40 'Can't-Miss' Superstars Who Flamed out Before the Hall of Fame
Every year, there are players that pop up who are deemed "can't-miss" prospects. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper fit the bill big time, and players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez had sensational careers riding off of that.
For every Griffey, however, there's a Todd Van Poppel—someone who looked good in the minors, but couldn't get it done—and there are the Don Mattingly types who start off strong and almost put up Hall of Fame numbers but crash early due to injury or something else.
Here are 40 players who were stars at least at some point before flaming out, either well before the Hall of Fame or just before it.
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Let's start with a few of the obvious ones.
Don Mattingly was drafted in the 19th round by the Yankees in 1979, then went on a complete tear in the minor leagues, turning into a star overnight.
Once he joined the Yankees, he had great season after great season, winning AL MVP in 1985.
Once he turned 29, though, injuries took their toll.
He could still play at a high level, but his power took a big hit. His WAR in his last four seasons was 6.7; he had single seasons that high in his prime.
The quick flame-out due to injuries is what has kept him from reaching the Hall of Fame—there's no question Donnie Baseball would be in had he been healthy and had a full career.
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Time had almost run out for Dale Murphy, and it looks clear that he won't make it in the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA.
As a result, he's only the second two-time MVP not to make it into the Hall—the first will, of course, appear later.
Murphy was the fifth overall pick in the 1974 draft, and while it took him some time to really get going in the majors, he had an amazing six-year run between 1982 and 1987.
After that, his batting average plummeted, and it was actually a bit painful to watch him play.
Had his seasons before and after the peak been even just good, he would have a strong HoF case.
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The Baseball America list goes back to 1990, and a lot of the top prospects over the past 20 years, especially in the top five, can fill up a good portion of this list.
That list starts with 1990's No. 1 prospect, Steve Avery.
The fourth member of the Atlanta Braves' big three, the third overall pick in 1988 started strong, going 18-8 as a 21-year old in 1991. He added with an 18-6 record and a 2.94 ERA in 1993.
After the 1994 strike, though, he fell apart, going 38-44 in the rest of his career with an ERA over five.
Imagine how the Braves rotation would have been throughout the 1990s had he played like he did in his youth.
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In the 1990 prospect rankings, right behind Steve Avery was the first overall pick of the 1989 draft after an amazing season at LSU, Ben McDonald.
As a top prospect, he spent very little time in the minors, becoming a full-time major leaguer by 1990.
He started strong, winning some Cy Young votes while going 8-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 1990.
He had a few nice seasons mixed in with a few mediocre seasons, the last of which was 1997 in Milwaukee.
By the end of 1997, though, he was experiencing shoulder trouble, and rotator cuff surgery after the season removed any chance of recapturing what he once had.
Todd Van Poppel
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Todd Van Poppel might be the poster child for high school pitchers who have a huge amount of hype but never amount to much at any level.
The Oakland Athletics picked him 14th overall in 1990, and after going 6-13 in AA Huntsville the following year, they let him play a game in the majors.
After playing nine games in the minors in 1992 (his minor league record was 43-55), he was kept in the majors.
Despite being drafted high and named the No. 1 prospect in 1991, Van Poppel just didn't produce in the majors.
From 1993 to 1998, he had disappointing year after disappointing year, flaming out before his career really began. His time as a Cubs reliever was the only real bright spot.
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The first thing I thought when I heard that name was "who?"
Perhaps others are the same, and for those unfamiliar, he was the third overall pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 1989 draft.
The 16th-best prospect in 1990 improved to fifth and third the following two years, thanks to great seasons in San Bernardino and Jacksonville.
After the 1991 season, however, he had to have shoulder surgery.
The death sentence for most pitchers was certainly that, as he was never the same. He spent three seasons in the majors after that, but never showed all that much, though he did go 12-2 in Cincinnati's AAA Indianapolis in 1995, which showed what could have been.
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J.D. Drew was a player who had all the skills to be great, but it never seemed to come together.
He was drafted fifth overall by the Cardinals in 1998 and spent very little time in the minors, yet he was still named the top prospect in 1999.
In his first 14 games in 1998, he had five home runs and a .417 average, and it looked like his career would be stellar.
Instead, he put up solid numbers throughout his career, but he never had a star year besides his lone season in Atlanta.
He never really flamed out, but he never was the star he was projected to be.
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Is it too early to put Daisuke Matsuzaka on the flame-out list?
I certainly don't think so.
He was considered a huge pickup for the Boston Red Sox in 2007, especially given how much he was paid.
After a decent 2007, Matsuzaka was amazing in 2008, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA.
However, he struggled big time the past three seasons, and it's now looking like the 2008 season was a fluke.
In fact, he may not remain in MLB once his contract runs out this year.
