The baseball offseason is long and, if you’re not in the south, cold. It’s also a time to get to know prospects, both those who are going to contribute this year and those who may not see the majors for another few years.
It should go without saying that not every prospect pans out. This decade alone, some prospects that we immediately pegged as future Hall of Famers (looking right at you, Stephen Strasburg) have been All-Stars, but not on the level we expected them to. Others…well, the less said about Cito Culver, the better.
We’ve also seen an evolution of sorts into how teams judge prospects. It’s not as simple as looking for a five-tool player anymore. With the increased value of sabermetrics, some teams have taken a different philosophy in evaluating talent. In any event though, there are some common themes as to what makes a prospect thrive or what makes them fail.
Today, we’re going to take a look at 15 prospects – many of them recent ones – who bombed not only due to performance, but by their team’s management and front offices; some were rushed to the majors and some just weren’t kept in positions where they excelled.
15. Matt LaPorta
We’ll start with a bust that still bothers me to this day, former Cleveland Indian Matt LaPorta. Really the main reason why Cleveland sent C.C. Sabathia packing to the Milwakuee Brewers in July 2008, LaPorta played parts of four seasons with the Indians and hit for just a .231 average with 31 home runs.
Why is LaPorta on this list? LaPorta was a natural outfielder who kept getting switched between first base and left field by Indians manager Manny Acta and while that works with some players, the way the Indians handled it just absolutely blew up in their faces. Towards the end of his career in Cleveland, it just looked like LaPorta’s confidence – one of the driving factors that had both the Brewers and Indians so interested in him – was completely shattered.
14. Brett Wallace
Another top prospect who made his big league debut in the 2007-10 stretch (trust me, there’s a lot more where they came from), Wallace is best known for being traded three times between July 2009 and July 2010. First, Wallace went from the Cardinals to the Athletics in the Matt Holiday deal, then from the A’s to the Blue Jays for outfielder Michael Taylor.
A few months later, the Jays traded him to Houston for outfielder Anthony Gose. Without even letting him play a day in the minors, the Astros called him up to the big leagues. In theory, this made sense, but was it worth immediately calling him up to an Astros team – who had just traded franchise cornerstones Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt – when he’d just spent the past year playing for three different organizations?
Wallace was in trouble either way because 2011 would have been his age 25 season and the Astros needed something from him other than the minors, but this guy just could not catch a break. This past season, Wallace hit .189 for the Padres, so he’s probably not catching a break there anytime soon either.
13. Josh Vitters
The easiest way to describe Josh Vitters’ Cubs career is with two words: Dikembe Mutombo. Every time it looked like Vitters was going to make the big leagues, the former third overall pick was blocked for some reason. Why the Cubs drafted him so high in a draft with Matt Wieters and Madison Bumgarner still available when they already had Aramis Ramirez makes no sense, so Vitters was in the minors until 2012.
By that point, Vitters was 23 and ready to shine, though he only hit .121/.193/.202 and for some reason, the Cubs just gave up on him after that. Vitters was still young enough to be the future, but that brief showing clearly turned the brass off as they drafted Kris Byrant in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
It was a move that paid off, sure, but Vitters got absolutely robbed by the front office. Sadly, his story is one of the less depressing ones on here…
12. Cameron Maybin
Cameron Maybin is easily one of my favorite what-ifs on this list, though he also gets a spot because it wasn’t just one team who ruined his big league career. It was three. Just months after turning 20, Maybin was called up to the Detroit Tigers, hit .143/.208/.265 in 53 plate appearances, and then was traded in the offseason to the-then Florida Marlins.
I don’t fault the Tigers for trading two top prospects for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, the latter of whom had an awful 2007 season that scouts thought he could easily bounce back from. My problem with this was how it was handled: Maybin played 24 games for the Tigers and was rushed to the majors, then was traded to a franchise with of the worst owners in sports history.
