With Monday's release of Fangraphs Blue Jays top 15 prospects, ranking season is upon us once again. Prospecting, along with most other things in baseball, brings with it hope and heartbreak. The Blue Jays have seen their fair share of both over the past half-decade, and over the next three weeks (if all goes according to plan) I will take a look at some of the biggest disappointments from that time.
Before we dig right in, I'd like to make a few notes about how I came up with these names: first, not all the players on this list could really be classified as a 'bust' or a failure, since most of them did at least have (or are likely to have) a career in the majors. Secondly, I only considered players who ranked as top 5 prospects in the organization (according to Baseball America) at least once since 2005 and were taken in the first 40 picks in the draft. Except for Russ Adams. I just really wanted to write about Russ Adams. Lastly, I do recognize that a large number of Jays fans have followed these players since they were drafted. If that's you, you can read the following to dampen your day and to laugh at me: a relatively new fan who is just beginning to understand the pain of prospect failure.
Adams was selected with the 14th overall pick in 2002, J.P. Ricciardi's first draft as GM. Coming out of the University of North Carolina, the shortstop was given a $1.785 million bonus by the Blue Jays. His professional career got off to a good start: in 2002 and 2003, playing in leagues ranging from A- to AA, he OPSed over .750. After the 2004 season, in which Adams hit .288/.351/.408 at AAA Syracuse, he was ranked the 6th best prospect in the Blue Jays system by Baseball America. He made his MLB debut in 2004 as a September call-up, getting 72 AB in 22 games.
He spent the entire 2005 season with the Jays, putting together a not-completely-atrocious line of .256/.325/.383, and a middle of the shortstop pack wRC+ of 86. 2006, though, was the definition of atrocious. From there he split time between AAA and and the majors, with most of that time being spent in AAA. In 2008 he didn't even see one at bat with the big club, and during the 2009 season he was unceremoniously designated for assignment. He elected free agency and signed with the San Diego Padres, then signed a minor league contract with the Mets prior to the 2010 season. He spent 2010 with the Buffalo Bisons, and retired on May 5, 2011, at the age of 30.
It's very possible that I'm missing something here, but it appears as if Russ Adams was terrible mostly out of the blue. Both his strikeout and walk rates in the minors were very good, but in this mysterious case that didn't mean much of anything. He struggled defensively at shortstop, which was one of the reasons for his demotion to AAA in 2006. The team tried to convert him to second base, but the attempt failed.
It's possible that his inability to adequately throw a baseball triggered some collapse of confidence that also affected his hitting, and based on his lack of injury, I think that's most likely. Of course, I never saw Russ Adams play a game, so I'm far from being an expert on this. I'd love to hear theories from those of you who were fans way back in the good old days of 2007, since the next best thing I can come up with involves murder and evil twins.
The tale of Dustin McGowan may be one of the saddest in disappointing Blue Jay prospect history, if only because for a short while we got to see what he was capable of doing.
He was drafted 33rd overall in the 2000 draft out of high school in Georgia, and signed with the Jays for $950,000. He spent parts five years in the minors, posting decent but unspectacular stats all the way through. McGowan suffered an elbow injury in 2004 and underwent Tommy John surgery, causing him to sit out most of that season, and pitch only 31 innings at AA New Hampshire. Unfortunately for Dustin, Tommy John was just the beginning.
He made his MLB debut on July 30, 2005, in a game against the Texas Rangers. He went five innings, and only allowed one run. The rest of his 2005 wasn't great: he pitched in 13 games (7 starts) and posted a 6.35 ERA. Following the 2005 season, he was ranked the #1 Blue Jays prospect by Baseball America. In 2006, he split time between AAA and the majors, putting up an ugly ERA of 7.24 in a small sample size of 27 MLB innings.
It was the following year that Dustin McGowan finally began to show what he could do: in May 2007, he was called up to the Blue Jays' rotation after an injury to Gustavo Chacin. He pitched in 170 innings and had an ERA+ of 110. His best game came against the Colorado Rockies in June, where he took a no hitter into the ninth inning, and ended up with a complete game shutout.
In 2008 things started to go wrong for McGowan. He had a decent start to the season, but at the beginning of July he was forced to leave the game with pain in his shoulder. The pain was found to be caused by a torn labrum, and he had season ending surgery. He suffered numerous setbacks, requiring knee surgery in 2009 and another season-ending shoulder surgery in 2010.
McGowan finally returned to the Blue Jays in September 2011, three years after he left that game in July 2008. He wasn't very good, though I don't think that mattered to most Jays fans, who were just happy to see him finally pitching again. He signed a three year contract worth $4.1 million prior to the 2012 season, and was considered a serious contender for a spot in the starting rotation. Bad luck struck McGowan yet again though, as I'm sure we all remember. He didn't end up throwing a pitch in a professional baseball game for the entirety of the 2012 season, sidelined first with plantar fasciitis, then with more shoulder soreness, which ultimately resulted in arthroscopic surgery in August.
It's not likely that Dustin McGowan will ever make a meaningful contribution to this team again. His story is disappointing in an entirely different way than that of Russ Adams. We got to see how good McGowan had the potential to be and we know exactly what prevented him from achieving it, whereas "What Happened to Russ?" is more of a mystery. Both are frustrating and depressing in their own way.
Well, this has been the opposite of fun. Join me again next week for more depressing tales of prospect fails!