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Tigers phenom faces long odds for success

4/4/2003 - Detroit Tigers

This year, Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers will join the team's rotation despite having played professionally for only a year. He's pitched but 156 innings of minor-league baseball, none in the "high minors" -- the Double-A or Triple-A classifications.

Bonderman's promotion is unusual. Even the best prospects drafted out of high school generally spend three to four years in the minors, while more advanced college draft picks may spend only a year or two. Players plucked from the minors with so little experience are almost always picked because their teams feel they have such immense talent that they'll be able to succeed without the experience and conditioning years in the minors can offer a player.

Some, however, are Rule 5 picks, drafted from other organizations on the condition that they spend the entire year on the major-league roster. For instance Luis Ugueto spent last year pinch-running for the Mariners.

These compose the majority of players who jump from Class A to the majors. For example:

  • The Devil Rays' Steve Kent, who moved from A-ball in San Bernardino (with the Mariners) to pitch 57.1 innings of relief for the Devil Rays in 2002. He didn't do well, going 0-2 with a 5.65 ERA.

  • The Royals' Miguel Ascencio, who went from Clearwater in the Phillies organization to starting 21 games for the Royals, finishing 4-7 with a 5.11 ERA.

  • Deivi Cruz went from A-ball to starting for the Tigers in 1997, and hasn't hit since.

    What about players promoted not because of some strange draft, but because they were talented and their team needed them? Since 1990, has anyone come out of a situation like Bonderman's?

    We searched for pitchers who took the mound for at least 50 innings in A-ball and then at least 50 innings in the majors the next year, and then painstakingly searched for guys who didn't have time at Double-A or Triple-A. We found none.

    There are some who approach Bonderman's one year, 100 innings. The closest?

  • The Padres' Oliver Perez, who pitched 203 innings in A-ball and only four games in Double-A before his promotion to The Show, where he went 4-5 in 16 games with a 3.50 ERA and averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Perez also won a rotation spot for this season.

  • Ryan Rupe came pitched only a year in A-ball, under 70 innings, before he was promoted to Double-A for five games and then the big leagues, where he had a decent rookie season in 1999 with Tampa Bay (8-9, 4.55 ERA in 142 IP) and then was pretty much awful until he was released. He's pitching in the Red Sox's minor-league system now.

  • Gil Meche of the Mariners made two brief stops at Double-A and Triple-A before being called up to the majors and had a 8-4 debut season in 1999 with a 4.72 ERA. He started out hot in 2000 before his shoulder blew out. A couple of surgeries and an awful 2002 rehab stint in Double-A later, he's slotted as the Mariners' fifth starter this year.

    Mark Prior provides a hopeful counterpoint to that mixed sampling. Prior pitched only nine dominating games in the high minors -- 51 innings -- before tearing up the NL last year. But Prior had had an amazing college career, whereas Bonderman is one year away from pitching for Pasco High School.

    Position players make the jump much more frequently and with better results. We did a nearly identical screen on position players, looking for players who had at least 200 at- bats in Single-A and then 200 at the major-league level without spending time at Double-A or Triple-A before their debut.

    There was one, and he didn't do well. Jose Guillen moved from Lynchburg into the Pirates outfield in 1997 and hasn't done much since.

    Some still-active notables who just missed: Rafael Furcal only stopped at Double-A for three games before starting his career with the Braves. Ken Griffey Jr., played 17 games in Double-A before he took over center field for the Mariners. Albert Pujols played three games in Triple-A before charging on the scene and winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2001 playing for the Cardinals.

    And the ranks of no-longer active players includes some big names:

  • Will "The Thrill" Clark played 65 games for Single-A Fresno after being drafted out of Mississippi State. He homered off Nolan Ryan in his first major-league at-bat to start his solid career.

  • Ozzie "The Wizard" Smith, who was drafted by San Diego then played Single-A in Walla Walla, Wash. for a year before becoming the Padres' starting shortstop.

    Barry Bonds doesn't fit the criteria exactly -- he played in 71 games in A-ball, then terrorized opposing pitchers for 44 games the next year in Hawaii, Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate, before reaching the majors for good.

    The next question is whether or not players can come to the major leagues directly from the draft. Nineteen players have debuted in the majors after being drafted, never appearing in the minor leagues. Since 1980, in reverse chronological order:

  • Xavier Nady, drafted in 2000, stepped to the plate for San Diego and then headed back to the minors, to re-appear... this year.

  • Ariel Prieto, 1995, two full seasons and disappeared.

  • John Olerud, drafted in 1989 out of Washington State University. There was speculation this ace pitcher and top hitter would be a great two-way player, but instead he put together a solid career as a first baseman and may make a Hall of Fame case before it's over.

  • Jim Abbott, drafted from Michigan in 1988, more famous for making it to the big leagues despite being born without a right hand. He put together a couple of good seasons with the Angels and over his 10-year career was an average pitcher.

  • Pete Incaviglia drafted in 1985 out of Oklahoma State. Inky hit for good power, was part of the World Series losing Phillies squad of 1993.

    The rest of the list contains a couple of former All-Stars: Bob Horner, Mike Morgan, Dick Ruthven, Burt Hooton and a Hall of Famer in Dave Winfield, who was a two-sport star at the University of Minnesota. Considering how high a team's opinion of a player must be for them to toss the player directly into The Show, it's surprising that so few of this class of 19 turned out to be the stars their organizations expected. The success stories, it's interesting to note, were all drafted after having excellent college seasons. Some consider college baseball as minor-league experience, even if it's almost impossible to assign a level of difficulty to, say, the Pac-10 competition Olerud faced.

    Looking at the whole picture, it's clear that there are talents so great that they can survive playing in the major leagues without exposure to the competition in the high minors. Some may even be prepared to grow and thrive. But it is just as clear that no matter what a team's evaluation of a player's readiness, the odds are greatly against any player, especially one without college experience, being able to make that jump.

    You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.