25 Potentially Immortal Baseball Careers Derailed by Injuries

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IJanuary 13, 2012

25 Potentially Immortal Baseball Careers Derailed by Injuries

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    In the sports world, injuries are an inevitability. Be it a nagging backache or a broken bone, people are going to get hurt. It's just a fact.

    Yet, while some players recover on time or even ahead of schedule, some are not so lucky. If these injuries are suffered by players who were doing well up until getting hurt, the fans feel a unique type of great disappointment, almost living vicariously through said injured player in doing so.

    In baseball, let's not forget that Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau still doesn't seem to have recovered from the concussion that prematurely ended his 2010 season. As a result, his team underachieved last year.

    To give another example, arm injuries have kept Red Sox pitcher Daisuke "Dice-K" Matsuzaka (pictured) from returning to his 2008 form (18-3, 2.90 ERA). As of now, it's unclear when these players will be 100 percent again, if ever at all.

    Thus, let's take a look at the baseball archives and look at 25 potentially great baseball careers that were snuffed out by injury.

No. 25: Don Mattingly

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    For the first half of his career, Don Mattingly was a perennial All-Star who was a great producer at the plate as well as one who could play great defense at first base. He won the AL batting title in 1984 at age 23 and just one year later, he took home the AL MVP Award when he hit .324 with 35 home runs and an MLB-best 145 RBI.

    That season, he also took home the first of nine Gold Gloves he would win.

    Yet, in 1988, back problems befell the young slugger. He hit .311, but only had 18 home runs with 88 RBI. He would slightly rebound the next year with 23 homers and 111 RBI, but it was obvious that something was not right.

    From 1990 on, Mattingly was a shell of his former self. The defense was there, but the power and production were gone, as he hit just 58 longballs from that point up until his retirement in 1995 at age 34.

    The man appeared to be sure-fire Hall of Famer at one point, but the dismal second half of his career makes his status as one highly debatable today. Had he been able to stay healthy, I'm sure that he'd be in Cooperstown already.

No. 24: Jason Kendall

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    Jason Kendall debuted in 1996 as the new catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting as he hit .300, but over the first three years of his career, he established himself as a rare type of player: a catcher who could hit well for average and also steal bases.

    From 1996-1998, Kendall hit .308 while also stealing 49 bases in 62 attempts.

    Suddenly, on July 4 weekend in 1999, the worst befell Kendall. In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, after laying down a bunt, he dislocated his ankle while running to first and had to be carried off on a stretcher. At the time, he was hitting .332 with 22 stolen bases.

    Kendall would return in 2000 and hit .320 with 22 steals, but that would be the last season in which fans got to enjoy his speed. For the rest of his career, he never swiped more than 15 bags in a season and the pop in his bat soon faded away.

    In the end, he was just another case of what could have been.

No. 23: Nomar Garciaparra

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    It's hard to include Nomar Garciaparra on this list, seeing as how he was easily the best hitter in baseball from 1997-2000. Over that stretch, the man hit .337 with 113 home runs and 420 RBI despite missing time with some nagging injuries.

    Still, it appeared that he was about to become a legit threat at the plate as someone who could hit for average as well as power, not to mention drive in lots of runs.

    However, in 2001, a broken wrist limited Garciaparra to 21 games. He came back to have two solid seasons in 2002 and 2003, but the injury bug bit him and stuck around starting in 2004.

    From that year on, Garciaparra never appeared in more than 122 games and while he hit .291 from 2004 up until his retirement following the 2009 season, his power was gone as well as his once electrifying offensive ability.

    Had he been able to stay off the disabled list, there's no telling what kinds of numbers he could have posted.

No. 22: Mark Fidrych

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    You know how every so often, a player will come along and he'll be so good that he becomes a sort of folk hero? Well, in 1976, that man was Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych.

    Nicknamed "The Bird" due to his resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street, Fidrych went 19-9 with an MLB-best 2.34 ERA and incredible 1.07 WHIP. Sure enough, he finished second in AL Cy Young voting and ended up being named AL Rookie of the Year.

    Unfortunately, the story was over no sooner than it had started. Arm problems limited Fidrych to just 27 starts over the next four seasons, during which he went 10-10 with a 4.28 ERA.  After the 1980 season, he was forced to retire at age 25.

    Still, fans will always have that one solid season to remember how they first fell in love with "The Bird."

