The greatest pitching prospects ever

"This is my 36th draft. I've never seen anything like this."
--A scout, quoted by Tim Keown in the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine, talking about San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg

Then again … maybe we have.

In just the last 20 years, we've seen several pitchers hyped as the greatest pitching prospect ever. Here's what was said and written about them at the time:

Ben McDonald

Drafted No. 1 overall in 1989 by the Orioles out of LSU, where he also played basketball as a freshman. LSU basketball coach Dale Brown called the 6-7 right-hander "the best athlete I've ever seen in Louisiana." McDonald went 14-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings his junior season.

"He probably has better stuff than anyone on the Baltimore staff. He's damn near a complete pitcher right now. I mean, I don't remember the last time I graded a pitcher so highly."
--Dodgers scouting director Ben Wade, Los Angeles Times

"The Major League Scouting Bureau gave him its highest rating ever for a pitcher, and opposing coaches have compared him favorably with the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens and the Cleveland Indians' Greg Swindell during their college years. Oriole scout Ray Crone, who has watched McDonald pitch eight times, says, 'There are so many things he does that you want to see as a scout: He throws strikes; he has good command of all his pitches; he uses his fastball well; he has a smooth delivery; and he explodes well. You don't have to say, If he did this and this, he might be this. He already is."
--Hank Hersch, Sports Illustrated

"McDonald's projected career pattern is a short stay in the minors before becoming an overnight sensation in the American League."
--John Bannon, USA Today

What happened: While agent Scott Boras claimed McDonald was offered $2 million to sign with a proposed new baseball league (it never got off the ground), McDonald did sign with Baltimore and was in the majors in September. Some scouts say he never flashed the same stuff as in college, perhaps a result of throwing 138 pitches in a College World Series game and warming up three times for a relief appearance three nights later. He finished 78-70, 3.91 in the majors and retired at age 29 because of shoulder problems.

Todd Van Poppel

Teams were reluctant to draft Van Poppel, the consensus top talent in the 1990 draft, because of his commitment to the University of Texas. With four first-round picks, the A's took a chance on him with the 14th pick and signed him to a record $1.2 million major league contract.

"You're talking about one of the best pitching prospects in a long, long time. We won't push him unreasonably, but then again, we won't hesitate to have him around as soon as he's ready."
--A's general manager Sandy Alderson, Washington Post

"'He's not been in the competitive environment of a Todd Van Poppel so there's additional risk,' Alderson said. 'When Van Poppel pitched in high school, he was considered the best pitching prospect in the last 10 years.'"
--Alderson in USA Today in 1991, comparing the Yankees' No. 1 pick, Brien Taylor, to Van Poppel

"Only 19 and the youngest player on any 40-man roster in baseball, Van Poppel started Saturday for the A's and was erratic for three innings of a game the Dodgers won, 3-2, at the Louisiana Superdome. But he showed the 95-mph fastball that had scouts calling him the best pitching prospect in the past 20 years."
--Orange County Register after a 1991 spring training game

What happened: Rushed to the majors because of the major league contract, Van Poppel pitched in his first big league game when he was 19. But he never developed enough control or a feel for the finer points of pitching, although he did fashion an 11-year career with five different clubs, primarily as a reliever. He finished 40-52 with a 5.58 ERA.

Brien Taylor

The Yankees selected the left-handed high schooler No. 1 overall in 1991 and gave him a record $1.55 million signing bonus.

"Mr. Taylor is a 19-year-old lefthanded pitcher from East Carteret High School in Beaufort, N.C. He struck out 172 batters while yielding a scant 20 base hits in the first 72 innings he pitched this spring, prompting one scout to call him 'the best pitching prospect I've ever seen since I've been involved in scouting.' They said that in addition to looking something like a southpaw Dwight Gooden, he pitches like him."
--Bob Ryan, Boston Globe

What happened: Taylor was on track for stardom after striking out 187 in 161 innings at Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1992, but suffered a shoulder injury defending his brother in a bar fight and was never the same again.

Kris Benson

Drafted No. 1 overall in 1996 by the Pirates out of Clemson, where he went 14-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 204 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 156 innings. However, his college career ended poorly after he allowed 13 hits and nine runs in a CWS loss to Miami. The Pirates signed Benson to a then-record $2 million bonus.

"That Benson commanded such a signing bonus is not shocking. Some veteran scouts rate him the most polished college pitcher ever. As [Pirates GM Cam] Bonifay says, 'Money doesn't play. Players play.'"
--Joe Strauss, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"He's such a big stud. He's got it all. Fastball. Curve. Change. He's a premier pitcher for us, and he's going to be the same in the majors."
--A.J. Hinch, Benson's catcher on the 1996 Olympic team

"We felt Kris should be paid for what he is, the best pitcher ever to come out of college baseball."
--Jack Toffey, Benson's agent

What happened: Tom Verducci, writing in Sports Illustrated in 2003: "'His body, arm action, college [experience] … it's everything [A's GM] Billy Beane looks for, but [Benson's] not getting people out,' one NL scout says. 'He's young and he's got a great arm, so it does make you wonder why he's available. His stuff is good enough, but he's soft and he's not as aggressive with hitters as he should be.'" Now with the Rangers, Benson has a career record of 69-74, 4.40 and has never won more than 12 games in a season.

Mark Prior

As a junior at USC, Prior put up Strasburg-like numbers while playing in a tougher conference: 139 innings, 202 strikeouts, 18 walks, 1.70 ERA. The Twins held the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft but, perhaps scared off by the bonus demands of Prior and agent Scott Boras, instead selected high school catcher Joe Mauer.

"Prior is blessed with Kevin Brown's arm, Greg Maddux's consistent delivery and Jamie Moyer's intellect. It looks like the $10.5 million to sign him was the best money the Cubs have spent since Bill Veeck planted the ivy on the outfield wall."
--Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune

"[Cubs VP of player personnel Ted] Hendry would praise Prior later for having 'mechanics as pure as you're going to get from the amateur world.' He won't have to alter his mechanics, which [Cubs manager Don] Baylor has called 'effortless,' drawing parallels to those of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer."
--Chicago Tribune

"'Our guys say he is one of the best college pitchers to come along ever,' MacPhail said. 'They said that about Ben McDonald, Kris Benson, Eddie Bane. Sometimes they pan out, and sometimes they don't. At this level he's an outstanding prospect. There is no assurance that he's going to be able to pitch in the major leagues.'"
--Twins GM Andy MacPhail, Minneapolis Star Tribune

What happened: Prior was indeed living up to the hype, going 18-6, 2.43 in his first full season with the Cubs in 2003 and nearly pitching them into the World Series. However, the guy with perfect mechanics did break down, making only 57 starts over the next three seasons. Analysts point to September 2003, when Cubs manager Dusty Baker had Prior throw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in his final six starts, as a possible workload that Prior's right arm couldn't handle.