February 28, 2011
The BP Broadside
The Most Disappointing Prospects of All Time, Part 1
In honor of our Top 101 Prospects list going up today, I had intended to present you with a list of the Top 50 Busted Prospects, players of whom much was expected but from whom little was received. These would not be players who were overdrafted, but rather those who seemed on their way to justifying high picks and large bonuses when apparent destiny was denied. I say “intended,” because whereas I had planned to write one line per player, I got my annual-writing cap on and wrote full capsules for each one. Thus I had filled up a whole column before I had worked my way through more than 10. As such, we’ll begin here and I’ll return to the topic from time to time.
Because of the episodic nature of this project, the order of the players' appearance here is not important. At first, I’ll present you the case files in the order that I write them, and then as we wrap up we can place them in some kind of ranking—I have an idea of who the most disappointing prospect of all time should be, but I won’t be ready to anoint him (or in Joe Maddon’s words, disanoint him) until we’ve worked through all of the stories.
Mo Sanford RHP
Drafted 1988 32nd round
Sanford was a third-round pick of the Yankees in 1984, but did not sign. Instead, he went to the University of Alabama and pitched poorly enough that he dropped all the way to the 32nd round of the 1988 draft. Still, he was a strikeout machine in the minors thanks to good stuff and a dominant curveball. At the conclusion of the 1991 season he had made it up to Triple-A with an ERA of 2.74 in 493 1/3 innings, striking out 566. He also walked 221, or four per nine innings. This lack of command proved his undoing, as it only grew worse through three major-league trials and return trips to the minors. His 27 major-league games featured 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings, but also 6.3 walks.
Cameron Drew, OF Astros
Drafted 1985 1st round, 12th overall
Drew was a surprise high pick in the stocked 1985 first round; the Astros left Tommy Greene, Joe Magrane, Gregg Jefferies, and Rafael Palmeiro, among others, on the board to take him. The 6’5” outfielder had gained more notice for his basketball play at the University of New Haven than for his baseball future. Nonetheless, he justified Astros scouts’ belief in him, hitting .312/ .367/.486. In his second professional season, he won the Sally League MVP by hitting .326/.386./581with 26 home runs and 117 RBI. He reached the majors in September, 1988 after hitting .356 in 97 games at Triple-A Tucson, going 3-for-16, but a knee injury limited him to just three more plate appearances, all in the minors.
Bobby Valentine, INF/OF Dodgers
Drafted 1968 1st round, fifth overall
The future manager of the Rangers and Mets had but 62 games in Rookie ball before the Dodgers jumped him to Triple-A at 19. He hit only .259/.318/.353, but the Dodgers were impressed enough with his tools that they gave him a cup of coffee that September. In 1970, he played 140 games in the Pacific Coast League and hit .340/.389/.552 with 39 doubles, 16 triples, and 14 home runs while playing shortstop. The only negative was his 54 errors. The Dodgers, who had little regard for defense in those days, brought him to the majors for good in 1971. He wasn’t ready, proving himself to be a contact-oriented singles hitter who had no set position. After two seasons, the Dodgers gave up and dealt him to the Angels. Still just 23, there was hope that Valentine could still find his way to stardom, but playing the outfield that May, his ankle met a chain-link fence and was severely fractured. Valentine hung around the major-league fringes until 1979, but was never the same.
Chris Snelling, OF Mariners
Free Agent 1999
The Australian Olympian was thrice ranked a top-100 prospect by Baseball America through 2003, making the majors at 20. In our 2001 annual, we said, “If there is a war to be fought between scouts and statheads, Chris Snelling will be a major battleground. He’s no more physically imposing than Joey Ramone but has been one of the best players in both his professional leagues while also being one of the youngest. Though only 5’10”, he generates surprising power and, in spite of average-to-below speed, has the instincts to handle center field. Expect Snelling to keep baffling the hardcore tools goofs, though his power may be down a bit this year as he recovers from a broken bone and strained tendon in his hand.” What we didn’t know is that those injuries would be the first in an endless litany of them. Through his age-21 season, Snelling had hit .319/.394/.486, but never could stay healthy long enough to get established in the bigs.
