Given the distorting overemphasis on won-lost records in Aase's day, it speaks highly of his talent that he was regarded as a prospect to watch even after going 0-10 with a 5.81 ERA at Williamsport of the New York-Penn League in 1972.
He was just a kid among kids then, a sixth-round pick who played the entirety of his first pro season as a 17-year-old. The next season, that talent delivered better results -- he went 12-15 but with a 3.60 ERA in 29 starts for Single A Winter Haven in '73.
Then came '74, and brilliance. Aase was the unanimous choice for Carolina League pitcher of the year after leading the league in five categories for Winston-Salem: ERA (2.43), complete games (a borderline-criminal 18), innings (a felonious 230), and strikeouts (176). Oh, and wins as well, with 17.
Manager Bill Slack, who apparently did not know how to signal for a relief pitcher, was quoted as saying Aase was the best Red Sox pitching prospect since Jim Lonborg nearly a decade before.
Such a belief was parroted in the 1975 Red Sox media guide: "It's generally agreed that Don is the best righthander developed by the Red Sox since Jim Lonborg won the Cy Young Award in 1967. Only 21, it is hoped he can be a starter for the Red Sox in 1976. He has literally been "force fed" to get him to Fenway as soon as possible, so his won-lost records can be overlooked."
I'm not sure precisely what was meant by force-fed, but if it meant overworking a talented young pitcher to the point of eventual injury, well, force-fed was certainly the right phrase to use.
After throwing a pair of no-hitters in the Instructional League following the '74 season -- he did throw only 230 regular-season innings -- Aase moved to Pawtucket in '75 and posted a 3.63 ERA in 29 starts and 186 innings. If you lost count, that's 416 innings over two seasons, plus Instructional League work, for a prized young arm over his age 19-20 seasons.
In their quest to force-feed their Next Lonborg, the Red Sox unwittingly abused Aase's arm, and it caught up with him in '76, when tendonitis limited him to 10 appearances at Pawtucket. His arrival in the majors came a year later than planned, but even a slow start at Pawtucket in '77 (5.04 ERA in 18 starts) couldn't further delay his ascent to Boston. He lived up to his billing immediately upon his arrival, pitching a three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts in his debut and going 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA in 13 starts.
That was the extent of the Next Lonborg's Red Sox career. In December '77, the Red Sox traded Aase to the Angels, setting up the homecoming of second baseman Jerry Remy. Aase would go on to have a respectable and occasionally excellent 13-year career, though the extensive time lost to arm problems -- the entire '83 season and the majority of '87 -- could probably be traced back to his early days as an overworked phenom in the Red Sox' system.
If you remember the chaotic occasion of Papelbon's big league debut, the fancy shirt he's wearing in this pic couldn't be more appropriate.
The date was July 31, 2005. Papelbon, after putting up sterling numbers that spring and summer for Portland and then Pawtucket, was recalled to make a spot start. The debut of one of the Red Sox' most anticipated prospects -- he was ranked 91st in baseball and No. 3 in the organization by Baseball America entering the season, trailing only Hanley Ramirez and Brandon Moss -- would have made the day memorable and newsworthy in its own right.
But his debut -- an impressive if inconsistent 5.1-inning, 100-pitch, 7-K no-decision in a 4-3 Red Sox win -- was practically relegated to an afterthought on one of the zaniest days of that or any other Red Sox season.
It's just that the story of the day was the rumor that Manny Ramirez -- who had been in self-perpetuated exile for a couple of days -- would be traded, for an assortment of players said to include Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo, Lastings Milledge and Mike Cameron.
Instead, Ramirez ambled out of the dugout in the ninth inning and drove in the winning run. Ballgame over. Exile over. All -- OK, most -- was forgiven. Manny being Manny, just like the t-shirt says.
Oh, Papelbon -- we knew him as Jon then -- got some post-game acclaim that day. Terry Francona noted in the aftermath that Papelbon and fellow rookie Manny Delcarmen, who relieved him, delivered performances that brought pride to the player development staff.
"Everybody saw his stuff, and I thought he had poise to match, which is tremendous," Francona said. "We're in the middle of trying to be in first place. We start Papelbon and back him up with Delcarmen; I bet there are some player development people and some scouts who've got their chests puffed out today, and justifiably so. That's a pretty awesome day for our organization."
