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March 4, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Most Disappointing Prospects of All Time, Part 3

by Steven Goldman

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As we continue the rundown of the 50 most disappointing prospects of all time with the next five, two things have become clear: first, between my own research and reader suggestions—everyone has a favorite let-down, it seems—I could easily sail past 50 and perhaps 100. Second, of the current players on the list, no one kicked about Alex Gordon, but Matt Wieters still has many believers.

For this third installment, I’ve added five more players to the pool, and as with previous installments, I will conclude with one active player. Again, the order isn’t important—we’ll attempt a ranking at the end of the series. Finally, a restatement of definitions: we are not looking for over-drafted players, but rather prospects who gave legitimate indications that they had major-league star potential.

Todd Walker, 2B, Twins
Drafted 1994, first round, eighth overall
The LSU star, MVP of the College World Series, was selected in what would prove to be a weak, almost perverse first round, perhaps best symbolized by the great Josh Booty, who went fifth overall, well ahead of Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, and Jason Varitek, who went off the board in that order with the 12th through 14th picks of the round. Walker preceded them as well, and based on minor-league performance, you can’t argue with the Twins’ choice. The Twins took their time with the college player, partly because they didn’t know if Walker would be developed as a bad second baseman or a bad third baseman, partly because they’re the Twins and that’s what they do. As such, Walker moved one level at a time when he might have been ready to hit in the majors from the get-go. His apprenticeship should have culminated with a .339/.400/.599 season at Triple-A Salt Lake City, but for various reasons, including being blocked by Chuck Knoblauch, his lack of a position, conflicts with Tom Kelly, and extended bouts of hitting well below his apparent capabilities, his major-league career got off to a slow start. When he stumbled out of the gate in 2000, the Twins demoted him, then traded him to the Rockies. He spent the rest of his career wandering from organization to organization. Frequently platooned, he had only two offensive seasons in 12 that were of the quality suggested by his minor-league numbers.  

Andy Cohen, 2B, Giants
Purchased from minors, 1926
As part-owner of the New York Giants, manager John McGraw understood that his financial well-being depended less on winning and losing than on attendance. In the early part of the 20th century, New York was, perhaps more than ever, well aware of its status as America’s melting pot, with so many former immigrants and first-generation Americans walking its streets. This was the era when Abie’s Irish Rose, a sentimental play about the romance between an Irish Catholic woman and a Jewish man, set a record for longevity on Broadway* despite being universally panned by critics. It tapped into the Zeitgeist of the time, with cultures clashing and overlapping. McGraw was attuned to this, and figured that while New York’s Irish and Italian populations were well-supplied with baseball heroes, if he could only find a Jewish star he could really get the turnstiles spinning.

*The great Robert Benchley, then the drama critic for Life, hated the play and, as he had to update the magazine’s theatre guide each week, he filed dozens of capsule reviews over its five-and-a-half-year run, including, “People laugh at this every night, which proves why a democracy can never be a success;” “We refuse to answer on advice of counsel;” “The management sent us some pencils for Christmas, so maybe it isn’t so bad after all;” “Where do the people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in daytime;” “There is no letter ‘w’ in the French language;” and, best of all, “See Hebrews 13:8.”

McGraw’s search was long and arduous with much trial and error in the forms of Mose Solomon, Harry Rosenberg and others. When Hank Greenberg, then growing up in the Bronx, came asking for a try-out, McGraw sent word through an intermediary, as Greenberg remembered it in his autobiography, “that [he] had already been scouted by the Giants; he would never be a ballplayer.”

It was at roughly the same time Greenberg was shooed away that McGraw was falling out of love with his latest Great Hebraic Hope, infielder Cohen. McGraw purchased the then-21-year-old from Waco of the Texas League in 1926 and, as was often his practice with a very young player, treated him as teams treat a Rule 5 pick today, putting him on the bench and playing him infrequently. The purpose was not to satisfy an arcane rule, but to let the kid learn how to be a major leaguer. That done, Cohen was sent to Buffalo of the International League for the 1927 season. He hit .353/.378/.508 in 150 games (OBP is approximate) and helped drive the Bisons to the league pennant.

