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.

We hoped you liked reading Bruce Chen’s Footnote in History by R.J. Anderson!

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