This week, I am going to start the week with a new retrospective article series. Starting with 1998 and finishing with the 2012 edition, I will look at Baseball America’s fantastic Top Ten prospect series for the Atlanta Braves. Who were busts? Who were successes? Who is off to a new career in coaching? How many of the ten even got to the majors? How many stayed? Not sure about you readers, but I love a series like this because with other current prospect lists posting now and over the next few months ahead of the 2015 series, it’s a good reminder that we don’t know nearly all we think we know. For instance, the 1997 list had a solid number 1 in Andruw Jones, but the second best prospect was Kevin McGlinchy, a guy who maxed out as a decent reliever for one season.
With each name, I will provide, if applicable, that player’s ranking in Baseball America’s overall Top 100 for that year. I will also mention the other years, if any, the player made the Top Ten and their replacement in those Top Ten’s. I hope you enjoy.
1. Bruce Chen, lhp – BA Top 100: 27th – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1997 (3rd), 1999 (1st)
The amateur free agent from Panama was a big find for the braves and climbed the ladder very quickly. He was durable, struck out everyone, and he was left-handed. The expectations for Chen were monumental in 1998 after he struck out 193 in 163.1 ING over 28 games. But Chen failed to beat out Odalis Perez that spring and went back to Richmond. An injury to John Smoltz got Chen back to the majors in May for a brief run, but he struggled as a starter and was eventually replaced by both the returning Smoltz and recently picked up Terry Mulholland. He got exclusive bullpen work in 2000 before a trade to the Phillies began a career that can only be considered an impressive display of determination. Chen eventually landed in Kansas City and was respectable there for some bad teams before getting cut last year just as the Royals got good. Chen intends to pitch next year so the journey may not be over. While it’s still a fascinating career, it’s hardly what people thought Chen’s career would turn into back in 1998.
2. Rob Bell, rhp – BA Top 100: 68th
A third rounder in 1995 out of Marlboro, New York, Bell hadn’t shown much in terms of ability until 1997, when he posted nearly a strikeout an inning in 27 starts for Macon. Another in the long line of high school pitchers who learn to pitch the Braves way, Bell made his only appearance in the Top Ten of the Braves system in 1998, but he would land in another organization’s top ten. Bell was traded to Cincinnati after the season with Denny Neagle and Michael Tucker in the trade that brought Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger to the Braves. In a deal with a quartet of established major leaguers, it would be easy to ignore Bell, but the Reds thought he would become a part of their rotation shortly. They were right, but Bell never produced in 35 starts with the Reds before they too shipped him off, this time to Texas where ex-Braves pitchers go to die. The Rangers soured on him and as did the terrible Devil Rays, where Bell pitched 51 games between 2003-05. He got back to the majors in 2007 for 30 games out of the pen for the O’s, but success continued to elude him. His career ERA stands at 5.71. Ouch. On the bright side, he had overcome severe anxiety to get back to the majors so props on that. He left the game after 12 ugly games with the White Sox organization in 2008. By 2013, he was back in baseball as a sales account representative for one of the Tampa affiliates, Hudson Valley.
3. Luis Rivera, rhp – BA Top 100: #44 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1999 (4th), 2000 (5th)
Before there was Jose Capellan, there was Rivera. A native of Mexico, Rivera wasted little time catching the Braves and baseball publications’ eyes. In just his second professional season, Rivera started at Danville and finished at Macon, posing a 1.05 WHIP and 84 K’s in 62 innings. Oddly, Baseball America ranked him higher in their Top 100 than Bell, but ranked Bell ahead of him in the Braves Top Ten. No matter, Rivera followed up 1997 with 20 starts at Macon, though he wasn’t quite as fine. In 1999, he pitched in 25 games for the Pelicans and made the jump to AAA the following season. He even pitched in five games in the majors before he was moved to the Orioles in the B.J. Surhoff trade. He pitched 2/3’s of an inning for the Orioles. That’s the extent of his major league experience. The secret on Rivera was that despite the talent, he never pitched 100 innings in any season for the Braves or O’s. Injuries ultimately led to his release and in 2005, he landed in the Mexican League for six years. His promising career was over after 2006.
