40. BILLY CONIGLIARO
The weight of expectation can be crushing to those charged, by choice or circumstance, with living up to a famous or beloved name.
It must have worn on John Henry Williams that the skills needed to expertly hit a baseball apparently came from his mother’s gene pool. Michael Yastrzemski struggled with being Yaz’s son even as he advanced and eventually stagnated in the minor leagues for those other Sox.
But for whatever frustrations Billy Conigliaro had during his productive, brief major league career, it’s apparent he never had anything but love and admiration for his big brother, the beloved, doomed Tony C.
Billy Conigliaro was the fifth pick in 1965, the first June amateur draft, chosen out of Swampscott High four spots after the Kansas City A’s made Rick Monday the first choice. He wasn’t the prospect his phenom brother was — Tony C. became the second-youngest player to reach 200 major league home runs, hitting a record 24 as a teenager in 1964.
Billy was a genuine prospect in his own right. He didn’t put up enormous numbers early in his minor league career, hitting .272 at Waterloo in ’65 and .226 at Pittsfield the following season with middling power. By 1969 he had progressed to the point that he joined his brother on the Red Sox’ Opening Day roster. He hit four home runs in his first month in the big leagues, including two in his third career game against Baltimore.
Still, he was sent down for “more seasoning” on May 1 despite a .313 batting average. He promptly tore it up at Triple A Louisville, hitting .298 with 13 homers, 7 triples, 22 doubles, and the honor of being rated the best defensive center fielder in the International League.
The next season, no more seasoning was necessary. At age 22, he hit 18 home runs with an .801 OPS in ’70, then followed in ’71 with a .310 average, 11 homers, and 26 doubles, good for eighth in the American League. But it wasn’t all homers and roses.
He did not mask his frustration with the Red Sox’ decision to trade his brother to the Angels after Tony’s 36-home run comeback season in ’70, and in October 1971 he was sent to the Brewers in a blockbuster deal along with Ken Brett, Joe Lahoud, Jim Lonborg, Don Pavletich and George Scott, with Tommy Harper, Lew Krausse and Marty Pattin coming to the Red Sox.
He grew frustrated in Milwaukee and retired at age 24 midway through the ’72 season. He came back and joined the A’s for their championship run in ’73, but hit just .200, and again grew frustrated with team management. He never played another day in the major leagues, but along the way, he did no shame to a great name.
39. DICK POLE
A memorable name, sure, and the protagonist in one particularly memorable game, for reasons both rewarding and tragic.
First, his back story. Pole joined the Red Sox organization as an undrafted amateur free agent in 1969. Despite the lack of a bonus-baby pedigree, the Trout Creek, Michigan native breezed through two seasons of Single A ball, then put up a strong age-20 season (2.76 ERA in 20 appearances) at then-Double A Pawtucket in 1971 to earn one-to-watch status.
According to the ’72 Red Sox media guide: “All observers like this powerful young pitcher’s future as a major league starter.”
Pole had a decent season (3.82 ERA) during his Triple A debut in ’72. But the true breakthrough came in ’73. He led the International League in ERA (2.03), threw a no-hitter, and was tops in the league in strikeouts (158) and complete-games (16) when he was summoned to Boston August 1.
Struggles found him during his 12 appearances as a fledgling big leaguer in ’73 — he had a 5.60 ERA — and he failed to win a spot after faltering in camp the next spring. A sore arm affected him for much of the ’74 season as he bounced between Pawtucket and Boston. Presumably, that name caused more than his share of grief from the league’s finest bench jockeys.
After shuttling back and forth early in ’75, he began living up to his potential that June. He was establishing himself as a capable member of the rotation, putting up a 3.99 ERA in seven appearances (six starts) that month, when reward and tragedy came around during the very same game.
Pole was outdueling Baltimore ace Jim Palmer during a June 30 game at Fenway, taking a 5-0 lead into the final inning. He had allowed just four hits when he struck out Paul Blair leading off the ninth. It was the last out he would record. Jim Northrup singled. Brooks Robinson followed with another single. Next up: Ken Singleton, who delivered another single.