No. 21: Ben McDonald

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    As the first overall pick in the 1989 amateur draft, 6'7" right-hander Ben McDonald obviously had a lot of hype surrounding him. The man soon became a classic case of a highly-touted prospect who was rushed to the majors.

    McDonald appeared in six games at the major-league level in 1989 before becoming a semi-regular the following year.

    McDonald was never god awful, as his ERA was usually anywhere from the mid-threes to the low- to mid-fours, but he was never the dominant ace Orioles fans hoped he would be. He eventually became a free agent and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, but shoulder problems took over his second season there. He was just 29 years old.

    In the blink of an eye, the odds of him becoming a late bloomer were snuffed out. He finished his nine MLB seasons with a 78-70 record and a 3.91 ERA.

No. 20: Ray Fosse

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    When it comes to injuries, Ray Fosse just couldn't get a break. He became an everyday player in 1970. While he finished that season with a .307 average, 18 home runs and 61 RBI, a key injury suffered during the All-Star Game is what headlined Fosse's year. 

    On the last play of the game, Pete Rose scored the winning run and ran over Fosse in the process. Rose hit Fosse so hard that the young catcher's shoulder was separated.

    From that point on, it all went downhill for Fosse.

    The following year, he got kicked in the right hand during a brawl and needed stitches, ultimately missing about a week. He returned only to tear a ligament in the left hand and be sidelined longer. Injuries ultimately prevented him from keeping any starting jobs and by the time he retired at age 32 in 1979, he was an ineffective backup.

    Had Fosse stayed healthy, he easily could have been one of the better catchers in the history of the game.

No. 19: Matt Anderson

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    The Detroit Tigers selected Matt Anderson with the first overall pick in the 1997 draft in hopes that he would one day become a top closer for them. He impressed enough in the minors to be called up in 1998 and though he wasn't the closer immediately, he was still a decent fireballer out of the bullpen over the next three seasons.

    At times, his fastball would reach triple digits. His only problem was that he walked way too many people.

    Anderson saved 22 games in 2001 and appeared all set to take over that role full-time the following year, but he tore a muscle in his throwing arm in May 2002. When he returned, his fastball barely touched 90 miles per hour and he was out of the majors just a few years later at age 28.

    Since then, he has appeared in various independent leagues and attempted (and failed) a comeback with the Phillies last season.

No. 18: Joba Chamberlain

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    Believe it or not, Joba Chamberlain was at one point considered a top pitching prospect. In his first year in the pros, he absolutely tore it up in the minors. In just 18 games (15 starts), Chamberlain went 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while striking out 135 batters in 88.1 innings.

    I remember when watching a Yankee game on TV that season, play-by-play man Michael Kay recalled a conversation with GM Brian Cashman in which the front office chief compared Chamberlain to Justin Verlander.

    Chamberlain was called up to the majors late in the 2007 season, and that was the beginning of the end. Used solely out of the bullpen, the hard-throwing righty was subject to regulations known as "Joba Rules," as in he could not pitch on consecutive days and for every inning pitched on one night, that's how many days off he received.

    The rules continued into 2008 as Chamberlain appeared in 42 games, but started just 12.  Still, he finished with a 4-3 record and 2.38 ERA, not to mention 118 strikeouts in 100.1 innings before being shut down with rotator cuff tendonitis.

    It wasn't until the 2009 season that the Joba Rules approach reared its ugly head as Chamberlain became a full-time starter, but was nowhere near as electrifying. He went 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA before being sent back to the bullpen once the playoffs began.

    Today, the once highly-touted prospect is now just another arm in the bridge to closer Mariano Rivera, and he missed most of last season with Tommy John surgery.

    Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I blame the Joba Rules.

No. 17: Smoky Joe Wood

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    Smoky Joe Wood was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the early 1900s and if there's anything people remember him for, it's his 1912 season.

    That year, Wood led the majors with 34 wins compared to just five losses while posting a remarkable 1.91 ERA and leading the majors with 35 complete games and 10 shutouts.  The 22-year-old also threw a whopping 344 innings that season.

    Unfortunately, while trying to field a bunt the very next year, Wood slipped on grass and broke his thumb. He continued to put up effective numbers in terms of ERA and win-loss record, but he never fully recovered from the injury and required a lot of time off in between starts.

