Prospect Retro: Ruben Mateo
Oh, what might have been.
Ruben Mateo made his North American debut in 1996, hitting 260/.309/.401 with 30 steals in 134 games for Charleston in the South Atlantic League. Considering that he did this at age 18 with no rookie ball experience beyond the Dominican Summer League, his performance was credible. His power was raw and he needed to improve his plate discipline, but his speed was impressive and his tools stood out. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 1997 book, rating him as a player to watch but recognizing that he needed to improve his strike zone judgment.
Promoted to Charlotte in the Carolina League in 1997, Mateo hit .314/.359/.509 with 12 homers and 20 steals in 99 games. His power was developing, he improved his strike zone judgment a bit, and he impressed scouts with his range and arm strength in the outfield. A wrist injury cost him 30 games of playing time, but given his across-the-board improvement at age 19 I was quite impressed with him, rating him as a possible Seven Skill player and giving him a Grade B+ rating in the '98 book.
Mateo moved up to Double-A in 1998 and had an even better season, hitting .309/.371/.522 with 18 homers and 18 steals in 107 games for Tulsa. I saw him play; he was very, very impressive: fluid, athletic, strong. While he wasn't a walk machine, he struck out just 56 times in 433 at-bats and was just 20 years old. I was really high on him by this point, and gave him a Grade A- in the '99 book.
Promoted to Triple-A in 1999, Mateo continued improving his performance, hitting .336/.385/.597. He stole just six bases as he was concentrating more on power, but his overall offensive production was strong although not spectacular with a +21 percent OPS; given his age 21 status in Triple-A, he was clearly a potential star. He hit just .238/.268/.451 in 32 games with the Rangers, hampered by some poor plate discipline, but overall his season confirmed his status as a top prospect. Again I gave him an A-.
Handed the right field job in 2000, Mateo got off to a fast start, hitting .291/.339/.447 in 52 games. In early June, he broke his right leg in a horrific baserunning incident, ending his season. And in retrospect, it seemed to end his career.
He hit just .248/.322/.341 in 40 games for the Rangers in '01, not looking like the same player at all. Mateo was traded to Cincinnati. He did just fine in Triple-A, hitting .301/.342/.498 in 52 games in '02. But in the majors he hit just .256/.319/.395 in part-time action. He didn't adjust well to pinch-hitting and sub duty for the Reds, and at times he appeared to be quite tentative, losing much of the controlled aggression he had shown earlier in his career. Although the broken leg cost him only a little bit of actual speed, he just didn't look like the same player; less confident overall. His makeup, which had previously been relatively well-regarded, was now questioned. He gained weight.
This pattern continued for Mateo: he played great in Triple-A in '03 and '04, but played poorly in the majors for the Reds, Pirates, and Royals. Although still just 29 years old, his chance to be a major leaguer is apparently gone.
What happened here? He had the tools, he had the performance, and his skills were developing. Did the broken leg ruin everything for him? Was he just never the same mentally after that? He certainly didn't look like the same player, not showing the same grace or enthusiasm or confidence after the injury than before.