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When their prospects were great

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 7, 2011 07:53 AM

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The hockey heroes have returned the duck boats to the tourists. The post-Vancouver vacation is complete. At last, it's time to get back to baseball around here . . . naturally, with something I meant to write about long ago. I'll get that timeliness thing down one of these days. Probably sometime after lunch.

I've become a huge fan of David Schoenfield's writing on ESPN's post-Neyer SweetSpot blog. It's destination reading, and more often than not, after devouring one of his more in-depth pieces, I find myself asking, "Rats, why didn't I think of that?" That was especially the case back on May 26 -- known around here as the middle of hockey season, of course -- when Schoenfield pulled off the clever idea of ranking the top 50 prospects of the amateur draft era. Here's how he explained his approach:

I'm going to go back to 1965 and the advent of the draft, and come up with my list of the top 50 prospects. What does this mean? I'm not thinking of where guys stood when drafted, but where they were at any time before they reached the majors. We know the hype around Harper, and Stephen Strasburg before him, but I tried to imagine how players from 40 years ago would have been evaluated and hyped if we'd had prospect lists and the Internet.

Schoenfield noted that he excluded players who rocketed to The Show so fast that they wouldn't have had a chance to build hype as a prospect, meaning the likes of Dave Winfield, Bob Horner, Robin Yount, and John Olerud didn't make his cut. The fun is in the details, discoveries, and especially the debates about his rankings and exclusions.

finndeweyevansrookie.jpgI thought Clint Hurdle (No. 43) should have been higher and Bo Jackson, as fondly as my generation remembers him, should have been lower (Bo didn't know consistent contact). I was surprised by Dwight Evans at No. 40 (I never regarded him as a phenom, but Schoenfield reveals that he truly was) but not by fellow Red Sox rightfielder J.D. Drew at No. 20 (he was a known phenom; we'll save the debate for whether he lived up to it for another day).

His most egregious oversight -- and one the author addressed in the comments on the article -- was failing to include Chipper Jones, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft who was rated among Baseball America's top five prospects every year from 1992-95.

It's a credit to Schoenfield's comprehensive research that there really isn't a terrible amount to debate on a topic that should be ripe for an old fashioned baseball argument. But I'm going to try anyway. Chipper belongs; here are nine more who also have a case to be rated among the finest prospects of the draft era.

finntempleton528.jpgGarry Templeton: So far as I can tell, Templeton is remembered for three things, none particularly flattering: 1) Flipping off the fans in St. Louis and being yanked off the field by manager Whitey Herzog. 2) Explaining his hesitance to go to the All-Star game as a backup with the instant classic quote, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'." 3) Being the doomed-by-comparison shortstop the Padres got in return when the Cardinals fleeced them in a 1981 trade that brought Ozzie Smith to St. Louis. Which is too bad, because before knee and attitude problems altered Templeton's career, he was such a dynamic force that it was "Jumpsteady," and not The Wizard who was the shortstop on the path to Cooperstown. In 1975 at Double A Arkansas, Templeton hit .401 in 184 plate appearances as a 19-year-old. The next season, he hit .291 in 225 PAs as the Cardinals' starting shortstop. And at age 23 in 1979, he was a superstar, batting .314 with 211 hits -- becoming the first major leaguer with 100 or more from each side of the plate in a single season -- and a league-leading 19 triples among his 60 extra-base hits.

Rick Ankiel: The Next Koufax hype for the gifted but high-strung lefthander veered off course for good during one humiliating, hard-to-watch postseason. But it's certainly been an interesting career, with highs (he made the Cardinals at age 19 as Baseball America's No. 1 prospect in 1999, then won 11 games, with 194 strikeouts in 175 innings the following season) and lows (the aforementioned 2000 postseason, when he walked 11 and threw nine wild pitches in four innings over three games), and ultimately, finding redemption in reinvention (battling his way back to the big leagues as an outfielder in 2007, and hitting 25 homers for the Cardinals the next season). If not for a pesky human-growth hormone allegation, his story would probably be fully Disneyfied, "The Rookie"-style, by now.

Thumbnail image for finntanana.jpgFrank Tanana: If Baseball America had existed in the early 1970s, Tanana would have been every bit the hotshot lefthanded pitching prospect Ankiel was 25 or so years later. In 1973, his second year of pro ball, the cocky 19-year-old went 17-6 with a 2.70 ERA between Double A El Paso and Triple A Salt Lake City, striking out 212 in 220 innings. He went 2-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 26.1 big league innings that September, whiffing 22 more batters. If you're keeping score at home, that's 234 Ks in 246 innings over three levels at age 19. My rotator cuff hurts just thinking about it. After forming among the most overpowering lefty-righty tandems in baseball history with Nolan Ryan in the '70s -- he won the AL strikeout title in 1975, whiffing 269 -- the predictable (nowadays, anyway) arm problems that may have something to do with throwing 1,294.1 innings from 1974-78 eventually cost him his fastball. After injuring his shoulder in '79, he did reinvent himself as a classic lefty slopballer, earning 138 of his 240 victories after leaving the Angels. The Red Sox had him during his what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-without-my-fastball? phase -- he went 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA for the 1981 club after coming to Boston in the Fred Lynn trade. Little did Haywood Sullivan know that Lynn was the harder-throwing lefty at that point.

hayesvonfinn.jpgVon Hayes: Just look at that pained expression. It's like he knows that he's soon going to be traded to the Phillies for five players, including a fellow prospect named Julio Franco who would last 15 seasons beyond him in the majors, that Pete Rose would nickname him "ol' five-for-one," shortly after his arrival, that he'd bat .267, and that the .314 batting average and .401 on-base percentage he'd posted as a 22-year-old in Triple A in 1981 exaggerated his abilities to the point that he'd never possibly live up to the hype. Though I suppose it's possible that he could be thinking about something else there. Such as why his parents had to go and name him Von. Bet Rose gave him heat for that, too.

