March 1, 2011
The BP Broadside
The Most Disappointing Prospects of All Time, Part 2
Continuing the rundown of the most disappointing prospects of all time, here, in no particular order, are the next 10 on my list. Once I’ve run through an infamous 50 I will attempt a ranking. As with the last installment, I’ve mixed in notorious cases with what I hope will be surprises. Again, this is a series that I may not complete in a week; the list of possibilities is large enough to keep us all year, and I’ll want to take a break to make fun of the Mets sooner than later—and other stuff as well, but mostly to make fun of the Mets.
Once again, the goal is not to chronicle the failings of over-drafted players, but to list those players who had established themselves as real prospects, only to fail for one reason or another.
Al Chambers, LF/1B, Mariners
Drafted 1979, first round, first overall
An odd story, one where I suspect we don’t know all the details, the M’s made Chambers, more highly scouted as a football player, the top pick in a strong first round, thinking he had 70 power. Instead, he proved to be a very pedestrian hitter (his PCL record of .303/.352/.499 isn’t great for a corner guy given the league hitting environment). The M’s buried him, giving him only 141 major-league PAs over three seasons.
Clint Hartung, P-OF, Giants
Minor-league purchase, 1945
An early example of prospect hype, Hartung was supposed to be able to both hit and pitch. In short, he was Babe Ruth come again, except skinny, right-handed, and from Texas. The problem was that he had gained this reputation as a 19-year-old in the low minors, but World War II and a stubborn refusal to return to the minors had kept him off of pro diamonds for four years by the time he made his major-league debut. A 24-year-old who hasn’t had significant playing time above the Northern League is far less projectable, no matter how versatile, and the “Hondo Hurricane” was bound >to disappoint. He had his moments, particularly in a rookie year in which he went 9-7, pitched a shutout, and batted .309/.330/.543 in 97 PAs, but he never came close to being a star. For more, see my 2009 profile.
Rick Manning, OF, Indians
Drafted 1972, first round, second overall
The Indians completely misjudged Manning, thinking the high school selection had the makings of a power-hitting shortstop. He definitely had a hit tool—he had batted over .600 in his senior year, literally never striking out. The power never came, and he couldn’t play short, though he did become a very good defensive center fielder. Manning spent two seasons in the California League and one and change in the American Association, skipping Double-A. He was called to the bigs after hitting .316/.380/.393 in the first 30 games of the 1975 season. He rewarded the decision, batting .285/.347/.358 as a 20-year-old rookie (.260 True Average), and improved in year two, batting .292/.337/.393 (.274). A severe back injury curtailed his age-22 season, and though Manning would play another 10 years, he hit only .249/.311/.333 from then until the end of his career—and also caused the Indians to trade Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox, but that’s a story for another time.
Casey Kotchman, 1B, Angels
Drafted 2001, first round, 13th overall
Kotchman was supposed to be superbly prepared to compete in the majors due to his father being a longtime minor-league manager. Nothing impresses scouts and horse breeders like bloodlines. The first baseman had trouble staying healthy from the outset, but when he played, he hit quite well; his minor-league rates stand at .324/.406/.494. Power was slow to develop, but when you’re that good at reaching base and play good defense, it doesn’t matter—baseball will take a Keith Hernandez as eagerly as a Frank Thomas. When Kotchman arrived in the majors, the injuries followed him but the bat stayed behind; his 2007 (.296/.372/.467) was his sole memorable campaign. In 2010, he hit .217/.280/.336 in 457 PAs, good for a -1.5 WARP. This spring, Kotchman is competing for a bench role with the Rays, and .324/.406/.494 seems very far away.
Danny Goodwin, C, Angels
Drafted 1975, first round, first overall
The only player to be selected first overall in two different drafts, Goodwin was selected by the White Sox in 1971 but did not sign, choosing to go to college. Four years later, he joined the Angels, an organization not much interested in developing prospects at the time. Goodwin hit quite well, including .305/.403/.520 in 77 games at Triple-A Salt Lake City in 1977. This earned him a midseason promotion to the majors, but he played sparingly and didn’t hit. In 1978, the Angels simultaneously blocked Goodwin by acquiring Brian Downing from the White Sox and busted him back to the Texas League, where he simply rampaged, batting .360 and slugging .637. Called up in August, he hit well but played little. That December, the Angels traded Goodwin and Ron Jackson to the Twins for Disco Dan Ford. The Angels were done with their draftee though he never caught a game for them and had received just 175 PAs over three seasons. The Twins used Goodwin as a part-time first baseman-DH, and whatever promise he had was lost. Goodwin was handled as badly as any top prospect in the history of the game.
