Last week, I finished up a series on the 1995 minor league teams. I like weekly columns because they’re easy to stick with and today, I unveil the first of a team I like to call the “What Could Have Been” bunch. Guys who, for whatever reason, were not able to stick around for long either in Atlanta or elsewhere.
To be clear, this team will not include Jason Schmidt, Elvis Andrus, or even Garrett Jones. This is not the “what could have been had these guys stayed with Atlanta” team. Those guys have been something. Instead, this is a team full of disappointments. Some positions were harder than others, but I think this team is full of a lot of guys who were supposed to be so much more than they were. That’s not to say a couple of them weren’t productive at times in the major leagues, but they never reached near their potential. If you think the choice was wrong, let me know. Much like my Favorite Braves list, I’m going to limit this to 1991 to present. I realize that cuts out a lot of prospects from the 80’s whose failures had a direct result to the struggles, but I didn’t follow the team at that point so my understanding of those minor league prospects is a little low.
Typically, I will add more than one player to this team, but I felt this series needed a bit of explaining so for brevity (not something I’m known for), we’ll go with just one player.
What Could Have Been…at Catcher?
Long before some of the massively hyped star prospects of today where we know all about Bryce Harper and Mike Trout before they get to the majors, there was Tyler Houston. He was such a figure in Las Vegas sports that there was an increase in “Tyler’s” after Houston’s exploits at Valley High School in the late 80’s. While colleges drooled over Houston and what he could do for their teams to help lead them to a College World Series appearance, it seemed unlikely with Houston’s potential. Professional teams with big bank accounts would come calling first.
After All-American Ben McDonald was drafted by the Orioles and went straight to the majors, the Braves made Houston the second selection in the 1989 draft. Five picks later, the White Sox picked a man-child out of Auburn by the name of Frank Thomas. But that’s the draft for you. Sandwiched around Houston as Braves’ first picks was #3 overall Steve Avery in 1988 and #1 overall Chipper Jones in 1990. Obviously, the Braves didn’t make it 3-for-3 in great top 5 picks.
Houston joined the rookie league Idaho Falls Braves after signing as an 18 year-old for a $242,000 signing bonus. After posting a .717 OPS for Idaho Falls, Houston was ranked by Baseball America as the #92 prospect in baseball and the seventh best prospect in a loaded system that included Avery as the #1 prospect in baseball. Houston’s value increased after 13 homers in 1990 and he was the #28 prospect in baseball entering 1991. However, the cracks were starting to show. He had been charged with 27 passed balls in 84 games behind the plate with Sumter in 1990 and committed an unreal 18 errors. He also on-based .288 and struck out 101 times.
Still, his potential was huge and catcher was a position that was ripe for the taking before 1991. Of course, it would have helped had Houston’s 1991 season not been so miserably disappointing. Playing for the first-year Macon Braves, Houston hit just .231, hit only eight homers, and finished with a .669 OPS. Defensively, he remained a bit of a mess, though his numbers showed some improvement. Some. After the season, though, it was not Houston who was ranked as the Braves top catching prospect. Instead, Javy Lopez had passed right by him. Such a development increased the importance of 1992 for Houston and he responded with his worst season, OPSing a woeful .588 with Durham and as Lopez hammered AA pitching on his way to a cup of coffee with the big league squad, Houston was getting used to using new gloves to play first and third base. His days as a full-time catcher were effectively finished.
Houston did appear to get back to the Braves’ good graces with a 1993 season that saw him post a .710 OPS in 84 games with Greenville, but those numbers remained pretty muted over what the Braves had expected from a guy who was selected 23 picks ahead of Chuck Knoblauch. Still, some progress is better than what he had been doing. Houston would go to languish at Richmond while Lopez flourished in Atlanta. Houston added corner outfield to his resume and would still catch a little along the way. Houston never OPS’d over .702 and his OBP stayed south of .300 while with Richmond.
