Sport Illustrated's recent baseball preview issue featured a story on Brian Cole, a prospect in the New York Mets farm system who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in the spring of 2001. The article is well worth your time to read. Many observers who saw Cole play believe he was destined to be a star. This includes people who played with and against him, such as Albert Pujols and CC Sabathia.
I received an email recently from a reader who asked me if I had seen Cole play, how was he viewed as a prospect when he was playing, and if the stories about his potential stardom were exaggerated or not.
Yes, I was fortunate enough to see Cole play, in the Arizona Fall League in 2000. I never forgot him: he was a bundle of plus tools, including speed and power, in a small package. In that sense, the reports on his tools and talent are not exaggerated. He was a natural, his makeup was considered strong, and he could have become an outstanding player.
He wasn't perfect and he did have some flaws as a player. He showed some problems with strike zone judgment and breaking pitches when I saw him, and his defense was erratic. Digging through old reports, here are the two comments I wrote on Cole for the old Minor League Scouting Notebooks.
From the 2000 Minor League Scouting Notebook: Drafted in 1998, Cole was an 18th-round selection out of Navarro (Texas) Junior College. He was named Junior College Player of the Year that season by Baseball America, but wasn't well regarded by many scouts because he's short. Cole is extremely fast and quite strong for his size. He could use better plate discipline, but handled Class-A South Atlantic League pitching without trouble, posting an OPS of +26 percent and a SEC of +49 percent last year. He has fine range but a weak arm in the outfield. I rather like this guy, though I want to see how his command of the strike zone holds up at higher levels. Grade C+.
From the 2001 Minor League Scouting Notebook: Cole may be short, but he has a strong set of tools. He has great speed, is very strong for his size, makes contact, and has a surprisingly strong arm from the outfield. Strike zone judgment is the main issue. Given Cole's size, it's a matter of hitting philosophy rather than a physical limitation, that keeps him from drawing more walks and getting more pitches to drive. Better patience would also enhance the value of his undoubted speed, of course. Cole's OPS was +24 percent in the high Class-A Florida State League, but dropped to +2 percent in Double-A (his line was .278/.326/.420 in 176 at-bats). He needs more experience. I like him a lot, but I would feel better about him if he were with a team that emphasized plate discipline more strongly. Grade B-.
Some points of comment here.
I was more of a stathead fundamentalist back then, and nowadays I would likely be more forgiving of Cole's occasional impatience issues, given his overall tool package, age, and the fact that he did keep his strikeout rates under control. Also note the difference in the descriptions of his throwing arm: I had bad reports on that entering 2000, but that changed the following season and I saw him rip off some good throws in Arizona.
Cole hit .306/.347/.503 in his minor league career, with 86 walks and 180 strikeouts in 1289 at-bats. He stole 135 bases in 174 attempts. He was only 22 when he died. It is true that his career could have gone in any number of directions. However, given a realistic skill growth curve and good health, he had every chance to be a regular major league outfielder at the least, and possibly much more.
It is a genuine tragedy that Brian's life was cut short, for the Mets and baseball as a whole, but most importantly for his family and friends. Their loss was truly incalculable.