Things get better from there. Maybin spent nearly all of 2008 in the minor leagues aside from eight games in September where he went 16-for-32. Then, 2009 saw Maybin make his first career Opening Day start…and then get sent down a month into the season and not return until August. The former top prospect did play 82 games at the big-league level in 2010 after just 86 in the past three years, but was traded to San Diego in the offseason after another frustrating year.
So now Maybin is 24 and on his third team…but things finally click. Maybin hits .264, steals 40 bases, and the Padres think they’ve found themselves a star. What do they do, you ask? They sign Maybin to a five year, $25 million deal – that Maybin is now in the final year of – putting more pressure on a still-young player on a still-rebuilding team. Way to go, guys.
An honorable mention here goes to Miller, who nearly saw his career ruined by the Marlins but managed to salvage it after being switched to a reliever with the Red Sox.
11. Bryan Bullington
My favorite Bryan Bullington fact is that the Pittsburgh Pirates only drafted him first overall in 2002 because they thought he would sign with them since he was coming out of college. Seriously.
“There was quite a bit of discussion on where we were going to go. It wasn’t a situation where we were trying to be crafty,” then-general manager Dave Littlefield, who held the job from 2001-07, said. It was more a situation that it wasn’t a year where it was one player standing above anybody else, and we felt we had to consider a lot of different factors. We feel very comfortable and good about drafting Bullington. Being a college pitcher, he’s going to be a little closer than a high school draftee…I’d anticipate we’re looking at him a couple of years away.”
That should sum it all up, as should his 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA record in four big league seasons. That one win? Against the 2010 New York Yankees, who would make the American League Championship Series, of course. Who’s next on this list?
10. Phil Hughes
Hughes is one of the rare examples on this list who didn’t see his career die due to being overworked or by being rushed to the majors, but because his team had no idea what to do with him in the major leagues. When Hughes was a top prospect for the Yankees entering the 2007 season, it was pretty clear that his future was as a starter; Baseball America even had him ranked as the fourth best prospect in all of baseball entering 2007, even higher than Evan Longoria and Justin Upton.
And after a rookie season in which Hughes went 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA at the age of 21, it made sense to think he was only going to get better in the coming years. By no means was his rookie season impressive, but a 3-0 finish in the season’s final month with a 2.73 ERA in five starts meant all was set to be on the rise, right?
Well, Hughes went 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA across eight starts in 2008 and didn’t improve much in 2009, starting the year 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in the rotation. With the Yankees in do-or-die time, manager Joe Girardi moved Hughes to the pen…where he suddenly flourished as a reliever in 51.1 innings, pitching to a 1.40 ERA and striking out 65 men. Hughes suddenly appeared to be the true heir to Mariano Rivera in the way that Rivera, once a bright starting prospect, was the true heir to John Wetteland almost 15 years earlier.
With all of the starting pitching that the Yankees had at the time – C.C. Sabathia, AJ.. Burnett, Andy Pettite and Javier Vasquez – it looked like Hughes finally found his comfort zone in the pen. So much for that, though, as Girardi moved him back to the rotation for 2010 and while Hughes would make the All-Star team with an 18-8 campaign, the former first-rounder was 25-32 with a 4.83 ERA across 79 games (75 starts) from 2011-13.
So in short, rather than keep a top prospect in a spot where he felt comfortable in and was having success at – and potentially groom him to replace Mariano Rivera when Sandman retired – the Yankees kept moving him around to inconsistent success before letting him go after the 2013 season. Yikes.
9. Kosuke Fukudome
Here’s a name that Chicago Cubs fans most likely wanted to forget. During that time span where Japanese players were flocking to the United States, the Cubs signed Fukudome, a 30-year-old outfielder from the Land of the Rising Sun, after the 2008 season with the hope that he could be their center fielder of the near-future.
And after two months in the big leagues, that seemed like a safe bet. Fukudome entered June 1 hitting .310/.412/.442 with a 33-35 K-BB ratio, but completely fell off from there and ended the season at a .257/.359/.379 clip. Why the change? Well, this one falls more so on the manager himself than the front office as Lou Piniella refused time after time to put Fukudome on the bench, even with veteran outfielders like Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson able to carry the load that Fukudome couldn’t.
