As baseball gathers in Cooperstown this weekend to honor the all time greats of the game, consider how difficult it is to predict who will become great and who will fade into obscurity.
A case in point of someone who was projected to have greatness in baseball and fell far short was Todd Van Poppel. One can argue that the projection of his greatness led directly to his downfall.
As a high school phenom in Texas, Van Poppel caught the attention of Sports Illustrated who profiled him as the next great Texas flame thrower. The concept of Texas flame throwers were in vogue in the late 1980’s. Roger Clemens was dominating with the Red Sox and Nolan Ryan had a renaissance with the Rangers. (Truth be told, Ryan was also great with the Astros all those years but I digress.)
Van Poppel was the most coveted amateur player in America but seemed committed to attend the University of Texas.
The Atlanta Braves, slowly building what would become an all time great team, had the first pick overall in 1990. Van Poppel was the clear cut first choice but they did not want to waste the pick if Van Poppel wouldn’t sign, which he indicated he wouldn’t.
The Braves compromised and signed Chipper Jones.
Meanwhile the defending World Champion Oakland A’s had piled up a bunch of draft picks after letting Dave Parker, Storm Davis, Matt Young and others leave via free agency.
They were the best team in baseball, the reigning champs and had 4 of the first 36 picks in the draft. They could defend the title AND rebuild at the same time. It also meant they could take a risk.
With the 14th pick, the defending champs selected Van Poppel, thinking they had nothing to lose.
His agent Scott Boras shot for the moon with the A’s, knowing that if it didn’t work, Todd would just head off to Austin to pitch for UT.
The A’s, thinking they had stumbled into the next Roger Clemens, offered him a $500,000 signing bonus and a $1.2 million major league contract. The deal was worked out and the A’s drafted 3 other college pitchers to lay down the foundation of the next great pitching staff.
None of the pitchers panned out.
By signing Van Poppel to a major league contract out of high school, it prevented the A’s from having multiple minor league options. They NEEDED to promote Van Poppel sooner rather than later. Now if he was like Dwight Gooden and was big league ready by age 19, that would be one thing.
Van Poppel wasn’t ready. And yet at age 21, the A’s had little choice but to put him on the big league roster. He had all the pressure and none of the minor league experience. In 1993, he was on the Oakland staff but it was clear he did not belong.
His ERA’s on the big league level were unsightly. 5.04 in 1993, 6.09 in 1994.
The fact that the 4.88 ERA he posted in 1995 seemed like an improvement says a lot.
Enough was enough in 1996. He needed to go back to the minors at age 24 and re establish his abilities. But in order to do that, he needed to be put on Waivers because of the big league contract. The Tigers selected him and the Van Poppel hopes were over in Oakland.
He never did establish himself as a major league pitcher. Between 1998 and 2004, he bounced around the majors, posting a few decent seasons as a middle reliever for the Cubs in 2000 and 2001. He seemed like a grizzled veteran by then and yet he had not reached his 30th birthday in those years.
After a stint with the Reds in 2004 and a try out with the Mets in 2005, he retired, evidently not bitter and happy he played 10 plus years in the majors.
Was he an overrated prospect or did the Major League contract derail his career? Would he have been an ace had he developed in the minors properly or went to University of Texas?
We will never know. What we DO know is a lot of people thought it was unfair that the World Champion A’s could improve with a can’t miss pitcher like Van Poppel while a team like the Braves that NEEDED to improve got stuck with a mediocre prospect like Chipper Jones.
And yet Chipper Jones is going to the Hall of Fame.
As I said, greatness is hard to predict.