With the latest wave of exciting prospects coming up over the past few weeks -- headlined by Dustin Ackley and Mike Moustakas -- many fans are already eagerly projecting these kids as stars and looking to the next batch in their teams’ minor league system. Unfortunately, that way lays misery and heartache, as expectations rise too high and the inevitable downfall smacks them in the face.
What people often forget is that these guys don’t always work out. Some guys absolutely dominate in the minors, but never put it together when they reach the majors. There are some pretty big jumps in talent between each minor league level, but all of them combined are still smaller than the jump to the majors. Some guys just never manage to overcome it. For every Ryan Braun who comes up and becomes a star, there are at least five more who flame out.
With apologies to David Schoenfeld, because I’m sure he doesn’t want to be reminded of this, but Jeff Clement is a great example of the problem. The third overall pick of the 2005 draft by the Seattle Mariners, Clement was hailed as a future star because of his ability to hit for power from the left side, which is exceedingly rare among catchers. Some questioned his defensive skills behind the plate, but it wasn’t considered a major concern with how well he was projected to hit. Many saw him as a guy who was a truly complete hitter: he could hit for average, work the count, and he had plus power to all fields. While his minor league numbers weren’t stellar, he still showed more than enough to get fans excited.
Then came his promotion to the majors in 2008 after a 2007 cup of coffee, and everything fell apart. Mariners fans found out the hard way that Clement struggled with above-average breaking pitches, and that he was hopeless against changeups. His catcher skills were simply bad, and then a knee injury forced him out from behind the plate for good. When his bat never came around, Clement was traded in 2009 to the Pittsburgh Pirates with other prospects in a deal that netted the Mariners Ian Snell and Jack Wilson. Not exactly a stellar return for a former top-five pick. Pittsburgh gave him a shot as their every day first baseman, but he continued to struggle badly, posting just a .605 OPS in 54 games.
Another example is Ryan Shealy. He put up monstrous numbers in the minors for Colorado, and then played strongly in a 36-game stint for the Rockies in 2005 when he filled in for an injured Todd Helton. Eventually he was flipped to Kansas City when the Rockies couldn’t find playing time for him, but he never looked the same again. Shealy struggled badly with making contact overall, striking out 150 times in just 598 career big-league plate appearances. He bounced around the minors some since Kansas City cut him loose after the 2009 season, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever even approach his potential.
While it may be too early to call Kyle Drabek a bust, his 2011 season is a good example of many pitchers who have come before him. Drabek’s stuff is incredible, but mediocre command and the lack of a workable changeup, or other pitch to keep left-handed batter honest, killed him this season. He owned a 5.70 ERA and had more walks than strikeouts in 14 starts this year before being demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas. Now he serves as a cautionary tale that it takes more than an impressive fastball and breaking ball to succeed as a starting pitcher in the majors.
Every year, there are guys who flame out for one reason or another. Sometimes there are some tell-tale signs that you can pick up from their minor-league performances if you look carefully, but other times they come out of the blue. Then there’s the curse of injuries, which are impossible to predict, ruining even the best prospects -- just ask Mark Prior.