Prospect Retro: David Cone
David Cone was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the third round of the 1981 draft, a local kid out of Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He had a very good arm, but didn't go higher in the draft due to concerns about his command, and the fact that he was a relatively short righthander, a big no-no for scouts back then. Cone did well in rookie ball, with a 2.55 ERA in 67 innings, but his K/BB wasn't too hot at 45/33. At this point he'd be a Grade C+ prospect I think.
Moved up to the Sally League in 1982, Cone went 9-2, 2.06 in 16 starts with an 87/47 K/BB in 105 innings. . .somewhat high walk rate, but good pitching overall. Promoted to the Florida State League at midseason, he then went 7-1, 2.12 in nine starts, throwing six complete games, posting a 57/25 K/BB ratio in 72 innings. At this point, he was starting to show up on top pitching prospect lists. His control was still a problem, but he had good stuff and went 16-3 with a 2.09 ERA in his first full pro season. I'd say Grade B at a minimum and probably B+.
Cone missed the entire 1983 season after tearing cartilage in his left knee during a play at home plate in spring training. At least it wasn't his elbow or shoulder.
Returning to action in 1984, Cone went 8-12, 4.28 in 29 starts for Double-A Memphis, with a 110/114 K/BB in 179 innings. He ate a lot of innings, threw nine complete games, and dominated on occasion, but severe control problems resulted in an awful K/BB ratio and an inflated ERA. I don't know what his pitch counts were, but they must have been abusive by today's standards with that many innings, complete games, and walks. Dropping him to Grade B- would seem appropriate, or maybe even C+.
Cone moved up to Triple-A in 1985 and continued to have trouble with control, going 9-15, 4.65 with a 115/93 K/BB in 159 innings. I remember seeing him pitch against the Iowa Cubs that summer. He had tremendous movement on his pitches, but couldn't locate them where he wanted in the strike zone. Grade C+ or maybe even Grade C.
The Royals decided to convert Cone to relief in 1986 to try and get his command back on track. It worked at least a little; he posted a 2.79 ERA for Omaha, collected 14 saves, and improved his K/BB to 63/25 in 71 innings. He had a rough major league cup-of-coffee with KC, posting a 5.56 ERA and 21/13 K/BB in 23 innings, giving up 29 hits.
At this point he was 23 years old, with an excellent arm, but erratic command and a tough major league debut on his resume. The general idea throughout baseball was that he might make a closer someday, but only if he improved his control dramatically. His arm strength was certainly well respected, and he was still young, but no one saw him as a potential Cy Young candidate. The Royals traded him to the Mets in spring training of 1987 for catcher Ed Hearn, and pitchers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo.
Cone spent most of 1987 with the Mets, used as both a starter and reliever. He did OK, going 5-6, 3.71 in 99 innings, with a 68/44 K/BB. Not terrible, but his K/BB was still not very impressive. In 1988 he broke out by going 20-3, 2.22 with a 213/80 K/BB in 231 innings. Improved command and better confidence was the key, but I don't think anyone really saw it coming before it happened.
Cone was a successful, occasionally brilliant, starting pitcher for the next 11 years, winning the American League Cy Young Award in 1994. His minor league track record early in his career was very good, but he didn't pitch particularly well for two years following the knee injury. His command was never a huge asset even when he was pitching well in the majors, but he had so much movement on his pitches that even a marginal improvement in control took him a long way.
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