That brought Tony Muser to the plate. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Muser, a one-time Red Sox prospect, got all of it, hitting a line drive straight back at Pole. The ball hit him square in the face — it was hit so hard that it ricocheted over third baseman Rico Petrocelli‘s head for a double. Pole suffered a broken cheekbone as well as a detached retina.
He returned later that September, making one appearance for the Red Sox in the World Series. But he was never the same, and it’s hard to say how much of his future was lost during that day in ’75, the best and worst game of his career.
After one more season with the Red Sox, he was chosen by the Mariners in the 1977 expansion draft, his former Boston manager, Darrell Johnson, now in charge of the makeshift Seattle club. He pitched two ineffective seasons in Seattle, putting up a 5.74 ERA in his time there, his big league career over at 27.
The name, however, lives on in the Google searches of immature baseball fans everywhere.
38. AARON SELE
The Red Sox’ No. 1 pick out of Washington State in the 1991 draft didn’t draw rave reviews from prospect mavens early in his pro career despite a killer curveball and the cachet of having pitched a 1-0 shutout for Team USA over Cuba in 1991, the Americans’ first win over the Sluggin’ Castros in five years.
Baseball America rated him the 71st-best prospect before the 1992 season, then dropped him to No. 84 a year later.
Even Jack Lee, the Red Sox scout who followed him for three years and recommended drafting him, was hardly loquacious in his praise to the Globe when the Red Sox picked his guy in June ’91.
“The kid has some good tools. We think he will be a good pitcher. He’s competitive and has faced some good teams.”
Any perceived limits on ceiling didn’t prevent Sele from rocketing through the Red Sox’ farm system so impressively that… well, fairly or not, he was drawing cautious and indirect comparisons to the Rocket.
When Roger Clemens suffered a groin injury in June 1993, the blow to the pitching staff was somewhat tempered by the anticipation that surrounded Sele’s potential debut. He certainly had nothing left to prove after a half-season at Pawtucket, leading the International League with eight wins, a 2.19 ERA, and 87 strikeouts in 94.1 innings.
Wrote the Globe’s Steve Fainaru in eager advance of Sele’s recall:
Ready or not, here comes Aaron Sele. In a nice piece of symmetry, Roger Clemens’ groin injury has hastened the promotion of perhaps the most promising righthander to come up through the Sox system since the Rocket himself in 1984.
Actually, the anticipation of Sele’s debut was genuine — and rewarded. Sele struck out eight in seven innings and didn’t allow an earned run in a 3-1 win over the Twins on June 23, 1993.
The performance was impressive enough that Bob Ryan, in a column headlined “First Impression: He’s A Winner,” put his performance in context with some of the memorable pitching debuts in franchise history:
Dave Morehead fanned 10 in his first game back in ’63. Billy Rohr, as every ’67 romantic knows, came within an out of pitching a no-hitter in his debut against the Yankees. Aase was dazzling in that ’77 debut. And two years ago, Kevin Morton threw a complete-game five-hitter at the Tigers.
But Ryan also urged us to see a few more pitches from Sele before declaring him the next ace.
Aaron Sele had a terrific debut, OK? He looked like a pro. But let’s say we all give him a little room to breathe now. Let’s allow him to make his mistakes without screaming that he’s overrated. And remember: Morehead. Rohr. Morton. We’ve been fooled by first dates before. Before we slip the ring on his finger, how’s about we get to know each other?
Reasonable advice, in the moment and in retrospect. Sele spent five seasons with the Sox. He dazzled as a rookie, finishing at 7-2 with a 2.74 ERA in 18 starts, a bright light in a lost season. But he was plagued by arm issues his next two years, making just a total of 28 appearances, and his final two seasons in Boston, his lowest ERA was 5.32 in 1996.
