1. Manny Ramirez
In September of 1993, Manny Ramirez was 21 and I was 13. He was the latest can't-miss prospect for a franchise that had seen a bunch of can't-miss prospects. And they all either missed or were traded before they made it. And the Indians wanted to see what this new kid could do at the major-league level. This was Cleveland right after the 1980s. And 1970s. And 1960s. Ramirez being just another decent-but-mostly-disappointing outfielder would have been the perfect metaphor to close down Municipal Stadium. Except that Mark Lewis struck out to end the final game there. But on September 3rd, Ramirez played in his second MLB game. In Yankee Stadium (the old one). He's from New York. And on that day, Manny Ramirez hit the first two home runs of his career (and a double!). Cleveland and my teenage heart—who collectively should have known better than to get excited about anything—got excited. This sweet-swinging right fielder was going to be a Hall of Famer! He plays the game with such focus!
Those three hits were the only three hits of Manny Ramirez's first week in the bigs. In fact, by September 14th, Manny had fallen to a triple-slash line of .179/.200/.359 and made only three more starts the rest of the year, losing playing time to (of all people!) Sam Horn. Five of Ramirez's last seven appearances in 1993 came as a pinch runner. Because when I think of someone who is a good bet to do something positive on the basepaths, my mind turns immediately to Manny Ramirez. Well, we know how the story ends. (Although technically, it's not over. Ramirez played in 24 games for the Iowa Cubs last year as a player-coach-mentor to Kris Bryant!) Things got better for Manny, for me, and for Cleveland. —Russell A. Carleton
2. Willie Mays
It's not just the benefit of hindsight of an inner-inner-circle Hall-of-Fame career that puts Willie Mays' age-20 debut in this category. The hype in New York was so great when he was called up from the farm club in Minnesota that the Giants' own press release according to the New York Times said that "no minor league player in a generation has created so great a stir as has Mays in Minneapolis." In his major-league debut on May 25th for a team that would win the National League pennant, Mays batted third.
His first week was famously awful. In starting his career 0-for-12 the Hall-of-Famer has become a slightly lesser known but still popular version of the "Michael Jordan didn't make his high school team" myth that encourages perseverance. If you stick to it, you might hit a home run off Warren Spahn for your first career hit, as Mays did. But then he went 0-for-4 the rest of that day and had a couple other 0-fors that gave him a 1-for-26 running count as of one week after his debut. The next day, he was dropped from third to eighth, and he hit .402/.466/.696 over his next 24 games on the way to running away with the Rookie of the Year voting. —Zachary Levine
3. Jurickson Profar
I’ll bet you’d forgotten that Jurickson Profar made his major-league debut at age 19. With his absence from the game, it’s even possible you forgot that he played nine games at that age, and 85 at age 20. It may have even slipped your mind that the first of his seven major-league home runs was hit on the fourth pitch of his very first major league at-bat.
Technically, we’re supposed to be writing about top prospects’ first weeks in the major leagues, their adjustments to the final jump in pitching and defense, their reactions to the realization of dreams. In Profar’s first 10 games, he homered once, collected a postseason hit, and teased a fervent fanbase with glimmers of potential.
Of course, the more notable thing he’s done since then is “be injured,” losing a season and a half so far to injuries, the likes of which only were the tip of the iceberg for Texas. I’m not here to bury Jurickson Profar, though. Remember up top, when I reminded you that he debuted at age 19? Even after these lost years, the shortstop/second baseman is still only barely 22, a full year younger than heralded all-world third baseman Kris Bryant. Plenty of valuable major leaguers have made their debut at 23 or older, and the talent that pushed Profar to the top of many prospect lists is still there, even after all this time. —Kate Morrison
4. Ken Griffey Jr.
On April 3rd, 1989 George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. made his major league debut. Before he was one of the most electrifying and had his own video game, Griffey, Jr. was one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
It really all starts with his father who, as Griffey rose through the prospect ranks, was a steady major league contributor. Ken Griffey, Sr. went to two All-Star Games while posting a career line of .296/.359/.431. While Griffey Jr.'s father was putting up solid seasons in MLB, the younger Griffey was crushing high school competition by batting .422 with seven home runs in his senior season, after batting .478 with 10 home runs as a junior. The buzz around him was palpable:
“It’s a foregone conclusion among the scouts that he is going to go real high,” said Hep Cronin, an Atlanta Braves scout. “If you grade his five areas that scouts grade—ability to hit, hit with power, throw, run and field—he’s at least a major-league average in all five.”
Not only was Griffey lauded by scouts, his coach gave him some of the highest praise that one could imagine being bestowed upon an 18 year old. Griffey's high school coach had several former big leaguers come through his program including Buddy Bell, Len Matuszek, and Barry Larkin. Here's what he had to say about Griffey shortly before he was drafted by the Mariners:
“There’s no question about it—Ken is a level ahead,” Cameron said. “He has much more talent and he’s a much more polished high school player.”