    By 1917, at just 27 years old, his once-promising pitching career was over.

No. 16: Mitch Meluskey

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    In 2000, Mitch Meluskey got the opportunity to be the everyday catcher for the Houston Astros and was pretty solid. In 117 games, he hit .300 with 14 home runs and 69 RBI while also playing some pretty solid defense behind the plate.

    All in all, he looked like he'd be the team's backstop for a while.

    Yet, that offseason, Meluskey was traded to the Detroit Tigers for Brad Ausmus. While the trade was a head-scratcher, it ultimately proved to be the right move as Meluskey missed all but eight games over the next two seasons due to a severe shoulder injury.

    In 2004, he was forced to retire because of it.

No. 15: Justin Morneau

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    To be honest, I never thought I'd be seeing Justin Morneau on a list like this one. The man won the AL MVP Award in 2006 and has been a great offensive presence for the normally light-hitting Minnesota Twins.

    Yet, based on how he performed last season, I have to include him.

    A concussion limited Morneau to 81 games in 2010, but he came back ready to go in 2011.  Unfortunately, injuries to his wrist and foot coupled with neck surgery as well as concussion symptoms returning led Morneau to have the worst season of his career since 2003.

    In just 69 games, he hit .227 with four home runs and 30 RBI.

    Unless he comes back full force in 2012, I'm convinced that he might be done.

No. 14: Dickie Thon

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    In 1984, his second year as an everyday player, shortstop Dickie Thon had a breakout season for the Houston Astros. The 25-year-old hit .286 with 20 home runs, 79 RBI and 34 steals.  Many thought that such production would continue over the length of what would become a long and prosperous and potentially Hall of Fame career.

    That all changed the next season, when a fastball from Mike Torrez fractured Thon's left orbital bone just five games into the 1985 campaign.

    He came back in 1986 and played until his retirement following the 1993 season, but his depth perception was never the same and he never returned to his breakout form.

No. 13: Joe Charboneau

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    Much like the aforementioned Mark Fidrych, Joe Charboneau was one of those players who was so out there and unique that he was almost a folk hero. Charboneau was known for his wacky personality and quirks. He would do everything from dying his hair weird colors to opening beer with his eye to drinking beer through his nose.

    After tearing it up in the minors for a few years, the outfielder made his debut for the Cleveland Indians in 1980 and became an overnight sensation.

    Charboneau finished the season with a .289 average, 23 home runs and 87 RBI on his way to being named AL Rookie of the Year.

    Unfortunately, the success was short-lived, as Charboneau hurt his back during spring training the next year and was never the same. He played in just 70 games and hit .211 over the next two years before retiring.

    Just as soon as he was the flavor of the week, "Super Joe" was soon gone.

No. 12: Brandon Webb

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    For most of the 2000s, Brandon Webb was one of the most underrated pitchers in the game.  He put up solid numbers, but didn't get much recognition playing for a light-hitting Arizona Diamondbacks team.

    Still, Webb managed to take home the 2006 NL Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record and a 3.10 ERA. He continued to impress in 2007 when he threw 42 consecutive scoreless innings.

    Unfortunately, it all came crashing down for Webb in 2009. On Opening Day, he was limited to just four innings and was placed on the disabled list shortly after, with shoulder bursitis. He didn't pitch again that season, but Arizona still picked up the option on his contract with the hope that he could return in 2010.

    Webb did not return in 2010 and signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Texas Rangers prior to last season. Once again, his shoulder flared up and he had a second surgery on his rotator cuff last summer.

    For all we know, Webb could come back full force at some point. However, in terms of career downturns, this one is definitely among the worst.

No. 11: Daisuke Matsuzaka

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    There was a lot of hype surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka before he even made his major league debut as he went 3-0 for Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. After the 2006 season, the Seibu Lions posted the dynamic strikeout pitcher and in the end, the Boston Red Sox had the winning bid of $51.1 million.

    After a heavy negotiating period with agent Scott Boras, the man known as Dice-K was signed to a six-year contract worth $52 million, plus bonuses that could push the worth up to $60 million.

    Matsuzaka's first year in the bigs was an adjustment as he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA. But in 2008, he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA and finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting.

    However, following his appearance in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the house of cards fell on Matsuzaka—and hard. Arm trouble limited him to just 12 starts that season and he has yet to regain the ace form that made him a star in Japan.

