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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 6: Deaths of young players

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 6: The Deaths of Young Players 

Baseball, sadly, has always had to endure the deaths of players in the middle of their careers and in what should’ve been the primes of their lives. In any given decade there are, unfortunately, several. The 2010s were no different. Here is a retrospective of the players we lost, mid-career, over the past ten years.

 

Greg Halman

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners outfielder had fought through the minor leagues for seven years before making his major league debut in 2010. He played in 44 games for the Mariners across the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

On November 21, 2011 Halman was stabbed to death in his Rotterdam, Netherlands apartment. Arrested for the stabbing and charged with manslaughter was Halman’s brother, Jason Halman. Halman’s brother was released from custody less than a year later after psychiatrists said he was having a psychotic episode at the time of the killing. He was subsequently acquitted on the basis of temporary insanity. At the time of his death, Halman was 24 years-old.

 

Oscar Taveras

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Cardinals’ outfielder had been rated as one of baseball’s top prospects heading into the 2014 season and, though his rookie campaign did not live up to expectations, he nonetheless appeared to have a bright future with the Cardinals, as evidenced by his clutch pinch hitting in the 2014 NLDS and NLCS.

On October 26, 2014, just days after the Cardinals’ elimination from the postseason, Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, were killed in a car accident in which Taveras was driving in the Dominican Republic. Two weeks later authorities confirmed that Taveras’ blood alcohol content was 0.287, nearly six times the legal limit for the Dominican Republic and over three times the legal limit in the United States. Taveras was just 22 years-old.

 

Tommy Hanson

(Photo by Tony Firriolo/MLB via Getty Images)

Hanson burst onto the scene for the Braves in 2009, failing to allow a single run in his third, fourth and fifth-ever big-league starts. He opened his career 9-2, with the Braves getting shut out in both of his losses. When his slider and curve were both working he had potential no-hit stuff. He finished his rookie season with an 11-4 record and a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts and came in third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting despite getting a late callup. In 2010 he made 34 starts with a 3.33 ERA.

Hanson looked like he was about to reach an even higher level in early 2011 before shoulder tendinitis and some questionable usage decisions by the Braves in the wake of that diagnosis caused him to take a step back. He would pitch two more seasons in the bigs but was largely ineffective. He’d then spend the entire 2014 and 2015 campaigns in the minors, trying to get back to his former level. He never would. In the end, his final game as a big leaguer turned out to be September 28, 2013.

Hanson died on November 9, 2015, at the age of 29. The police report listed “overdose” as a possible factor in his death. Toxicology reports which came back a month later confirmed that as the cause. The overdose, a reaction of cocaine and alcohol, was deemed accidental.

 

José Fernández

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Though only in his fourth season in the majors, Fernández was easily one of the best and most exciting pitchers in the game. And because of his on-field flair, confidence and theatrics, he was one of the more controversial ones too. No matter what the unwritten rules police thought of Fernández’s antics, however, his talent could not be denied.

In those four seasons — only two of them full or mostly full seasons — he won 38 games and posted a fantastic ERA of 2.58 while striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings. He was an electric presence on the mound and, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, was poised to become one of baseball’s most highly-paid and entertaining superstars.

Then, in the early morning of September 25, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard found the wreckage of a boat, Kaught Looking, overturned on a jetty off the coast of Miami. Three bodies were found. One of them was Fernández. Fernández owned the boat and, it would be determined later, was almost certainly the one driving it at the time of the crash. Toxicology reports revealed that Fernández was drunk and had cocaine in his system when he died. Speed and darkness were also cited as factors.

Whatever the circumstances of the crash were, the fallout was devastating. Both for those who loved Fernández, who was only 24 years old, and for the Miami Marlins, who haven’t had a star of his caliber since.

 

Yordano Ventura

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ventura debuted in 2013 but he truly burst onto the scene for the Royals in 2014. That year he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings, ascending to the national stage along with the entire Royals team with some key performances in that year’s ALDS and World Series. The following year Ventura won 13 games for the World Champion Royals and again appeared in the playoffs and World Series.