It was, in part because of how the perception of Papelbon grew as he rose through the minors. He never started a game at Mississippi State, but the Red Sox, who took him in the fourth round of the '03 draft, immediately converted him to the rotation.
His early writeups in Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus reference pitches -- a changeup one year, a slider or curve the next -- that were never significant parts of his repertoire once he became Jonathan Papelbon, Lights-Out Closer in 2006. ("At worst, he'll be an innings-eater,'' hedged one write-up). In 2004, he wasn't even regarded by BA as having the best fastball in the organization -- that honor went to a lefthander named Juan Cedeno.
The next season, however, BA recognized that he had a fastball that was going to take him far, fast:
Papelbon's fastball, which sits in the 92-94 mph range and touches 98, isn't the hardest in the system, but it's the best in terms of velocity, movement and command.
... His heater's late life makes it seem quicker. He can locate it to both sides of the plate and blow it by hitters upstairs. Papelbon hones his fosh changeup into a nasty splitter.
The splitter, he revealed on the occasion of that first big-league start, was taught to him by Curt Schilling that spring. Two years later, he was that feel-good player-development success story, one who would someday be spotted dancing a jig on the Fenway lawn with a Bud Light case on his head, the goofy and fearless closer for a soon-to-be World Series champion. Just Papelbon being Papelbon.
Hurst, the 22d overall pick in the 1976 draft out of St. George (Utah) High School, ended his career with more WAR (34.8) than any other player selected in that talent-rich first round, including No. 1 overall pick and fellow lefty Floyd Bannister. Yet he almost never even made it to the big leagues, though, as Gammons wrote in January 1981, he was a fine prospect:
Although Hurst started last season in Class A, he does have outstanding control, which may get him here faster. "He's every bit as good as any of the Chicago Four (Rich Wortham, Ross Baumgarten, Ken Kravec, Steve Trout), said an unnamed scout.
Upon reaching the big leagues, he had a falling out with manager Don Zimmer, a hypersensitive old-school manager who could neither hit nor understand pitching. After Hurst made a mental error during a game in Baltimore, failing to be in the right spot in a rundown, Zimmer dressed him down, telling him in considerably more colorful language to grow up or go home.
Hurst did consider going home -- several times. During his time in Pawtucket, he briefly quit on more than one occasion, as Dan Barry notes in his terrific book, "Bottom of the 33rd.'
Bob Ojeda [would storm into owner Ben Mondor's office], screaming that Hurstie, his good friend, rival, and fellow lefty, was quitting again, and and someone has to stop him, because, [expletive], he can play.
Two lessons to take from this: [Expletive], Hurst could play. And Zimmer was the worst.
Current contract status notwithstanding, he's an official Red Sox mainstay now, having won two World Series titles during his eight seasons in Boston and 13th in the organization. So it feels like -- and was -- a long time ago that he nearly departed in what we now know would have been a doomed quest to win that first title since 1918.
In the tumultuous winter of the 2003, a sequence of deals that would send Manny Ramirez to the Rangers, Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox, and bring Magglio Ordonez and Alex Rodriguez to Boston was all but done. Because of the massive names and implications, it almost went unnoticed that the Red Sox were including a prospect in the deal: Lester, who was coming off his first full season in pro ball, would have gone to the Rangers.
Lester was always well-regarded since joining the Red Sox organization as their first choice (57th overall -- they had lost their first-rounder for signing Johnny Damon) in the 2002 draft.
Baseball America compared him to Mark Langston and he was the eighth-rated prospect in the organization entering both 2003 and '04. But it was during the 2005 season with a stacked Portland Sea Dogs team that he blossomed, striking out 164 batters in 148 innings, winning 11 games, and posting a 2.61 ERA.
If you're a Red Sox fan of a certain age -- the median is probably mid-30s, but some even as ancient as me will nod in agreement here -- maybe you too were played for a fool by such high-gloss words like "Ultra" and "Stadium Club." And maybe you convinced yourself -- again, nodding here -- that your knowledge of baseball would help turn cardboard into gold.
