Greatest All-Time MLB Prospects Never to Make It to the Big Leagues
Jason Neighborgall featured one of the most electric fastballs in the history of the draft. // Courtesy of MLB.com
When reflecting on former top draft picks who became successful major league players, the recollection of former highly regarded prospects who failed to meet their lofty expectations is unavoidable.
Since the implementation of the First-Year Player Draft in 1965, the list of failed top prospects has continued to grow exponentially. For some players, their downfall was a result of an unfortunate injury (or multiple injuries), while others’ stemmed from a poor off-the-field decision. And then, of course, there's the majority of players who simply fizzled out as most prospects do.
Regardless, each player on this list was once revered as a future star, though sadly, they’ll only be remembered in the context of “what could have been.”
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Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2005 draft, the New York Yankees ultimately agreed to a $1.575 million contract with prep shortstop C.J. Henry.
Possessing one of the highest ceilings in the 2005 draft class, the gap between his outstanding athleticism and raw baseball skills also made him one of the riskier names on the board. However, that didn’t deter the Yankees from drafting Henry, which marked the fourth-straight draft that they targeted a high-upside prep prospect.
Despite spending four years in the Yankees’ system, Henry was never able to graduate from the Class-A level. He finished his minor league career with a .222/.296/.353 slash line over 272 games.
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Selected by the White Sox with the 16th overall pick in the 2001 draft, the 6’5” right-hander had undeniable potential as a frontline starter in the major leagues, including a big fastball and swing-and-miss secondary arsenal.
Honel breezed through his first three minor league seasons and even reached Double-A as a 20-year-old in late 2003. However, starting the following year, his promising career took a sharp nose-dive, as he failed to graduate from that level over the next seven years before his ultimate release following the 2007 season.
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Selected out of Bishop Eustace Prep (N.J.) with the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft, the Orioles took a gamble on Rowell’s plus left-handed raw power, and ultimately inked him to a $2.1 million signing bonus.
Rowell represented the classic high school slugger with robust raw power and little else, as he went on to become the first prep position player selected in the 2006 draft. The left-handed hitter could put on a show during batting practice, through it never translated as a professional.
Over his six-year career in the minor leagues—he reached Double-A in 2011 shortly before he was released—Rowell batted .261/.329/.389 with 40 home runs and 594 strikeouts in 550 games.
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After a storied amateur career that saw him drafted 12th overall in 2006, Kiker signed with the Rangers for $1.6 million, as the organization hoped he'd one day emerge as a frontline starting pitcher. However, the 5’10”, 185-pound left-hander’s command deteriorated as a professional, and he seemingly took two steps back for every one step forward.
Kiker, now 24, didn’t pitch professionally in 2012 after a last-resort move to the bullpen in both 2010 and 2011 led to even greater struggles. Presuming he never pitches again, Kiker will finish his highly-disappointing minor league career with a 23-31 record, 4.53 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 9.17 K/9 and 5.18 BB/9 in 481 innings.
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Headed into his senior season at Dunedin High School (FL), Harvey was already regarded as a sure-fire first-rounder with the potential to be a top-10 overall draft pick. And sure enough, the 6’5”, 240-pound outfielder was selected sixth overall by the Cubs in 2003 despite blowing out his knee earlier in the spring. The 18-year-old signed quickly, too, as he and the Cubs reached an agreement on a $2.4 signing bonus.
Given his size, athleticism and outstanding set of tools, Harvey was worth every penny at the time. However, the right-handed hitter’s bat never developed as expected, and his long swing and lack of plate discipline led to both contact and strikeout issues. In 2005, his best minor league season, Harvey posted an .808 OPS with 24 strikeouts, 100 RBI and 137/24 K/BB in 117 games as a 20-year-old in Low-A.
By the 2009 season, Harvey had been released by the Cubs after six dismal seasons with a game of experience above Double-A. He then spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons playing for the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate, but was subsequently released the following offseason. Over eight minor league seasons, he batted .244/.297/.452 with 117 home runs and 711/158 K/BB in 642 games.
Having worked in the low-90s as a high-school senior, Harvey attempted to revive his career on the mound with the Red Sox in 2011. However, the comeback attempt lasted only several months before he was released.
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Selected by the St. Louis Cardinals with the sixth overall pick in the 1989 draft, outfielder Paul Coleman was regarded as a potential All-Star outfielder with five very impressive tools.
