The Five Biggest Rookie Card Flops of the 1990s

by Chris Harris

In this latest installment of my 1990s flashback, I’ll take a look at those hot “can’t miss” prospects whose rookie cards were burning up the price guides in the 1990s, but wound up missing and can now be found in commons boxes everywhere.

Beginning with the reconfiguration of the Bowman brand – the 90s put rookie cards of minor league prospects in the hands of collector’s years before they ever made it to the Big Leagues, that is, if they ever even made it at all.  With that hype, a new type of collector began to emerge, the “Prospector.”  Prospecting as we know it now, really didn’t exist before the 90s because there weren’t any cards in which to prospect.  Sure, there were minor league team sets, and towards the end of the 80s we saw the first mainstream draft pick cards, but even then there were only a couple of dozen draftees (1989 Topps Baseball had 25 draft picks scattered amongst a 792 card set).

But it wasn’t until 1991 Bowman Baseball and it’s checklist of hundreds of minor leaguers that prospecting was even possible.  Sure, many of them never amounted to much, some became superstars, still others had a lot of hype, but never lived up to their potential.  Here is a list of some of those players: The Top Five Biggest Rookie Card Flops of the 1990s.

1)      Todd Van Poppel and the rest of the “Four Aces”

Even if you weren’t old enough to remember, you probably know the story of Todd Van Poppel.  Generally considered to be the best player available in the 1990 MLB Draft and appearing on the premiere issue of Beckett Future Stars magazine with Nolan Ryan (hint, hint), Van Poppel warned the Atlanta Braves not to select him first overall if they didn’t plan on giving him a substantial (for 1990 standards) signing bonus; even threatening to enroll at the University of Texas, if needed.  The Braves and 12 other teams were scared off and Van Poppel fell to Oakland at pick #14.  (The Braves instead had to “settle” for some kid out of Jacksonville named Larry Jones.)

But Van Poppel wasn’t the only highly-regarded pitcher Oakland selected in that draft.  Oakland was awarded three additional first round picks that year and used them all on pitchers: Don Peters at #26, David Zancanaro at #34 and Kirk Dressendorfer 36th.  Four first-rounder’s, all pitchers, all taken by the same team?  Yep, and The Hobby of 1990 ate it up.

1990 was the last year before Topps re-positioned Bowman as “The Home of The Rookie Card,” so collectors had to wait until 1991 for the player’s first “true” rookie cards.  But that didn’t stop Classic (which at the time had an MLB/MLBPA license, but not to make cards in traditional pack form) from making, in retrospect, one of the most ridiculous baseball cards ever printed.

Card #T77 in the 1991 Classic Baseball Series One set, dubbed “Future Aces,” is a group photo of the four Oakland draftees each holding an “Ace” playing card.

Oakland just drafted four future aces, and there are four aces in a deck.  Get it?

Of Oakland’s Four Aces, Peters and Zancanaro never made it out of the minors.  Dressendorfer made the 1991 Opening Day roster, but was sent down just before Memorial Day and never pitched in The Bigs again.  Van Poppel played five largely ineffective seasons for Oakland before they gave up on him in the middle of the 1996 season.  He bounced around for the next decade as a decent, but not exceptional, reliever before calling it a career in 2005, retiring with a 40-52 record – 284 shy of Nolan Ryan.  Larry Jones, whom you know better as “Chipper,” is wrapping up a First Ballot Hall of Fame career.

2)   Brien Taylor

You just couldn’t make this stuff up.  Poor kid growing up (literally) in a trailer in the backwaters of rural North Carolina, blessed with a power fastball and a knee-buckling curve.  Gets picked first overall in the 1991 MLB Draft by the Yankees, then is ordered by his mother to hold out until he receives (and gets) baseball’s first million dollar signing bonus.  Then, signs an endorsement and an exclusive autograph contract with Topps.  Spends the next two seasons dominating the Florida State and Eastern Leagues, waiting for the call for what will surely be future Major League stardom.

And then came December 18, 1993, when he blows-out his $1.55m shoulder in a fist-fight.  Seven years of rehab and ineffectiveness later, and Brien Taylor became just the second first overall pick to never play an MLB inning.  Fast forward a dozen years after that, and Taylor becomes the first first overall pick to be indicted for cocaine trafficking.

In retrospect, it seems insignificant; but Topps’ signing of Taylor to that contract was, to borrow a phrase, a “game changer.”  Topps was slow to exploit the loophole that they enjoyed, allowing them to individually sign minor league players and include them in “Major League” card sets.  Step 1 in exploiting this loophole was reconfiguring their floundering Bowman brand into “The Home of the Rookie Card.”  Step 2: Signing the #1 overall draft pick to an exclusive contract.