So I ask: What did you do with all of those Phil Plantier rookie cards you bought as a prospect prospector in 1991? A lovely mint-condition, glossy, and utterly worthless midsummer bonfire perhaps?
Plantier's breakthrough in 1991 came at the height of the baseball card boom, a bubble that would eventually pop sometime near the end of the flawed lefthanded slugger's eight-year career. But like the misguided time when we were convinced those mass-produced Plantier "Rated Rookies" might someday pay for that red Miata (you know you wanted one in '91), Plantier's run was fun in the brief time it lasted.
He didn't arrive in the Red Sox organization with the label of future star, chosen in just the 11th round in 1987. It wasn't long before he gained notice, crushing long home runs from his exaggerated lefthanded crouch during his breakthrough as a 20-year-old at Single A Lynchburg in '89. He hit 27 homers with a .952 OPS that season and was rated the 83d best prospect in the game by Baseball America entering the '90 campaign.
The Red Sox front office was impressed enough to have him skip Double A altogether in '90, moving him to Pawtucket, where he hit .253 with 33 homers, earning a late-season callup to Fenway.
But his real star-turn came in '91. Rated the No. 2 prospect in the Red Sox organization behind fellow lefty bopper Mo Vaughn by Baseball America, he hit 16 homers with a .995 OPS for the PawSox in 84 games, and even walked more (65) than he struck out (64).
That got him an August recall to Boston, and if you saw him then, you were sure you were witnessing the next great Red Sox lefthanded slugger. In 53 games -- a third of a season, essentially -- he hit 11 homers while putting up a .331/.420/.615 and a 2.2 WAR. He finished tied for eighth in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Turned out it was the only award for which he'd garner a mention. Plantier's value was tied to his bat -- his glove was merely a prop, and he didn't run all that well -- and pitchers quickly exposed holes in his swing.
He hit just .246 with a .692 OPS in '92, with just 7 homers in 399 at-bats. Amid whispers that his early big-league success gave him a sizeable big-league attitude, he was traded to the Padres in December '92 for pitcher Jose Melendez.
If there's any consolation in the lost investment -- emotional and financial -- in Plantier, it's that there's a pretty extensive support group for those who swung for the fences as well. We'll close this Plantier chapter with these early '90s words from Bill James:
The Baseball Book, 1991: "Asked by a reporter in November to name the top home run hitter of the 1990s, offered Plantier. Granting that it was a capricious choice, it has as good a chance of being right as anybody else I can think of ...
"He was not named by International League managers as one of the top 10 prospects in the Baseball America poll because "most managers feel that he has too many holes in his swing and is a defensive liability.
"He's a "mistake hitter," you see. Minor league managers tend to mythologize major-league pitchers as people who don't make any mistakes. I have heard those suspicions about many players who later turned out to be major league stars, although I suppose it could always prove true. I would like to be his agent."
The Baseball Book 1992: "Plantier, assuming he stays in the lineup, figures to hit about .280 with a slugging percentage over .500, 25 to 40 home runs. He's an awesome hitter, in other words. His ability to play the outfield is suspect, plus the last player to come up and hit like Plantier did for two months (Willie McCovey, 1959), fell into a tremendous slump the next year and lost his job, even though in time he would prove to be a great hitter.
"A year ago the scouts were trying tell us that Plantier had a big swing, and wouldn't hit major league pitching. What we need is some accountability here; who were the idiots that were feeding Baseball America this pap, and what are they telling us now? What we saw when he came up is that Plantier hits funny, hits out of a squat. That's about all it takes to make a lot of scouts suspicious."
In retrospect -- and yes, that's probably what I should have named this whole project -- Greenwell should have been a prospect of national note as he rose through the Red Sox organization.
Yet he only rated once on Baseball America's annual list of the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox organization -- he checked in at No. 8 in 1987, behind the likes of Josias Manzanillo, Roberto Zambrano, and Channel 4 nudist Rob Woodward.
Drafted in the third round in 1982 out of North Fort Myers (Florida) High School, he hit his stride at age 20 in 1984 at Single A Winston-Salem after moving from third base to the outfield. The Red Sox certainly liked him enough. Wrote Gammons that winter:
[Winston-Salem manager] Bill Slack said the lefthanded-hitting Greenwell 'is the best pure hitter in the organization.' He hit .309 with 16 homers and 84 RBIs at Winston-Salem as he was moved to the outfield because of defensive shortcomings at third base.