However, despite his top-flight athleticism and projection to be an impact corner outfielder, Coleman’s baseball skills never materialized. In his full-season debut in 1990, the then 19-year-old batted .209/.278/.321 with nine stolen bases in 104 games for Low-A Savannah.
Although it took him three seasons to graduate from the Class-A level, Coleman finally reached Double-A as a 22-year-old in 1993, though his .682 OPS in 123 games was on par with the previous season. By 1994, this once promising prospect was out of baseball.
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The last time that the New York Yankees had the No. 1 overall selection in the draft was 1991, when they selected hard-throwing prep left-hander Brien Taylor.
With a fastball that sat in the mid-to-high-90s, the organization had high expectations for Taylor, who was expected to head the team’s major league rotation by the start of the 1995 season. By the end of the 1993 season, the southpaw had already finished a full season at Double-A, and was rapidly approaching an arrival in the major leagues.
However, in the offseason prior to his highly anticipated 1994 campaign—one that could have ended with an audition in the Show—Taylor tore the labrum in his left shoulder while defending his brother in a bar fight, thus marking the end of what was sure to be a promising big league career.
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As the top high school pitcher in the nation in 2003, Jeff Allison had all the ingredients of a No. 1 starter. However, due to petty concerns about his mechanics, and more justified concerns about his overall makeup, the 6’2”, 195-pound right-hander fell to the then-Florida Marlins at No. 16 overall. Still, with three (potentially four) above-average to plus pitches, many expected Allison to rise quickly through organization’s farm system.
Sadly, the 18-year-old suffered a nearly-fatal drug overdose following the conclusion of the season, and subsequently received treatment for his addiction to both heroin and Oxycontin. Due to multiple failed drug tests, the Marlins placed the right-hander on the restricted list and he missed the entire 2004 season.
Allison returned to the mound as a 20-year-old in 2005 for Low-A Greensboro, logging nearly 100 innings in 17 starts. However, his struggles with substance abuse resurfaced that offseason, as he suffered another overdose. But after missing the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons, Allison made a comeback in 2008 as a 23-year-old. Eventually relegated to a bullpen role, he remained with the Marlins through the 2011 season before leaving via free agency.
In six minor league seasons, the former first-rounder was 31-38 with a 4.65 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 5.3 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 over 131 career games.
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Selected by the Oakland A’s in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Cal Poly, Desme was a rare college player in that his baseball skills lagged well behind his overall athleticism and tools. Unfortunately, his professional career got off to a slow start, as a wrist and shoulder injury prevented him from making his full-season debut in 2008.
Finally healthy headed into the 2009 season, Desme enjoyed a breakout campaign across both Class-A levels, as the then-23-year-old outfielder batted .288/.365/.568 with 68 extra-base hits (31 home runs) and 40 stolen bases in 131 games. The 6’2” outfielder followed with an even more impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, as he paced the circuit with 11 home runs and was subsequently named its MVP.
However, Desme’s career ended after that final AFL contest. In the offseason prior to his highly anticipated 2010 season, Desme shocked the baseball world when he announced that he was retiring in order to become a priest-in-training over the next two years. These days, the 26-year-old goes by Father Matthew Desme, as he continues to carry out his spiritual quest as a monk at St. Michael’s Abbey in California.
If you’re interested in reading more about Desme, I urge you to read this extraordinary article written by Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan last fall.
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A seventh-round draft pick of the Red Sox out of high school in 2002, Neighborgall chose to honor his commitment to Georgia Tech instead. With a fastball that consistently reached triple-digits and an unhittable, wipeout slider, the 6’5”, 205-pound right-hander attracted tons of draft buzz despite three consecutive disappointing seasons in college.
With so many working parts to his delivery and an arm seemingly too powerful for his own body, Neighborgall’s non-existent control was magnified upon entering the Diamondbacks’ system.
Just how bad was it you ask? Well, the right-hander posted a 17.22 ERA, 3.97 WHIP, 10.20 K/9 and 27.21 BB/9 in only 42.1 innings over three minor league seasons. Let me try presenting that differently: in 42.1 career minor-league innings, Neighborgall walked 128 batters?
Is that even possible? I honestly don’t know. However, by the 2008 season, his control problems had forced him out of the game, leaving everyone wondering about what could have been.