4. Odalis Perez, lhp – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1999 (3rd)
Few pitchers frustrated Bobby Cox and especially Leo Mazzone more than Perez, who possessed great velocity and a damn good idea of where it was going. Perez joined the Braves system in 1995 and immediately shut down the Gulf Coast League. The Braves flirted with using Perez as a reliever, but by 1998, they landed on Perez being a starter and he was successful in 21 starts for Greenville except for one developing problem. Keeping the ball in the park. He moved to the pen to give the Braves an electric arm down the stretch in the majors in 1998, but was moved back to starting in ’99. Injuries killed the the last two months of that year and all of 2000, but Perez was back in 2001. He still couldn’t find his way behind the better starters in the staff and his ERA neared 5.00. The Braves traded Perez as part of the package that brought back Gary Sheffield and watched as Perez suddenly developed into a good starter in 2002. He went to an All Star Game, had a 0.99 WHIP, and a 4.1 K/BB ratio. Things were finally looking up for Perez, but he never replicated his success beyond 2002. The Dodgers traded him to the Royals in 2006, but they couldn’t bring the best out of him either. He accepted a minor league deal with the Nats in 2008 and actually got the Opening Day Start in the brand new Nationals Park. After 30 starts, Perez agreed to another minor league deal to return in 2009, but did not report to spring training. Instead, he demanded his deal be upgraded to a major league deal. The Nats cut Perez and the lefty faded into obscurity.
5. George Lombard, of – BA Top 100: 93rd – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1996 (7th), 1997 (4th), 1999 (2nd), 2000 (2nd)
The Braves waited and waited for the naturally gifted Lombard to eventually reach his potential. It never did happen, though there were a couple of hopeful signs. The Braves picked up Lombard in 1994 in the second round out of Lovett School in Atlanta. He immediately flashed plus-plus speed in 1995, swiping 51 bags in 117 games, but he only hit .233 and K’d 135 times. The following season showed improved power, but less base-stealing ability. After more of the same in 1997, Lombard appeared to break out in a big way for Greenville in 1998. Still just 22, Lombard OPS’d .953 with 22 HR, 35 steals, and a .410 OBP. He never showed such flash again, though. After parts of three seasons with the Richmond Braves with a little time in the majors sprinkled in, The Braves traded Lombard to the Tigers, where he got his only extended shot in the majors, but failed to impress in 72 games. He was cut at the end of spring training in 2003 and went to Tampa on waivers, incidentally enough playing with the Durham Bulls for the second time in his career. Stints with the Red Sox, Nationals, Dodgers, Marlins, and Indians failed to land him significant playing time with only the the Nationals giving him a 20 game run in the majors in 2006. After finishing up 2009 with the Long Island Ducks, Lombard hung up his cleats and has searched in a coaching role with the Red Sox since. He even managed the GCL Red Sox to a South Division title in 2012. He works now as a roving and baserunning coordinator for Boston’s minor league system.
6. A.J. Zapp, 1b
Zapp made the list after a nice run with Danville in 1997, but was never much of a prospect after that season. He did hit 22 homers for Macon in 1999, but on-based just .303. The Braves cut bait with their 1996 first-rounder after 2002 and he showed impressive power out west, but never made it to the majors.
7. Troy Cameron, ss
The Braves followed up 1997’s first round choice with another bust in 1998, choosing the middle infielder Cameron out of Fort Lauderdale. He had plenty of power, including back-to-back 20-HR years with Macon, but struck out a ton and quickly outgrew SS after 1998. As a third baseman, his value wasn’t very high. In June of 2001, the Braves included Cameron with John Rocker in a trade with the Indians, getting back relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed. Cameron would spend the next few years with Cleveland, Colorado, the White Sox, San Diego, and a couple of stops in independent baseball before closing his career in 2005. He’s worked a variety of jobs since, including realty, and in 2012, he headed back to his former high school, St. Thomas Aquinas, to become their varsity baseball coach.