The thought of Greenwell, who played left field like he thought an enemy had pulled the pin on the baseball, trying to play third is laughable. But could he ever rake. The Red Sox thought so much of Greenwell's bat that they had him skip Double A entirely. He hit .256 with 13 homers and a .728 OPS at age 21 in '85, then tore it up during a September call-up to the Red Sox, hitting four homers with an 1.128 OPS in 17 games.
The next summer, he returned to Pawtucket and continued to make Slack look prophetic, putting up a .920 OPS with 18 homers in 89 games before coming up to Boston in time to make the playoff roster.
The runner-up for the 1988 AL MVP award, the man they called Gator -- or Greenie if you prefer -- finished his 12-year career with a .303 average.
The cautionary tale for any general managers who still need a worst-case scenario reminder of what can happen when a prospect is traded away.
Bagwell, drafted in the fourth round in the 1989 draft after a record-setting career at Hartford, went on to play 15 years in the majors, hitting 449 home runs.
Red Sox fans require no reminder of how many he hit for the Red Sox: 0.
On August 30, 1990, Roger Clemens beat the Cleveland Indians 9-2, in front of 9,651 fans at Municipal Stadium, thanks to one-inning, seven-run meltdown by Indians closer Doug Jones. The victory was the Red Sox' seventh straight in what would be a 10-game winning streak, and it gave them a 6.5-game lead over the Blue Jays in the American League East.
But the Red Sox were never comfortable with prosperity in those days, and general manager Lou Gorman determined that veteran help in the bullpen was necessary. So as Clemens was locking down his 20th win of his Cy Young-winning season, Gorman was putting the finishing touches on a deal sending Bagwell to Houston for 37-year-old reliever Larry Andersen.
The immediate consensus reaction was that the Red Sox gave up too much, that they were overreacting to powerhouse Oakland's acquisition of Harold Baines and Willie McGee the same day. There's some suggestion in hindsight that Bagwell never showed power potential in the minors with the Sox -- he hit just eight homers in two seasons -- and he's one of the tougher players to rate during this project because his minor league numbers are little indication of what he became. But this much certainly was on the prospect radar already.
Just four days before the deal, Nick Cafardo wrote this in the Globe:
He's the class of the Eastern League, hitting .342. A selective, aggressive hitter who many scouts feel will show his power outside the expanse of Beehive Field. Bagwell hit only four homers, but Butch Hobson insists he has power. Needs to improve his fielding. He's made 34 errors.
"We had depth at third base with Wade Boggs, Tim Naehring and Scott Cooper," explained Red Sox general manager Gorman after the deal. "It was one area where we could afford to lose a player in order to get a pitcher who could help us win the pennant. If we win the pennant with Andersen, the deal is worth it."
Andersen did help the Red Sox win the AL East, putting up a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings. But Oakland swept them aside in four games in the ALCS, and he departed for San Diego as a free agent over the winter.
Bagwell, rated the 32d-best prospect in the game by Baseball America in 1991, began his journey toward Cooperstown that season.
I'll close this gruesome tale with what Bill James wrote about Bagwell in his 1991 edition of The Baseball Book:
Terrific young hitter ... you never know exactly how good a young player will be, but with some luck (for Bagwell) Lou Gorman will about the Bagwell trade until the day he dies. It could be one of those deals, like Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, and Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, that haunts the man who made it.
Bagwell is a third baseman and singles hitter, like Wade Boggs. If he had come up in Fenway, in my opinion, he would have won some batting titles. Playing in Houston, of course, he probably won't, but he still might.
He never did -- his .368 average in '94 was a mere 26 points behind Tony Gwynn's league-leading .394. But he did just about everything else, much to Gorman's annoyance.
And so we move from Bagwell, the one who got away, to Boggs, the one who would have had anyone been paying attention
We know what Boggs became -- an offensive machine, really, a player who was so adept at getting on base before such a fundamental, valuable skill was fully appreciated that he was roughly two decades ahead of his time. He'd gain far more notice as a prospect nowadays -- just imagine what Billy Beane would have thought about him.
