Bruce Chen’s Footnote in History

This is not the timeliest of posts, so apologies to those who come here for more 2010-related discussion.

In 1999, Baseball America ranked Bruce Chen as the number four prospect in baseball. Chen was a 21-year-old southpaw pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. He stood only six-foot-one and was signed out of Panama in 1993 as a teenager. Chen had a history of injuries and his top tools were deception and brains. Take that combination in the latter 1990s and the first comparison out of people’s mouths was, of course, Greg Maddux. Now, I don’t want to spoil anything here, but … well, Chen did not become Greg Maddux part deux.

Chen did find a way to rack up nearly 900 Major League innings over his career. His 4.71 ERA is obviously below what many would have pegged for him, but it is a nice representation of his pitching career than his 5.22 FIP. The odd thing about Chen is not that he was a velocity-starved left-handed pitcher. Nor that he was compared to Maddux based on smarts. Heck, not even that he failed to live up to expectations. But, that he was traded within the division. Not once. Not twice. Not thrice. But four times. Within four seasons.

Remember, Chen was the number four prospect in all of baseball entering the 1999 season. He appeared in 16 games for the Braves that season and had a 5.47 ERA. The next season, Chen pitched in 39 innings for the Braves – all in relief – and held a 2.50 ERA (4.34 FIP). The Braves traded him and Jimmy Osting to the Philadelphia Phillies for Andy Ashby. Chen went on to make 15 starts for the Phillies with a 3.63 ERA (4.26 FIP). This looked like a long-term win for the Phillies, right?

Well, in 2001, he made 16 starts with the Phils and despite strikingly good peripherals (8.24 K/9, 3.23 BB/9) Chen posted a 5 ERA (5.19 FIP thanks to allowing two homers per nine) and the Phillies did the sensible thing: They traded him to the New York Mets with a minor leaguer for Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell. He would work out of the rotation for the Mets and do okay – a 4.68 ERA and 5.06 FIP – again because of issues with the long ball.

Now comes 2002 and Chen appears in one game for the Mets, recording two outs. On April 5th, they trade him to the Montreal Expos in a deal that involves Scott Strickland heading to the Big Apple. Chen wouldn’t last long there either, he would appear in 15 games with the Expos, post an excellent strikeout rate, but also hold a 21.4% HR/FB ratio and 6.99 ERA and find himself dealt to the Cincinnati Reds on Flag Day.

I think only Rob Neyer holds enough knowledge to be able to answer this, but has another player in the history of baseball as highly touted as Bruce Chen been tossed around a division so often and fast? Clearly Chen had some flaws, no doubt, but here are the number four ranked prospects in baseball over the last few years:

2010 – Jesus Montero
2009 – Tommy Hanson
2008 – Clay Buchholz
2007 – Phil Hughes
2006 – Jeremy Hermida
2005 – Ian Stewart

Obviously comparing prospect list quality across years is tricky but stay with me. Can anyone imagine the Red Sox trading Clay Buchholz to the Orioles for Kevin Millwood. And then in a season the Orioles trading Buchholz to the Blue Jays for Jason Frasor. And then a season later, the Jays trading Buchholz to the Rays for Lance Cormier. Would never happen. But it did.



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xdog
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xdog
6 years 2 months ago

fwiw, during the latter days of Chen’s tenure with Atlanta, I was told he didn’t mind relaxing with a drink or 8.

MB
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MB
6 years 2 months ago

I don’t think the Expos and Reds were in the same division, so he was only “traded within the division” thrice, but the general point still holds of course.

198d
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198d
6 years 2 months ago

+1. Clearly, Cistulli’s nemesis should be earning his newfound full time pay via additional “senior editing,” duties. I kid, of course.

Shannon
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Shannon
6 years 2 months ago

This seems like more along the lines of Jayson Stark territory.

B N
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B N
6 years 2 months ago

Unrelated prediction: One of the articles tomorrow is going to be about the Red Sox ability to stop the stolen base (or lack thereof). I have never seen 9+ stolen bases allowed in a single game in recent memory.

matt
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matt
6 years 2 months ago

soo awesome

this is amazing stuff r.j

MB
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MB
6 years 2 months ago

I’m not sure of how all the transactions went down, but Brian Schneider has played for three of the NL-East teams in the last four years. (Maybe three years? I’m doing this from memory.) The Nationals traded him to the Mets, along with Ryan Church, for Lastings Milledge, and now he plays for the Phillies. But he may have been a free agent when he signed with Philadelphia.

I think Ryan Church has been passed around the NL East, too–after NY, I’m pretty sure he ended up in ATL. (Although he’s in Pittsburgh now.)

Stephen
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Stephen
6 years 2 months ago

Nice article. I thoroughly enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

payday0023
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payday0023
6 years 2 months ago

Yeah, screw timeliness. More articles like this please! I enjoy the blast from the past.

ABravesFan
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ABravesFan
6 years 2 months ago

As a Braves fan, I do recall being excited about Bruce Chen. In hind sight, it was interesting that the praise was the comparison to Maddux. I guess his rise to being such a highly regarded had to do with his great minor numbers (although back in the day, scouting wasn’t as stat based and I would think the lack of velocity would really knock him down in projection) or perhaps it was the product of the great Braves hype machine of their minor leaguers. Of course, he never really panned out but was able to hang around the major as a lefty that throws (perhaps too good of) strikes.

Now the more interesting point about him being traded within division, I would have to guess that this has to do with the unbalanced schedule. The other teams in the division obviously are familiar with Chen and hold the belief that it will only take a minor tweak to fulfill his bloated potential.

Tepps
Member
Tepps
6 years 2 months ago

He was traded on Flag Day, eh? I think we should try to find an obscure holiday to note all future transactions.

Bruce Chen’s trade dates:
July 12: Kiribati Independence Day
July 27: Finnish National Sleepy Head Day (seriously)
April 5: Ross Gload’s Birthday

YoLeven
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YoLeven
6 years 2 months ago

I remember Chen playing for the Triple A Ottawa Lynx during his time with the ‘Spos. In the feature on him in the team program, he was asked who his favourite pitcher was. His response: “Bruce Chen.”

Enough to make me a fan.

Gilbert
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Gilbert
6 years 2 months ago

I remember hoping the Dodgers would sign Dave Kingman so he could have worn the uniform of all 5 California teams (he played for the Angels and Padres in 1977 between his SF and Oakland stints).
I remember hearing Chen’s name as an up-and-coming Braves pitcher and asked him to sign a ball I got at a Southern League game. Seeing that the G-Braves’ other touted prospect in 1998 was George Lombard, it wasn’t as if I missed a big opportunity. Their SS was Mark de la Rosa, who has had the best career of that team.
There was a current Brave at that game in Huntsville, an A’s farmhand with mediocre stats I had not heard of at the time, Tim Hudson.

will farrell
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will farrell
5 years 2 months ago

C’mon Chen

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