Lost Year Doesn’t Diminish Oscar Taveras’ Potential

Oscar Taveras

Oscar Taveras (Photo by John Williamson)

Center fielder Oscar Taveras’ name last appeared in a box score on July 15 when the Cardinals pulled him from a rehab game in the Gulf Coast League. Prior to that, the 21-year-old hadn’t played a game for Triple-A Memphis since June 23, finishing his first season in the Pacific Coast League with five homers and a .306/.341/.462 batting line in 46 games.

Now Taveras’ season is over, and that in all likelihood also includes winter ball in his native Dominican Republic. Cardinals correspondent Derrick Goold reported that the prospect had surgery on Aug. 22 to repair ligament damage and remove cartilage from his right ankle, and that he’ll spend the next eight weeks wearing a boot. Taveras first injured his ankle on a hard slide into second base on May 12.

Ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball entering the season, Taveras essentially lost a year of development to injury in what might have been his major league rookie season.

So how much, if any, should we downgrade his status heading into 2014? To help find an answer, let’s review the history for elite position-player prospects of recent vintage (ranked in descending order of career value) who had a development year scuttled by serious injury. Each accumulated fewer than 200 plate appearances during his lost year, just like Taveras.

5. Alex Escobar, cf, Mets (No. 11 in 1999)

A 19-year-old Escobar ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the low Class A South Atlantic League in 1998 after swatting 27 homers, stealing 49 bases and putting up a .977 OPS for Capital City. That performance propelled him to a No. 5 ranking among position players on the '99 Top 100 Prospects ranking, behind J.D. Drew and Eric Chavez but a few places ahead of Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran. However, Escobar developed a reputation as perhaps the quintessential lost-year prospect when he made just five plate appearances for high Class A St. Lucie in 1999 while dealing with a lower-back injury and a separated left shoulder. He subsequently lost the entire 2002 and '05 seasons with, respectively, a torn ACL in his left knee and a fractured right foot.

Like many five-tool prospects, Escobar never really developed a feel to hit, which became apparent at the Triple-A level with a .257 average and strikeout rate near 28 percent. That deficiency coupled with a litany of nagging injuries robbed Escobar of a legitimate chance to establish himself in the majors. The righthanded batter did fashion a brief career as a platoon outfielder—most notably for the '03 Indians and '06 Nationals—hitting .283/.368/.514 with eight homers in 164 career PAs versus big league southpaws.

4. Nick Johnson, 1b, Yankees (No. 5 in 2000)

Johnson hit .345/.525/.548 with 14 homers for Double-A Norwich in 1999 to win the Eastern League batting title and lead the entire minors in walks (123), hit by pitches (37) and OBP. The 20-year-old ranked No. 3 in the EL that fall but fourth among position players on the Top 100 Prospects list the following spring, behind only Pat Burrell, Corey Patterson and Vernon Wells. Johnson slipped down the prospect rankings after missing the entire 2000 season with a mysterious right hand injury brought about by a checked swing during spring training. He rebounded to post a .407 OBP for Triple-A Columbus in 2001 and then embarked on a 10-year big league career in '02—though hand and wrist injuries would be a permanent feature of said career.

The Mark Grace comps that scouts bestowed on Johnson as a prospect would turn out to be uncannily accurate. Grace hit for a higher career average (.303 versus .268) and Johnson hit for more extra-base thump as measured by isolated power (.173 versus .139), but they both finished with superb on-base percentages (.399 for Johnson, .383 for Grace) and near identical adjusted-OPS+ figures.

3. Josh Hamilton, cf, Rays (No. 1 in 2001)

We all know how the story played out, but one wonders how Hamilton’s career might have unfolded had he not injured his back in a car accident during spring training 2001. He made a clean sweep of the low Class A South Atlantic League awards the previous season, batting .302/.348/.476 with 13 homers in 96 games for Charleston to win a share of the league’s MVP award and earn recognition from SAL managers as the best batting prospect, best power prospect and most exciting player. Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick by the Rays in the 1999 draft, entered the 2001 season as the No. 1 prospect in the game, separating himself from other position players such as Corey Patterson and Sean Burroughs with explosive, quick-twitch athleticism and supreme hand-eye coordination.

Bad luck with injuries dogged Hamilton throughout his early career. He tore cartilage in his right knee while chasing down a flyball in July 2000, but the car accident in February 2001 set all future events into motion. Nursing back and leg soreness, Hamilton returned too early that spring and hit .180 with five doubles in 23 games at Double-A Orlando, taking 108 plate appearances in all during a lost season. He played just 56 games in 2002, losing time with left shoulder and left elbow injuries that required surgery—and that would be the last the Rays would see from Hamilton for awhile.

Nearly four years elapsed between Hamilton’s final game at high Class A Bakersfield on July 10, 2002, and his return to action with short-season Hudson Valley on July 4, 2006, following his reinstatement. He spent the intervening years—his age 23-25 seasons—on the restricted list, suspended by Major League Baseball for failing multiple drug tests. Ultimately, Hamilton missed a month in 2000 and large swaths of 2001 and '02 to injury; the rest of the lost development time he owes to bad decisions involving drugs and alcohol.

2. Joe Mauer, c, Twins (No. 1 in 2004)

Along with Bryce Harper (2011-12) and Andruw Jones (1996-97), Mauer is one of just three players to ever rank No. 1 on successive Top 100 Prospects lists. However, had he not torn the meniscus in his left knee in the second game of the 2004 season with the Twins, then Mauer would not have qualified for subsequent lists. He retained his prospect eligibility for 2005, however, when he had a second knee surgery in mid-July 2004 that knocked him out for the year after 151 total plate appearances between the majors and rehab assignments in the minors.

The Twins felt confident going with a 21-year-old rookie catcher in 2004 based on Mauer’s strong '03 campaign in which he won the BA Minor League Player of the Year award. In 135 games split between high Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain he hit .338/.398/.434 with five homers, 30 doubles and a 49-to-49 walk-to-strikeout ratio. That performance landed Mauer at the top of the Top 100 heap the following spring as he outdistanced other position players such as B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, Alex Rios, Grady Sizemore and Prince Fielder.

1. Chipper Jones, ss, Braves (No. 2 in 1994)

Jones scaled to the peak of the Top 100 Prospects list in 1993 after he reached Double-A the previous season and hit a cumulative .311/.360/.504 as a 20-year-old at two levels. He took a back seat to Expos first baseman Cliff Floyd on the '94 version of the Top 100—following Floyd’s 28-homer, 119-RBI campaign in the high minors—though Jones did outrank future all-stars such as Carlos Delgado, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez that year.

Competing for the Braves’ left-field job in 1994, Jones’ season ended before it even began. He tore the ACL in his left knee during spring training and spent the entire season on the major league disabled list. He showed no ill effects upon his return in 1995, ranking No. 3 on the Top 100—between Yankees prospects Ruben Rivera and Derek Jeter—and posted an .803 OPS as a 23-year-old rookie third baseman. Jones hit the first 23 of an eventual 468 home runs in a Hall of Fame-caliber career and went 6-for-21 with three doubles and three runs scored in the '95 World Series as the Braves won their last crown.