Transaction of Today…December 20, 1996…The Braves sign Hensley Meulens to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
Before Andruw Jones and Randall Simon jumped from the small island of Curacao to the world of professional baseball, there was Hensley Meulens. Nicknamed Bam-Bam, Meulens first signed with the Yankees on Halloween, 1985, and immediately became part of the hype machine that is the Yankees minor league system. For his part, Meulens hardly needed someone else hyping him up as evidence by this quote before spring training of ’97 – “I was going to be one of the best.”
To be fair, Muelens was one of the best (prospects) in 1987 when he hit .300 for Prince William in the Carolina League. He smacked 28 homeruns that year, a personal best for any one stop in the minors. One thing, though. It was 13 more than he ever hit in the majors. In his defense, the Yankees never did give him much of an extended look outside of 1991. The next year, 1992, he hit .275/.352/.481 with 26 HR for Columbus and appeared in all of two games in the Bronx. In ’93, he never produced at each level and the Yankees finally got rid of him. In parts of five years, Meulens had amassed what basically comes out to one season of stats. In 159 games, he slashed .221/.290/.344. Meulens was playing the part of Pedro Cerrano. He belted 12 homers in his 505 plate appearances, but struck out 149 times. He always struck out in the minors, but the quality of the opposing pitchers allowed him to hit a lot of majestic homeruns. Also keeping Meulens back was the lack of a position. He began his career at third, but would begin to shift to first and the outfield as the errors became unbearable.
In 1994, Meulens headed to Japan and spent the next three years playing for first Chiba Lotte and then Yakult. He blasted between 23 and 29 homeruns each year, but his OPS only climbed north of .800 once. At his very best in a league that catered to his individual skillset (shorter fences, weaker pitching), Meulens was only capable of a line close to .245/.315/.465. While valuable, he was not meant to be “one of the best.”
Returning to America, Meulens found work with…our Atlanta Braves. Coming off a disappointing World Series loss, the Braves were looking to improve their bench heading into 1997. Dwight Smith, who was so good in ’95, struggled mightily in 1996 and Jerome Walton got hurt. Both ex-Cubs would move onto new squads for the 1997 campaign. The Braves did have Denny Bautista and Andruw Jones, who would be slowly pushed into a big role while serving as the 4th outfielder in ’97. Jones was likely another reason for signing Meulens as the two bonded during the World Series before Jones became the youngest player to hit a home run in the World Series.
Ultimately, Meulens couldn’t make it out of camp. Six days before the Kenny Lofton/David Justice trade, Meulens was cut. He failed to make the impression the Braves thought that he would. Meulens would hook on with the Expos and eventually added to his career homerun total for the first time in four years when he hit a 0-1 homer off the Braves’ Denny Neagle. He would only play in 16 games with the Expos and just seven more with the Diamondbacks the following season. Meulens continued his career in the Atlantic League, Korea, and Mexico before finally hanging it up in 2002. When you add up all of his numbers, he hit 330 homers in nearly 2000 games.
After retiring, Meulens went into coaching and eventually became the San Francisco hitting coach, a role he continues today. He’s also coached and managed the Netherlands international team in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic, serving as a mentor to the latest crop of excellent Curacao players like Andrelton Simmons. Before moving into a coaching position, he was a player for the 2000 Netherlands Olympics squad that gave Cuba their first Olympic loss in 21 years. It was Meulens’ bases-clearing double in the fourth inning that gave his team a lead they would not give back.
Meulens is like a lot of prospects who are built up to be the next big thing despite significant flaws. When the Braves took their chances with him, he was trying to secure one last chance at the greatness he felt he was due. In the end, it didn’t work out, but with these types, that is a risk you take for the one player in a hundred that it does work out.