According to the man who coached both players, Griffey had more talent and polish than future Hall of Famer and fourth-overall draft pick Barry Larkin.
Griffey would go on to be drafted with the first pick in the 1987 draft, but Mariners' fans wouldn't have to wait long to see the talented outfielder. Griffey made his major league debut on Opening Day of 1989. His first major league base hit, while not a home run, traveled roughly 375 feet. It was surely a sign of things to come in Griffey's career.
Griffey got off to a slow start though. Through his first 10 games as a professional he hit just .194 with two of those iconic Griffey home runs. He'd turn it around over games 11-20 though, batting .329 on the season after his 20th professional game. By the end of the season the 19 year old put up a respectable .264/.329/.420 line with 16 home runs.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was one of the most intriguing prospects baseball had seen in many years, and his first season as a pro was solid if unspectacular. It was made even more impressive considering he was still a teenager at the time. He was arguably one of the most talented baseball players to ever pick up a bat, even if it took him a whole twenty games to get his feet underneath him. Griffey's MLB debut wasn't long awaited, but it was hotly anticipated. In being true to the way he played the game, the young showman didn't disappoint. —Jeff Long
5. Aramis Ramirez
Since 1990, 168 players have gone hitless in at least their first six career games; lots of pinch-hitters in that group and lots of forgettable Efren Navarro types in that group, such that the most interesting two in the group are in my opinion Billy Hamilton, who is a special case, and thus very interesting, quite worthy of inclusion in this lineup card (I haven't checked, but hopefully he'll be here!), and Aramis Ramirez. In 1998, Ramirez got 24 tries in his six games, which makes him the only player in the whole group to get more than 20, and one of only three to get more than 15–the rest, in other words, were either called up to be bench parts or, by the fourth or fifth hitless games, had become bench parts. But Ramirez was a phenom. Before the season he had been named the fifth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and his age (19) at debut was enough all by itself to make him a very strong bet to be a superstar. But when they say "this game's rough, it doesn't come easy, Bryant just might struggle at first" they're talking about Ramirez. And when they say "don't look at what he did, look at what he has done, and at what age," they're talking about Ramirez. His comment in the BP Annual the next year turned out to be righter than anything dumb-1998-version-of-you probably would have said watching him hit that first week:
"So now people are calling in to local sports-gab stations, complaining about how Ramirez "didn't do nothing" this year. Never mind the fact that he still can't walk into a bar and get himself a drink (except on the Strip), or that he was two months removed from A-ball when he was called up in May. Between adjusting to defending 3b on turf and adjusting to major-league pitchers, he held his own, and he still looks like a star in the making if he can handle the inevitable struggles of an early call-up."
6. Tim Lincecum
When a pitching prospect with unique mechanics and a quirky personality rockets through the minors, the hype grows with every start. When he skips Low-A, makes just six starts in High-A, skips Double-A, and leaves Triple-A opponents of all stripes shaking their heads, the fan base can barely contain itself. That was the story of Tim Lincecum, who took the ball just 13 times in the minors, because his numbers indicated that no one unworthy of The Show could handle his electric stuff.
Twenty-six hits allowed in 62 2/3 innings. 104 strikeouts in that same stretch. Zero homers served up in 31 Pacific Coast League innings. That's video game stuff.
Finally, opportunity knocked. An elbow injury shelved Russ Ortiz. Just in time for Lincecum to test his mettle against a Phillies lineup starring Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard in their primes. Just in time for Lincecum to duel Cole Hamels, a fellow blue-chipper in his first full season. Just in time for Lincecum to make his major-league debut in front of ESPN's national audience, on Sunday Night Baseball.
It turns out, the majors are no picnic for any pitcher, no matter how easily he shredded lineups throughout the minor-league chain.
Rollins, the first big leaguer to step in against Lincecum, singled. Shane Victorino, the second, went yard. 2-0 Phillies. Hype machine: unplugged.
But not so fast. Lincecum recovered to strike out the side. And by the top of the third, he was pitching with a 3-2 lead.
Howard took care of that. His mammoth, go-ahead, two-run bomb completed Lincecum's major-league initiation, introducing a shade of doubt that maybe, just maybe, The Freak didn't have all the answers just yet.
Superstardom wasn't far off for Lincecum. Four straight quality starts were on the way, and a 12-strikeout slaying of the Diamondbacks wasn't far off. But for all of the fanfare, all of the gawking at his minor-league stat lines, Lincecum's career began with 4 1/3 innings, five hits, five walks, and five runs, four of them on stunning jacks.