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I'm going to throw in one more guy on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, though it's highly unlikely he will receive five percent of the vote to stay on.
Tim Salmon was drafted by the Angels in the third round in 1989 and took over from there.
In his last full season in the minors (1992), he hit .347 with 29 homers and was named the fifth-best prospect that offseason.
The Angels agreed and brought him up full-time, and he won the Rookie of the Year in 1993.
He continued to occasionally put up good power numbers after 30, but he was no longer the MVP candidate he was early in his career.
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Now we're getting back to a few that you can have a Hall of Fame discussion about.
Andruw Jones was signed by the Braves before he was 18, and by that time, he was tearing up the minor leagues.
After being named the top prospect both in 1996 and 1997, the Braves promoted him full-time, and for the better part of a decade he put up great power numbers while being very highly regarded for his defense.
By 2007, however, he was mostly done.
The past few seasons almost make it hard to believe he was once one of the best players in the game.
While he probably will make the Hall of Fame one day as sabermetrics continue to grow in popularity, the sharp drop before 30 in his performance will turn off voters.
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Who was the Yankees' best prospect in the mid-1990s?
If you said Derek Jeter, who was ranked fourth and sixth in 1995 and 1996, then it's a good guess, but you'd be wrong.
The answer was actually Ruben Rivera.
The cousin of Mariano Rivera was very highly touted and was ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 9 from 1995 to 1997 by Baseball America.
Despite that, once he joined the majors, he became a "quadruple A" player and flamed out immediately, with his defense perhaps being the only reason he lasted nine years.
Mariano, ironically, never popped up on top prospect lists.
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In 1994, the Oakland Athletics drafted Ben Grieve second overall, and over the next four years, he tore up the minor leagues.
The No. 1 prospect before the 1998 season, Grieve ended the 1997 season with a .426 average in 27 games at AAA Edmonton.
After his promotion, he won Rookie of the Year in 1998 and put up strong power numbers the next two seasons.
Once he was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, his power disappeared somewhat, and his poor defense became evident. By 2005, he was done.
The A's getting rid of good players young that end up falling apart is a trend you'll continue to see in this slideshow.
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Speaking of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they have had their share of flame-outs, and perhaps the most noteworthy is Rocco Baldelli.
The sixth overall pick in 2000 rose up the minors quickly and was considered the No. 2 prospect for the 2003 season, when he made his professional debut.
He finished third in RoY voting and followed that up with a solid season.
Tommy John surgery and a torn ACL cost him his 2005 season, and further injuries kept him from playing full-time again—he retired this past season as a result.
Even when he barely played a season, he showed flashes of greatness that caused people to ask what if.
Smoky Joe Wood
Perhaps the hardest thrower in the dead-ball era, Smoky Joe Wood joined Boston as an 18-year-old in 1908 and continued to improve each year.
The 1912 season was his greatest, as he went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA, nearly winning the MVP Award.
After injuring his thumb in 1913, he played fewer and fewer games and was not able to recover easily.
As a result, he was shut down as a pitcher and became an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians.
He had 117 wins at the age of 25, so there's no question he would have been a Hall of Famer had be been able to continue pitching.
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From one Wood to another, Kerry Wood was a phenom for which the Chicago Cubs had high hopes.
He was drafted fourth overall in 1995, and his performances were great enough in the minors that he was consistently a highly-touted prospect.
In 1998, he made his debut and won the Rookie of the Year Award, then missed the 1999 season due to Tommy John surgery.
However, he missed more and more playing time, and only played in four games in 2006.
By then, he became a relief pitcher, where he remains today.
Like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior was a phenom drafted by the Cubs who eventually succumbed to injuries.
He was drafted by the Cubs second overall in 2001 and played nine minor league games before his promotion in 2002.
After a solid rookie season, he was phenomenal in 2003, going 18-6 and nearly winning the Cy Young Award.
He had two more solid seasons where injuries popped up, then was placed on the DL in 2006 for the rest of that season.
Continued surgery and recovery has failed to bring him back into the majors, and while he keeps trying, it's clear that his career was over at 25.
Up next are a slew of No. 1 picks who flamed out either immediately or later on, with the first being the quickest—Steve Chilcott.
The first overall pick in 1966 ahead of Reggie Jackson before even turning 18, Chilcott's numbers in the minors were just bad, and injuries forced his retirement by the time he was 23, never really coming close to the majors despite how highly regarded he was in the draft.
Jeff Burroughs was the first overall pick by the Texas Rangers in 1969, then known as the Washington Senators.
He was placed in AAA almost immediately and spent a couple years there before becoming a Ranger full time in 1973.
He put up great numbers the next six seasons and won the MVP in 1974.
After his All-Star appearance in 1978, though, his numbers plummeted, and that combined with bad defense meant that he was no longer an everyday player.