Ruben Rivera: He's probably most famous for once stealing Derek Jeter's glove, which is not exactly the same thing as Jeter stealing a bunch of gold gloves. (Do try the veal.) Those types of errors in judgment and execution, on the field and off, probably hint at why Rivera, a genuine five-tool prospect (six-tool if you include kleptomania), ended up flopping as badly as any prospect during the '90s save perhaps for fellow Yankees farmhand Drew Henson. Just how highly was he regarded? He was the Yankees' No. 1 prospect from 1995-97, ranking in the top 10 in baseball all three years, with a high of No. 2 in '95. In 1995 and '96, the Yankees' No. 2 prospect behind Rivera was . . . Jeter. And Ruben, who hit .216 with a .700 OPS and 64 homers in 1,586 big league at bats, was always the highest-rated Rivera -- some guy named Mariano cracked the prospect list twice, ranking ninth in the Yankees' system in 1993 and '95.

DannyGoodwin.jpgDanny Goodwin: The power-hitting catcher was the only player to be the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft twice -- he was selected by the White Sox in 1971 out of high school, played four years at Southern University instead, and was chosen with the top pick by the Angels four years later. Touted as the "black Johnny Bench" -- shouldn't Bench be called the white Josh Gibson? -- Goodwin hit just .236 with a .646 OPS and 13 homers in 707 plate appearances over seven seasons. The story, perhaps apocryphal but certainly reasonable, goes that he was never the same after injuring his right shoulder in the minors when an overzealous coach forced him to participate in an intense throwing drill without warming up. I imagine the truth falls somewhere between an injury and the everlasting mysteries of the major-league curveball.

mcdowelloddibefinn.JPGOddibe McDowell: His career did not come close to enduring as long as his Chris Berman-bestowed nickname, Oddibe "Young Again" McDowell, which is almost as witty as Chuck "New Kids On The" Knoblauch and Bert "Be Home" Blyleven, not to mention damning evidence of just how long Boomer has been pummeling that shtick. McDowell, a three-time first-round pick who played in the same Arizona State outfield as Barry Bonds and Mike Devereaux, starred on the stacked 1984 US Olympic baseball team that included Will Clark, Mark McGwire, and Barry Larkin, then tore it up upon entering organized ball in 1985, a year after he was the 12th overall pick by the Texas Rangers. In 146 plate appearances at Triple A Oklahoma City in '85, McDowell batted .400 with an 1.118 OPS before being recalled to the big leagues. While McDowell had his moments in the majors -- he hit 18 homers at age 22 in '85, and 18 again the next season with a 106 OPS+ -- his certain stardom never came to be, in part because of his struggles against lefthanders (.224 career average). Perhaps the promise of his college years prevented his employers from appreciating him for what he was -- a decent platoon option with power, speed, and a center fielder's glove. In seven seasons, he hit .253 with 74 homers, and his big-league career was over at age 31. Coincidentally, his top comparison at that age was his college teammate, Devereaux.

brettkenfinn.JPGKen Brett: No disrespect to Babe Ruth, Ace Lefty, but Red Sox management through the decades hasn't always had the best foresight when it comes to deciding whether a prospect should be a pitcher or a hitter. (Is it too late to try Frankie Rodriguez at shortstop? Whaddaya mean he's 38 years old? Jeter's still doing it.) Near the top of the list of most egregious examples is Brett. While he had a more than respectable career primarily as a lefty reliever, pitching 14 seasons for 10 teams, including the Impossible Dream Red Sox in the '67 World Series days after his 19th birthday. Yet he remains a great what-if. The story goes that every other team other than the Red Sox wanted him as an outfielder in the 1966 draft, but the Red Sox picked him fourth overall and immediately determined he would pitch. He endured as a pitcher, but there is evidence that he could have been special as a hitter. First, there's his gene pool -- as Peter Gammons wrote in his remembrance after Brett's death in 2003, he was his little brother George's baseball hero. And he does rate as one of the greatest hitting pitchers in history, batting .262 with 10 homers and a .698 OPS (94 OPS+) in 373 plate appearances. In 1973, he homered in four straight games. With the Pirates in '74, he batted .310 with a .448 slugging percentage and 15 RBIs. Imagine what he might have done if hitting had been his day job.

molitorpaulfinn.jpgPaul Molitor: Random baseball question: Who has the shortest, sweetest righthanded swing you've ever seen? For me, it's either Molitor or Edgar Martinez. Excluding two rehab assignments totaling 13 plate appearances long after he was an established star, Molitor's entire minor league experience came in 1977 after the Brewers chose him with the third overall pick out of the University of Minnesota -- and he was superb. In 286 plate appearances for Burlington in the Midwest League at age 20, he batted .346 with 8 homers, 50 RBIs, .962 OPS, and a 47/25 walk-to-strikeout ratio. The next season, he was the runner-up to Detroit's Lou Whitaker for AL Rookie of the Year. Tying this all together in a tidy bow, Molitor was drafted in the 28th round out of high school in 1974 by the Cardinals -- 27 rounds after they chose Garry Templeton.

Honorable mention: Cliff Floyd, Julio Franco, Jeffrey Hammonds, Eric Davis, Cory Snyder, Gary Redus, Jose Offerman, Ben Grieve, Pete Broberg, Al Chambers, Kirk Gibson, Will Clark.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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