    Over the past three seasons, he has gone 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA and missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

    He's only 31, so there's the slight possibility that he could somehow return to his old form.  However, I'm not optimistic.

No. 10: J.R. Richard

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    At 6'8" and 222 pounds, you knew that J.R. Richard was going to be a special kind of pitcher.  After four years as an occasional reliever/spot starter, the hard-throwing righty became a full-time member of the team's rotation in 1975.

    Almost overnight, he developed a reputation as a strikeout machine, striking out 303 batters in 1978 and 313 in 1979.

    Richard was having another great season in 1980, owning a 10-4 record and 1.90 ERA on July 30. That night, while playing catch before the start of the Astros game, Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed before being rushed to the hospital and having a blood clot removed from his neck.

    He attempted to come back the following year, but his reaction time was slower and his depth perception not as sharp as it once was. In the blink of an eye, the once scary strikeout pitcher's career was over at age 31.

    Still, despite his career's unfortunate end, he remains involved in the Houston community today and is one of the most popular pitchers in team history.

No. 9: Eric Chavez

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    In the early- to mid-2000s, besides the New York Yankees, the team to beat was the Oakland A's. This squad put together teams of young prospects combined with older veterans with one mantra in mind: just get on base.

    Sure enough, they consistently made the playoffs out of the AL West.

    One of the key players on these teams was third baseman Eric Chavez, who played incredible defense to go with his powerful lefty bat. From 1999-2006, the man hit .271 to go with 212 homers and 710 RBI while winning six Gold Gloves for his defense.

    Unfortunately, starting in 2007, the injury bug bit Chavez as back pain limited him to 154 games over the next four seasons before he hit free agency. At that point, the best deal he could get was a minor league deal with the New York Yankees.

    He was a solid backup for the team last year, but there's no telling what milestones he could have reached if he stayed healthy.

No. 8: Francisco Liriano

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    The Minnesota Twins acquired Francisco Liriano in the trade that also got them Joe Nathan and he debuted in 2005. In six games, he struck out 33 batters in 23.2 innings pitched.

    Liriano got the chance to become a full-time starter in 2006 and he immediately impressed, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings. Unfortunately, the happiness ended that summer as the hard-throwing lefty started feeling pain in his elbow.

    Despite efforts at rehab, he had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2007.

    Liriano has not been the same since returning, posting a 34-37 record and 4.58 ERA since 2008. The strikeouts and velocity are still there to a degree, but his control has just deserted him.

    He enters free agency after next season and in order for him to get any offers, he's going to need to prove that he still has some of that 2006 fire left in him.

No. 7: Mark Mulder

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    Those Oakland A's teams of the early- to mid-2000s were also known for having some great pitching, and left-hander Mark Mulder was no exception. With the help of his sneaky changeup, he went 21-8 with a 3.45 ERA and four shutouts in 2001, finishing second in Cy Young voting.

    Mulder was eventually traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 2004 season and it was there where his injury problems surfaced.

    After going 16-8 his first year with the team, Mulder made just 21 starts over the next three years due to recurring shoulder problems. Over that stretch, he went 6-10 with a 7.73 ERA before retiring in 2010. 

    At that point, he had not pitched for nearly two years.

No. 6: Dean Chance

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    When the Los Angeles Angels debuted in 1961, one of the young pitchers on the team was 20-year-old Dean Chance. The following season, he would become a full-time member of the rotation and in 1964, he won the AL Cy Young Award with a 20-9 record and incredible 1.65 ERA to go with 11 shutouts.

    Chance would continue to be a top pitcher for the Angels and Minnesota Twins over the next few years and put up solid ERA numbers despite average win-loss records.

    Starting in 1969, career decline hit him like a ton of bricks.

    A back injury hampered his effectiveness and from that season up until his retirement at age 30 in 1971, Chance would win just 18 games while posting a 3.76 ERA. At one moment, he was one of the best and in a heartbeat, he was suddenly all washed up.

No. 5: Mark Prior

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    The Chicago Cubs took Mark Prior with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft and he became a fan favorite just one year later, going 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA in just 19 starts. In 116.2 innings, he struck out a whopping 147 hitters.

    Prior continued his dominance in 2003 when he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts, ultimately finishing third in NL Cy Young voting.