His injuries and inconsistency were held against him, particularly by former manager Kevin Kennedy, who held a grudge for anyone who didn’t look like a state trooper.
The Red Sox traded him to the Rangers before the 1998 season in a deal for Jim Leyritz. Sele would pitch a total of 15 seasons in the majors, finishing with a perfectly average — and I suppose, good — adjusted ERA of 100.
He received a single Hall of Fame vote in 2013 — or 213 fewer votes than Roger Clemens, who didn’t get elected either.
37. JEFF SUPPAN
His January retirement — after 17 seasons, 140 wins, 146 losses, 10 teams, and $58 million earned — brought at least one heartfelt tribute to his mediocrity.
It also advanced the notion that Suppan, who was considered a borderline phenom upon his recall to the Red Sox at age 20 in 1995, was mocked by Boston fans.
That’s true, or became true, but not in the context of how it’s presented in the piece. Suppan was mocked for his slapstick baserunning during Game 3 of the 2004 World Series, when he was with the Cardinals.
Now, he wasn’t particularly popular with Red Sox fans at that point, mostly because of an uninspiring performance the previous season when he had been a trading deadline pickup from the Pirates. Down the stretch in 2003, he had a 5.57 ERA in 11 appearances for the playoff-bound Red Sox. That performance didn’t encourage mockery. It demanded it.
But when Suppan first came to Boston? He was an exciting prospect, one thought to be a future cornerstone; you heard about his intelligent approach — “[Minor league pitching coach Al] Nipper Nipper has emphasized pitching savvy, and even at his tender age, Suppan has responded,” the Globe wrote — and comparisons to Maddux flowed. They were not references to Mike Maddux.
Suppan was the 50th-rated prospect the game according to Baseball America before the ’95 season. He climbed to 35th in ’96 after pitching at three levels, including the majors, before dipping to 60th in ’97 after enduring a sore elbow at Pawtucket.
But he was still very well-regarded. Consider his Baseball Prospectus writeup before the ’97 season:
“There’s not much I can tell you about Suppan that you don’t already know. He’s got good stuff, fantastic and still-improving control, a great pitcher’s build and good mechanics.”
Mocked? Not the first time he was here, and certainly not the first time he left. It was more than a surprise when Dan Duquette left him unprotected for the expansion draft. The Diamondbacks took him with the third pick in the November 1997 roster raid. His departure at age 22 frustrated Red Sox fans who had believed that he would become a rotation cornerstone.
Suppan seemed surprised, too, though in his conference call after being selected by the Diamondbacks, he did foreshadow perhaps the best trade in Red Sox history:
Question: Do you feel the arrival of Rose and Pavano has speeded your exit?
Suppan: “I don’t really know. I don’t know what their plans were. I’ve heard rumors that Carl might be traded, so I don’t really know what the situation was, why I’m leaving Boston, I don’t really know.”
Later that same day, the Red Sox did make a trade, sending Pavano and a player to be named later to the Montreal Expos. I can say with certainty no one in their right mind around here ever mocked Pedro Martinez.
36. SCOTT COOPER
It’s probably not fair to say Cooper, who spent just 4 1/2 seasons in the big leagues, is the least-accomplished two-time All-Star in baseball history, at least not without thorough consideration of the likes of Dave Chalk, Jose Rosado, and Shea Hillenbrand.
What it does tell you is that there were slim pickings on the Red Sox roster in the early ’90s, in part because of decisions such as, oh, preferring Cooper to Jeff Bagwell as a third-base prospect.
Cooper had a plus-plus arm, and that was apparently enough to make him the top prospect in the Red Sox organization in 1989 and ’90 according to Baseball America. But upon further inspection, that was faint praise — he was never rated higher than No. 68 in Baseball America’s top 100 prospect rankings.
That was after a 1989 season in which he’d put up a .702 OPS in Double A at age 21. He was the false star of a thin farm system, and the Red Sox, in retrospect, overvalued him to a devastating degree.