He won five batting titles in a span of six years (1983-88). Four times he had an on-base percentage of .450 or higher. And to think he was accused of selfishness for his willingness to take a walk and, you know, get on base.
Most Red Sox fans also recall from where Boggs came on his way to Cooperstown. His journey from fringe-prospect to one of the most efficient hitters in baseball history began when the Red Sox selected him in the seventh round of the 1976 draft out of Plant High School in Tampa despite mixed reviews. A Royals scout wrote, "Needs a lot of help with bat,'' and said he wasn't worth the $20,000-25,000 he wanted to sign.
Boggs didn't set the New York-Penn League on fire as an 18-year-old in '76, hitting just .263. That famous Boggs skill-set began revealing itself the next year at Winston-Salem when he put up a .332/.423/.382 slash line in High A, but he was still regarded as a lukewarm semi-prospect because of his limited power and subpar defense.
He advanced to Double A Bristol in '78 and hit .311 with a .400 OBP; the Red Sox were so impressed they had him repeat the level in '79 as a 21-year-old, where he went .325/.420/.377 with 66 walks against 21 strikeouts.
He finally got to Pawtucket in '80, and of course he hit like a savant, batting .306 with 64 walks against 25 strikeouts. But he hit just one home run, and his defense didn't suggest golden trophies were in his future, and so he found himself back at McCoy Stadium for the '81 season.
His work ethic never wavered, and neither did his confidence, but he openly wondered if his chance would come. From Dan Barry's "Bottom of the 33rd":
[He cannot] stop the whispers within the Red Sox organization that he is a powerless hitter; that he is an unremarkable fielder; that he is not a team player. By the end of the 1980 season, after five years in the minors, Boggs had an impressive career batting average of .313, but there was something about him that the Boston front office did not like. The winter before, the Red Sox chose not to protect him from being bought at a nominal price by any of the other twenty-five major league clubs, but no team considered him worth the cost. And so Boggs returned to Pawtucket, where, it seems, only he realizes how extraordinary he is.
In June 1981, Peter Gammons visited Pawtucket to check in with some Red Sox farmhands who had seen younger prospects pass them by. The result was a lengthy feature with a lengthier headline ("GOING NOWHERE? THE PROSPECTS TURNED SUSPECTS HOPE IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO BE NOTICED DOWN AT PAWTUCKET) that took a poignant look at the realities of Triple A purgatory. Sam Bowen was primarily featured, and Joel Finch too. But Boggs had his say. Here's Gammons:
Wade Boggs is hitting .348, the fifth straight year he has hit .300 or better in the minors. Last season he lost the International League batting title by less than a point. He is only 23 years old. "Yet," he says, "I've never read or heard once that I'm a prospect."
... He is at the park every afternoon at 3 to take extra hitting. "I was one of two players in the league to hit .300 last year, and not only was I not brought up in September, just to sit there and taste what it's like, but I wasn't protected and no other club wanted me. So I wrote Mr. Kenney during the winter and asked him, Am I a prospect or a suspect?' He told me I'm still a prospect, so I believe him. But even hitting .350, the first time anyone ever said something about me was in Charleston, when [Cleveland manager] Dave Garcia came up to me at the batting cage and said, You're a helluva ballplayer.' I can't tell you how that made me feel."
Boggs' other rap is that he is a singles hitter who can't run, the Chris Coletta of his time. "I guess they only want home run hitters," he says. "But do they watch batting practice? I can hit them as far as anyone. My extra base hits are picking up as I get older and stronger. I hit the ball off the center-field fence. They say I can't run, but I have more infield hits than anyone on the club. Maybe I've been typecast. That happens, you know. My brother-in-law is a writer in Tampa and asked [Don] Zimmer about me a year ago. Zimmer answered, Who?' What I have to get is the shot. If I get the shot somewhere, I can put the raps aside if I hit. And I always have."
Always have. Always did. It just took the Red Sox -- and every other team -- a long time to notice.
Cox, a third baseman chosen by the Red Sox 17th overall in the 1973 MLB Draft -- 24 spots before they drafted Southern Cal outfielder Fred Lynn -- endured a couple of middling seasons early in the minors.
