Since this is prospect week here at The Yankee Analysts, it is fitting that the discussion eventually makes its way to one of the biggest prospect busts in Yankee history, Brien Taylor, who turned 40 this past December. Unfortunately, the event that has brought Taylor back into the public eye is not a happy one. Instead, we learned that Taylor was arrested for trafficking cocaine and crack near his home in North Carolina, where he had been unknowingly selling the drugs to federal agents for months. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to think about Taylor as a prospect, since the Yankees have not had a prospect of his caliber in quite some time.
Taylor, who grew up poor in rural North Carolina, was a highly touted prospect in high school. He was a big lefty who could easily hit the mid-90’s with his fastball, touching 99 and striking out 213 batters in 88 innings. The Yankees made him the 1st overall selection in the 1991 draft, which was the last time that the Yankees have had a #1 overall pick. Initially, they offered him the standard $300,000 bonus to sign, but Taylor’s agent Scott Boras knew that Taylor was worth more. Since high school phenom Todd Van Poppel has just received a bonus in excess of $1 million the year before, Boras advised Taylor’s family to hold out for a similar figure, and the Yankees eventually caved. Even though Taylor did not have the grades to get a good scholarship offer to use as leverage, the Yankees did not want to let this type of talent get away.
Before making his professional debut, Baseball America ranked Taylor the #1 prospect in baseball, an impressive feat for a high schooler. Taylor made his professional debut in high A, and impressed from the beginning, striking out over a batter per inning and putting up a 2.57 ERA. The performance was great but not earth-shattering, and Taylor slid to #2 on the BA list. After a 1993 season that saw Taylor’s strikeout rate decrease and his walk rate rise (to about 5 per 9 innings), he dropped to #18 on the list. Despite this, Taylor was still well on his way to becoming a bona fide ace in the major leagues.
All this changed in December of 1993 when Taylor suffered a shoulder injury after defending his brother in a fight. The exact cause of the injury was unclear, either the result of Taylor swinging too hard on a missed punch or his opponent falling on it. However, regardless of the cause, the consequences were devastating. Taylor was diagnosed with a torn labrum and capsule in his shoulder, an injury that is very difficult for any pitcher to recover from without substantial loss of velocity and command. While Taylor did recover and played several more years of minor league baseball, he was never the same pitcher. He lost his command and much of his velocity, never making it past A ball again.
As a prospect, Taylor definitely had all the raw tools for success: a big durable frame, plus-plus fastball velocity, and the ability to spin a good curveball. However, he wound up in a bad situation (one could blame poor makeup/judgement) that killed his dreams of becoming a major leaguer. Looking at Taylor in retrospect, it is hard not to be impressed by the stats compiled at a young age, though his walk totals would probably draw more of a red flag in this day and age. Regardless of his flaws, he was still an elite prospect that had a big future ahead of him before the accident derailed him. , Taylor is a sobering reminder that even the best prospects with all the talent in the world can sometimes bust, and that sometimes a little bit of luck can be as important as a whole lot of talent.