35. JOE LAHOUD
Lahoud put up a .935 OPS at Winston-Salem at age 20 during the 1967 season, a performance so impressive that the Red Sox called upon him to replace Tony Conigliaro, still recovering from his frightening beaning, as the starting right fielder on Opening Day 1968.
Lahoud debuted by going 1 for 1 with three walks as the No. 6 hitter between George Scott and Rico Petrocelli. But he didn’t stick around beyond the end of April, having been sent back to Triple A after hitting .206 with 1 homer in 41 plate appearances.
He returned in June, but success still eluded him — he finished his rookie season with a .192 batting average. Though he’d play parts of three more seasons with the Red Sox, he began to lose luster after ’68.
The 1970 Red Sox media guide noted lukewarmly: “Joe has shown he has power, a good throwing arm, and surprising speed despite flat feet and a bad ankle.”
He hit just .205 in 254 career games with Boston before being dealt in that a 1971 blockbuster with the Brewers noted in the Billy Conigliaro segment.
Lahoud had a weakness that abbreviated the careers of countless would-be home-run heroes: the curveball befuddled him. But as Bill Lee recalled in “The Wrong Stuff,” Lahoud was a superstar before the game:
“Joe must have hit 757 home runs in batting practice,” Lee wrote, “but he couldn’t get his average over .230 when it came to the real thing.”
34. BUTCH HOBSON
If you want to accuse me of bias in pulling together this list, this is probably the spot in the lineup to do it.
Hobson, the former Alabama quarterback who played third base with an appealing recklessness, was my boyhood hero from the first time I saw him dive headlong into the bat rack in pursuit of a foul pop.
My memories may exaggerate his abilities — he strikes me as an amalgam of Will Middlebrooks and Tim Naehring, both of whom got serious consideration for this list — but he surely was a prospect of some authentic high regard. I think I have him in the right spot in the batting order.
He had his bona fides beyond his Alabama football pedigree. In 1976 at Rhode Island, Hobson did hit 25 home runs in 400 plate appearances and 90 games at age 24, albeit with 33 walks against 81 strikeouts.
He struggled upon a June recall to the majors in ’76 and was sent back to Triple A. But when Don Zimmer was named manager, he recalled Hobson and installed him as the starter at third base July 29. He hit seven of his eight homers from that date on, an arrival that not-so-gently pushed mainstay Rico Petrocelli into retirement.
The next season, he hit 30 homers and drove in 115 runs in what would unfortunately be a career year. Hobson’s recklessness, on the field and off, led to his demise as a big leaguer before his 30th birthday. It didn’t last long, but it was sure fun while it did.
Bill Lee captured the Essence of Butch in “The Wrong Stuff”:
Butch didn’t play baseball; he played roller derby on spikes. On pop flys near the dugout, he would dive head-first into the bat rack. He was never concerned with making the catch. For Butch it was the crash that was more important. From the dugout, you could see him thinking, “Hmm, let’s see how badly bruised I can get on this play. How far can I dive into the ground without killing myself?’ I never saw him come out of a game with a clean uniform.
33. GLENN HOFFMAN
In January 1980, Gammons ranked the five best prospects in baseball: Tigers outfielder Kirk Gibson, Dodgers third baseman Mickey Hatcher, Yankees lefthander Dave Righetti, Cardinals first baseman Leon Durham, and White Sox outfielder Harold Baines.
In retrospect, that was a quality quintet — they totaled 117.6 WAR in their careers.
According to Gammons, two Red Sox prospects, Hoffman and lefthanded pitcher Bruce Hurst “are right at the fringe of that group.”
Hoffman did have a lot going for him: the endorsement of Ted Williams (“He’ll be a star”), a .285 batting average in Triple A at age 20 (back before we noticed he walked just 29 times in 569 plate appearances; he hit .360 after July 1 that season), and an absolutely rifle of an arm, which played at shortstop or third base.