    Starting in 2004, however, Prior would be hit by the injury bug, starting with an Achilles' tendon issue that kept him out for two months. In 2005, a line-drive comebacker fractured his elbow and caused him to miss only a month, shockingly.

    His worst injury was in 2006 when his shoulder just wouldn't stop acting up, ultimately pitching him to a 1-6 record with a 7.21 ERA.

    Prior has not pitched in the majors since, despite spending time in the systems of the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers and New York Yankees. Sadly, had Dusty Baker (his manager in Chicago) employed a pitch count on him, he could have been one of the all-time greats.

No. 4: Kerry Wood

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    Kerry Wood first came to the majors in 1998 as a hard-throwing 20-year-old prospect.  Inserted right into the rotation, his fifth career start went down in history as one of the most dominant of all-time.

    Against the Houston Astros, Wood threw a one-hit, no-walk shutout while striking out 20 hitters. He finished the season with a 13-6 record, 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 166.2 innings on his way to being named NL Rookie of the Year.

    The injury trouble began the following year for Wood, as he underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training of 1999. He returned in 2000 and was one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in baseball, but his high pitch counts ultimately led to more arm problems resurfacing in 2004.

    He started just 14 games from 2005-2006 before being moved to the bullpen.

    Wood ultimately thrived as a closer for both the Cubs and Indians, but his arm problems never seemed to go away. Today, once again on the Cubs, he's just a random righty out of the bullpen and a complete shell of the potential ace we first met in 1998.

No. 3: Tony Conigliaro

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    Entering the 1967 season, Tony Conigliaro was a 22-year-old outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who was gaining a reputation as being an effective power hitter. Going into the team's game against the California Angels on August 18 of that year, he was batting .287 with 20 home runs and 67 RBI.

    Facing Jack Hamilton, Conigliaro's career then took an unfortunate turn. Hamilton's pitch hit him on the left cheekbone and caused a fracture of said bone to go with a dislocated jaw and damage to his left eye.

    He would go on to miss the rest of that season and all of 1968 before coming back in 1969 and putting up big power numbers for the next two seasons.

    Unfortunately, Conigliaro's vision out of his left eye was permanently damaged and as a result, he was forced to retire after the 1971 season and again after an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1975.

No. 2: Brien Taylor

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    Brien Taylor is easily one of the most interesting stories on this countdown, seeing as how he never once appeared in a major league game. The New York Yankees drafted him with the first overall pick in the 1991 draft and he was immediately anticipated to be the future ace of the staff.

    As a senior in high school, Taylor struck out 213 hitters in just 88 innings, so of course the hype was off the charts.

    He started the 1992 season at high-A ball and was decent, going 6-8 with a 2.57 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. He moved up to Double-A the following year and while solid, he led the league in walks. The Yankees asked him to pitch in an instructional league that winter, but Taylor refused because he was tired from the season and just wanted to be at home with his family in North Carolina. 

    This decision proved to be the one that defined his career.

    On December 18, 1993, Taylor got into a fight while defending his brother and fell on his throwing shoulder in the process. He dislocated it an also tore his labrum, which forced him to miss all of 1994.

    When he attempted to come back in 1995, Taylor had lost eight miles per hour off his once high-90s fastball and he could no longer throw a curveball for a strike. With the loss of his velocity and control, he just couldn't throw anymore.  From 1995-1998, in minor-league ball, he went 3-15 with a 12.18 ERA.

    And to think it all could have been avoided had he just gone to winter ball.

No. 1: Bo Jackson

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    I was only three or four years old when I started watching him, but to me, Bo Jackson was like Superman.

    Not only was he a star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, but he also played running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. To a youngster that age, let alone any sports fan, that was just incredible.

    Over a four-year span playing for KC, from 1987-1990, Jackson hit 107 home runs with 304 RBI. He was only in his mid-to-late 20s at this point, so he easily had a shot at becoming a top outfielder.

    However, being a two-sport athlete a la Deion Sanders caught up with Jackson as in the 1990 NFL playoffs, he was tackled and dislocated his hip. This ended his football career and once he returned to baseball, he was not the same electrifying player he once was.

    He retired in 1994, having hit just 32 home runs the previous four seasons.

    I'm not saying that he shouldn't have played pro football, but I think it's pretty obvious that Jackson could have been someone special had he stuck with baseball full-time.