Often lost in the praise of Tom Glavine is the fact that he was one of a trio of pitching prospects that the Braves thought would lead their staff back in the 80s, kind of a precursor to the ballyhooed Four Aces and Generation K and much like those groups of pitchers, this group also met with incredibly mixed success. I learned about this group via an uncle of mine who was an avid Sporting News subscriber. He also informed me of this kid Kent Mercker who would one day make something of himself. So, today we’re looking at the other two members of the group: Kevin Coffman and Pete Smith.
Pete Smith was originally drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1984, and came to the Braves as a throw-in for the Ozzie Virgil trade in 1985. By 1987, he was considered a top prospect for the club, and was mentioned in the papers: “There are several new young pitchers opening some eyes here in camp. Lefty Tom Glavine, who played hockey in Massachusetts and was even drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, will head back to Triple-A Richmond. And the Braves are excited about Pete Smith, who was acquired in the Steve Bedrosian trade with Ozzie Virgil in December of 1985. Perhaps Glavine and Smith can give the Braves some hope for the future pitching staff.”
Pete arrived in the majors on September 8, 1987, with an auspicious debut against the San Diego Padres. The LA Times had the story: “Smith retired the first 11 Padres he faced until John Kruk’s single in the fourth. Brave shortstop Jeff Blauser flagged it with a dive but could not complete the play. Smith got the next four batters before running into trouble in the sixth.” He went on to get the win in that game, and had a September that was about what you’d expect from a 21-year old pitching for the 1987 Atlanta Braves, ending with a 91 ERA+.
So, where does Kevin Coffman fit into all of this? Kevin was an 11th round, homegrown Braves prospect who had seen some up-and-down success and saw the Braves in a September callup along with his fellow prospects. Control had always been an issue for the guy, but in 1987 it looked like he might be figuring it out, having brought his bb/12 down from 12.2 as an 18-year old in the Gulf Coast League to a still alarming 6.4 in 1987. He was seen as a power pitcher who had a great deal of trouble mastering his curveball, but the thought was that he would put it together eventually, especially after he went 14-9 in 1986. Oh, by the way, Glavine and Coffman were teammates in 1985 at Sumter. I only mention this because I was able to find this picture in Google Archives:
Hahaha, look at that thing. Coffman also debuted in September 1987, debuting three days before Smith, on September 5th. His first outing was nowhere near as good; he surrendered four runs on seven hits in three and two-thirds innings. He also walked three. Not a good omen, but he ended up with a 2-3 record, a 95 ERA+, and a 5.0 BB/9 ratio. It looked like he could still be something.
1988 would not be kind to the trio. From the Atlanta Constitution:
To be fair to Smith, he was a whole lot better than he appeared pitching for a pretty lousy squad. Yes, he went 7-15 with 8.4 h/9 and 4/0 bb/9, but he managed a 5.7 k/9 and a 100 ERA+. For a 22-year old in the big leagues, I’d be willing to cut the kid a break. That’s not too damned bad. I can see why he made all the 88 traded sets; it looked like he had a future ahead of him. Well, he kind of did, but not what people thought.
I found this snippet from the Atlanta Constitution article particularly ironic.
Well, Tom, maybe you should’ve spoken for yourself. While Glavine would indeed rebound in 1989, going 14-8 with a 99 ERA+ at age 23 and showing flashes of the brilliant pitcher he would eventually become, Smith nosedived. He went 5-14, again, not a big deal for someone pitching for those awful Braves teams, but his h/9 inched up to 9.1, his WHIP shot up to 1.415, and his ERA+ tumbled to 77. He looked lost, and he would never really recover from there.
Coffman, in the meantime, went from bad to worse. 1988 had not been kind to him. He only stayed in Atlanta for 18 games, starting 11, and went 2-6 with an abysmal 64 ERA+, 8.3 h/9, and a 7.3 bb/9. He threw 11 wild pitches in 18 games and hit 4 batters. Obviously having seen enough, Atlanta packaged him with Kevin Blankenship for Jody Davis in September 1988. He proceeded to stink up the joint in Chicago’s minor leagues, registering a 10.3 BB/9 in 1989. He didn’t return to the majors until 1990, when he posted an 11.29 ERA in 8 games for the Cubs. Apparently he had some of the same psychological problems John Smoltz did, taking a psychologist to the game when he pitched, but it didn’t work out so well for him. He was gone from the majors for good, hanging on in the minors until 1995.
Smith’s career lasted a bit longer. While he never lived up to the hype, he did hang on in the majors until 1998, making a respectable 11-year career. He finished with a 41-71 career record (he did pitch for some really bad teams) and an 86 ERA+. He had a career 4.9 WAR, pretty abysmal for an 11-year career. Most telling is the fact that he gave up 9.2 hits per 9 innings over his career. You just can’t sustain success like that.
But it’s an interesting journey, and there were a lot more pitchers from the Atlanta crop that we haven’t covered, like Tommy Greene, Derek Lilliquist, Steve Avery, and, of course, John Smoltz. I suspect some of them will come up in future “projects”.