Ventura was often in the middle of controversy — he found himself in several dustups and brawls arising out of his habit of hitting and brushing back hitters — but he was an undeniably electric young talent who was poised to anchor the Royals rotation for years to come.

But it was not to be. On January 22, 2017, Ventura was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. Though there were several rumors about what transpired prior to and just after the accident, police reports were oblique at best and the toxicology report was never publicly released per Dominican Republic law and the wishes of his family. Ventura was only 25 years-old.

 

Tyler Skaggs

(Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Skaggs was a first round pick of the Angels in the 2009 draft. They’d trade him to the Diamondbacks the following year but, obviously still enamored with his talents, re-acquired him in a December 2013 trade. Across parts of seven injury-shortened seasons in the majors, Skaggs posted a 4.41 ERA in 520.2 innings spanning 96 starts.

Skaggs, on a road trip to face the Rangers, was found dead in his Texas hotel room on the morning of July 1, 2019 at the age of 27. The coroner’s report later determined that Skaggs died as a result of “alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone intoxication with terminal aspiration of gastric contents.”

The presence of opioids in Skaggs’ system set off a legal and media firestorm. The DEA and prosecutors in both Anaheim and Texas opened investigations as to how Skaggs acquired the controlled substances. It would later come to light that Eric Kay, the Angels Director of Communications, would routinely acquire opioids which he would take with Skaggs, though he has denied that he had supplied Skaggs with his fatal dose. Kay likewise told DEA agents that at least one other high-ranking Angels official, current Hall of Fame president Tim Mead, knew of Skaggs’ opioid use. Mead and the Angels have denied any knowledge of Skaggs’ use. By virtue of Kay’s knowledge, however, Major League Baseball has been reported to be considering a multi-million dollar fine of the team for failing to carry out its affirmative reporting requirement regarding a player’s drug use under the league’s Joint Drug Agreement.

As the legal ramifications of Skaggs’ death continue to unfold, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association have revisited and revised the Joint Drug Agreement to remove punishment, in favor of treatment, for players who are addicted to opioids. They have likewise taken marijuana off the list of banned substances and will no longer test minor leaguers for marijuana use.

 

Beyond these active players, Major League Baseball has obviously lost a number of other retired players, managers, coaches, team owners and executives, broadcasters, writers and other important figures in and around the game. Though all losses are felt, those who died relatively young tend to linger in the memory a bit more. Roy Halladay, Tony Gwynn, and Gary Carter spring to mind. Will Leitch wrote a pretty comprehensive list of these losses earlier this month.

As we ring in the new decade, let us take a moment to remember those we lost in the old one.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 7: Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown
No. 8: The Biogenesis Scandal
No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yasiel Puig is still a free agent

Yasiel Puig
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Around this time last year, the ink was drying on Manny Machado‘s 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres and Bryce Harper was about to put the finishing touches on his 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies. We had gotten used to premier free agents hanging out in limbo until late February and even into March. This past offseason, however, was a return to normal. The top three free agents — Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg — all signed in December. Once the big names are off the board, the lesser free agents subsequently tend to find homes. There were a handful of noteworthy signings in January, but pretty much everyone was off the board when February began.

There are a handful of free agents remaining as I write this, with one name really sticking out: Yasiel Puig. Last season, between the Reds and Indians, Puig hit .267/.327/.458 with 24 home runs, 84 RBI, 76 runs scored, and 19 stolen bases in 611 plate appearances. He was one of only seven players in the league last year to hit at least 24 home runs and swipe at least 19 bases. While Puig has had some problems over the years, he still possesses a rare blend of power and speed that would seem useful.

The Marlins, White Sox, and Rockies have been linked to Puig this offseason. His market has been otherwise quiet since he became a free agent. The Athletic’s Jim Bowden suggests Puig will have to settle for a “pillow contract” — a one-year deal with which Puig reestablishes his market value, aiming to pursue a multi-year deal the following offseason. Along with the aforementioned three teams, Bowden suggests the Mariners, Indians, Pirates, Giants, Red Sox, and Cardinals as other teams that could potentially fit with Puig, which is not to be confused with teams having expressed interest in his services.