He did commit 45 errors in Triple A in ’78, but as the ’79 media guide helpfully points out, “only 15 came after June 1.”
“The one thing Hoffman can’t do is run,” Gammons wrote in January 1980. “The question, at 21, is whether his upper body is developed enough for the bat speed he should have in two or three years.”
Maybe the bat speed eventually came around, but the results never did.
After a decent rookie year (.285, .724 OPS), he stagnated as a hitter, finishing his nine-year career with a .242/.291/.331 slash-line and a lingering question after his kid brother Trevor Hoffman, a converted infielder, became one of the finest relief pitchers of all-time: Maybe he would have been better served by using that blessed arm on the mound.
32. KEVIN YOUKILIS
He would eventually be revered at Fenway as Youuuuuuuukk!, that sweaty, beloved man-ogre/pitch-taking machine who would twice finish in the top six in American League Most Valuable Player voting during his too-brief (2007-09) peak.
But Red Sox fans met him long before he was wearing out pitchers in the heart of some loaded Boston lineups. The formal introduction came in the pages of one of the consequential baseball books of this or any era, Michael Lewis’s game-changing 2003 look at the Oakland A’s tactics for improbable success, “Moneyball.”
Billy Beane, who capitalized on the value of high on-base percentage players long before conventional wisdom caught up, was smitten with Youkilis, famously labeling him the Greek God of Walks. One of the most colorful moments in the book comes when Beane is trying manipulate Expos general manager Omar Minaya into turning a pending Cliff Floyd deal with the Red Sox into a three-way swap that would send Youkilis to Oakland.
“Omar,” Billy says, “if they think the are going to get Floyd, Kevin Youkilis is not going to get in the way.” Billy Beane helps Omar to imagine the Boston headlines: “NEW RED SOX OWNERS LOSE PENNANT TO KEEP FAT MINOR LEAGUER.”
Now Omar understands; now Omar very nearly believes. But Omar is also curious. Who is this Youkilis fellow that has Billy Beane so worked up? Perhaps Youkilis is someone who should be not an Oakland A, but a Montreal Expo.
‘Youkilis?,’ says Billy, as if he’s only just heard of the guy and nearly forgot his name. ‘Just a fat kid from Double A. Look at your reports. He’s a ‘no’ for you. He’s a ‘maybe’ for me. From our standpoint he’s just a guy we like because he gets on base.’
As inept as that makes Minaya look — and it’s almost as inept as the Cliff Lee/Grady Sizemore/Brandon Phillips package he gave up for Bartolo Colon that same summer — he can’t be faulted for not being particularly familiar with the object of Beane’s baseball affection.
The unimposing Youkilis was such an underwhelming prospect at one time that he was not even drafted as a junior out of the University of Cincinnati. But an all-star summer in the Cape League revealed one exceptional skill: he had an uncanny knack for getting on base.
The Red Sox chose him in the eighth round after in the 2001 draft following a senior season in which he hit .405, and between two Single A levels during his first year in pro ball, he put up one statistic that required a double-take to fully comprehend: His .504 on-base percentage between Lowell and Augusta was the second-highest in pro ball, trailing only some swollen-meloned machine in San Francisco by the name of Bonds.
Youkilis was more of an intriguing curiosity than a full-fledged prospect at that point. He was already 22, and Baseball America rated him 29th among Red Sox prospects entering the ’02 season, trailing the likes of Seung Song (1), Tony Blanco (2), Juan Diaz (12), Steve Lomasney (16), and, sadly, three players who are since deceased: Dernell Stenson (19), Greg Montalbano (24), and Josh Hancock (27).
Youkilis put up a .436 OBP at three levels in 2002, advancing to Double A and become an official prospect. Baseball America rated him the No. 3 prospect in the Sox system entering ’03, while Baseball Prospectus was completely aboard:
Showed signs of turning double some of his doubles power into home runs. Red Sox haven’t had a third base prospect this promising since Jeff Bagwell, and before that, Wade Boggs. If he continues to clamor up this fast, he could step in at first to give Theo Epstein some of the freedom of action to accept some of the sillier offers made for [Shea] Hillenbrand.
