On Sunday, the Royals trotted out 33-year-old Bruce Chen, the slow man's Jaime Garcia, for the third game against the Cardinals. Before the 1999 season he was considered the fourth-best prospect in baseball. It was a long road from there to Kansas City in 2010.â†µ
He began in Atlanta, as a 21-year-old in 1998. He was solid but not spectacular, and as he filled various swingman roles with the Braves, his status as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball—behind only Rick Ankiel, doncha know—seemed to pale behind a certain other Atlanta Braves truism of the late '90s: if the Atlanta Braves are willing to trade you a pitching prospect, they clearly know something you don't, and he'll never do anything. Before Adam Wainwright became the face of former Braves pitching prospects, it seemed pretty ironclad—guys like Chen, Rob Bell, and Dan Meyer made it seem pretty ironclad.â†µ
So after Chen was relegated to the bullpen in 2000, the Braves got another chance to prove this to be true; on July 12, they traded Chen to the Phillies for Andy Ashby, who would go 8-6 with a 4.15 ERA for the Braves down the stretch. Chen actually outpitched him that year, which might have given John Schuerholz pause—he went just 3-4 in his 15 starts, but struck out 80 in 94.1 innings and kept up a 3.63 ERA in the most run-crazy year of the decade.â†µ
But somehow or another, Chen wore out his welcome. He made 16 indifferent starts for the Phillies in 2001, who had suddenly become contenders, and was traded for veteran reliever Turk Wendell to the Mets, who had suddenly not become contenders. Two deadline trades in two years isn't a kiss of death for a top prospect, but he was still just 24.â†µ
In 2002 things sped up—he made just one appearance for the Mets, having ended up in the bullpen, before being traded to the Montreal Expos in a deal filled with players who wouldn't end up doing much. Chen went with Luis Figueroa, current Yomiuri Giants ace Dicky Gonzalez—he went 15-2 last year in Japan—and recent Nationals reliever Saul Rivera for Scott Strickland and prospects. With the Expos, the ultimate lost franchise, Chen rubbed off the last of his prospect sheen, giving up nine home runs in 37 innings, and was traded to the Reds for reliever Jim Brower.â†µ
This was Bruce Chen's unfortunate position as a prospect—whenever a bad team picked him up as a future starter or a reclamation project, they found themselves suddenly in competition, and had to dump him to another bad team for veterans.â†µ
Now that he wasn't a prospect, Chen moved a little more freely. He was released in spring training by the Reds in 2003, picked up by the Astros, and then selected off waivers by the Red Sox. Then he was picked up by the Blue Jays, traded for nothing to the Orioles, where he briefly looked like a fine fourth starter, then dumped again after a rough 2006. In 2007 he signed with the Rangers and made five appearances, and that looked like the end.â†µ
But 30 isn't very old for a lefty with bad stuff. In 2009 he resurfaced with Triple-A Omaha; he found himself in Kansas City by the end of the season, and has thus far had his best start since 2005 with the Royals, a team that probably won't find themselves in competition in midseason. So it took 11 teams to bring this last-place team its fifth starter today. And that's how you get to be Bruce Chen.