Outfielder Corey Patterson has a big-league job again, having apparently taken over center field for the Toronto Blue Jays while starter Rajai Davis is on the disabled list. Patterson hit a home run in his first game, stole a base in his second and has four RBI in nine plate appearances through two games.
The Chicago Cubs can hardly begrudge Patterson any success from here forward. By now, current Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd is a better all-around player than Patterson. Still, watching Patterson, it’s hard not to reminisce about his time on the North Side, and to think about why it all went wrong.
First, let me clarify one thing: Patterson really is not a “bust,” at least not in the classic sense. He never reached the potential everyone saw in him, but he may be one of the top five defensive center fielders of the past 20 years. His next game played will make 1,100 for his career, and along the way, he has hit 113 home runs and stolen 206 bases.
That said, Patterson could have been so much more than that. He could have been the best center fielder in Cubs history and one of the best in baseball for the past half-decade. At 31, he is young enough yet and his career likely is not over. Under different circumstances, though, he could have won an MVP award or two.
The Cubs took Patterson third overall in the 1998 June draft. He was just 18 at the time, and would reach the big leagues scarcely a month after turning 20. beginning in 1999, Patterson showed up at 16, 3 and 2 on Baseball America’s annual rankings of the best prospects in baseball. Desperate to put together a winner after the 1998 season proved to be a flash in the pan, the Cubs pushed Patterson, hard.
Here are Patterson’s key statistics from year to year in the Cubs’ Minor Leagues, 1999-2001:
Year Level Age HR SB Avg OBP SLG BB SO PA
1999 Low-A 19 20 33 0.32 0.358 0.592 25 85 509
2000 Double-A 20 22 27 0.261 0.338 0.491 45 115 506
2001 Triple-A 21 7 19 0.253 0.308 0.387 29 65 403
As those numbers demonstrate, Patterson was playing very well from an age-versus-level perspective. He flashed power and speed. But his plate discipline was clearly a long way from ready for such rapid advancement. Yet, Patterson got 182 plate appearances with the parent club during 2000 and 2001, with predictable results: He hit .208 with nine walks and 47 strikeouts in those brief auditions.
Still, the Cubs (under scouting director Jim Hendry) elected to push Patterson ever harder. They did not impose upon him to shorten his swing, the most fixable flaw in his plate approach. They wanted power and speed, and they wanted it immediately. Patterson played 153 games, all for Chicago, in 2002. He struck out 142 times and drew only 19 walks, but the team promised he would get better with age.
And they were right, however fleetingly. Patterson broke out in 2003, batting .298/.329/.511 with 13 homers and 16 steals in only 87 games before wrecking his knee in early July. Enamored of those numbers, the team told Patterson not to change a thing going into 2004.
Patterson stayed healthy in 2004 and set his tools on full display. He hit 24 home runs, stole 32 bases and could have made a very strong case for a Gold Glove award for his athletic defense of center field. Still, he was maddeningly power-conscious: He never took the advice of manager Dusty Baker and began bunting for hits regularly. He swung for the fences seemingly every time. He settled into the batter’s box like a slugger, hands low, knees bent and back straight. His approach continued to fit poorly with his skill set, and he fanned 168 times while walking only 45 times in 2004.
Then 2005 came. Patterson was only 25 for most of the season, but he had all the expectations of an established veteran. He continued to swing for the fences, but made less solid contact than ever. He struggled so badly that season that the team demoted him briefly, but nothing worked: Patterson hit .215/.254/.348 for the year, driven only in part by bad luck (.262 on balls in play that year).
The Cubs had mismanaged Patterson from Day 1. They pushed him much too hard through the Minor Leagues. They never got into his ear about shortening his swing and gearing his game toward speed. They tolerated too much and expected too much of him. Maybe their biggest mistake, though, came after the 2005 season: They gave up on Patterson. Hendry, who had so loved Patterson once, swapped Patterson to Baltimore for two players who would never reach the big leagues.
Sure, Patterson had been bad in 2005. He had been awful. His defense had remained very sound, but he was a nightmare at the plate. It’s easy to understand organizational frustration with him.
Still, trading Patterson (to make room, as it turned out, for Juan Pierre) represented a serious error in self-evaluation on the part of the Cubs. Apparently, they preferred to bring in Pierre and pursue a division crown in 2006 rather than stick with the still-young Patterson. But the Cubs were miles from being serious contenders at that stage. Even if Derrek Lee had not gotten hurt that season, and even if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood had made more than 13 combined starts, the 2006 Cubs were not going anywhere. As it turned out, the team lost 96 games and Pierre was a one-year rental.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Patterson found new life. The Orioles found a way to coax Patterson into standing up straighter at the plate, striding less, shortening his swing and making contact. Here are Patterson’s year-by-year strikeout rates:
With that revelation, Patterson became a similar player to the one he had been in 2004. He stole 45 bases for the Orioles in 2006, and 37 more the next year. He continued to develop as a defensive outfielder, and by 2008, he was regularly stealing home runs for the Cincinnati Reds. He came far short of blooming into the superstar he might have been, but he played at least as well for those three seasons as the Cubs’ center fielders (Pierre, Jacque Jones and Jim Edmonds) for considerably less money.
The Cubs are a marginally smarter organization these days, so don’t expect Brett Jackson to meet a similar fate to Patterson’s. But it’s tragic, in a bittersweet sort of way, to watch Patterson play in a different uniform each year. There are moments, like last year when Patterson took Neftali Feliz into the upper deck in Texas for a ninth-inning, game-tying grand slam, when Patterson still looks like a prodigy. He makes plays in the outfield once a week that only two or three players in baseball could make, and makes them look relatively easy with terrific body control.
Occasionally, the camera will linger on Patterson’s face–he has the Good Face, as scouts call it, with an easy smile and boyish looks–and you can see the wheels turn in his head. He will look toward an awestruck teammate or a manually operated camera and crack that lopsided grin, but as he looks away, he often looks up for just a moment, as though asking the stars what he did to cross them. He grimaces for a moment, takes a deep breath and returns his focus to the task at hand. Patterson is not a superstar, though he might have been: He is a fringe big-league regular, a journeyman, and sadly, he cannot afford to linger long in admiration of all the things he can do on a baseball diamond. Cubs fans, by contrast, have plenty of time to dream, and Hendry sure looks bad for the way he squandered Patterson.