It's never easy to project how a prospect will perform in the Major Leagues. Baseball isn't like the NFL or NBA, where you're either on the starting roster or you're cut during the preseason. MLB hopefuls often toil in the minor leagues, hoping to prove worthy of a call-up. With so many levels to conquer before joining the big club, most players struggle to live up to their high draft potential.
Of course, number one picks such as Ken Griffey Jr., David Price, and Bryce Harper have certainly justified their top pick status and contributed immensely to their respective teams’ successes.
However, whether it was due to untimely injuries, rushed development, or troublesome off-field behavior, there are several young players in the Major Leagues today that have failed to meet expectations. For some, there is still some time to turn things around. For others, time is running out. MLB is a "boom" or "bust" league, and most guys fall victim to the latter instead of the former.
It’s important to note that this list does not call for any player to retire or give up on their baseball dreams. Many of these athletes are still young enough to turn their fortunes around and forge solid, perhaps even stellar, careers. They simply look like they could be trending downward given their production thus far.
So, with that said, here are 15 young MLB players who already look like busts.
15 Matt Hobgood - Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles had sky-high expectations for Hobgood going into the 2009 draft. The stud pitcher was named the 2009 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year after going 21-1 as a high school Senior.
The Orioles took Hobgood with the fifth overall pick that year, but he hasn't reached his potential. The California native went 1-2 with a 4.72 ERA in his first season and spent the entire 2010 season playing for the Delmarva Shorebirds, Baltimore’s Single-A affiliate. Shoulder injuries derailed his 2012 season, and the 22-year-old never fully recovered.
By 2015, Hobgood was pitching in Double-A as a relief pitcher before another shoulder surgery ended his season after just six games.
Hobgood became a free agent in November 2015 and hasn’t been signed by an MLB team since.
14 Zack Wheeler - New York Mets
Zack Wheeler was drafted way back in 2009, so it seems like he’s been in the league for a while. Yet, we never hear the former third overall pick’s name mentioned among the elite pitchers in baseball. The reason? The guy can’t stay healthy.
Since his 2013 trade to the New York Mets, Wheeler has appeared in just 49 games. He missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was diagnosed with a mild flexor strain after a 2016 rehab start. In short, he hasn’t pitched at the MLB level since 2014. In that season, he went a mediocre 11-11 with a 3.50 ERA in 32 starts.
Wheeler won’t resume rehab until spring training in 2017. Hopefully he’ll make the starting roster and finally put together a solid season worthy of his top-five pick talent.
13 Tyler Kolek - Miami Marlins
Kolek had a stellar senior season at Texas’ Shepard High School in 2014. He registered 35 strikeouts and just ONE walk over 15 innings pitched, without allowing a hit.
His hulking 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame drew comparisons to Roger Clemens, and the Marlins took him with the second overall pick in 2014.
Kolek rose to the top of the team’s prospect pool and was ranked the 52nd best prospect in all of baseball. However, the 20-year-old has yet to appear in an MLB game. To make matters worse, he has struggled mightily in the minor leagues.
In 2015, Kolek went 4-10 in 25 games started for the Single-A Greensboro Grasshoppers and struck out just 81 batters in 109 innings pitched.
He underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2016 and missed the entire season.
12 Dustin Ackley - New York Yankees
Ackley was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft and was lauded as the Seattle Mariners’ future second baseman. He excelled at the University of North Carolina, winning the ACC Player of the Year as a junior.
However, Ackley never duplicated his college production at the major league level. He put up somewhat decent numbers in Seattle, including a 14 home run, 65 RBI season in 2014.
Unfortunately, that season appeared to be a flash in the pan, as Ackley’s numbers later declined. He was traded to the New York Yankees during the summer of 2015. He hit 10 home runs and 30 RBI in 108 games in that year.
Ackley fared even worse in 2016, batting just .148 with 4 RBI before a torn labrum in his shoulder ended his season after 28 games. Ackley is just 28 years old, but his MLB career may very well be over.
11 Alex Yarbrough - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Alex Yarbrough, another promising second baseman, was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 draft by the Los Angeles Angels. He had great initial success in the minors while playing for the Inland Empire 66ers. He hit .313 with 32 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs and 80 RBI in 2013.
While Yarbrough’s numbers weren’t as impressive at the Triple-A level, the Angels still considered him a top-10 prospect.
