Defining A Bust

What future for Joba's past shoulder injury?
Yanks sign Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal
Busts don't get much bigger. (Photo Credit: John Iacono/SI)

The term “bust” gets thrown around quite a bit these days. It’s short, simple, easy to spell, and vague enough that it can be used it describe a variety of things without much basis or room for debate. It epitomizes the knee-jerk nature of the internet, just ask Andrew Brackman after the 2009 season. Of course not all busts are created equal, so why do we lump them all together under one umbrella term?

Although busts can happen at any level in any sport, we’re going to focus on the term as it related to minor leaguers and prospects. This is where it gets used most often anyway. Players who flame out will typically fall into one of four categories, though we should probably acknowledge that a fifth exists and covers all the miscellaneous stuff that happens. Let’s take a look…

1. Injury Busts
This is probably the most common kind of bust, especially when it comes to pitchers. Players get hurt and it can irreparably change their careers, it’s just part of life. Sometimes it’s a fluke thing, sometimes it’s the result of flawed mechanics or poor form. Unless the team consciously puts a player in harm’s way or the player deliberately injuries himself, there’s no sense in assigning blame here. Shit happens man, usually there’s nothing you can do about it.

Brien Taylor is worth a mention here because he certainly qualifies as an injury bust, but that doesn’t mean taking him first overall in 1991 was a poor decision. He was the best prospect in the draft class and is arguably the best high school pitching prospect of the last 25 years. He killed the minors in his first season (161 IP, 121 H, 187 K, 2.57 ERA), but he blew out his shoulder in an off-the-field incident. Calling Taylor a bad pick because of the injury is revisionist history at it’s finest.

2. Talent/Skills Busts
Sometimes a player just doesn’t have it. They’re lacking a key baseball skill to become a successful player, or maybe they simply don’t have enough talent as everyone else. Tim Battle is a perfect example of the former; the kid had all the talent in the world but simply couldn’t recognize pitches that broke and was unable to get the bat on the ball consistently. Those two flaws proved to be fatal, and he was done before his 23rd birthday.

These kinds of busts fall at the feet of both the player and team. Although it takes a certain amount of God-given ability to play the game at a high level, it’s up to the player to put in the work needed to improve and advance. Some guys just don’t do that. It’s also up to the team to recognize who has “it” and who doesn’t. Trust me, this is much, much easier said than done. When someone learns how to perfect scouting to even a 50% success rate, they’ll become very, very rich.

3. Development Path Busts
Players that bust because of a poor development path/plan are hard to define, but they do exist. Eric Duncan jumps to mind. He was the best power hitting high school prospect in the country when the Yankees drafted him in 2003, and a year later he posted a .358 wOBA with 43 doubles and 16 homers in 538 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa as a 19-year-old. Given the state of their big league team and the need for prospects to use in trades, the Yanks rushed Duncan up the ladder in an effort to make him more desirable in a trade. First overall pick Delmon Young was the only 2003 high school draftee to beat Duncan to Triple-A, a level he reached at age 21. The aggressive promotions hurt his development because he simply wasn’t ready to face that caliber of competition.

Who knows, maybe Duncan wasn’t going to cut it out no matter how much time he was given, but the team certainly did him no favors. Fernando Martinez of the Mets is another example of this, that kid was in the big leagues at age 20 with less than a season’s worth of playing time at either Double-A or Triple-A. Every prospect has a unique development path, and it’s not often that being rushed helps them out. Development busts are on the team.

4. Expectation Busts
This one is tricky because these players aren’t really busts, but we consider them to be because they didn’t meet our expectations. Look at Joba Chamberlain. He’s a fine reliever and a productive big leaguer (already the fourth best 41st overall pick in draft history), but a legion of fans consider him a bust because he did not/has not yet reached his ceiling. Then you have people throwing the bust tag on Brackman after one pro season (his first off major elbow surgery, mind you), which was silly and short-sighted, as he showed in 2010. Expectation busts fall on the fans because they’re the ones that aren’t satisfied and are usually being unreasonable. We’re all guilty of it, don’t try to hide.