Jeff Kunkel, SS Rangers
Drafted 1983, 1st round, third overall
The son of a big-league pitcher and umpire, the Rangers deemed the Rider University (New Jersey) infielder a better pick than University of Texas fireballer Roger Clemens, who stayed on the board until the 19th pick. As a first-year pro, Kunkel showed tremendous pop for a middle infielder of the time, hitting .286/.309/.508 in a 68-game season split between the Midwest and Texas Leagues, swatting 21 doubles and 11 home runs in 252 at-bats. When he got off to a .316/.353/.486 start with Tulsa in 1984, the Rangers brought him up to replace struggling rookie shortstop Curtis Wilkerson. With 11 walks in 453 professional plate appearances to that point, Kunkel wasn’t ready to cope with the major-league strike zone.
Andy Marte, 3B, Braves
Free Agent 2000
Marte is still active and only 27 years old, but if the native Dominican were revealed to be 54, his career would make a great deal more sense. Signed by the Braves in 2000, Marte was listed five times on the Baseball America top 100 prospects, and for good reason: the kid showed terrific power from an early age, and even solid patience and contact abilities. Several major-league trials have resulted in .218/.277/.358 rates in 301 games; granting even a healthy discount on his minors production shouldn’t have landed him that far down. He’s on his fourth organization now and will be lucky to have a career as a reserve.
Steve Whitaker, OF Yankees
Free Agent 1962
A left-hander with a sweet power swing, Whitaker was up and down in the minors as he dealt with injuries and his own temper. As a 21-year-old playing in the Carolina league in 1964, he busted out with a .303 average and .609 slugging percentage, with 27 home runs in just 396 at-bats. After an off-year in 1965 (.239, .397 slugging), he pasted the Double-A Southern League to the tune of .300/.382/.542 and got called up. Whitaker impressed immediately. He hit only .246/.306/.491, but that was in a league that hit .240/.306/.369. He never again showed that consistent power, and the Yankees let him go in the 1969 expansion draft.
Mike Ivie, C, Padres
Drafted 1970, 1st round, first overall
Drafted out of high school, Ivie made his major-league debut just a month after his 19th birthday, getting a cup of coffee after hitting .305 and slugging .499 with Lodi of the California League. Today, we might downgrade those numbers based on the league environment, but this was a different era, and the Cal League averaged just .263 and slugged .393 that year. Ivie went 8-for-17 in his September debut and looked to be primed for a great career, but it would be three years before he returned to the majors despite some fine hitting in the sticks; he had developed a psychological aversion to returning the ball to the pitcher and had to be moved to first base. Whereas all that stood between him and a catching job was the light-hitting Fred Kendall (Jason’s dad), Ivie now had to contend with Nate Colbert, a Padre who could actually hit, and subsequently with future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, who was acquired from the Giants after Ivie hit only .270/.303/398 at Triple-A Hawaii. A subsequent trip to the Texas League put Ivie back in a hitting frame of mind, as he smacked 18 home runs in 397 at-bats while hitting .292, good enough for another, permanent call. He began a career as a journeyman corner utility player, sort of a right-handed Matt Stairs type. He came closest to realizing his potential in 1979, when he hit .286/.359/.547 with 27 home runs in 454 at-bats as a first baseman-left fielder for the Giants. Other years were more forgettable, and his career ended when he was 30.
Ben Davis, C, Padres
Drafted 1995, 1st round, second overall
There was just one likely Hall of Famer in the first round of the 1995 draft, and 16 teams missed on him; Roy Halladay went off the board after immortals such as Ariel Prieto, Chad Hermansen, Reggie Taylor, Ryan Jaroncyk… And Ben Davis. He went one pick ahead of Jose Cruz Jr, who would prove to be a far better player. The switch-hitting prep catcher from Pennsylvania was touted as the best high school backstop since Roger Bresnahan, or something like that, and earned four listings on the Baseball America top 100 prospects based on outstanding defensive skills and a bat that seemed, if far from Piazza-like, projectable: at 21 he hit .286/.352/.460 at Double-A Mobile, then batting .308/.384/.512 for Triple-A Las Vegas at 22. The average was crucial because Davis was never too comfortable with ball four. Called up that same year, his defense was solid enough, but he never did hit; the closest he came was a 2001 first-half hot streak during which he hit .276/.391/.408, leading some to think, “Aha! He’s arrived at 24!” It was not to be. He crashed with a .191 second half and completed his major-league career at 27 having hit just .237/.306/.366.
Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals
Drafted 2005, 1st round, second overall pick
Gordon is a .321/.438/.578 career hitter in the minors, but his major-league sample is now larger and far more depressing. Now heading into his age-27 season, he has no position and has hit .222/.319/.365 over the last two seasons. He may yet recover to have the same kind of hand-to-mouth career that Ivie did, but forecasts of stardom are now permanently on hold.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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