There are two connected morals to this story, neither unique, both worth bearing in mind whenever a prospect labeled a surefire star flubs his first impression. First, there's no jump quite as large as going from the upper minors to the majors, no matter how smoothly a player leapt from stop to stop. Secondly, and related to that, when dominance isn't in the air after a prospect's first inning or at-bat, a little patience can go a long way. —Daniel Rathman
7. Mark Prior
The 2002 Cubs were one of those teams whose badness was galling. It infuriated me. Despite the very last remnants of peak Sammy Sosa, a strong starting rotation, a surprise breakout from Mark Bellhorn and an improbably excellent showing from an ancient Fred McGriff, they went 8-16 in April and never recovered. Their Pythagorean record was 76-86, but they won 67 games instead. Corey Patterson’s first full season was a disaster. Moises Alou’s first year on a three-year deal was his worst ever. It was depressing.
Every fifth day, though, the sun broke through the clouds of Todd Hundley’s cigarettes. Even if the skies were gray, Mark Prior lit up the world. Thanks to the myopic penuriousness of the Minnesota Twins, the Cubs had gotten Prior with the second overall pick in 2001, though everyone knew he should have gone first. Prior signed late, so he made his pro debut in April of 2002, in Double A. He struck out 55 in 34 1/3 innings there. He hit two home runs in his first start in Iowa, and ended up with a 1.65 ERA in three starts.
On May 22, he finally ascended to the Majors. He debuted at home, in front of a sellout crowd, and just mowed down the Pirates. The temperature was in the 60s and the wind was howling out to left, but Prior struck out 10, walked two and allowed two runs in six innings. (in 2002, this passed for dominance.) More than the numbers, though, the optics grabbed you. His breaking ball was unhittable. Most hitters locked up on it so badly that one worried they might shred a shoulder capsule, strain an oblique, or pull a hamstring trying not to have their knees buckle. His fastball hummed, promising that even if the curve lost some intensity, Prior would be getting plenty of hitters out in 2007, just the way he was in 2002. Yes sir, the future was bright. —Matthew Trueblood
8. Henry Rowengartner
The debut of the 12-year-old Cubs flame-throwing pitcher had more pomp and promise than Kris Bryant’s years later, but his first game was a disaster. Thrust into a high-leverage event, Rowengartner showed a complete lack of control, allowing a home run, a hit batsman, and a wild pitch—with the final mistake being fortunately parlayed into the game-ending out at third base.
Setting aside the fact that the Cubs should have started Rowengartner in the minor leagues for, say, another 12 years, they threw him out there the next day, where he miraculously settled down and got a double play and a strikeout for two saves in two games. From that moment, the team went on a roll.
Of course, once he retired following his arm “injury” in the playoffs, we are to believe he never pitched again—or at least in the next seven years, effectively burning his years of team control. —Matt Sussman
9. Roy Hobbs
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, here was a 35-year-old guy who just walked into the dugout of the New York Knights one day. They didn’t know he was coming, they being the oatmeal pitchman guy (played by Sam Elliot’s mustache Dad, Wilfred Brimley) and another old crusty dude who were running the Knights. But he had a contract, and after a 20-minute explanation of contract law, Hobbs had made the team. Yay!
It takes a miracle, in the form of a batting practice where people are actually paying rapt attention to an unknown rookie, a bat that Hobbs made out of a tree that fell in his childhood backyard 15 years earlier, and the guy who did the gross thing in Reservoir Dogs crashing through a poorly constructed fence and inexplicably dying, but Hobbs eventually gets his chance. He can’t stop hitting, and every single newspaper headline focuses on the things he does in the ninth inning while ignoring the other eight. But then for some reason he stops producing. Then he walks around with Kim Basinger at this weird pier/ocean type place that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with baseball. But I guess the game has changed, and back in those days the game was shorter so there was more time for walking around piers and beaches with beautiful women because of the superior pace of play.
But it turns out Hobbs is injured from an horrible incident that happened 15 years ago that somehow no one can remember because in the Golden Age of baseball apparently someone getting shot by a serial stalker wasn’t memorable and no one could bother checking old newspapers. Despite this, Hobbs somehow managed to hit homers with his wonderful bat that broke scoreboards and light towers. I’m not sure if this is because Hobbs was such a great hitter or that construction materials in the old days were shoddy. Also, Hobbs old girlfriend from his childhood came back and she wore a white dress that somehow seemed to attract all of the sunlight that existed in all of 1939 and it turned out Roy had a son from this woman, which is perfect for the end of Hobbs’ career, which doesn’t end with a baseball game but with a catch with his son.
In conclusion, while many romanticize the Golden Age of baseball, it seems that there were more intricacies to the game in the 30s than we care to admit in the present day. Showboating a home run and PED use may bother some in 2015, but I’ll take that over confusing love triangles, ownership intrigue, gambling, and journalists with the memories of goldfish. This doesn’t even address the fact that in 1923 the best hitter in baseball had the horrible nickname “The Whammer”. This nickname defies all logical sense, but perhaps explains why for all of his alleged prowess with the bat he was inexplicably barnstorming in the middle of nowhere challenging 19-year-old kids at random carnivals during the offseason instead of just enjoying his money to drink illegal hooch (as they called it back in the day) and whatever else it is people did before the Internet existed. —Mike Gianella
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