50. JUAN BUSTABAD
We probably should have known way back when, but we’ve certainly learned the lesson now. Never trust a prospect with the words “bust” or “bad” in his surname. Let alone both.
But in the early ’80s, Bustabad was an enticing recurring character of great promise and mystery in Peter Gammons’s Sunday Notes column, the first overall choice of the Red Sox in the secondary phase of the 1980 draft who sounded like the second coming of Ozzie Smith.
Two problems, as it turned out: He was no Wizard with the glove, and he was less than a whiz with the bat. He never had an OPS above .671 in nine minor-league seasons, his career stalling in Triple A. His legacy? He’s the quintessential Gammons-overhyped prospect from that era, and I mean that admiringly.
It’s not that this countdown would be incomplete without him. It’s that it’s appropriate that it begins with him.
A few plaudits from ’81:
“He’s a Larry Bowa–Bud Harrelson type. But he’s a much better player at a comparable stage than either,” said scout George Digby.
Digby’s report last June had “WINNER” written across it, with the notation “it’s just a shame we’ll never have a chance to draft him.”
The Red Sox liken Bustabad’s speed to that of Kirk Gibson, the Detroit outfielder who reputedly can run with KC’s Willie Wilson. Scouts from two other teams say he’s not that fast but is a great shortstop prospect. “We just don’t get chances for kids like this,” said Kasko.
The previous year, the A’s took Bustabad fifth overall — one spot ahead of Andy Van Slyke — but didn’t sign him.
Just my opinion, but Juan Bustabad is the best of the whole lot – and that’s not taking anything away from [Julio] Valdez, Ed Jurak or Joacquin Gutierrez.
I don’t even know where to begin with that sentence. But it sure sounds like competence by comparison.
49. GUS BURGESS
Listed as lefthanded pitcher Guy Burgess when the Red Sox chose him with the 27th pick in the secondary phase of the January 1980 draft out of Palm Beach Community College, it did not take Gus Burgess long make his name as a toolsy outfield prospect.
Playing for Single A Winston-Salem at age 19 in 1981, Burgess slapped together a .282/.380/.404 slash line, scored 102 runs, walked 85 times, and stole 68 bases, a feat of the feet that no Red Sox farmhand has matched since. It was tempting to put Reid Nichols or Donnie Sadler in this spot — he had a terrific age-20 season at Single A Michigan in 1995 — but Burgess’s season was better at a younger age.
Though his walk/K rate fell to 35/102 at Double A Bristol the next season — a flashing red warning sign of a flaw now, but not then — he still hit .289 with 11 homers and 42 steals, prompting Gammons to write that October:
Burgess looks like a USC tailback, and with his speed, power and arm, plays like a young Ken Griffey.
It’s a compelling comparison, even though we now chuckle at the thought that the real young Ken Griffey at that point was a 12-year-old Cincinnati middle schooler nicknamed Junior who would begin making his indelible mark on the majors just seven years later.
Gammons made the same comparison the next March, albeit with a small caveat that may have foreshadowed why Burgess never saw a day in the big leagues.
The Red Sox are loaded with hitters, beginning this season in Pawtucket with 21-year-old Gus Burgess, a right fielder who has shown the big club that if he keeps his weight down, he has the promise of being a cross between Al Oliver and Ken Griffey.
Burgess hopped to Pawtucket for the ’82 season, where he went .269/.335/.374 with 21 steals. Repeating Triple A in ’83 and still just 22, he improved to .272/.361/.396 with 11 homers, but his steals dipped to 17.
Back in Pawtucket in ’85 for a third season — he’d officially stalled — he hit a dismal .219 with 2 homers and 12 steals in 410 plate appearances.
It was his final season in pro ball, his career ending in the spring of 1986 when, after reporting late to camp, he departed again, never to play another game in pro ball.
“He would have had a hard time cracking the lineup at Pawtucket this year,” said general manager Gorman. “I don’t consider him a prospect.”
48. OTIS FOSTER
The Red Sox touted the burly first baseman from High Point University as “another Jim Rice” after choosing him with the 15th pick in the 1975 draft. Know what? The hype was actually justified.
In 48 games at High Point (N.C.) College, then an NAIA program, Foster hit a mere .475 with 30 home runs and 75 RBIs. Five times he hit three homers in a single game. “He’s the best young hitter I’ve ever seen,” said Sox scout Sam Mele.