His last season was in 1985, so he stuck around, but he was only a great player for a short period early on.
From one Ranger to another, this is a rare flame-out on the list that was directly caused by team management, rather than anything the player did.
The first overall pick in the 1973 draft made his MLB debut almost immediately to boost attendance.
He showed some flashes of greatness, but due to lack of seasoning, he only played two full seasons. Arm trouble led to him spending most of his career in the minors.
Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog has noted going along with Bob Shot's desire to overwork Clyde as a regret of his career.
How much of a can't-miss prospect was Danny Goodwin?
Well, to put it simply, he's the only player ever to be drafted first overall twice, a record that's not going to be broken.
Despite being drafted first in 1971 and 1975 and putting up great minor league numbers, he never got it going in the majors, playing in 252 career games and not looking like a star at any point.
Position players out of college tend to be relatively safe bets, so when the Braves drafted Arizona State standout Bob Horner in 1978, they immediately put him in the majors, as he was just that good.
After winning Rookie of the Year that year, he continued to put up great numbers and be in the MVP race, but he never played a full season.
The recurring injuries took their toll, and he retired after the 1988 season.
The year after Horner was selected, in 1979, the Seattle Mariners selected Al Chambers first overall in the draft.
During the next few seasons, the outfielder looked great in the minors, so he was brought up in 1983.
He failed to produce at all in the majors and only played in 57 games, despite the numbers he put up in the Pacific Coast League.
He ended up becoming another quadruple-A player.
The second minor leaguer never to reach the majors, Brien Taylor was drafted by the Yankees first overall in 1991.
The high school phenom was so good that Scott Boras called Taylor the best high school pitcher he had ever seen.
In his first two minor league seasons, he actually held to that and had great years.
In December 1993, though, he suffered a dislocated shoulder in a fight. He was never the same again after that, and he couldn't even pitch single-A ball anymore.
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The first overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986, Jeff King was a player who looked like he could be a centerpiece of a team.
After a mediocre minor league career, he joined the majors full time in 1989.
He had some decent years, but it wasn't until his 30s, in 1996, that he started showing some great numbers.
It seemed like he was getting going finally when he abruptly retired in May, 1999.
According to Joe Posnanski, King hated baseball and retired the day after he was able to collect a major league pension.
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I'm sure many of you were wondering when I would finally get to him.
Darryl Strawberry was the first overall pick by the Mets in 1980 and went on to have two amazing minor league seasons.
In 1983, Strawberry won the Rookie of the Year Award, and throughout his Mets tenure he was a perennial All-Star.
He was traded to the Dodgers in 1991 and had a good year there. After that, back surgery and other injuries meant he was no longer a full-time player.
That is, of course, not including the myriad of other personal problems he had. He could easily have been a Hall of Famer had he been able to remain even just an everyday player.
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Wilson is yet another first overall pick and highly ranked prospect who seemed to fall apart once he hit the majors.
The first overall pick by the Mets in 1994 progressed through the minors quickly and made his debut in 1996.
He played a full season in 1996 but struggled, and he spent two more years in the minors before missing the 1999 season due to a torn elbow ligament.
He played in the majors for six seasons after that, but shoulder surgery limited him, and he was never more than a serviceable, back-of-the-rotation guy.
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It's tough to say who was a "can't-miss" person, Kris or Anna Benson, but in reality Kris was very highly touted early on.
He was drafted first overall by the Pirates in 1996, and was a top 10 prospect two years in a row.
He made his debut in 1999 and had two good seasons with the Pirates.
After the 2000 season, he needed Tommy John surgery, and while he continued to play int he majors after 2010, he never amounted to much and never reached the numbers he first put up.
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You're probably seeing a pattern with many No. 1 picks succumbing to injuries, causing their flame-out.
Matt Anderson is perhaps the latest in that group.
The first overall pick by the Tigers in the 1997 draft immediately became a reliever in the minors and was dominant there.
After being promoted a year later, he had a few nice seasons for Detroit.
In May 2002, however, Anderson tore a muscle in his arm and was no longer effective after that, being unable to hit the speeds he could once throw.
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Bryan Bullington just seemed to flame out the second he reached the major leagues and is another who had an injury that did not exactly help.
The Pirates' first overall pick in 2002 was not ranked high on Baseball America's prospect lists, but he produced well in the minors.
Once he made the majors in 2005, he suffered a torn labrum, missing the 2006 season.
He pitched a few more years in the majors after that, but just looked flat-out bad, and we never really saw what he could do in the majors.
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Those skimming the slides have probably been looking for Gooden.
Certainly he's one of the most well-known sure things that flamed out, and it would be silly not to include him.
Dr. K was selected fifth overall in 1982 and made his debut in 1984.
His first two seasons—1985 especially—were historically among the greatest ever by a pitcher. He continued to be dominant until 1989, when he injured his shoulder.