The Giants’ incumbent second baseman was Rogers Hornsby, who had hit .361/.448/.586. For reasons that are hard to nail down at this late date but probably had a lot to do with Hornsby being impossible to get along with, McGraw the same, and broken promises that the latter would step down and the former become manager, the Rajah was dumped on the Braves, giving the 1928 keystone job to Cohen. This was, at first, a major success. Cohen brought out the crowds that McGraw had anticipated, and the infielder rewarded them with a hot start, going 8-for-15 with a home run in his first four games and finishing April at .310. After four games, Hornsby was hitting .267, and the small sample was enough for fans to boast (not on sports radio—it didn’t yet exist; in order to share inane opinions fans had to string tomato cans together) that the Giants had retained the superior player in choosing Cohen over Hornsby. “It ain’t fair to the kid,” Hornsby said from Boston. “As soon as I get going, I’ll lose him.” Hornsby was as good as his word, finishing at .387/.498/.632, an incredible figure given that Braves Field was an ungodly pitcher’s park—he hit .401 on the road. Cohen hit .274/.318/.403, unimpressive figures in a league that hit .284/.344/.397. Cohen came back to hit .294/.319/.383 in 1929, also losing a month to injuries.

The production was poor in context, and Cohen’s defense and baserunning slipped as well. His popularity was blamed—whenever Cohen was off the field, he was being feted by some Jewish group. As reported in Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience, Dan Daniel of the Sporting News, himself a Jew, wrote that too many “matzoh balls and gefilte fish” ruined Cohen. “The upper Broadway herring-teasers got the big series of banquets under way [and] Cohen couldn’t run around the bases without finishing the last quarter on his hands and knees.” McGraw surprised by sending Cohen back to the minors for 1930, replacing him with defensive specialist Hughie Critz. Cohen would never return and would soon be replaced in Jewish hearts by Greenberg.

Oddibe McDowell, OF, Rangers
Drafted 1984, first round, twelfth overall
A little guy (5’9”) with speed and power, McDowell had won the Golden Spikes award for 1984, hitting .405 and slugging .788 while playing at Arizona State University, and made the 1984 Olympic team. After Oddibe was drafted five times prior to signing (twice in two phases in 1981, the same again in 1982, and once in 1983), Rangers manager Bobby Valentine called him, “the key to our future.” Sent to Triple-A to begin the 1985 season as well as his professional career, he hit a cool .400/.486/.632 with 20 steals (and 12 times caught stealing) in 31 games and was called up. Donning uniform number zero, McDowell struggled in his first month in the show, but over the last four months of the season he hit .249/.319/.455 with 18 home runs (leading all AL rookies) and 23 steals and played an acrobatic center field. In recognition, he placed fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, garnering one first-place vote. Bill James wrote that McDowell was the “Greatest athlete to come into the American League since [Kirk] Gibson and [Willie] Wilson in the late seventies.”

McDowell’s sophomore season was a mixed bag. He batted .266/.341/.427, took 65 walks, and set the club record for runs scored with 105. On the other hand, his 18 home runs were less impressive given that they came in 191 more plate appearances than the year before. He was also caught stealing 15 times in 48 attempts. Still, he was just 23 and improving; it wasn’t difficult to imagine him being a fixture for years. Yet, McDowell had already peaked. He began to miss time with minor injuries; in 1987 he suffered a sprained ankle, bruised ribs, a shoulder injury, and a hand laceration when a butter knife got away from him at the team’s welcome home banquet. He hit .241/.324/.428 that year, a step back given the season's rampant offense, though he did go 24-for-26 as a basestealer. Valentine began to platoon him, though as late as that August he was touting his young outfielder, saying, “I think he’s going to be an All-Star. I expect him to hit .300.”

Valentine was off by 95 points. In 1988, McDowell was hitting .205/.285/.310 in June and was actually sent down for awhile. Perhaps in addition to the slump, this assessment by the Dallas Morning News is indicative of why: “His style of play is so casual that it often looks as if McDowell is not giving 100 percent.” That winter, the Rangers traded McDowell, Jerry Browne, and Pete O’Brien to the Indians for Julio Franco.