* * *

Regardless of what you want to call it, busts are an unavoidable evil. There’s something like 5,000 players in the various levels of the minor leagues and only 750 big league jobs up for grabs. That’s a 15% success rate, and even that seems high when you consider a) all the kids playing around the globe in hopes of securing a contract, and b) that some big leaguers aren’t even qualified to be in the show. That won’t stop everyone from breaking out the term with little to no context when a prospect goes bad or a trade doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge that different kinds of busts exist.

Trust me, I’m well aware of how much it sucks when one of our favorite prospects doesn’t make it for whatever reason, but prospects are like buses in the city. The next one will be along in five minutes.

What future for Joba's past shoulder injury?
Yanks sign Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal
  • coolerking101

    If I remember correctly, Taylor’s case was especially frustrating b/c the guy wrecked his career in a bar fight. Those kind of injuries are inexcusable (sort of like injuring your buttocks while speeding in your Porsche).

    • whozat

      he broke his ribs while driving in the porche, and then tried to pitch through it.

      Just to, you know, keep the discussion accurate.

    • S

      I’m from Taylor’s hometown, my father told me once how this guy lost out. The fight was Taylor trying to protect his stupid loudmouthed brother; who was getting pummeled. (sad part was Taylor’s brother started the mess and drug his brother into it)

      Being your brother’s keeper can be a b%^#h sometimes

      • Accent Shallow

        Man, this is so depressing. Can you imagine Taylor in those mid-90s rotations? Damn.

  • ChrisS

    Brackman has talent, that is unquestioned, but I wouldn’t be holding him up as an example of a premature bust label, yet.

    • Chris

      The bust label was premature. Maybe he’ll turn out to be a bust in the future, but labeling him a bust at this point is just stupid.

      • The Big City of Dreams

        Extremely stupid especially since he took some steps forward in 2010.

      • ChrisS

        So then, what he’s not a bust until he’s actually a bust. If he craters next season in AA/AAA, then will it be OK to label him a bust?

        I’m not Nostradamus, but I would hang my hat on a 24 year old that put up decent numbers in half a season of AA. Give the kid some time to repeat his success.

  • icebird753

    Eric Duncan was my favorite prospect as a kid, I remember going on fan sites and they were all praising him for his massive power and were saying he’d be a star one day. I still hope he can have a productive career, and wish him well.

  • Dax J.

    Excellent read, Mike. Eric Duncan was an unfortunate case. That’s why you have to have patience with prospects.

    • Ted Nelson

      I don’t think this was really a great case study of a lack of patience. In his 3 full AAA seasons for the Yankees he got worse every season. He went back to AA for the Braves and had less success at 25 than he had at the same level at 20. A player just not getting better, and maybe getting worse, is as likely to be the player’s fault as the organization’s.

      • Dax J.

        Thanks Ted, for the correction. After seeing a post below which detailed his stay in the Yankee farm system, it looks as he did, in fact, deserve these promotions he got. Maybe he wasn’t really cut out for The Show, as Mike said.

  • Scout

    When the book finally closes on Chamberlain, I think we’re more likely to classify him as an injury bust than an expectations one. Just within the last couple of days, Cashman made reference to the shoulder injury in Texas a couple of seasons back. I don’t think he’s ever been the same pitcher since then. Although he can still hit the same velocity on occasion, he doesn’t do it with consistency, and he’s never regained the early command he had. Not that it matters much which heading he falls under, but Chamberlain’s case shows the lines can be very murky.

    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      He has completed one full season since the season in which he suffered the injury. Again: One season. He may never come all the way back, but he also very well might. Let’s not look at what he was on the last day of the 2010 season, or any other particular point in time, and assume he’ll be that person for the next year, or two years, or for the rest of his career.

      (I just don’t like how people tend to look at the situation today, right now, and act as though the book is closed. The Joba situation, like all such situations, is fluid.)

      • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

        Two seasons, not one… One season as a starter. My bad, brain fart.

        • Scout

          Feel free to dream, my good man, feel free to dream. After two years, the likelihood we’ll ever again see the Joba who first wowed us is very small. And Cashman knows it, as do others across baseball.

          • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

            So a player has never been injured and then taken a year or two to recover?

            I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but to expect that he’ll never improve, at all, is short-sighted. His velocity improved just last season, so we’ve already seen him improve a bit post-injury.

