Bruce Chen has become somewhat an afterthought in Atlanta Braves prospect lore. But as the Braves were ready to bring in the new century, there were quite a few that prophesied the then-21-year-old left-hander was a young Greg Maddux in the making.
Well, it’s safe to say that isn’t quite how it turned out. But to be fair, there aren’t many that can live up to that kind of billing.
How close did Chen get? Let’s take a look back at the long and strange MLB journey of Bruce Chen.
Bruce Chen: a Top-5 MiLB prospect in all of baseball
Chen, although of Chinese decent, was born and raised in Panama, which was where the Braves found him. He signed with the Braves at the age of 16 in 1993 and began his professional career a year later in the Gulf Coast League.
After slowly climbing the ranks of rookie and half-season ball, Chen put himself on the map as a 20-year-old in his 1997 South Atlantic League debut. He became an All Star pitching to a 12-7 record with a 3.51 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 182 strikeouts in 146.1 innings.
He entered the 1998 season ranked by Baseball America in their top 100 for a second year in a row, this time at No. 27. Chen — armed with the rare “polished” four-pitch arsenal of a low-90s fastball, curve, slider and change — climbed three rungs of the ladder in 1998, finishing the season with his MLB debut. He was a Southern League All Star and made quick work of the International League in four starts, posting a 1.88 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 24 innings, although an insanely high 19 walks was worrisome.
Chen reached Atlanta in September of that ‘98 season and after getting hit hard in his first start, adjusted and made three strong starts to finish the year, hurling 17.1 innings, allowing five runs and striking out 12.
The 21-year-old lefty was named the Braves minor league pitcher of the year, the top prospect in the system and the No. 4 overall prospect in baseball by Baseball America heading into the 1999 season.
Chen’s career in Atlanta was short-lived
The Braves obviously liked what they saw. Denny Neagle, who had won 36 games for the Braves in the previous two seasons, was traded away prior to the 1999 season. Though Chen began the 1999 season in Triple-A for a couple of fine-tuning starts, he was expected to become part of the Atlanta Braves coveted rotation.
Chen, who earned those lofty comparisons to Maddux for being a clean and precise pitcher, was quite the opposite. He came up in May and in his first six starts of that 1999 season he walked 17 batters and allowed eight home runs (note: he was sent down after those first two starts and did not return until July).
Chen appeared in 16 games for the Braves that 1999 season and lost his spot in the rotation. As a reliever in 2000, Chen had a nice start to the season, going 4-0 with a 2.50 ERA, but the walks and home runs allowed were still too high. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies midway through the season for Andy Ashby and thus concluded Chen’s Braves’ career.
Chen was a ramblin’ man
Though Chen’s Braves career came to an end, his big-league career was just getting started. In fact, he became a National League East staple going from the Braves to the Phillies in 2000, the Phillies to the New York Mets in 2001 and then the Mets to the Montreal Expos in 2002.
It took awhile for Chen to find a home. In 2004, Chen finally latched on with the Orioles where he stayed for three seasons. Now back in the rotation, Chen had the best year of his career: he won 13 games and posted a respectable 3.83 ERA, but he allowed 33 home runs and walked 63 batters in 197.1 innings. The following season was one of the worst of his career: he went 0-7 with a 6.93 ERA allowing 28 home runs... in less than 100 innings pitched.
Chen made his way to Kansas City where he spent six seasons and had a late career renaissance. From his age-33 to age-35 season, he made 82 starts and picked up 35 wins for the Royals. When he finally hung it up after the 2015 season with the Cleveland Indians, he had made a 17-year career for himself playing for 11 different MLB teams. While he never became Greg Maddux, there aren’t many people that figure out how to hang around that long. He was a starter, a long man, a swing man, a set up man, and if you needed someone to walk your dog, Chen would probably do it.
He lived in at least 11 MLB cities and probably five or six more minor league ones. Of course, no 17-year career is complete without a season lost to Tommy John, and Chen complied, spending all of 2008 on the shelf. But whenever you look back at photos of Chen, he is smiling.
He finished with 82 wins (and 81 losses, which shouldn’t be at all surprising for the odd, yet delightfully average, journey Chen was on). That is the same amount of wins as Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. That makes him tied for the most wins ever by a Panama-born pitcher.
Not bad for a guy with Chinese heritage. In fact, at age 39, he un-retired for one last go and pitched very well for China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
And let’s not forget, per Ted Berg, Chen is MLB’s all-time leader with three 1.000 batting average seasons (he went 1-for-1 in 2006, 2009 and 2010).
Did Chen ever become that No. 4 prospect? Not even close, but somehow, he had himself quite the lengthy career. If you told me he was attempting to comeback for the 2021 season, I’d believe you in heartbeat.
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