After 2008, Fukudome never really regained the momentum and confidence he had upon his early days in America. Fukudome performed at a decent level each year, as his stats were about the same as his rookie year (Fukudome averaged a .261/.362/.406 batting line with 11 home runs and 44 RBI a season from 2009-11), but it never was good enough.
8. Darryl Strawberry/Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden
Putting two players here may be cheating, but the personal issues that plagued the Doctor and the Straw are in some part due to the coaching staff and front office. Because the Mets seemed to encourage the party-heavy lifestyle that included hookers and cocaine lines on flights, as Jeff Pearlman explained in his 2004 book The Bad Guys Won, players were constantly around drugs that ruin their careers.
Strawberry and Gooden’s stories are both so well known by now, but it doesn’t change how frustratingly sad they are. Gooden’s anecdote from that night in his autobiography Heat should say it all.
“At one point the partying was so out of control, the lavatory door accidentally flew open and there was one of my teammates, his face in front of lines of cocaine. I wasn’t shocked that he was using. I was shocked that he was so high, he didn’t even realize the door was open.”
7. Jonny Venters
If you told me five years ago that only one of the trio that was Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters, and Craig Krimbel would still be in the majors, I’d have guessed Venters would have been one of the two that were out. Seriously, how the guy’s arm didn’t literally fall off during the 2011 season where he pitched in 85 games is beyond me.
In his first two big league seasons, Venters pitched 164 games – an average of 82 a season – plus four of the five division series games in 2010. Like with Tommy Hanson, Venters’ arm was just completely blown out within his first three seasons to the point where since 2013, he’s had two Tommy John surgeries. Having one is bad enough! Yet another example of a pitcher being ruined by throwing too many pitches…
6. Edwin Jackson
Like Maybin, Jackson saw his future ruined by two teams, one of which was also located in Florida. Even all of these years later, I find myself asking two questions about Edwin Jackson: why would the Dodgers rush him to the major leagues at the end of 2003 when it would have been best to shut him down for 2004 and why then have him as that 26th player for the next two years? Jackson went 4-3 with a 6.75 ERA in 15 games (11 starts) during that span, so the Dodgers traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays because…of their own mistakes.
But wait, it gets worse. Rather than let Jackson stay in the minors and develop as a starting pitcher at the age of 23, the Rays instead had him pitch 22 games of relief – with just one start – in 2006 and watched him struggle to a 5.45 ERA. What happened the next year, you ask? Tampa suddenly reversed course, put him in the rotation, and saw him go 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA.
I will give Jackson credit for turning things around, as the former sixth-rounder averaged a 12-10 record with a 4.06 ERA from 2008-12 with six different teams – and even made an All-Star Game in 2009 and threw a no-hitter the next year – but those two teams ruined what could have been a serious dominant pitcher.
5. Fernando Martinez
There are so many former New York Mets prospects that I could have picked from – any of the ‘Generation K’ guys, Jenrry Mejia, Ruben Tejada, Ike Davis – but Fernando Martinez takes the prize without question. This guy was supposed to truly be the Mets’ future star outfielder with power, speed, and a level of character that a major market team like the Metropolitians needed.
When Martinez was brought up to the majors during that injury-plagued 2009 season that Met fans still hate talking about, it was supposed to be the moment he broke through as the next Darryl Strawberry. I’m going to guess that Mets fans won’t want me reminding them that Martinez only hit .183/.250/.290 across three seasons before being released, signing with Houston, and later serving a suspension for the Biogenesis scandal.
But hey, at least the Mets have Yoenis!
4. Brandon Wood
When I went back and looked at the 2007 Baseball America prospect rankings to double-check on where Hughes was, I saw a big box titled ‘RISK FACTOR’ next to Wood’s name. If I was reading this in 2007, I’d probably have shrugged it off and made a snarky comment about how they put an All-Star from Japan as the number one prospect. Reading this almost 10 years later, I can only say, “they were right on the money.”