After an intensive offseason workout program, Youkilis had a monster ’03 season in Double A, reaching base 71 straight games, putting up a .441 OBP, and playing in the Futures Game. While Baseball Prospectus would hedge on its previous Bagwell/Boggs praise, instead comparing him to Ken Oberkfell and Dave Magadan before the ’04 season, he was on his way to becoming a Fenway mainstay.
He’d end that season in Pawtucket and the following one leaping onto a pile of ghost-exorcists on the Busch Stadium turf. Omar Minaya surely knew the name by then.
31. DUSTIN PEDROIA
Knowing what he’s become — Rookie of the Year, MVP, two-time champion (so far), and most beloved second baseman in franchise history probably covers it — it’s interesting to look back and see how he was perceived along the road to the big leagues.
There’s a lingering theme that Pedroia, because of his size, was, excuse the brutal pun in advance, sold short. But you know what? He really wasn’t beyond draft day 2004. And certainly never by the organization that gave him his chance.
The Red Sox chose him with the 65th pick overall after seriously considering Cal State Fullerton catcher Kurt Suzuki, who went two picks later to Oakland.
Given what Pedroia accomplished at Arizona State — two national defensive player of the year awards, three All-Pac-10 selections in three seasons, a conference player of the year award, a .384 career batting average, and such talent that he beat out Ian Kinsler for the starting shortstop job, leading the future Rangers and Tigers second baseman to transfer — maybe he should have been drafted higher.
The Red Sox believed in Pedroia and were thrilled to get him, believing in his stats rather than fretting about his stature. While it was easy to portray him as an extreme case of the former in the performance versus tools debate and some couldn’t resist the comparisons to David Eckstein based on height and pigment more than any actual similarity, he did draw raves for his ability as he ascended toward Boston.
Baseball America compared him to Jody Reed in 2005, hardly an insult — Reed was doubles machine who made it as a shortstop and thrived at second base. The Red Sox moved Pedroia to second base that season while at Double A Portland because of the presence of Hanley Ramirez.
The same year, Baseball Prospectus cited Eckstein in the proper — and appropriately snarky — sense:
He could quickly turn into the player everyone in Anaheim thought David Eckstein was.
In 2006, Baseball America rated Pedroia the Red Sox’ No. 5 prospect — Andy Marte was No. 1 — and completely nailing his profile as a hitter:
He has extraordinary hand-eye coordination. He’s able to swing from his heels, yet make consistent contact with gap power.
Pedroia famously struggled in his big league debut in 2006, putting up a .561 OPS in 98 late-season plate appearances. Terry Francona told him he needed to be in better shape, and the picture accompanying this segment is a reminder that he wasn’t the most fit prospect..
Yet the 2007 Baseball Prospectus annual still offered a fair, encouraging, if slightly cautious evaluation:
Tends to excite statheads more than scouts. The former cite his impressive plate discipline and gap power — a good offensive package for a middle infielder — while the latter caution against his small size, unimpressive speed, and lack of arm strength and range to play shortstop. But really, it’s a question of degree; he should be a very good middle infielder in the majors for years to come.
Maybe Pedroia did exceed expectations — those from the outside anyway, Maybe he should have found his way into Baseball America’s top 100 rankings more than once, when he checked in at No. 77 before the 2006 season. Maybe he should be higher on this list — he’s this low, beyond many less-accomplished players, only because of that reasonable minority of voices who were skeptical of his tools, even as most assessed him as a capable-or-better future big leaguer.
But kudos to the Red Sox, who believed in his talent — almost as much as he did. Pedroia didn’t look the part. But there was never and indication he couldn’t play it. Ten years after he was drafted, the rewards continue.
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES
Introduction: The inspiration, the process, and the near-misses.