Foster had good eye for a slugger — at age 22 at Single A Winter Haven, he put up a .282/.416/.456 line with 12 homers, 83 RBIs and 95 walks to 65 strikeouts — but his prospect status began to dim when he was sent back to Double A Bristol for the 1978 season.
His problem? Snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. From the Globe that June:
Flashy first baseman Otis Foster, Bristol’s Boomer with 36 RBIs and 7 homers, has been called a “young Jim Rice” and a “young George Scott” but disdains comparisons and yearns for a fair shot at advancement from Bristol, where he hit and fielded well last season.
He did move up to Pawtucket later that summer, where he put up an .852 OPS. That was his peak. After splitting the ’79 season between Bristol and Pawtucket — where he went .219/.345/.300 in 255 plate appearances — his freefall took him back to Bristol in ’80, then was released the next spring.
His downfall wasn’t so much his decreasing power as it was his expanding waistline. The famous story — perhaps apocryphal, but one that fits the profile — is that the Red Sox would make him run a loop around a lake at their Winter Haven complex with the intent of getting into fighting shape. But Foster, hungry for something other than success, would have his girlfriend meet him at the halfway point with a well-stocked picnic basket.
“Those spreads they lay out after the game?,” Mele told Ray Fitzgerald for an April 1981 column that served as Foster’s baseball postmortem. “He could stay at that table all day.”
47. BRIAN ROSE
Based solely on hindsight, it might be tempting to dismiss the Dartmouth High graduate as ever being a legitimate prospect, his hopes retrospectively exaggerated by his status as a potential local-boy-making-good.
That wouldn’t be entirely fair. Rose didn’t throw particularly hard or have sparkling minor-league peripheral stats, and success in the majors did elude him. In parts of four (1997-2000) seasons with the Red Sox, he had a 5.73 ERA in 46 appearances, striking out barely a batter every two innings.
But his status as a prospect was based on real success; after a 1997 season at Pawtucket in which he went 17-5 with a 3.02 ERA at age 21, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 22 prospect in the game, 16 spots ahead of a Blue Jays righthander named Roy Halladay. He edges out Curt Schilling and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd as the first pitcher in our countdown.
46. RICK BURLESON
Burleson became the Red Sox’ every-day shortstop in May 1974 at age 23. He’s recalled fondly as the strong-armed, fiery infield anchor on those talent-rich late-’70s teams.
Let’s turn it over to Bill Lee explain exactly what Burleson meant. From “The Wrong Stuff”:
“I never met a red-ass like Rick in my life. Some guys didn’t like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied. He was very intense and had the greatest arm of any infielder I had ever seen … he brought a fire to the club that had been lacking.”
I suspect no explanation is required for his nickname: “The Rooster.”
Still, he was no sure thing, even for the fifth overall pick in the secondary phase of the January 1970 draft.. Reviews in his early minor league days were lukewarm, especially regarding his bat. He never had an OPS of .700 or higher in any single minor-league season.
The following assessments appeared in the Globe under various bylines and attributed to assorted Red Sox sources in 1972 and 1973: “A good defensive player who chokes up like Eddie Brinkman” … “Apparently has a cheese bat.” … “Shows great fielding talent but hit just .236 at Pawtucket.”
Burleson did have two important advocates within the organization: Manager Eddie Kasko, as well as his eventual replacement, Darrell Johnson, who became a Burleson believer while managing him in Pawtucket. But evidence remained that they weren’t quite sure what they had even as he surpassed expectations and neared the major leagues.
In 1973, he was moved to second base in Triple A because of the presence of Juan Beniquez, a touted young hitter who played shortstop like he was dodging grenades.
Hard to imagine Burleson’s arm being wasted at second base, but it was apparent that the Sox were priming him to be a utility player if he couldn’t cut it at short.
“We wanted Burleson to play the bag,” explained farm director Ed Kenney. “In case anything happens to Luis Aparicio or Doug Griffin, Burleson could be brought up.”
Burleson hit just .252/.312/.335 in his second season at Pawtucket in ’73. But the following spring, his attitude and defense had put him in the middle of a three-way battle for the shortstop job with 40-year-old Luis Aparicio and Mario Guerrero.
