This post is the start of a ten-part series where I list ten Braves prospects from 1998-2007 that did not make the grade in the major leagues. It may be a little depressing sometimes, but I think it's an interesting idea. We'll start with the 1998 season and a name that may be familiar to long-time Braves fans:
1998: LHP Bruce Chen
(#27 in Baseball America's Top 100, #1 Atlanta Braves prospect)
(#4 in Baseball America's Top 100, #1 Atlanta Braves prospect)
Chen signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1993 as an amateur free agent when he was 16 years old. He started with the Gulf Coast Braves in 1994 (1-4, 3.80 ERA, 26/3 K/BB) and steadily climbed the minor league ladder. Chen made stops with the Advanced Rookie Danville Braves in 1995 (4-4, 3.97 ERA, 56/19 K/BB), and the short-season Class A Eugene Emeralds in 1996 (4-1, 2.27 ERA, 55/14 K/BB). Chen's first full season came with the Class A Macon Braves the next year. He continued to impress, putting up a 12-7 record with a 3.51 ERA, walking 44 and striking out 182 batters in 146 1/3 innings.
The 1998 campaign seemed to be Chen's breakout year. In 28 games between Class AA Greenville (24) and Class AAA Richmond (4), Chen complied a 15-8 record and a 3.09 ERA. He pitched 163 1/3 innings and racked up a 193/67 K/BB ratio. With a sparkling 1.163 WHIP for the year, his future seemed bright. The Braves called him up in September and he started four games, winning two of them. In his two wins, he pitched 6 1/3 innings (2 runs) and seven shutout innings.
Baseball Prospectus had this to say about Chen in 1999:
The Braves' other prospects, great as they are, are just pretenders to the throne. Chen is the Prince. When those around him discuss his success, one aspect towers over all: mound presence. He throws hard, has excellent command of four pitches, but what distinguishes him is that he sets up hitters with uncanny ease for a 21-year old. The Neagle trade [which involved Rob Bell and Michael Tucker in exchange for Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger] was made with him in mind. Chen certainly looks ready, he has an opportunity waiting for him, and he has the best crew in baseball to help him develop. He may be the best pitching prospect in the game.Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Chen rejoined the Braves in 1999, but only won two games that season. He was demoted to Richmond after a July 28 start where he allowed six runs on 4 1/3 innings to Milwaukee. Chen returned to the team in August, but he was put in the bullpen. He only had four scoreless stints out of nine. He made a start in the next-to-last game of the season, tossing six shutout innings against the Marlins.
Chen started the 2000 season in Atlanta's bullpen and was pretty decent, posting a 2.80 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. However, the Braves seemed to give up on Chen ever becoming the #1-#2 starter that he showed he could be in the minors. On July 12, 2000, Chen was traded with fellow pitcher Jimmy Osting to the Phillies for veteran hurler Andy Ashby.
The Phillies converted Chen back to a starter and he produced; he just didn't get any support. Chen went 3-4 in 15 starts and he had a 3.63 ERA and his lowest WHIP in the majors: 1.145.
The next several years were hardly stable ones for Chen. A litany of teams vied for his services:
2001: Phillies, Mets
2002: Mets, Expos, Reds
2003: Astros, Red Sox
Chen didn't win more than five games in any of those years.
Chen received a break after he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent. The Blue Jays sent Chen to the Baltimore Orioles as part of a conditional deal. With them, he enjoyed his best year in baseball in 2005, going 13-10 in 34 games for the Orioles. He pitched a career-high 197 1/3 innings and struck out a career-high 133 batters. He crashed once more in 2006; he suffered five losses and five no-decisions in ten starts. His bullpen work wasn't any better, so the Orioles released him after the season. The Rangers took a chance on him in 2007, but he didn't produce out of the pen in five games for them.
HE WAS LAST SEEN...: pitching for Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He pitched four innings against Puerto Rico, giving up solo home runs to Carlos Delgado and Ivan Rodriguez.
The Royals signed Chen to a minor league deal before the Classic began, which is more than likely a continuing project of Royals GM Dayton Moore to bring in every single player who was a Brave once upon a time.
EDIT: Added the specific year where Chen went 13-10.