For as much of a risk as scouts thought he was, Brandon Wood really seemed like a can’t-miss prospect during his early days with the Angels – even more so than fellow infield prospects Alex Gordon and Evan Longoria. Unfortunately for Wood, the Angels kept switching his positions (first, he was a shortstop, then a third baseman, then a first baseman, and then they just kept alternating him) calling him up and down and then, when he was still only 26 with a bright future ahead, they designated him for assignment in 2011.
I won’t lie and say that they should have kept around a player who only hit .169/.198/.260 with just 11 home runs and a 145-13 K-BB ratio in 479 plate appearances, but it was just a shocking turn of events brought on by some pretty bad prospect management.
3. Jim Clement
The fact that Jeff Clement played four seasons in the big leagues is amazing. The fact that Jeff Clement hit above the Mendoza Line over those four seasons is even more amazing. Seattle messed up here because just months after drafting Clement third overall, they signed Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year deal.
What type of message does that send to a young catcher you’re supposed to be putting your franchise’s faith into? I can forgive the Mariners passing on third basemen Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman in the draft because they had just signed Adrian Beltre to that massive contract, but taking a catcher who you almost immediately replaced over Andrew McCutchen or Jay Bruce? That’s just inexcusable. Overall, it was just a big mess.
2. Joba Chamberlain
The fact that Joba Chamberlain is only second on this list should give you an idea of how badly the first guy was handled Before we get to them though, let’s briefly re-visit the Joba Chamberlain situation and how the New York Yankees potentially ruined the next decade of their franchise:
– Chamberlain was drafted in the first round of the 2006 MLB Draft as a starter and was in the big leagues by August 2007 as a reliever.
– With the Yankees in need of bullpen help, Chamberlain pitched to a 0.38 ERA for the 2007 Yankees and was set to move into a starting role at some point in 2008.
– The Yankees could have acquired Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins for Chamberlain, but the Yankees (at the time, rightfully) said no.
– Chamberlain was moved into the starting rotation in June 2008 by Joe Girardi.
– Despite acquiring C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in the 2008 offseason, not to mention getting Chein-Ming Wang back to full health, Chamberlain was slated to start 2009 in the Yankees rotation instead of in the bullpen where he belonged.
– The fist-pumping reliever-turned-starter also memorably upset Mike Francesa.
– Chamberlain was ‘meh’ at best, pitching to a 9-6 record with a 4.75 ERA. After a postseason where allowed two runs in 6.1 innings as a reliever, the Yankees moved him back to the bullpen for 2010.
– Chamberlain was kept as a reliever for 2010 and the beginning of 2011 before suffering Tommy John Surgery. He later turned the scar into a smiley face.
– Joba returned in the summer of 2012 as a reliever, but had a 4.74 ERA in 62.2 innings over 67 games from his return to his final game in 2013.
So in short, rather than keep a top prospect in a spot where he felt comfortable in and was having success at – and potentially groom him to replace Mariano Rivera when Sandman retired – the Yankees kept moving him around to inconsistent success before letting him go after the 2013 season. Huh, why does that sound familiar?
1. David Clyde
David Clyde is why high-billed young players go to the minor leagues, regardless of how well scouts think they’re going to be in the near-future. Not even a month after his final high school game in 1973, Clyde was pitching in the big leagues to a Minnesota Twins team that would lose to the Rangers by a 4-3 score.
The rest of the story doesn’t get much better from there. In 1974, Clyde went 3-9 with a 4.38 ERA in 28 games (21 starts) and pitched just one game between 1975-77 due to injuries. By the time Clyde was 27, the ‘next Sandy Koufax’ was retired, setting in place a lesson for how organizations would handle their top prospects in the future: slow and steady.
Who are some players that you think your team’s management has ruined? Make sure to let us know in the comment section below!
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