            I think people who want to declare that Joba is today exactly what he will always be are reacting more to their interest in having immutable facts to hang on to, and their interest in ending a conversation, than they are in looking at this issue in realistic and practical terms. He may spend the rest of his career being the same exact person he is today, but why would saying there’s a possibility he won’t be fall under the category of ‘dreaming’ when it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say about any player not named Joba Chamberlain?

            And to clarify, I never said we have to “see the Joba that first wowed us,” you did. I’m really only talking about enough improvement that he is an effective mid-rotation starter.

            • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

              And for everyone who’s tired of the Joba talk (i.e. everyone), in my defense, I didn’t bring this up… But where I see a false or unfair narrative discussed and I feel the motivation, I will respond.

              • The Big City of Dreams

                Keep up the good fight. I understand where you’re coming from because when things don’t add up it makes sense to offer your opinion on the situation.

                • RL


            • The Big City of Dreams

              Kinda like how Liriano rebounded after yrs of injury.

              • The Big City of Dreams


            • Ted Nelson

              And not only the injury… It’s tough to say that any 24 year old pitcher who still has a career cannot improve for the rest of their career. Plenty of successful pitchers are just making or have yet to make the majors in their 24 year old season.

          • Ted Nelson

            The Joba we saw in 2010 was still a fine relief pitcher and not at all what I would call a bust. His FIP was under 3 and his WAR was in the top 30 among relief pitchers. He was 24 years old. He’s still one of the best young relievers in baseball.

    • Ted Nelson

      I would not call a #41 pick who reached the majors and contributed for at least a few seasons any kind of bust.

      • The Big City of Dreams

        I think the bust label is based on what we saw when he first came up and what he is right now. But he still has time to turn things around if not for the Yankees than for another club.

        • Ted Nelson

          Yeah, I think the expectations were too high. When he first came up we saw a top relief pitcher and he’s still one of the best young relievers in the game. Expecting that he could maintain anything close to his 2007 effectiveness was setting expectations unrealistically high and expecting he could be a strong starter was mostly speculation.

          I think a lot of it is the small sample size in 2007 (no pitcher has had a 50 IP season with an ERA of 0.38 or less… there was very little chance he’d keep that up), a down season in 2009 (whether because of injury, starting, whatever), and an inflated ERA in 2010. Overall his 2008 and 2010 seasons were not all that different.

          • The Big City of Dreams

            Yea the hype in 2007 it was started this whole thing. He was never going to put up those numbers again for a variety of reasons but yet many fans and the media had lust and first sight and determined here’s no replacement. SMH there were ppl that wanted him to take over for Rivera that season.

            I think the strong started thing was more based on what he did in the minors and his 2008 starting stats.

          • Ted Nelson

            Where we differ is that I see no need to “turn things around.” He is one of the best young relievers in the game.

            For example, compare his 2010 with Daniel Bard’s and you’ll see that while Bard got hit less and stranded more runners, Joba was as good or better in terms of WAR, FIP, xFIP, HR/9, GB%, HR/FB…



            • The Big City of Dreams

              We’re going to differ on this regarding Joba. I see where you’re coming from though

  • steve s

    I thought this was a great analysis but I do object to the one statement that some big leaguers aren’t even qualified to be in the show. While there may be better players at any one time who could/should be in the majors, if you made it to the majors (even for one at-bat) with all the scrutiny and overcoming odds that involves you are de facto qualified as far as I am concerned.

  • Steve H

    One of the highlights of my baseball watching lifetime is getting to see Brien Taylor absolutely dominiate in Albany. Just sick, some of the swings the batters were taking were so futile.

    After getting some autographs after the game (though not Taylor’s) we went out to eat, found a local Pizza Hut and the line was out the door. Brien Taylor was sitting inside and the fans were just swarming him.

  • Fair Weather Freddy

    Brien Taylor. Ohh.. what could have been. Sad sad story indeed.

  • Thomas

    I think there is another type of bust, which is similar to the expectation bust. This is the overdraft bust. Here the fans label a player a bust because he never reached a performance suitable to his draft position. However, the major difference is the player was not worthy of the draft position he was taken in (ie there were better players available). Hence, the team is as much to blame as the fans.

    A good example might be Hayden Simpson of the Cubs. If Simpson, becomes a AAAA player (or less) he’ll labeled a bust. However, no one other than the Cubs saw him as a first rounder, so his failure to become a good player is not unexpected to most. He would only be a considered a bust by the Cubs organization.