He hit just three homers in 451 at-bats at age 21 at Double A. The 1977 Red Sox media guide openly questioned his "maturity and drive."
But it all came together during an exceptional 1977 season at Pawtucket, hitting .334 for 14 homers and 81 RBIs in just 95 games. He was named the Topps Minor League Player of the Year and the International League MVP.
Neither feat was the highlight of his season.
Cox secured a permanent place as a Red Sox trivia question by going 4 for 4 on Brooks Robinson Night in Baltimore during the September 1977 pennant race. A day later, he singled in his first two at-bats against the Yankees, setting a major-league record for consecutive hits to start a career and prompting Bob Ryan to write, "If he does nothing else the rest of the way, he will know he helped the team at a crucial time."
Joked Ray Fitzgerald after Cox finally made a couple of outs, "I don't know why everyone is so excited about Ted Cox. His average has dropped 600 points in a week."
With 25-year-old Butch Hobson having locked down the third baseman of the future role with a 30-homer season in '77, there was no place for Cox to play, and the Sox used him as a chip to acquire Dennis Eckersley from Cleveland.
Before statistical advances brought us the wise acronym TINSTAAP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect), there were two anointed pitching prospects whose minor-league feats on their way to all-but-guaranteed Koufaxhood were documented in Gammons's Sunday Notes column circa 1982.
His claim to fame, other than putting up 64 walks in 85 innings over parts of two seasons with the Mets, was being included in the trade that brought Keith Hernandez from St. Louis to New York and to his Seinfeld destiny. I'm Keith Hernandez does have a much better ring to it than I'm Rick Ownbey.
The other flamethrowing phenom? He belonged to the Red Sox, and like Ownbey, his career was a head-on collision of hype and disappointment.
No, Mike Brown's career did not go as it was supposed to. In parts of five seasons with the Red Sox (1982-86), he went 12-18 with a 5.75 ERA. Sent to Seattle in the pivotal Dave Henderson/Spike Owen deal in June '86, he fared no better. In parts of two seasons there, he had an 8.44 ERA in seven appearances. His big-league career ended at age 27, the year when many players hit their peak.
Perhaps the elbow problems reared up at Clemson and again in the Red Sox system after he was their second choice in the 1980 draft might have provided a clue that he would not have a long and decorated career. But his prospect status? That was entirely legitimate.
In 1981 at Winston-Salem, he won 14 of 18 decisions -- including six shutouts -- with a 1.49 ERA in 21 starts, striking out 144 batters in 145 innings. The next season, at Double A Bristol, he struck out 113 against just 35 walks in 110 innings, with a 2.45 ERA. As Gammons noted in January 1983:
So, including his six-inning impression with the Red Sox, his two full years in pro ball add up to 24-10, 193 hits in 261 innings (6.55 hits per nine innings pitched), 75 walks, 261 strikeouts and a 1.83 ERA. "If he stays healthy," says Len Merullo of the Scouting Bureau, "it's not a question of whether or not Brown makes it to the big leagues, but how big he makes it."
Brown got his first taste of the majors late in the '82 season -- he was recalled the same day as Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, a somewhat lesser prospect who would go on to greater success. But in three scoreless performances over six innings late that season, it was Brown who drew raves, particularly after pitching four shutout innings in the season finale against the Yankees. Back to Gammons:
The game may have been meaningless, but Brown's performance wasn't. "I was really impressed with what I saw of him," says Ralph Houk. "He not only throws hard and shows you the good breaking ball, but he listens, knows what's doing and, most important, throws strikes." So it goes down the line. Then-Yankee manager Clyde King thought Brown was the most impressive young pitcher he saw at the end of the season. Veteran players, including Jerry Remy and Glenn Hoffman, praised him. All the way back in spring training, when Dennis Eckersley was sent across the road to the minor league complex to pitch against Pawtucket, Eck laughingly said, "Are they trying to show me up? The guy pitching against me has better stuff than I do." The guy was Mike Brown.
That guy, Mike Brown, earned his first big-league victory that day. It was supposed to be one of dozens, maybe even into the hundreds. It was one of 12. But hey, that's nine more than Rick Ownbey won.
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES
Introduction: The inspiration, the process, and the near-misses.