All of that couldn’t keep Houston out of the majors, though. With Houston out of options and with spots open on the bench following the departures of 1995 rentals Mike Devereaux and Luis Polonia, the Braves chose to bring Houston north with the club following spring training. In the second game of the year, after the Braves had built a commanding 12-2 lead, Houston hit for Brad Clontz to open the seventh against the Giants. On the first pitch from Mark Dewey, Houston rocketed a double to center. He would score later in the inning on a single by Fred McGriff. Houston would replace the Crime Dog in the field for the remainder of the game, striking out against the typically nasty Rod Beck in his second at-bat. Later that year on May 20th, Houston would again get garbage time at-bats after the Braves had built a 11-0 lead. In the sixth, he would hit his first major league home run off Doug Jones of the Cubs. He would add a two-run single and finished the day with three innings played and 5 RBI.
Nevertheless, Bobby Cox was not impressed and never called upon Houston to get a spot start for McGriff or at any of Houston’s other positions. In fact, he only played 23 innings in the field with all but two as a replacement at first for McGriff typically after the fate of the game had already been decided. The relationship was hardly working and the Braves, rather than lose Houston for nothing, sent the former second overall selection to the Cubs for Ismael Villegas, a Puerto Rican the Cubs had plucked out of the fifth round in 1995. Villegas would never become a prospect of any value and appeared in one ugly major league in 2000.
With the Cubs, Houston would finally get a chance to play. In his first start against the Cubs, he went 4-for-5 with 4 RBI while starting behind the plate. He would get regular playing time against right-handed pitching and homered in back-to-back appearances on July 24 and 26. The Cubs would visit Atlanta on August 24th and Houston had a bunt single to third against Mike Bielecki, but the Braves would win that day. Houston finished up 1995 with a .339/.382/.452 slash with the Cubs and a .815 OPS overall. Suddenly, it looked like he had arrived.
He would fall back to Earth over the next two seasons with a .662 OPS while playing the utility role for the Cubs. He did face off against the Braves in the 1998 NLDS and in Game 1, he started and homered off John Smoltz in the 8th. That homer meant the Cubs would not get shut out, but lose 7-1. He was quiet for the rest of the NLDS, a series that would end in a three-game sweep for the Braves. Houston would never appear in the playoffs again.
Toward the end of 1999, the Cubs sent Houston to the Indians, but despite Cleveland facing the Red Sox in the ALDS, Houston was not active. The Indians had seen enough. They would not offer Houston a contract in the offseason and he would land in Milwaukee. With the Brewers, Houston would have his most success. In 305 PA during the 2000 season, the 29 year-old hit .250 with 18 HR, including a magical July 9th day against the visiting Tigers where he blasted three homers by the sixth inning and drove in six during a 10-3 victory for the home team.
Houston followed up his good 2000 with an even better 2001, posting a .289/.343/.472 slash with 12 homers in a season that was limited by injuries. He failed to catch that season and in fact, after 2000, his catching days were behind him for good. During another productive season with the Brewers in 2002, Milwaukee basically decided they were more happy trading the future free agent than keeping him through the entire season and trying to extend him. On July 23, they traded him to the Dodgers. Again, Houston was on a contender, but he struggled and was rarely used down the stretch due to his .200 average. The Dodgers, like the Indians before them, had enough of Houston and let him leave.
The Phillies came next and Houston was an often-used pinch hitter for the 2003 Phils and did well at his job, hitting .278/.320/.402, but for conflicting reasons, the Phils cut Houston in right before rosters expanded. General Manager Ed Wade and worthless manager Larry Bowa felt that Houston was becoming a divisive figure in the clubhouse. Players like Mike Lieberthal felt that while Houston wasn’t shy from speaking up, he was not a detriment. Instead, it may have been simply that during the circus days of the early-to-mid 2000’s, with a truly divisive figure like Bowa in charge and the fights he had with more high-profile players like Pat Burrell, cutting a guy like Houston was simply a way to make a point that management needed to be respected.
Houston would look to extend his career with the Yankees in 2004, but after they picked up a certain roid user, Houston decided he would rather just retire than receive no playing time.
On one hand, Houston had a somewhat successful career. He made over $6M, hit 63 homers, and played in an even 700 games over eight seasons. But he never lived up to the hype that he garnered after hitting majestic homers in the Las Vegas area. As such, he is a fitting first member to the “What Could Have Been” squad.