He seemed primed to take over the starting job at second base in 2015 following the trade of Howie Kendrick the previous December. Yarbrough failed to make the 40-man roster out of Spring training, and the second baseman slot went to Johnny Giavotella.
Yarbrough struggled out of the gate in Triple-A and was demoted to the Texas League (a Double-A league) for the remainder of 2016. He hit .267 with four home runs and 52 RBI in 131 games. Yarbrough still has long-term potential in the Angels organization, but next season may be make-or-break for the 25-year-old.
10 Austin Romine - New York Yankees
The 27-year-old catcher was long expected to take the reigns from Jorge Posada as the Yankees’ catcher of the future. However, Romine has struggled to maintain a roster spot at the major league level.
Since his first call-up in September 2011, Romine has battled a litany of injuries, which has contributed to his inability to secure the starting job. He lost out to Francisco Cervelli for the backup catcher job in 2014 and spent most of 2015 playing for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Romine’s fortunes started to turn in 2016 after he won the backup catcher job from rookie Gary Sanchez. Yet, we all know what happened after Sanchez’s August 3rd call-up. The “Sanchize” electrified the baseball world with 20 home runs in just 53 games. Romine was once again overshadowed, despite driving in 26 runs in 165 at-bats.
9 Robert Stephenson - Cincinnati Reds
Stephenson stands at 6-foot-2, and his dominating fastball and deceptive curveball-changeup combination have the Cincinnati Reds excited for his future.
However, the 23-year-old hasn’t lived up to his first-round draft hype. Since the draft, Stephenson has a 33-41 record in 112 minor league starts. After making the 2016 Opening Day roster, he started just one game before being optioned back down to the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate in Louisville. He went back-and-forth between the MLB and Triple-A for most of the season. He started eight games for the Reds, going 2-3 with an ERA over six. Not too impressive for a prized prospect who has had more than three seasons to develop in Triple-A.
His repertoire is excellent, he just needs more command over his arsenal. Fortunately, the Reds are still in rebuilding mode, so Stephenson will get another chance to prove himself at the MLB level.
8 Nick Howard - Cincinnati Reds
The Reds can’t seem to strike gold with their young pitchers. The team’s 2014 first-round pick, Nick Howard, has yet to make much of an impact at the major league level.
Howard was a standout closer at the University of Virginia, where he converted 20 of 22 save opportunities with a sparkling 1.91 ERA in 2013.
Howard made the switch to starting pitcher for the past three seasons at the Single-A minor league level. Through 10 career starts, Howard went 5-4 with a 5.60 ERA.
Howard’s 2016 season was especially troublesome, as he pitched 20 innings out of the bullpen for the Dayton Tortugas, giving up 20 hits, 18 runs, and 31 walks. Those aren’t exactly stats that correlate to first round draft potential.
Of course, Howard is only 23, but three years in the minors seems like more than ample time to develop. Howard’s struggles at the Single-A level don’t bode well for his chances with the big club.
7 Mike Zunino - Seattle Mariners
Zunino was a standout catcher at the University of Florida and his stellar play behind the plate led to him being selected third overall by the Mariners in 2012.
After a promising start to his 2013 season, and a 22-home run season in 2014, Zunino’s production plummeted. After hitting just .174 with 28 RBI through the first 112 games of 2015, Zunino was demoted to the minors.
The 25-year-old didn’t fare much better in 2016. He hit .207 over 55 games for Seattle, and managed just 34 hits. I know catchers aren’t expected to be offensive powerhouses, but Zunino’s high draft spot, coupled with his solid play in 2013 and 2014, make his recent production all the more disappointing. There's still some time for him to turn it around, but it doesn't look promising.
6 Jon Gray - Colorado Rockies
The Colorado Rockies drafted Gray out of the University of Oklahoma with the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. Gray was a star pitcher at the college level, winning the 2013 College Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Pitcher of the Year” Award. Gray went 10-3 that season with a microscopic 1.63 ERA.
Unfortunately, Gray hasn’t been able to channel that talent the same way for the Rockies as he did for the Sooners. Gray was called up for his MLB debut in August 2015, despite subpar performances in the minors. He went 0-2 in nine starts, giving up 52 hits over 40 innings pitched.
He fared a bit better in 2016, going 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA, but has yet to turn in that “ace” performance. The Rockies hope Gray can turn things around in 2017, but so far, the young righty hasn’t lived up to expectations.