Scott Ruffcorn, RHP, White Sox
Drafted 1991, first round, 25th overall
One of the big fish on this list, and the story is very simple: he was crazy good in the minors but not at all good in the majors. There wasn’t a major arm injury or a good reason why; his command simply vanished every time he was invited to pitch in a big-league ballpark. Ruffcorn shot through the minors, getting called up to Chicago in August of 1993 after posting a 2.75 ERA in 180 innings split between Double- and Triple-A, striking out 185 while walking only 60. Back at Nashville in 1994, he more or less did it again, pitching to a 2.72 ERA tune over 165.2 innings. It didn’t matter. Ruffcorn was pasted in the majors, and after 1994 his command began slipping in the minors as well. Still, he finished the minors portion of his career at 68-30 with a 3.29 ERA. His major-league record was 0-8, 8.57 in 30 games, and one wonders what the now-41-year-old, out of baseball for going on 12 years, says to himself about the way he fumbled his chances.
Hensley Meulens, 3B, Yankees
Free Agent, 1985
Now the Giants hitting coach, “Bam-Bam” was once going to be a star in the Big Apple. the right-handed-hitting third baseman had tremendous power at a very young age, hitting approximately .300/.377/.558 with 28 home runs in the Carolina League at age 20, but he had problems making contact and couldn’t field. Despite these flaws, the Yankees pushed him hard and fast, not really noticing that he didn’t hit or field as they pushed him up the ladder. Finally, after a failed major-league audition in 1989, he got back on the prospect track at Triple-A, hitting .285/.376/.510 with 26 home runs as a 23-year-old while primarily playing left field. This was the first positive thing he had done in some time, and it earned him both a recall (successful) and a full season in the majors in 1991 (not). Back in Columbus in 1992, the now-25-year-old hit .275/.352/.481 with 26 home runs, but also struck out 168 times. The Yankees were largely done with him, and he had just 44 major-league plate appearances remaining. He finished his career at .220/.288/.353 in 182 games. For more, see my profile of Meulens from last fall.
Ruben Rivera, OF, Yankees
Free Agent, 1990
As I write these words, Rivera may be gearing up for another season in the Mexican League, where he has been exiled since leaving the White Sox organization, his seventh, back in 2006. Ruben was billed as a five-tool talent, or six-tool if you want to throw in selectivity. Signed out of Panama, he made his stateside debut at 18 and was at Triple-A at 21 after hitting .281/.357/.541 with 33 home runs and 48 steals in 1994 and .284/.390/.553 in 1995. He finished the season at Triple-A Columbus, hitting 15 home runs in 174 at-bats. Supposedly sulking at Triple-A, Rivera was called to a crowded outfield in early 1996 when Tim Raines was hurt. He alternated hot and cold streaks and was sent back down so that Gerald Williams and Ruben Sierra could play left field, one of those wonderful moves that they won’t put on Joe Torre’s Hall of Fame plaque. The following spring, in one of the worst moves in Yankees history, the Yankees sent Rivera, Rafael Medina, and $3 million to the Padres for Homer Bush, a confirmed minor-league outfielder, and the rights to Hideki Irabu. To say that Rivera failed miserably with the Padres would be an understatement; he batted .204/.301/.397 in nearly 400 games. The Reds, Rangers, and Giants gave him major-league tries, as did the Orioles and White Sox, and a return trip to the Yankees ended strangely when he was accused of stealing Derek Jeter’s glove.
Paul Strand, P-CF, Braves
Rule 5 Draft, 1912
Strand was a prospect bust on two separate occasions. A touted lefty pitcher, he joined the Braves in 1913 at age 19, then played a small role on the 1914 “miracle” championship team, going 6-2 with a 2.44 ERA (league average was 2.78), though he didn’t pitch in the World Series. The next season, Strand skragged his arm and was promptly sold off to Toledo of the American Association, his major-league career likely over. When the arm didn’t respond, Strand said, “No, problem! I’ve always been a pretty good hitter, so I’ll become an outfielder!” He turned out to be a good defensive outfielder when his arm felt good enough for him to throw and a very consistent hitter for average. Moving to the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League in the early 1920s, he was able to take advantage of the lengthy PCL schedule to set some huge records, including knocking 325 hits in 1923 (.394 average in 194 games) and making close to 600 putouts in the outfield, also a record. Connie Mack of the A’s figured he could use some of that, and sent three players and cash, possibly as much as $100,000, west in exchange for the now-30-year-old Strand’s services for 1924. Naturally, Strand held out. When he finally signed, Strand strained to justify the deal by hitting .228/.254/.329. In June he made another, final trip to Toledo. He hit .343 in nearly 1,200 games in the PCL and American Association bracketing that final call-up.
Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
Drafted 2007, first round, fifth overall
As we were among the first to hop on the Wieters bandwagon, let us be among the first off of it. The backstop is heading into his age-25 season. Whatever his .343/.438/.576 rates seemed to portend, that’s gone, along with the notion that he’s a switch-hitter (he has hit .230/.278/.344 from the right side) or a power hitter. His glove and the dream of what might have been will keep him around for years, but stardom now seems spectacularly unlikely.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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