Gammons: “The Red Sox would like Burelson to get it because 1) he is potentially the leader-type the infield seriously needs; 2) is a very hard-nosed Charlestown-type kid; 3) has shown signs of being able to hit .250 with some power.”
Burleson didn’t stick that spring, having been devastated when he was sent to Pawtucket after Johnson initially told him he made the team. But when Griffin was beaned by Nolan Ryan — tell me that sentence doesn’t make you cringe — in May, Burleson was brought to Boston. The Rooster had arrived, and he’d stay until a trade to the Angels in 1980.
45. JUAN BENIQUEZ
In his Red Sox youth, Beniquez played as he apparently dressed — with impressively haphazard style. This, from an April 1972 article in the Globe titled “Majoring in the Minors:
The Red Sox feel their Triple A club is loaded. It has three kids — first baseman Ceccil Cooper, shortstop Juan Beniquez, and right fielder Dwight Evans — they feel are superprospects.
Not a bad trio for an International League roster, eh? Evans, Cooper and Beniquez totaled 5,912 hits in 54 combined major league seasons. Beniquez collected 1,274 of those hits in a 17-season career in which he he hit .274 for eight teams.
But despite his promise — he went .298/.373/.459 with 13 homers and 25 steals at Pawtucket in 1973, his third in Triple A — Beniquez’s success was no sure thing. His maturity came into frequent question.
Gammons, November 1972:
The Lord gave Juan the near talent to be a superstar but forgot what goes above the shoulders. If Beniquez decides he would like to apply himself and play major league shortstop he will add tremendous offense and range to the lineup. But that’s a very large IF.
And then there was the fundamental flaw — he couldn’t field. Gammons referred to it as his “jugging act at shortstop.” The 1972 Red Sox media guide was gentler: “[He has a] strong but sometimes inaccurate arm.” Bill Lee in “The Wrong Stuff” was more specific, blunt and hilarious:
He was absolutely the worst infielder I had ever seen. If he could have eaten his glove, he would have died of food poisoning. Juan would make diving, backhanded stops in the whole and then throw the ball into Boston Harbor. I think it was after one of his tosses almost killed a peanut vendor in the twenty-sixth row that the coaches handed him an outfielder’s glove. That upset him, but the pitchers were happy. I was thrilled when I discovered that the front office had told him that if he went anywhere near the infield again, they would confiscate his green card.
Beniquez’s defensive shortcomings at shortstop — he made 14 errors in 27 games filling in for Luis Aparicio in ’72 — were still a source of skepticism and snark as late as January 1974. Gammons, after quoting manager Darrell Johnson as saying, “Beniquez can run throw, and hit,” added this addendum:
He stopped there — and didn’t even try to discuss what a glove was for.
So readers must have wonder if an April Fool’s joke happened to be in play when Gammons wrote the following on April 1, 1974:
“I hope my eyes doth not deceive, because Juan Beniquez looks like another Amos Otis — better defensively and more exciting.”>
Well that’s quite a change in the weather, huh? Despite hurting his shoulder — yes, that’s the explanation for that goofy picture — while diving to try to catch a Mark Belanger liner in July 1974, Beniquez did go on to become an outstanding outfielder, winning a Gold Glove in 1977 for the Rangers.
And the peanut vendors were pulled off the endangered species list. At least until Butch Hobson came around.
44. BOBBY OJEDA
Of the three superb lefties the Red Sox somehow developed in the shadow of the Green Monster in the early ’80s, Ojeda emerged as arguably the second-best prospect, behind Bruce Hurst but ahead of John Tudor, who was typically old for his league.
But it took him time to gain such status. He wasn’t even drafted as an amateur, as Dan Barry explains eloquently in “The Bottom of the 33rd:”
[In 1978] he was the married father of a six-month old girl, working as a landscaper in Visalia, the hub of central California’s San Joaquin Valley, when the Boston Red Sox offered him a shot. He signed for very little money and a plane ticket at the other side of the continent, in Elmira, New York. He bought a suit, a pair of shoes, and a farewell dinner for his parents. His father, who upholsters furniture, and his mother, who works for the school system as an interpreter for Mexican immigrants, will always have a photograph of their son, standing at the doorway of the plane that will take him away.
