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June 28, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

The Long Road

by Jeff Hildebrand

One of the criticisms occasionally leveled at the Baseball Prospectus staff is that we are rabid prospect hounds, to the point of being a bit excessive about it. We'll cheerfully admit to the first part and live with the second, because sometimes the long minor-league watch pays off and provides some wonderful moments for us as fans. For me, the most recent example of this occurred last Friday, when David Coggin made his major-league debut for the Phillies.

I first became familiar with Coggin four years ago when he was one of the "Four Aces" of the Phillies' low-A team at Piedmont. He was a supplemental first-round pick who was touted as being a couple years away from being the number-two guy behind Curt Schilling. While that was excessively optimistic, he at least crept into the category of pitchers to keep an eye on.

Unfortunately that was when the problems began. The 1996 Piedmont staff was worked hard, Coggin included, and it seemed to be catching up with him. Stretches of strong starts would be followed by arm soreness and trips to the disabled list. By last fall, his career seemed to be in jeopardy, but surgery to remove a bone spur in an unusual place in the elbow offered some hope that he might put his problems in the past.

While it's too early to tell whether he will stay healthy, he's certainly taken advantage of the change. Over the past month he's strung together several effective starts at Double-A. When the Phillies needed another starter with both Andy Ashby and Robert Person on the DL, they decided to give Coggin a shot. He turned in a strong enough outing to win the game and earn another start this week.

It would be hard for anyone not to smile listening to him talk after the game about how excited he was, but knowing all that he had gone through made my smile just a little bit bigger.

Of course, the flip side of following prospects so closely is that you also have to watch so many players fall short. Of the 1996 "Four Aces," the top pitcher from that year, Randy Knoll, blew out his arm shortly thereafter and never made it past high-A ball. Rob Burger, who threw a no-hitter during that season, got as far as Double-A before running into a horrific case of Steve Blass Disease. He bounced from level to level in two organizations before finally retiring a month ago. Other than Coggin, only Jason Kershner is left standing and making a bid to restore his prospect credentials. And if some day he makes it as well, I'll be smiling at the thought of how long a road he's traveled to get there.

Jeff Hildebrand can be reached at jhildebrand@baseballprospectus.com.

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