Baseball’s Prospects: Mickey Mantle, or Mr. Hype?
I first published this article on 19 January 2011, but realized that it is as relevant today as it was then, so I decided to re-post it.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the latest young prospects arriving in the Majors. Hopes are high that these young men will go on to become the stars of the future, if not the present.
It got me to thinking about all of the young phenoms over the years who had long, successful careers ahead of them, or so we thought. These prospects capture our imagination because of what they might become. Perhaps the next Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Stan Musial is in our midst, and we just have to look a little harder to recognize him.
Or, just as likely, the youthful apparitions gracing the baseball landscape will turn out to be the next Clint Hurdle, Joe Charboneau, or Sam Horn.
So I’ve compiled a list (because that’s what I do) of several of baseball’s biggest busts that were once highly touted prospects. Actually, some of these players were relative busts, meaning they may have had perfectly acceptable careers, but they never soared to the Olympian heights that had been predicted for them.
Let’s begin with…
Catcher – Sandy Alomar, Jr.
The Hype: From the same gene-pool that produced both his dad (Sandy, Sr.) and his brother (Roberto). A can’t-miss prospect with raw athletic ability behind the plate and a an idea of how to handle the bat.
The Promise: Alomar hit .290 in 1990 while playing in the All-Star Game, winning a Gold Glove, and being named A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Fast Forward: Alomar finished his twenty-year career with an OPS+ of 86, a career WAR of 13.2, and, although he played in a few more All-Star games, he never won another Gold Glove.
First Base: Bob “Home Run” Hamelin.
The Hype: A powerful man who will hit tons of home runs in the Major Leagues.
The Promise: Won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award for the Royals in 1994, swatting 24 homers in just 374 plate appearances.
Fast Forward: Hamelin lasted just four more seasons in the Majors, finishing his career with a career total of 67 home runs.
First Base: Nick Esasky
The Hype: First Round pick by the Reds in 1978. Would become the next Tony Perez, only with more power.
The Promise: Hit 43 homers over three partial seasons through 1985.
Fast Forward: Retired in 1990 at age 30 after compiling a .250 career batting average and 122 home runs.
Second Base: Bump Wills
The Hype: As with Sandy Alomar, Jr., Wills was supposedly a top-notch prospect due to his lineage; his father, Maury, stole a bunch of bases back in the 1960’s, leading some people to mistake him for a Hall-of-Fame deserving candidate.
The Promise: In his rookie year with Texas, 1977, he hit .287 and stole 28 bases. Finished third in Rookie-of-the Year balloting.
Fast Forward: Bump did not carry the Wills name to new heights, scoring just 472 runs in his brief, six-year career. Career batting average: .266
Third Base: Chris Sabo
The Hype: Out in Cincy, many prognosticators had already acclaimed Sabo the next Pete Rose, for his slashing hitting style and his aggressive style of play.
The Promise: Sabo was named N.L. Rookie of the Year for 1988, hitting 40 doubles while stealing 46 bases.
Fast Forward: Sabo finished his nine-year career with 898 hits and a .268 batting average. He had a decent career, but turned out to be more Kelly Gruber than Pete Rose.
Shortstop: Tony Kubek
The Hype: Well, dammit, he was a Yankee, wasn’t he? Heir apparent to Phil Rizzuto.
The Promise: 1957 A.L. Rookie of the Year (notice a trend here?) As a 21-year old, played steady defense and nearly hit .300.
Fast Forward: Actually finished with an even lower career OPS+ (85) than Rizzuto (93). Rule of thumb: an OPS+ under 100 = NOT GOOD.
Outfield: Clint Hurdle
The Hype: The following paragraph comes directly from the March 20, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated:
“The very mention of Hurdle’s name causes heads to bow and heartbeats to quicken. General Manager Joe Burke calls him “one of the top prospects I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been in the major leagues.” John Schuerholz, the director of scouting and player development, says, “I bubble inside when I think about his potential.”
Hurdle’s picture graced the cover next to the words, “This Year’s Phenom.”
The Promise: In a brief trip up to The Show as a 19-year old in 1977, Hurdle impressed virtually everyone. In 28 plate appearances, he batted .308 and recorded an OPS of nearly .900. His OPS+ was 139.
Fast Forward: This can’t-miss prospect missed badly. He produced only 360 hits in his entire Major League career, eventually calling it quits in 1987 at the age of 29.
Pitcher / Outfielder: Clint Hartung
The Hype: Preceding Clint Hurdle by a generation, Hartung was so over-hyped that baseball writers, executives and fans at the time referred to The “Hondo Hurricane” as an entire ball club in one man. The question wasn’t whether he would make it into the Hall of Fame, it was simply a question of when. “He was considered Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller all rolled up into one,” (Bill Gallo, New York Daily News.)
The Promise: As a rookie in 1947 for the New York Giants, Hartung made 20 starts, won nine of them, and hurled eight complete games. He also played nine games in the outfield, batting .309 in 97 plate appearance. (Remember, he had at-bats as a pitcher, too.)
Fast Forward: Like Clint Hurdle a generation later, Hartung was out of Major League baseball by age 29. He hit just 13 home runs in his career. As a pitcher, he finished with a career record of 29-29 and a 5.02 ERA.
Outfield: Joe Charboneau
The Hype: “Super Joe” Charboneau took the media by storm in the summer of 1980 with his enthusiastic play and goofy behavior. He would drink beer through his nose and insisted that he did his own dental work. Handsome in a wild kind of way, men wanted to be him, and girls wanted to date him.
The Promise: Won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award as a 25-year old playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1980. He hit 23 homers, drove in 87 runs, and batted .289.
Fast Forward: Charboneau played so poorly the following season that he became the only ROY winner to be sent back down to the Minor Leagues. He batted .210 in ’81 and .214 in ’82, and that was it. After his rookie year, he slugged only six more home runs in his entire career. He was out of baseball before he turned 28-years old.
There are, of course, many other failed prospects littering the annals of baseball history. You could include Sam Horn of the Red Sox, Mike Vail of the New York Mets, Ron Kittle of the White Sox, Greg “Toe” Nash of Tampa Bay, and on and on.
Consider this, then, a cautionary tale. The odds are greater that this year’s over-hyped baseball phenom will turn out to be more like Clint Hurdle rather than Mickey Mantle.
But hope springs eternal, especially as Spring Training approaches.
Dream, then, of the slender young man in his clean uniform against the brown backdrop of the baseball diamond. A world of limitless possibility awaits him, and we long to be part of it.
After all, that’s what baseball is for.