Ojeda found success in his second season in pro ball at Single A Winter Haven. He went 15-7 with a 2.43 ERA in 200 innings at 21 years old. Before that season, he told Barry, he figured the scouting report on him read something like: Sucks. But he’s hungry. He’s trying. It was before that season that such hunger and effort led him to sharpening up his curveball and mastering a changeup thanks to the tutelage of former Brooklyn Dodgers World Series star Johnny Podres.
The refined repertoire got him to Boston in the summer of 1980, but he was not preceded by his reputation — he didn’t have one. Wrote Ray Fitzgerald after his mid-July debut:
I can’t recall a rookie starting a ballgame here with less advance fanfare. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., stepping into the lineup of the Washington Senators to face the Damn Yankees, was better known than this 22- year-old …
… Ojeda’s fastball will never be compared to Lefty Grove‘s or Sandy Koufax‘ or even Dick Ellsworth‘s. Ah, but the ballgame doesn’t necessarily go to the one who throws the hardest. Ask Nolan Ryan. Ojeda has a major league changeup, and he used it yesterday and it fooled people.
Ojeda didn’t fool many more during his first whirl through the big leagues — in 26 innings over seven starts, he had a 6.92 ERA and a 2.03 WHIP. But some in the Sox system knew/ They appreciated the toughness that accompanied the talent.
PawSox manager Joe Morgan, September 1980: “He didn’t throw his fastball anywhere near as well as he can, he didn’t get his curve over and was nervous. I still think he’s going to be a good pitcher.”
Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, April 1981, upon sending Ojeda back to Pawtucket: “That Ojeda is going to be a helluva pitcher, and he’ll probably be back before the year’s over. He’s got four pitches; he throws them all for strikes, and he’s got the good makeup.”
The next time he got a chance, he seized it. Called up in August 1981 after going 12-9 with a 2.43 ERA at Pawtucket, Ojeda pitched a complete-game, allowing seven hits and a single run in an 8-1 win over the White Sox. He won three straight starts from August 22-September 2, allowed just three hits in 7.2 innings against the Tigers September 7 … and then came the gem that convinced Red Sox fans they might have something special in the fearless lefty, their own counter to the Yankees’ star rookie southpaw Dave Righetti.
Ojeda took a no-hitter into the ninth at Yankees Stadium, surrendering a pair of hits to start the final frame before he could complete his Billy Rohr moment.
From Gammons’s column the next morning:
This was Ojeda at his best, better even than the one-hitter he carried into the bottom of the eighth Monday night in Detroit, better than any of his four previous wins. “This was the best assortment of all his pitches that he’s had,” said fellow rookie Rich Gedman. “He had his best fastball, his usual change, the slider, the changeup . . . and he’s got such great concentration and intensity that whenever he had to make good pitches, he made them.”
His other teammates talked about that intensity. “Until today, I never realized how incredibly intense he is when he pitches,” said Dennis Eckersley, who, like everyone else, gets fooled by Ojeda’s quiet, somewhat vague off- field nature (“If it weren’t for my family, I’d probably be off in the mountains,” he told reporters yesterday).
While the Yankees talked about his pitching ability. Some compared him to Eddie Lopat, others to Whitey Ford, but Bob Lemon put it best: “It’s really something when you see kids like (Dave) Righetti and Ojeda pitch back-to-back games. I think we’re going to see these two kids pitching big games against each other 10 years from now.”
He was close. Righetti converted to relief and pitched until 1995. Ojeda retired in ’94, having been part of the Mets team that beat the Sox in the 1986 World Series. Not bad for that undrafted kid from Visalia who boarded a plane for Elmira with no clue about the destinations ahead.
43. RICK JONES
The flaky — to put it mildly — lefthander from Jacksonville emerged as a prospect to watch in 1975 when he went 20-7 with a 2.67 ERA between Single A Winston Salem and Double A Bristol. He struck out 177 batters and allowed just six homers over 227 innings between the two levels.
In the spring of 1976, manager Darrell Johnson kept him over Jim Burton, and Jones claimed his first night in the big leagues in Baltimore would be the occasion of his first ride in an elevator, an indication his elevator didn’t go to the top floor.
He had some immediate success with the Red Sox, using a good curve and a better changeup to post a 3.36 ERA in 24 games (14 starts), albeit with 133 hits allowed in 104.1 innings.
