I decided to steal this feature from John Sickels' Minor League Ball. John will often take a prospect from the past and go back and analyze where things may have gone right or wrong. It's an interesting feature, because it really doesn't matter who you pick: the failures are often just as interesting as the success stories. So I decided to take start with a look at one of the most famous failures in Mets history: Shawn Abner.
For those who don't know, the Mets have held the first pick in the amateur draft a total of five times. In 1966, the Mets famously drafted catcher Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson (more on that another day). In 1968, they drafted infielder Tim Foli. In 1980, the pick was Darryl Strawberry. In 1994, they selected highly touted righty Paul Wilson. Shawn Abner was their pick in 1984.
(As an aside, these five guys nicely illustrate my theory that you can intuitively know how good a prospect is going to be just by the sound of his name. Darryl Strawberry couldn't have been anything but a superstar. Simply an off-the-charts name. Steve Chilcott? Best you can hope for is a backup catcher. Tim Foli sounds like a utility player, which he more or less was. Paul Wilson was just as bland as his name; the Mets should have ignored the college numbers and scouting reports. The chances of a guy with that name becoming a long-term ace are somewhere between infinitesimal and minute. And as for our pal Shawn Abner? Dude never had a chance.)
The consensus best player in the nation that year was USC first baseman Mark McGwire, who was already showing off his mammoth power by hitting 31 homers in 65 games while batting .388 during his junior season. He was looking like a very tough sign, however, so backup plans were prudent. One candidate might have been the number two pick, Billy Swift, a Maine righty with a great curve who went on to win 94 games in the bigs, including 21 for the Giants in 1993. A third candidate could have been Cory Snyder, an athletic shortstop at Brigham Young University who was something of a bust himself, though he did get to play 1000 games over his major-league career. There was Shane Mack, an athletic outfielder from UCLA, who'd go on to a short but effective career with the Twins.
Finally, there was Abner, arguably the top high school athlete in the country, a five-tool talent who played center field in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. There was a lot to like about Abner. Standing 6-1, 190 pounds, he had a strong, speedy build and a plus arm with the track record scouts like to see in high school athletes--the Mets organization had been watching him since he was a sophomore. Furthermore, the Mets had a track record of their own with high school athletes in recent years, turning first rounders Wally Backman, Strawberry, and Doc Gooden into successful big leaguers. They were confident in their player development system.
Eventually, Mets scouting director Joe McIlvaine boiled it down to two choices: McGwire and Abner. McGwire was first on their draft board, and McIlvaine supposedly pressed McGwire's family to sign a pre-draft deal. McGwire wasn't ready to commit to the Mets, and nobody wanted to draft a kid they weren't sure would sign. Instead the Mets turned to Abner, who was more than willing to forgo his scholarship to Georgia. McGwire would eventually be selected tenth by Oakland.
What I found especially interesting is that Abner told The Sentinel on the day of the draft that the Mets had worked him out as a shortstop. Abner only considered himself an outfielder, but the Mets brass apparently felt that the kid's glove would play well enough at short. Teams don't often move prospects to more demanding positions. What makes this even stranger is this: the second-best high school athlete in the country that year was a shortstop from Pensacola, Florida. His name? Jay Bell. If you wanted a high school shortstop, there was a damn good one already in the draft class, one who went ninth overall.
Whether that was just an idea the Mets were kicking around or a misunderstanding on the part of Abner, I don't know. The team never actually played him at shortstop. The team inserted Abner in center at Kingsport in the Appalachian League, and he got off to a strong start. He hit .273 with a very promising .481 slugging percentage. While he didn't have much of an impact on the bases despite his speed, his defense drew raves. There was, however, one major flaw in his game: plate discipline. He walked just ten times (nine unintentional) in 197 plate appearances, while striking out 28 times. Still, the Mets quickly moved him up to the Little Falls team in the New York-Penn League. As you might expect, he struggled, hitting just .265/.311/.338 in 74 plate appearances. While the lack of patience at the plate was certainly a red flag, he was young and very physically talented, and the power and defense certainly looked strong.
In 1985, the Mets moved him up to Lynchburg in the Carolina League, and he took home league MVP honors. He hit .301/.345/.485 in what was a very tough hitters' league--the league average OPS was around .675 or so. The 19-year-old led the league in hits, doubles, triples, slugging percentage, and RBI. That plate discipline was still a big worry, though: he walked just 28 times against 77 strikeouts. Still, there was a lot to be optimistic over in this performance, and Abner was looking like one of the top power-hitting prospects in the minors. With just minor adjustments to his approach, it was reasonable to think he could be a very good major league player and maybe even a star. Using Sickels's grading system as a reference, Abner would probably be a B+ or A- prospect.
But things fell apart for Abner in Double-A in 1986. The jump from A-ball to Double-A is one of the hardest in baseball, and, despite the Texas League being more accommodating to hitters, Abner's averages dropped to .266/.303/.436. His strikeout rate climbed slightly, and the walk rate was still abysmal. Suddenly, Abner's profile didn't match that of a potential star, but rather that of a fourth outfielder, someone who could provide late-inning defense and pop off the bench, but whose lack of on-base ability kept him out of the starting lineup. It was enough to scare the Mets into dangling him as trade bait to the Padres along with Kevin Brown, Kevin Armstrong, Kevin Mitchell, and Stan Jefferson for Kevin McReynolds and two other prospects.
The Padres jumped, thinking they were buying low on a great talent. And initially, they were probably pretty pleased. They moved Abner up to Triple-A in 1987, and he rebounded, hitting .300/.351/.477 for Las Vegas. There were still warning signs. This was the PCL, not the Carolina League, his patience saw only marginal improvement, and his slugging percentage was very triples-heavy. He only hit 14 doubles and 11 homeruns in 406 at-bats. He still wasn't a base-stealer, hampering his value as a reserve. Still, he had age on his side, and the Padres gave him a call-up, and he hit .254/.284/.511 for the club in September.
Abner returned to Triple-A in 1988, and he slipped terribly, hitting .254/.284/.381 for Las Vegas and .181/.225/.289 as a reserve for the big club. He was just a C prospect now but, at 22, young enough to turn things around. He improved a little in 1989 when he hit .269/.322/.444 for Las Vegas, but he still couldn't hit major league pitching in limited time, batting .176.
The Padres made Abner their fourth outfielder in 1990 and 1991, but he never could hit enough to crack the everyday lineup. He batted .245 with no power or patience in 1990 and just .165 in 1991 before the Padres waved the white flag and traded him to California for their own disappointment, Jack Howell. He performed terribly again for the Angels before they cut him loose. He was picked up by the Chicago White Sox, and he enjoyed the only decent season of his career as a reserve in 1992, hitting .279/.323/.351 in 200 or so plate appearances. The Sox cut him next, and the Royals signed him to a minor league deal. He sustained a knee injury at Omaha, however, which sidelined him through the 1993 and 1994 seasons. He tried a comeback with the Mets, but retired during the 1995 season.
So what went wrong with Shawn Abner? The Mets probably overestimated their ability to work with raw physical talent, grabbing the guy with the highest ceiling in the draft. In the end, Abner was just a toolsy kid who never learned enough plate discipline to hit consistently at the higher levels. He always had some pop in his bat, and he maintained a good reputation defensively, but without the ability to get on base regularly, he only had the chance to be a spare part.