Gooden was still good until 1993, though he had become a shell of his former self.
He missed all of the 1995 season due to a cocaine suspension, and he never again showed the dominance he once had, which was first-ballot Hall of Fame quality stuff.
Super Joe Charboneau wasn't much of a can't-miss prospect—at least not until 1978, when he hit .350 in the minor leagues and was traded to the Cleveland Indians.
Two years later, he had his career year, winning Rookie of the Year after hitting .289 with 23 HR and 87 RBI.
In 1981 during spring training, however, he injured his back and was suddenly done as a pro, only playing sparingly two more years.
Before Dwight Gooden came along and had two amazing seasons to start off his career, it was done roughly 30 years earlier by Herb Score.
The heir apparent to Bob Feller blew everyone away in the minors in 1954 and made his debut a year later.
He won Rookie of the Year his first season, 20 games the next and was strikeout champion both seasons.
In May 1957, Score was hit by a line drive from Gil McDougald and was never the same after that, failing to show the dominance he once had.
Clint Hartung is a name mostly forgotten now, but in the 1940s and 1950s, he was the guy who fit the title of this slideshow perfectly.
When he signed with the New York Giants in 1947, everyone seemed to say that the Giants had just acquired a Hall of Famer.
He played six seasons, moving from pitcher to outfielder later on, and was not effective at either spot.
He retired with pedestrian numbers, and the only times he seemed to show his greatness were in spring training.
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The fact that many of the players on this list are pitchers says a lot, and Dontrelle Willis seems to symbolize why so many are on there.
They seem to have more troubling injuries and are unable to adjust once it happens.
Willis blasted his way through the minors before winning Rookie of the Year for the Marlins in 2001.
Two years later, he won 22 games and perhaps should have won the Cy Young award. Once the Marlins traded him two seasons later, he fell apart.
A myriad of injuries combined with waning effectiveness means that his stint with the Phillies this coming year is certainly his last chance to recapture his former glory.
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Chuck Knoblauch quickly became the next big thing when the Twins drafted him in 1989.
He quickly made his way through the minors and won Rookie of the Year in 1991.
He continued to produce for six more great seasons, and after being traded to the New York Yankees, a Knoblauch-Jeter infield combination was highly regarded, at least before they took the field.
While his hitting was good until 2000, he suddenly stopped fielding effectively.
In fact, his fielding got so bad he was moved to the outfield to wrap up his career, and was ineffective by 2002, his final season in the bigs.
Unlike many of the other pitchers on this list who flamed out early due to injury, Steve Blass hung around for some time.
He made his debut in 1964 and played most of the season but spent 1965 in the minors.
He rejoined the team for good in 1966 and got better each year.
In 1972, he had his best year yet, going 19-8 and finishing second in Cy Young voting. After that, he suddenly couldn't pitch anymore.
Why he fell apart is unknown, but he suddenly couldn't throw a baseball anymore by the time the 1973 season began, and his atrocious stats that year prove it.
In fact, when someone suddenly can't pitch anymore for no tangible reason, it's now considered Steve Blass Disease.
Seattle Bill James was a 21-year old that debuted for the Boston Braves in 1913, putting together a good year.
It was the 1914 season, however, that people know him by.
James went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA, finished third in MVP voting and was a key factor in the Braves' upset World Series win against the Philadelphia Athletics.
However, his arm fell apart, and after 1915, he only played in one more game.
Now here's a name even I had never heard of until researching for this piece.
After spending a few years in the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system, he played a few games in 1932 and made his full-time debut in 1934.
DeLancey played two seasons for the Cardinals and put up some of the better hitting numbers in the league for a catcher.
After the 1935 season, however, he contracted tuberculosis. He was out of the league as a result.
He attempted a comeback in 1940 and died just a few years later, with Cardinals fans only seeing a glimpse of his greatness.
I could probably fill up this slideshow mostly with World War II veterans, and while they didn't flame out, many were not the same when they returned from war.
The poster child of this is Cecil Travis.
Travis made his debut in 1933 at the age of 19, and by 1935 was the Washington Senators' star shortstop.
He got better every year, and 1941 was his best season yet.
He hit .359 and had 218 hits, finishing sixth in MVP voting.
He then served in World War II and suffered frostbite while overseas, nearly leading to amputation.
He returned to baseball near the end of the 1945 season, but he never came close to the great numbers he put up the previous decade.
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Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was perhaps the most well-known flame-out.
He had a solid two-year career in the minors, and in 1976 was given a full-time starting job.
The result was a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA, a Rookie of the Year win and a new pitching sensation.
Six weeks into the 1977 season, however, he suffered a torn rotator cuff.
He tried to pitch through the injury, since it wasn't diagnosable at the time, but he was not the same, and he was done by 1980.