    • Scout

      For the Yankees, the player who leaps to mind is Andy Brown, a first-round draft pick who was hailed as the next Dave Winfield. All they had in common was their height. Brown couldn’t hit a lick.

  • Reggie C.

    Does anyone have a “favorite” non-first round bust? Mine is Carmen Angellini. One million Yankee dollars invested in a kid from the bayou who can’t hit Low-A pitching.

    • Accent Shallow

      This is the price you pay for throwing money at the draft. There will always be misses.

  • Steve (different one)

    The aggressive promotions hurt his development because he simply wasn’t ready to face that caliber of competition.

    I’ve seen this repeatedly on this site, but I am not sure Duncan’s case is as cut and dried as this.

    Looking at his stats, while he certainly was pushed quickly, it definitely looks like he was earning those promotions, no?

    19 – A ball – .260/.351/.479
    19 – A+ – .254/.366/.462
    20 – AA – .235/.326/.408
    He was NOT promoted, instead he went back to AA
    21 – AA – .248/.355/.485

    Then after destroying AA, he went up to AAA for all of 31 games.

    From there he stalled out.

    Would it be ok if he was in AAA at 22 years old? If so, are we saying that 31 games at the end of his age 21 season is to blame for Duncan never making it??

    To me, it looks like Duncan was killing at each level and was given deserved, but admittedly agressive, promotions.

    I mean, after posting an .841 OPS in Trenton, was it really so negligant to bump him up to AAA to finish the season?

    I fully admit that you guys know way more about prospects than me, I’m just wondering if this has just become conventional wisdom when the numbers paint a slightly different picture.

    • Ted Nelson


    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Then after destroying AA, he went up to AAA for all of 31 games.

      I must be missing something. Are you saying that 248/355/485 is “destroying”? Really?

      If he put up those numbers as an 18 year old in AA, I’d be more inclined to agree with you. But as a 21 year old in his second season in AA? Sorry. Gotta disagree with the “destroying” label.

      • Steve (different one)

        In Trenton, a notorious pitcher’s park, a .107 isoD and a .237 isoP look pretty impressive to me. Certainly enough to earn a promotion. I admit I am not an expert though.

        Are you saying that they should have sent him back to AA again at age 22?

        • Sweet Dick Willie

          Not at all.

          His numbers were certainly respectable. I just interpret “destroying” as domination. Something like 285/375/525.

          Maybe it’s just me.

          • Steve (different one)

            Fair enough. Maybe too strong a word.

      • Ted Nelson

        That’s really semantics. His AA .841 in 2006 was the highest OPS he’s had in a season at any level with at least 100 PAs in his 8 year minor league career. So, for Eric Duncan’s ability level he was “destroying” AA that season.

  • Denny Neagles Hooker

    A nice bust at the very least would be something along the lines of a 34c

  • Ted Nelson

    #3 Development Path Busts is pretty hard to correctly identify. As you say, everyone has their own development path. Saying it was the wrong one for that player is often nothing more than revisionist history and second guessing.

    To me your example of Eric Duncan is a perfect example of this. His quick ascent through the minors would seem to be a clear indication he was rushed. However, it’s really hard to say that’s the reason he’s failed to reach the bigs (to date) when he spent three full seasons in AAA and got worse every season and then upon returning to AA last season was no better than he was at 20. A player not getting any better from his 20 year old season to his 25 year old season cannot be put entirely on the organization. Duncan handled A ball pretty well, but maybe some more time in AA would have helped or just generally a bit slower path. Once he went back to AA at 25 years old and didn’t do any better than he did at 20, though, it’s impossible to say definitively that it *would* have helped him. You have to also consider that it might be a lack of skill or a lack of work ethic. That at the very least the blame must me split.

    And have you got any proof to back up the assertation–stated basically as fact–that the Yankees irresponsibly rushed Duncan because they were desperate for upper level prospects?


    Yeah one of the most infuriating things for me is hearing people cite Brien Taylor as an example of a typical “over hyped” yankee prospect. I also saw Taylor pitch that year in the minors. He was not over hyped. that kid was amazing. He had randy Johnson type stuff with better commnd than Johnson had (RJ didn’t really develop that command until he into his mid to late 20’s).

    Brien Tayor’s situation is so sad. He didn’t even start the fight. His cousin did and Brien Taylor got involved as a piece keeper.

