There have been several instances throughout baseball history where a player who was thought to have a great future doesn’t live up to the hype that surrounds him. In fact, this happens more often then not.
However, there are other players who make their mark, but for some reason aren’t able to sustain that high a level of performance. There are several possible reasons for this that doesn’t include age such as injury, illness, or personal issues.
It’s worth noting that of the three former players on this list, the oldest that any of them retired was 36-years-old, which isn’t completely normal for players with the kind of numbers that these guys put up. With that being said, all of their careers were derailed for one reason or another.
By the time the 1980 season rolled around, the Astros looked like they were going to have baseball’s best one-two punch at the top of their rotation. They had just signed high profile ace Nolan Ryan, who was already a five-time All-Star and had finished second in the Cy Young award voting twice, to complement their other flame-throwing star, J.R. Richard.
Over the previous four seasons, Richard had established himself as one of the game’s best starters, having won 74 games and posting an ERA below 3.00 in three of those years.
Unfortunately, midway through the season, Richard suffered a stroke while warming up for a game. He would never pitch in the big leagues again.
Richard finished his career with a 107-71 record, a 3.15 ERA, and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Though his numbers were good, he had Hall Of Fame potential and Houston missed a chance to build something special around him and Ryan.
From the first moment Dwight Gooden stepped onto a big league mound, he was one of the most talented pitchers alive.
He debuted in 1984, going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, and striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings. He was made an All-Star that season and was voted National League Rookie Of The Year while finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting.
In 1985 Gooden managed to get even better, as he won 24 games and posted a minuscule 1.53 ERA. It’s still considered by some to be among the best seasons that a pitcher has ever had.
Through 1993, Gooden remained a solid performer, never having his ERA reach 4.00 or higher.
The problem was that he had struggled mightily with cocaine abuse, which resulted in him being suspended for a portion of the 1994 season, but during that suspension, he tested positive for cocaine again, so he was suspended for the entire 1995 season.
He then signed with the crosstown New York Yankees and managed to remain in the Major Leagues for five more years, but he never managed to come close to his early success and fulfill his potential.
In the early 2000’s, you’d be hard pressed to find a better all-around third baseman than Eric Chavez of the Oakland Athletics. In a typical season, he was good for 25-plus home runs and 100 or more RBI, and was nearly a lock for the American League Gold Glove award at third base.
From 2000 through 2006, Chavez averaged just over 28 homers per year and never had lower than 72 runs batted in. His lowest OPS during that span was .786 and it only dipped below .800 one other time.
However, his main contribution was in the field as he won six straight American League Gold Glove Awards from 2001-2006.
Though after 2006, things began to change for the worse.
Chavez struggled in 2007, slashing just .240/.306/.446 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI. It only got worse from there.
As the 2008 season began, Chavez was sidelined until the end of May due to recurring back pain. He made his season debut on May 29th, but was bothered by shoulder pain, which forced him back to the disabled list on July 2nd. He would eventually require season-ending shoulder surgery.
Though he was considered ready at the start the 2009 season, he lasted only eight games before a herniated disk ended his season.
Chavez left the Athletics in free agency after another injury-shortened season and signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees. He took advantage and made the team.
Even though he struggled to stay healthy and productive during his first season as a Bomber, they re-signed him to an incentive-laden pact for the 2012 season.
They needed someone to back up the corner infield spots. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez was now 35-years-old and starting to show major signs of decline. At first base, Mark Teixeira was still considered to be a great player, but he was also in a slow decline which would continue into 2012.
Chavez played 113 games (313 plate appearances and 278 at-bats) in 2012 (his highest total since 2006) and slashed .281/.348/.496 with 16 home runs and 37 RBI.
Though it appeared to be obvious throughout baseball that he was no longer capable of being an every day player, Chavez was still a valuable player off the bench. This earned him a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the 2013 season.
He would have another solid season in 2013, earning himself another one-year deal in Arizona.
Unfortunately, a sprained right knee ended his 2014 season in June.
In August of that year, Chavez officially retired from baseball at 36-years old.
All of these players were as talented as anyone in baseball. However, there is a painful thought that comes to mind with all of them and that’s how great they could’ve been.
In the cases of Richard and Chavez, they had no say in whether or not their careers would come crashing down. There was nothing either of them could’ve done.
Even though the ability to control addiction is a highly debated subject and one that should be left to medical professionals, there’s possibly an even bigger sense of sadness when thinking about Dwight Gooden. What if he hadn’t ever experimented with drugs? Was there a way for him to have gotten help earlier? Unfortunately, the world will never know.
One thing is absolutely certain. Each of these guys had such great opening acts, but for some reason, we weren’t able to see the rest o the show. We’ll always wonder how it would’ve ended.