After a four-year absence, Nelson FIgueroa has reappeared in the majors, and seems like a good subject for a prospect retro.
Figueroa was drafted by the Mets in the 30th round in 1995, out of Brandeis University. His pro debut was very good: 7-1, 3.07 with a 79/22 K/BB in 76 innings for Kingsport in the Appy League. A similar pitcher now would get a Grade C from me: good numbers, but a college guy in rookie ball without a plus fastball isn't going to rank higher.
1996 was a special year: he went 14-7, 2.04 with a 200/58 K/BB in 185 innings for Columbia in the Sally League, with 119 hits allowed. Scouts downplayed him due to his 84-86 MPH fastball, but his curveball, changeup, and splitter were excellent and he dominated Sally League hitters. I gave him a Grade C due to the lack of fastball, but also wrote that he had a shot at remaining effective at higher levels.
Promoted to Double-A Binghamton in 1997, Figueroa saw his fortunes change: he went 5-11, 4.34 with a 116/68 K/BB in 143 innings, 137 hits allowed, as Double-A hitters weren't as readily fooled by his arsenal. He got another Grade C from me, noting that his intelligence and competitiveness were assets, but that he needed to make adjustments to survive.
Figueroa went 12-3, 4.66 for Binghamton in 1998 with a 116/44 K/BB in 124 innings, a higher strikeout rate at least compared to the previous season. He was included in a July trade to Arizona, sent to Triple-A Tucson, and did well with a 3.70 ERA and a 29/16 K/BB. Again I gave him a Grade C.
Scouts continued to pan Figueroa, but he went to Triple-A Tucson and had a fine year, 11-6, 3.94 with a 106/41 K/BB in 128 innings, 128 hits allowed, very good numbers for the Pacific Coast League. He wasn't promoted to the majors, and I gave him another Grade C in the book, but I wrote that I wouldn't be afraid to give him a chance as a Number Five starter.
He finally got a shot in the majors in 2000, making three starts with the Diamondbacks, posting a 7.47 ERA, and impressing them enough that he was traded to the Phillies in the Curt Schilling deal. Lost in the shuffle was the fact that he again had a very good year in Triple-A. The Phillies gave him a fair shot in 2001 and he posted a 3.94 ERA and 4-5 record in 13 starts, with a 61/37 K/BB in 89 innings as a swingman.
Figueroa bounced around Triple-A and the majors 2002-2004, pitching for the Brewers and Pirates and their Triple-A affiliates. He was released in October '04, didn't pitch in '05, then went the indy route in '06 briefly before signing with Washington. He never gave up and is back with the Mets now, his original organization.
As you can see, he never got really strong prospect ratings despite his usually-good performances due to the lack of stuff. But remember that even a Grade C prospect has a chance to contribute at the major league level. It's not meant as an insult in most cases, and for a guy like Figueroa, a 30th round pick with below average heat, being a Grade C prospect is praise.
Figueroa's career major league mark is 9-18, 4.59, giving him a 92 ERA+. HIs K/BB is 174/118 in 290 innings with 294 hits allowed. Basically he's an average major league pitcher, whose had years where he was above average (2001, 2003) and years where he was worse than average (2002, 2004). Certainly there are worse pitchers who had long careers. Those are usually guys with blazing fastballs that hang around forever even if they can't pitch because scouts and coaches always think some little tweak will turn the thrower into a pitcher.
In Figueroa's case, it's his pitching skill and refusal to give up that has gotten him this far. I find that admirable. He'll never be more than average in the majors, but even that's a triumph.