    He is an excellent example of the difference between elbow and shoudler injuries however.

    ALso I disagree about Duncan. He may have been slightly rushed but many prospects are pushed along t the rate he was. Generally you either do one level a year, or you do the corporate method of pushing people until they hit their “level of incompetency” then you stop and let them achieve that competence. Duncan stopped and was never ableto achieve competence above AA. I’m gonna have to put that one down as a player who simply wasn’t good enough, regardless of time at various levels.

    If anything Joba is a developmental cautionary tale. As his success at the ML level made it virtually impossible to do the right thing and send him back to AAA to smooth out his mechanics and develop his curve nad change. Even at his currnt velocity if JOba has a plus cure and average slider he’d be a mid to top rotation starter. THe bullpen and lack of minor league innings prevented him from developing the tools he needed.

    SO chamberlain would be a developmental bust. Duncan would just be another guy who didn’t make it. THats a long list of guys by the way.


      On joba that should read plus curve and average CHANGE. Obviously his slider is still a plus pitch at minimum and IMO will once again become a ++ pitch this year. I think he’s building shoulder strength again, and his second half his stuff was noticeably crisper.

  • mike hc

    Nice article. With joba, I would not say he is a bust on any level. Considering it is not like he even only has the ability to be a reliever but because he is being forced there and he is being very professional about it too. No media quotes about wanting to start, about getting less money than hughes in arbitration, etc …

    • mike hc

      *not in arbitration, but in their arbitration, team control years.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      He’s wise not to rock the boat even if he feels definitely.

      • mike hc

        Agreed that it is smart to just do as your team asks without complaint.I can’t imagine that he does not feel differently. It may be tough for him to bite his tongue if mitre and nova stuggle in the rotation and ny media constantly ask the question though.

        • Ted Nelson

          Joba may love coming out of the pen and letting it all hang out for an inning, and/or he may just be thankful to have been a millionaire before his 25th birthday and not really be bothered by the details. I wouldn’t assume he’s steaming mad about the whole situation and biting his tongue. Maybe he is, but I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.

          • The Big City of Dreams

            Steaming mad probably not but it probably crosses his mind from time to time

            • mike hc

              Exactly. I would assume he still thinks he can be a starter in the majors. And for good reason.

        • The Big City of Dreams

          It probably will be tough and it may weigh on him when the media starts to ask why he isn’t getting a shot. We can be sure he’ll say the right things when he’s asked you know: I’m reliever and I’m here to help the team in that role and that’s the only thing I’m focused on.

  • D-Lite

    Maybe it’s my age and the era I really first started paying attention to details, but when I think bust I think Van Poppel and Ben McDonald. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more hyped talents that amounted to zero. At least with Taylor it was off the field injury, though we’ll never know what could have been.

    And the best example of coming back from bust status has got to be Josh Hamilton. Makes you appreciate the difficulty someone faces in making it, regardless of talent. I just have to think E Duncan must have more going on to have just seemingly lost so much on the path.

    • Ted Nelson

      McDonald never lived up to the hype, but he was a solid major league starter for the better part of a decade. I would not label him a bust or say he amounted to zero. If teams could get that out of their first round pick every season, even a high first, they’d be in great shape. You’d like more from the #1 overall pick, but a solid starter who makes his ML debut the year you draft him is nice.

      Van Poppel was more of a bust in terms of performance, though he was picked #14 rather than #1. He did finally catch on as a reliever in his late 20s for a couple years. He was really hyped, but for a #14 pick his career is about in line with what you’d expect on average:

      As far as Hamilton, yeah it’s really hard when you start doing heroin or crystal meth or whatever he was doing. He certainly deserves credit for righting his ship, but he also has no one but himself to blame for his ship starting to sink in the first place.

  • boogie down

    “Busts don’t get much bigger.” That’s what I thought when I saw Sofia Vergara.

  • Jess

    Jackson Melian – called the next clean up hitter for the Yankees when he signed at 16.

    Ruden Rivera – slightly less of a bust because he made the majors and did hit over 20 homers one year. I believe Rivera is one of three players in a season to get over 400 PAs, hit under .200, and still post an over .700 OPS. Rob Deer and Carlos Pena(last year) are the other ones.

    • Jess

      That’s Ruben.