 2.68 ERA in his final seven starts at the level, whiffing 36 batters in 37 innings. Harvey, who will be 23 on Opening Day, has made significant strides with his secondary pitches since the Mets drafted him seventh overall in 2010, and he is a good bet to make his Major League debut late this season.
"Matt has really impressed me just with how mature he is," DePodesta said, "how dedicated and how focused he is on the task at hand, how willing he is to work on things, when he knows that they're not going to benefit him immediately, but they may benefit him down the line."
The wildcard of the trio is Familia, 22, whose explosive first half put him back on the national radar following a poor 2010. Though some scouts project Familia as a future reliever, the right-hander performed so well as a starting pitcher last season -- a 2.90 ERA over two levels and more than three times as many strikeouts as walks -- that the Mets will continue using him as a starter until further notice.
"Familia has impressed me on a lot of different fronts," DePodesta said. "For such a young guy, I'm impressed with his mental discipline and mental focus in addition to the stuff. All these guys have electric stuff, and that jumps out at you right away."
The challenge for the Mets will be to continue developing all three pitchers without giving in to the temptation to rush them to New York. Put on the Major League staff right now, Harvey and Familia could probably both hold their own, with the younger Wheeler not far behind. But the Mets want all three of their prized pitchers to be unquestionably ready for the big leagues by the time they make their debuts.
It is for that reason that DePodesta hinted at Harvey and Familia both starting this season back in Double-A, with quick promotions possible. Wheeler, who will be just 21 on Opening Day, is also a decent bet to start the year in Double-A, though he is much less likely to see the Majors next season.
"The guys who have that potential, we really want to make sure that those guys are ready to have some success when they get up here," DePodesta said. "You don't want these guys bouncing back and forth for two or three years. You want these guys to come up and stake their claim in the rotation and never leave."
Having all three together in the same organization, DePodesta said, can only help. Drawing a comparison to the trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito that he helped oversee in Oakland, DePodesta lauded the healthy rivalry developing between Harvey, Wheeler and Familia.
"They're competitive with each other in a friendly way," DePodesta said. "I think they know what they can do on the field. They also know that they have electric stuff and they don't want to just be good. They want to be as good as they can be, and in a friendly way, they want to be better than the next guy. That's certainly encouraging to watch that."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.