8. Jason Marquis, rhp – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1997 (6th), 1999 (5th), 2000 (6th), 2001 (5th)
Marquis’s career with the Braves mirrors Odalis Perez in that the Braves kept wishing he would turn his natural talent into performance at the major league level, but never saw it occur. Plus, he was traded for a right fielder. Marquis was picked up by the Braves as a first round choice in 1996 out of Staten Island. He was interestingly enough compensation for the Braves not signing 1995 pick and former Dallas Cowboys QB Chad Hutchinson. Marquis had average numbers until 1999, when he lowered his WHIP under 1.40 for the first time. Wait, that’s still average. In fact, despite there being a decent amount of hype, Marquis never had the numbers. Still, he made 96 appearances with the Braves between 2000-03, including 40 starts and his only major league save. Despite Marquis pitching 14 years in the majors, that four year run in Atlanta stands as his longest with one team and second most games with one team. After a 4.45 ERA with the Braves, they included him with *gulp* Adam Wainwright in the deal that brought J.D. Drew to the Braves in 2004. Like in the case with Perez, the Braves watched Marquis have some degree of success in his new surroundings, but the success was brief. After leading the lead in losses, earned runs, and home runs allowed in 2006, the Cardinals let Marquis go to the Cubs. He was a little better, but still considered a bust and they moved him to the Rockies in 2009. He had a good start to the season and even went to his only All-Star Game, but would spent the next four years going from job-to-job staying in the majors without ever really pitching that well. He spent some time in the Phillies system last year rehabbing from surgery, but didn’t garner a September call-up. He, like Chen, is still looking for a job for 2015.
9. Wes Helms, 3b – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1997 (5th), 1999 (9th)
Though he possessed good power, Helms never looked the part of an exciting prospect. Nevertheless, Helms entered the minds of a lot of people after 1996 where he hit, before his promotion, .322 with a .929 OPS for Durham. His numbers with Greenville after the promotion were not so good, but he still hit the Top 100 heading into 1997. It was actually a pretty good year, but nothing stood out. Same with 1997. Helms had cups of coffee in ’98 and 2000, but landed for good in 2001 with the Braves. He showed solid power off the bench, hitting ten homers, but didn’t do a lot else. After 2002, he was traded to the Brewers for Ray King, who would also go with Marquis in the Drew trade. Helms responded with 23 HR in his only year as an everyday starter, but he quickly lost playing time. After a year with Florida where he posted a tremendous .965 OPS, Helms came to the Phillies in 2007 with a chance for another run of significant playing time. He struggled, though, and went back to Miami in 2008 for four seasons. After the Marlins cut him in 2011, he landed back with the Braves organization for nine games in Gwinnett, but was cut after the Braves didn’t call him up for September. No one else came calling and Helms has retired. He currently runs the Wes Helms Baseball Camp and this year had, among others, Tim Hudson as a special guest.
10. Glenn Williams, 2b – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 1994 (5th), 1995 (5th), 1996 (9th)
A former top 100 prospect in 1994 and 1995, Williams gives the impression of the guy who was post-hype sleeper guy with his tenth place showing on this list after disappearing in 1997, but really, he was still just 20 years-old. Williams, a big international signing from Australia, had a lot of promise and Baseball America bought in. His production wasn’t quite there, but in 1997, it appeared to click has Williams OPS’d .809 with 14 HR. The success was short-lived and Williams, after finally making it to AA in 1999, was released ahead of the 2000 season. It was a long fall from a phenom when he originally joined the organization. At the time, when Williams got $825,000 as a 16 year-old, he was expected to be a star. In fact, the Braves compared him to Chipper Jones when he signed. The Aussie just never lived up to the hype. He did, however, make it to the majors in 2005, after 11 years in the minors. Over a 13 game run, he went 17-for-40. However, an ill-timed separated shoulder ended what could have been a wonderful comeback story. Williams kept trying for two more years, but never found the magic again and retired after the 2007 season. He was still only 30 despite 14 seasons of professional ball. He currently is a hitting coach for the Sydney Blue Sox in Australian Baseball League. Williams actually managed the team in its inaugural season of 2010. Sydney has finished third in each season.
While the 1998 Top Ten gave us no stars, it did see eight of them make it to the majors and four of them had long major league careers. Fangraphs gives this class of prospects 33.7 fWAR. That is probably not going to change, though Chen and Marquis are still trying to continue their careers. As we progress, we will be able to see just how 33.7 fWAR compares. For what it’s worth, Andruw Jones, who again topped the 1997 list, has a career fWAR of 67.6 by himself.