When it comes to young prospects, potential can quickly turn into tragedy.
The times they are a-changing. Over the last two years or so, the Yankees have been hoarding draft picks, keeping prospects and trying to trade for young, established players whenever possible. The hope is that they won’t keep throwing money away on free agents, and that they’ll be able to develop their own stars and potentially recreate the “Core Four” (plus Bernie) dynasty from the late 1990s.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do what the Yankees did twenty years ago. For every Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, there are dozens of guys that never fulfill their potential. Today, we’re going to examine one of the latter archetypes: The “can’t miss” prospect that, for all intents and purposes, was supposed to have made that “Core Four” a “Fab Five.” That guy was Brien Taylor, and his story does not have a happy ending.
After their last place finish in 1990–the same year they drafted Posada and Pettitte, and signed Rivera as an amateur–the Yankees held the most coveted draft day prize in all of sports — the number one overall pick in the 1991 draft. They could either take Taylor, an electric left-handed high school pitcher, or Mike Kelly, a toolsy centerfielder out of Arizona State. Although most people thought the Yankees would take the more developed Kelly, GM Gene “Stick” Michael decided to gamble on Taylor’s potential instead.
After looking at his scouting report, I can’t say I blame them. After all, Taylor is still considered by many to be the best pitching prospect of all time. As a senior at East Carteret High School, the Beaufort, North Carolina native struck out 203 hitters in 84 innings, while allowing just 18 hits and 24 walks. How did he dominate so much? Well, when you have a 98-mph heater and a decent curveball and changeup, not a lot of high school batters are going to be able to touch you. When the Yankees saw the 19-year-old Taylor, they saw their own version of Doc Gooden, who had electrified New York at the same age, less than a decade before.
After the draft, Michael and the Yankees brass went about trying to get Taylor to sign on the dotted line. The circus that followed should have maybe been a warning that Taylor’s development wasn’t going to go quite as planned. Taylor hired the then up-and-coming Scott Boras, and the pair made it clear that they would not sign unless the Yankees gave Taylor a contract better than the one Todd Van Poppel had gotten the year before. Van Poppel, a high school senior, somehow got the Athletics to give him a three-year major league contract worth $1.2 million after they made him a first-round pick.
Because he felt that Taylor was even better than Van Poppel, Boras wanted a major league deal worth $1.55 million for his client. The Yankees balked at the idea of giving a high-schooler a major league deal (because, duh), and negotiations dragged on. Things soon got contentious, and even Taylor’s mother got involved. She went as far as theorizing that racism and classism might be to blame for the Yankees negotiating tactics. In late July, during a teleconference with the media after Taylor and Boras had rejected a $600,000 offer, she said:
“As things go along, I’m beginning to wonder. Is it because we’re back here, we’re poor and we’re black? I’m not saying that is the case, but if it is I can live with that, too.” She added, “Mr. Michael came down here twice. He didn’t even give me a hello. If you ask me, that was downright disrespect. He could have said hello. I’ve lived with that sort of thing all my life. I mean, disrespectful people.”
Michael fired back the next day, blaming Boras for leading the Taylors astray. He said: “Anybody who knows me knows that is not me, and that this adviser [Boras] is misleading her. I’ll write her a nice letter. I did not mean to be disrespectful in any way.”
Even the suspended George Steinbrenner got annoyed during these negotiations. According to a 1991 article from the Florida Sun Sentinel, Steinbrenner said: “I just don’t know what my people are doing or what they’re thinking. If they let him go, they ought to be shot.” Shot! I guess the time away wasn’t mellowing out old George.
Negotiations dragged on through all of August. Finally, with the deadline approaching for Taylor to start classes at Louisburg College and be lost to them probably forever, the Yankees blinked. They didn’t meet all of Taylor and Boras’ demands, however. The two sides agreed to a deal for $1.55 million, but it would be a regular minor league deal. Either way, Taylor would be the highest paid player ever to come out of the draft, and nobody would have to be shot.
Now finally in the fold, Taylor reported to Fort Lauderdale for the 1992 A+ Florida State League season. Despite a bad won/lost total that season (6-8), Brien didn’t disappoint, putting up a 2.57 ERA, along with a 1.159 WHIP and 187 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. The 66 walks were a bit high, but he made up for it by only allowing 121 hits. That summer, the Yankees drafted Jeter with the sixth overall pick. The pieces were now all there for something truly special.
The Yankees decided to challenge Taylor in 1993 by bumping him to AA Albany-Colonie, and the results were a little more mixed. Brien still put up a decent ERA at 3.48, but he walked 102 batters in 163 innings. Some of the walks could be blamed on the fact that the Yankees were really focusing on polishing his curve ball because they felt his fastball was big league ready, but sheesh. Either way, the Yankees were still excited about Taylor, and most expected him to make his big league debut sometime in 1994. Unfortunately, that excitement would disappear completely just a few months after the season.
The facts change slightly depending on who is telling the story, but what’s known is that on Dec. 18, 1993, Brien Taylor’s baseball career effectively came to an end. According to a 2006 piece on Yahoo.com by Jeff Passan, Taylor showed up to a man named Ron Wilson’s trailer park home to defend Taylor’s brother Brenden, whom Wilson had beat up after an argument earlier. To hear Wilson tell it, Brenden was the aggressor in the initial altercation, and Brien showed up angered to the point where the pitcher had lost all control of himself.
No matter how it started, the fight ended with Taylor swinging his $1.55 million arm in an attempt to punch another man who was there, whiffing completely, and falling down in agony, having dislocated his shoulder and torn his labrum. The injury was so bad, in fact, that famed surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe called it “one of the worst shoulder injuries [he’d] ever seen.”
Taylor had surgery later that month, and missed all of the 1994 season while recovering. When he returned in 1995, he was a shadow of his former self. Taylor’s once electric fastball was barely touching 90 mph, and his already spotty control all but deserted him. Unfortunately for Taylor, he would never make it past A-ball again. That was the very same year that the “Core Four” all made their big league debuts.
Over the next four seasons, the former phenom only pitched 108.2 innings, and his ERA was an abysmal 11.51. The most ghastly statistic of all was his walk total… 175 (including 43 in just 16.1 innings in 1996). He only struck out 86 men.
The Yankees released Taylor after the 1998 season. Instead of celebrating the team’s second World Series championship of the decade with the “Core Four,” Brien Taylor was looking for a job, and staring down the end of his career. He managed to spend 1999 in extended spring training with the Mariners, and pitched a couple of minor league innings for the Indians in 2000, but the curtain soon closed on Brien’s baseball life.
His personal didn’t fair much better. It’s often hard to recover from such a let down, and Taylor had his troubles. He worked as a UPS delivery man, and eventually as a bricklayer with his father. In 2012, as the “Core Four” were starting to say goodbye to baseball (Posada retired in 2011, Pettitte and Rivera in 2013 and Jeter after 2014), Taylor was convicted of cocaine trafficking. He’s a free man today, but he could not be further away from the men who powered that Yankees dynasty.
Taylor’s tragic story could happen to anybody. He didn’t waste his talents by being a drunk or a drug addict. He put himself in a bad situation and had a horrible accident. Accidents can, and will, happen to anyone at any time. This is why relying on prospects fulfilling their promise is always a gamble. Hell, sometimes injury has nothing to do with a failed prospect. Look at Jesus Montero. He looked like a world beater in 2011, but his talent never matured to the major league level.
Should the Yankees go back to solely spending a ton of money on more established older players? Of course not. I’m glad the team is devoted to developing the system. I’m just saying that you should always consider trading prospects if you can get back a sure thing, because no prospect–not even the number one overall pick–is a guaranteed success.