It must have been some what of a mystery when the Sox left him unprotected in the expansion draft the following winter. He was selected by the Mariners with the 22d pick. Turns out the Sox knew what they were doing — Jones flamed out after two partial seasons in Seattle — and the mystery of his departure was brought to light in Gammons’s book.
When he missed a curfew or two, management blamed older players, particularly [Jim] Willoughby and Bill Lee, citing their wilder influences on this hayseed. But no one had to lead Tall Boy — so named by Willoughby after the Schlitz 16-ounce Tall Boy can and the fact that Jones was 6-foot-5 — astray. His high school buddies were three members of the rock band Lynard Skynard; the band was named after principal Leonard Skinner, their high school athletic director and football coach, who had suspended the band members and Jones from the athletic program … Tall Boy unfortunately was ahead of his time as far as getting himself into trouble, and while he would return in September  for a brief stay before going to Seattle in the expansion draft, he threw away what appeared to be a promising career.
Lee once said that Jones wasn’t a member of the infamous Buffalo Heads anti-Zimmer clique, but that he was definitely the best pledge. There are worse places to rest in Red Sox lore.
42. BILL LEE
We could fill our entire prospect roster of 50 here with Red Sox pitching prospects through the years who had superior radar-gun readings to Lee, a 22d-round pick in 1968 out of Southern Cal. But few got to the big leagues quicker than Lee — many never made it all.
And only three lefthanders in franchise history — Mel Parnell, Lefty Grove, and Jon Lester — earned more than his 94 victories.
In 1968, his first year of pro ball, Lee posted a 1.58 ERA in 16 games (eight starts) between Single A clubs in Waterloo and Winston-Salem. In “The Wrong Stuff,” Lee recalled the promotion to Winston-Salem as a pivotal point in his career.
Bill Slack was my new manager. That was a blessing. He had been a pitcher and really understood my needs. The day after my arrival, I started and got jocked. He took me aside and said, “Don’t worry, you had good stuff. You’ll get them next time.” That gave me confidence. Bill left me alone, and I pitched well for him. I was still basically the same type of pitcher I was in college … I had a pretty good breaking ball, and the kids in Class-A ball didn’t get to see so many curves.
Neither did the kids in Double A, apparently. In 10 starts at Pittsfield, then an Eastern League franchise, at the start of the 1969 season, Lee went 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA, allowing just 48 hits in 70 innings. Because Pittsfield was closer to Fenway Park than the Red Sox’ Triple A franchise in Louisville, the big club occasionally summoned prospects from Double A in an emergency.
So it was that on June 24, 1969, Lee was called to the big leagues after Jim Lonborg had been injured trying to bunt. The 1970 media guide noted that “he was rushed up from Pittsfield to fill a pitching gap … and immediately impressed with his poise and an effective screwball.”
You could say he became an effective screwball. It was the beginning of a wild and successful run for the greatest Yankees-beating (and baiting), Zimmer-hating (and baiting), Elliot Lounge-lounging lefty in Sox lore.
41. LUIS ALVARADO
A stylish but erratic shortstop, Alvarado won the International League Most Valuable Player award and rookie of the year at age 20 in 1969, batting .292 with 42 extra-base hits and 62 runs batted in.
In April 1970, Sports Illustrated was quick to cite him as a reason the Red Sox could challenge the loaded Orioles in the AL East:
Boston can hit and Boston can field. Little Luis Alvarado, the Most Valuable Player in the International League at shortstop, takes over at third base, and the only reason he is not playing shortstop is because of Rico Petrocelli, who batted .297, hit 40 homers and tied Phil Rizzuto‘s record for fewest errors by a shortstop in a season (14) …
The Red Sox media guide noted that in Petrocelli and Alvarado, manager Eddie Kasko had “the top major and minor league shortstops of 1969.”
But there were also reasons for skepticism to be found in his statistics, red flags (not pennants) that would be more easily identified today — he walked just 25 times against 83 strikeouts, and the .718 OPS exposes empty batting average.
Maybe there’s a little hindsight in play here — a 20-year-old shortstop with those numbers certainly was worth getting excited about, but now we know what he became. He struggled in parts of three seasons with the Sox (1968-70), putting up a .201/.235/.260 slash line in 250 at-bats before going on to play six more years with five other teams.
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PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES
Introduction: The inspiration, the process, and the near-misses.