5 Michael Taylor - Washington Nationals
Prized Nationals’ prospect Michael Taylor was originally taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, and toiled in the minors before making his big-league debut in August of 2014. The center fielder spent less than a month in D.C. before being optioned back down to the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse.
The only reason Taylor started the 2015 season as the team’s center fielder was because Denard Span was on the 15-day disabled list. He did manage to hit a respectable 14 home runs and 63 RBI in 138 games that season but still couldn’t secure a consistent job on the 25-man roster.
He had a putrid five-strikeout game against the Dodgers in June 2016 and committed an error on a routine ground ball that cost the Nationals the game. He was sent down to Triple-A the next month, before being brought back up yet again for a brief spell. Taylor played 76 games for the Nationals last season, hitting a lowly .231 and driving in just 16 runs.
At 25 years old, Taylor is running out of time to prove he can play at the MLB level on regular basis.
4 Randal Grichuk - St. Louis Cardinals
Randal Grichuk wouldn’t have been on this list if you looked at his stats from 2015. The St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder smashed 17 home runs and 23 doubles in just 103 games. He averaged a ridiculous .548 slugging percentage.
Grichuk expected to take over the starting center field job after the departure of Jason Heyward. Unfortunately, his production dropped off to the tune of a .222 batting average, and he was sent back down to Triple-A for further development.
He bounced around between the minors and majors but performed solidly on both levels. He ended his 2016 campaign with a disappointing .240 batting average over 132 games, but he did manage to hit 24 long balls and drive in 68 runs.
Grichuk is a supremely talented fielder as well, so his success in the MLB depends upon his ability to put the whole package together on a consistent basis.
Given the small sample size we have of his performance, coupled with his frequent trips to and from the minors, and disappointing 2016 season, Grichuk looks like he could still have “bust” potential. However, I’m not saying the 25-year-old is a bust just yet.
3 Michael Conforto - New York Mets
Although I’m a Yankees fan, I truly felt for the Mets this past season. The former NLCS champs had high hopes going into 2016, only to have them dashed by a rash of untimely injuries.
I figured top prospect Michael Conforto could provide a ray of hope. Conforto was chosen 10th overall 2014 and entered the 2015 season as Baseball Prospectus’ 80th ranked prospect. He played well after a September call-up and famously hit two home runs in the 2015 World Series.
Conforto seemed determined to continue his torrid play with a hot start in April 2016. However, he hit just .148 over his next 157 at bats in May and June.
Conforto was optioned to Triple-A, where he had 54 hits and 28 RBI in 128 at bats.
The Mets rewarded him with another call-up that summer, but Conforto didn’t take full advantage of his opportunity. In 304 major league plate appearances in 2016, Conforto averaged .220 with 67 hits, 21 doubles, and 42 RBI.
Those aren’t terrible numbers by any stretch, but Conforto, in the pressure cooker that is New York City, needs to improve his production in 2017 to live up to his 10th overall draft status.
2 Carlos Rodon - Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox planned for 2014 first round pick Carlos Rodon to bolster their already strong pitching staff. The left-handed pitcher was expected to form a three-headed monster in the rotation with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
Rodon had a fairly promising rookie campaign, going 9-6 in 26 games (23 of which were starts). He managed a 3.75 ERA and struck out 139 batters in 139 1/3 innings pitched.
The White Sox, of course, expected Rodon to improve on his totals in 2016. It’s safe to say the 23-year-old did NOT deliver.
Rodon labored to a 4.50 ERA in 92 innings pitched before a wrist injury in July landed him on the 15-day disabled list .
Rodon returned to the mound soon after but continued to struggle. He finished the season 9-10 with an ERA over 4.00, surrendering 176 hits over 165.0 innings pitched.
1 Byron Buxton - Minnesota Twins
Buxton entered the 2012 draft as one of the most highly-touted prospects in MLB history. He hit .513 with 36 stolen bases as a high school senior, and MLB.com ranked him as the top prospect available in his draft class.
The Twins selected the University of Georgia star second overall and included a $6 million signing bonus.
Buxton excelled in the minors and made his Twins debut in June of 2015. However, he couldn’t duplicate his prowess in the big leagues. He managed just 47 hits in 129 at-bats and had a grand total of SIX runs batted in. He was sent down to Triple-A in August due to his disappointing play.
Buxton fared even worse in 2016. His dismal .156 batting average to start the season led to another demotion to the minors by the end of April. He was eventually recalled but barely contributed.
He stumbled to a .225 average, 10 home runs, and 38 RBI in 92 games in 2016.