McDowell would spend a miserable half-season (.222/.296/.297) with the Indians before being swapped to the Braves for Dion James. There, he briefly flowered, bating .304/.365/.471 in 76 games, though he was caught 10 times in 25 stolen base attempts. He began the 1990 season in a platoon with Ron Gant, but didn’t hit, yielded more and more playing time, and virtually disappeared from the starting lineup after early August. Released during the following spring training, he signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles, didn’t hit, and was released. The pattern repeated itself with the Angels. He would be out of baseball for more than a year before signing a minor-league deal with the Rangers in July, 1993. He hit well and got a chance to play in the majors again in 1994, but his production was unremarkable. A minor-league fling with the Yankees didn’t pan out, and his career was over. Final rates: .253/.323/.395.

Brad Komminsk, OF, Braves
Drafted 1979, first round, fourth overall pick.
As I wrote back in 2006, I once had the opportunity to ask Joe Torre what the heck happened to derail Komminsk, who had put up simply amazing numbers in the minors—.322/.458/.606 with 33 home runs as a 20-year-old at Class-A Durham in 1981; .334/.433/.596 with 24 home runs at Triple-A Richmond as a 22-year-old in 1983. He said:

You know what, he had an asthma problem. He was Henry Aaron's favorite. He was strong. He never really got a chance to play under me like the other guys in the outfield. I remember having to take him out of a game in L.A. because of the smog in the daytime… What I thought I noticed about Brad Komminsk was he had only one swing. But it was more mechanical than anything. He was a good kid. A big, strong kid.

This answer has bugged me ever since, because Torre had Komminsk for, at minimum, spring training 1983, spring training 1984, and 109 games and 375 PAs at the major-league level. It seems like too large a sample for him to disclaim involvement the way he did.

Since I wrote extensively about Komminsk in the item linked above, I’d rather not recapitulate the whole story here when it’s still available there. Suffice it to say that despite showing all the hitting talent in the world and baserunning acumen as well, it just didn’t happen in the major leagues. His most extensive chance came in 1984-1985; over 677 PAs, he hit .215/.295/.321 with 12 home runs, 67 walks, and 148 strikeouts. Traded to the Brewers for Dion James (What were the chances of James popping up twice in one column?), Komminsk began an odyssey that saw him drift on to the Indians, Giants, Orioles, A’s, White Sox, and Tigers organizations and even Winnipeg of the Northern League in a career which lasted through 1997. He hit 230 home runs in the minors, 23 in the bigs, and no reason for his failure more convincing than “asthma” has yet been offered.

Cameron Maybin, OF, Tigers
Drafted 2005, first round, tenth overall pick
Full disclosure: I feel much less confident about including Maybin on this list than I was with Wieters, primarily because the outfielder, now with the Padres, hasn’t been handled very well, having been rushed to the majors, twice traded, and twice winning the opening day center field assignment from the Marlins only to be demoted. A four-time member of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list, he has continued to hit very well in the minors and holds career rates of .325/.401/.477 in 115 games at Triple-A. Yet, making contact in the majors has been a huge problem—he has struck out 172 times in 548 career at-bats, and his strikeout percentage increased over the last two seasons, small sample notwithstanding.  Had he qualified, his strikeout percentage of 28.6 would have ranked fourth in the National League, trailing only those of Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and Drew Stubbs. While it’s not impossible to hit for a good average while swishing that often, it’s difficult, and Maybin’s power production and selectivity might not support a .250 average.

Worse, he’s off to Petco, one of the hardest places in the world for a hitter to establish himself. PECOTA predicts .248/.321/.373, which with good defense will be useful to the Pads, but is far from what was predicted for him, as when we wrote in our 2007 annual, “His physical tools are supreme, and he`s shown an advanced capacity for pitch recognition, even if he sometimes can`t help himself from swinging at the breaking ones. Center fielders with true 30-30 potential are fairly rare in today`s game, but Maybin both looks and plays a little bit like Eric Davis.” At 24, Eric Davis hit .277/.378/.523 with 27 home runs and 80 stolen bases. Maybin isn’t likely to get halfway to those figures. There is still time for him to cut that strikeout rate and up his batting average, but as of now he’s got at least one foot on this list.

That’s 25. We’re halfway through. In the next Broadside I’ll likely break to talk current events before resuming the series with some of the most requested players.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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