As part of that exclusive contract, Topps had Taylor autograph 12,000 cards for inclusion into each 1992 Topps Gold factory set.  At one time, these were $100 items.  At the recently concluded NSCC in Baltimore I saw two of these cards for sale in a dollar box.  The dealer said he’d let me have them for 50 cents each.

3)      “Generation K”

Generation K were a trio of young pitchers that all came of age in the Mets farm system of the early-to-mid-90s, none of whom would pan out – at least with the Mets.  Bill Pulsipher’s 1992 Stadium Club, Paul Wilson’s 1993 Topps Traded, and Jason Isringhausen’s 1994 Bowman were some of the era’s hottest rookie cards – all of which , for various reasons, can be had for a fraction of their 1990s highs.

Pulsipher was a second round pick of the Mets in 1991 and was included as a late addition to the third series of 1992 Stadium Club Baseball.  After breezing through the minors, Pulsipher got the call in 1995.  Tommy John surgery caused him to miss the entire 1996 season, and was never really the same pitcher again.  After a few years kicking around numerous organizations, Pulsipher has spent the last few seasons playing in independent leagues.

It’s probably not fair to label Jason Isringhausen a “bust,” but it wasn’t until after injuries caused him to flame out as a starter for the Mets that he was able to reinvent himself as a closer.  Last season he became only the 23rd pitcher to amass 300 career saves; but, with some exceptions, card collectors really don’t care much for relievers.

Paul Wilson was the first player picked overall in the 1994 MLB Draft.  He made it to New York for the 1996 season, then laid a 5-12, 5.38 ERA, -2.0 WAR bomb and never pitched for the Mets again.  After missing most or all of two of the next three seasons due to injury, he was traded to Tampa Bay midway through the 2000 season and spent the next five years afterward for the Rays and Reds, the very definition of a “Replacement Value Player.”

4)  Ruben Rivera

Ruben Rivera is probably best known for one of three things.

  • Being Mariano Rivera’s cousin
  • Stealing Derek Jeter’s glove and attempting to pawn it off to a memorabilia dealer
  • Providing the worst example of base running ever recorded in the history of the game of baseball

But before all those follies, Rivera was best known as the biggest baseball prospect of the mid-1990s.  I think it’s fair to say that Ruben Rivera was to 1994 what Mike Trout was to 2009.  The hype all started with his monstrous .281/.357/.541, .898 OPS, 33HR, 48SB 1994 season at Single-A, and the comparisons to Mickey Mantle were well underway.  A .944 OPS season split between AA and AAA followed in ’95, and all of a sudden his 1994 Bowman rookie cards were $25 items.

Rivera made his MLB Debut in 1996 for the Yankees, getting a World Series ring in the process, but was traded to San Diego in the early stages of the 1997 season in the deal that made another 90s Rookie Flop, Hideki Irabu, a Yankee.  And that’s when Ruben Rivera’s career fell apart.

His power stroke and his high-OBP abandoned him in San Diego, and after the 2000 season, the Padres gave up.  Rivera would spend the next three seasons in Cincinnati, back with the Yankees (where the Derek Jeter glove incident took place), off to Texas, and finally with the Giants in ’03, where in one of his final acts as a Major Leaguer he committed one of the biggest base running gaffes ever seen.

Since then, Rivera’s made a decent living playing for the Campeche Piratas of the Mexican League.  Not bad, but not exactly the second coming of Mickey Mantle either.

5)      Travis Lee

San Diego State’s Travis Lee was generally considered to be the best hitter available in the 1996 MLB Draft, and after the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Kris Benson with the first overall pick it was a foregone conclusion that the Minnesota Twins would pick Lee second overall, which they did.  However, due to obscure loophole, Lee and three others (John Patterson, Matt White, and Bobby Seay) were all declared free agents.

On the free-market, Lee signed with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks for $10m – about five times the amount Minnesota was prepared to offer. With the best hitting prospect in the minors signed to a (then) record contract, combining with the novelty of playing for a first-year expansion team, and the first year for the new Bowman Chrome brand, Lee’s BowChro RC shot up to the $50 range – even more for the Refractor and International parallels.

After a decent 1998 season (.269/.346/.429, .775 OPS, 22 HR, 72 RBI, 0.8 WAR) that saw him finish third in the NL ROY balloting, Lee regressed in ’99 losing his starting first base job to Mexican import Erubiel Durazo.  Finally, about a week before the 2000 trade deadline, he was shipped off to the Phillies in the now infamous Curt Schilling trade.

With the exception of a decent 2003 season with Tampa Bay, Travis Lee would spend the remainder of his career playing near replacement value, never living up to that $10m bonus, or the Hobby hype that came with it.

Other stories in Chris Harris’ 1990s series: