June 11, 2012
Out of Left Field
Matt Barnes and Why We Never Learn
We all love prospects. Not in a sexy way, though Jose Iglesias does have a certain magnetism about him. No, it’s their promise we love, the possibility that each player in the top 11 could become great, thereby helping propel my favorite team (not yours) to the World Series. Prospects are lottery tickets in the common parlance of the term, a role of the dice as to whether they’ll ever figure out the game enough that they can contribute at the major league level. But they’re also lottery tickets in promise. Each represents what could be, what we hope will be, and while most don’t reach the upper reaches of their ceiling, the height, the potential of that ceiling makes them baseball’s ultimate exercise in optimism.
Paraphrased conversation I had in 1992:
Friend (Orioles fan): So you wouldn’t trade Jeff McNeely for Cal Ripken, Jr., huh?
As you certainly know, in 1992 Cal Ripken was a Hall of Fame shortstop at the height of his power. Jeff McNeely was, to put it charitably, not. McNeely was the Red Sox’ no. 2 prospect that year, according to Baseball America. Twenty years later his Baseball-Reference page lists him as, “Centerfielder and Pinch Runner.” The second of the two designations isn’t bestowed when your career turned out as intended. It also isn’t bestowed upon starting outfielders, but as is probably obvious, McNeely never was that. Outside of his 1991 season in High-A, he never posted an OPS above .700 in the minor leagues, which is about the bare minimum of skin you have to show to get into the night club. It was hoped McNeely would turn into the next speedy Red Sox centerfielder, batting atop the lineup for a decade or more. Instead he became like so many promising players before him: nothing. Forty-four major league plate appearances and he was gone.
This kind of thing happens to every team, the Red Sox aren’t unique… buuuut since I have their system pulled up let’s just pile on, shall we? In 1994 Baseball America’s top 10 Red Sox prospects included the names Ortiz, Rodriguez, McGuire, and Johnson. That’s Luis Ortiz, Frankie Rodriguez, Ryan McGuire, and J.J. Johnson. Outside of Trot Nixon, who was no. 1 on that list, Jeff Suppan* would have the best major-league career. After him we’re back to McGuire (Ryan), who spent all of 368** games in the bigs.
* Hard to believe nobody ever nicknamed him the Supp Nazi.