Bruce Chen is retired. He announced it earlier this week when the Cleveland Indians tried to send him down to Columbus after he flunked out of their starting rotation. It is a big league passing that will elicit no fanfare. No tributes save this one. Barely anyone will take notice. Bruce Chen is no one's favorite player, and that's ok. But he's one of my favorite concepts.
Bruce Chen is walking, talking proof that being left-handed and being able to throw in the mid-80s is the most valuable thing on the planet. Because of it, Bruce Chen was able to last 17 years in the Major Leagues. That's longer than Don Drysdale. It's longer than Whitey Ford and Lefty Gomez. Longer than Catfish Hunter, Juan Marichal, and Carl Hubbell. Bruce Chen debuted in 1998, the same year as Roy Halladay, Ryan Dempster, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, and Kerry Wood. He debuted the same year as Eric Milton, for God's sake.
Bruce Chen has outlasted them all, and finished with a career record above .500 (82-81), despite being worth just 10 wins above replacement for his career. He was never dominant, and only occasionally competent. But the competent moments stuck with you, and everybody (or at least 11 MLB teams) needs a Bruce Chen at some point or another.
He debuted with four September starts in 1998, winning two of them and striking out 17 batters in 20.1 innings. Going into 1999, he was ranked as the 4th best prospect in the game by Baseball America, back when we were all overvaluing any young pitcher in the Braves system (Hi Kyle Davies!). Very mixed success in a variety of roles, however, kept him from establishing himself until 2000, after he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for Andy Ashby. Thus began his odyssey through clubhouses that saw him spend less than a full season as a Phillie, a Met, a Red, an Astro, a Red Sock(x?), a Ranger, an Indian, and an Expo, for God's sake. He also spent three years as an Oriole.
That's not how I will remember Bruce Chen though. Not as some kind of baseball hobo, riding the rails between cities. I will remember him reinventing himself as a Kansas City Royal during their transition from afterthought to legitimate contender. And while he performed admirably (with an ERA above league average in three of his six seasons), it's no coincidence that the Royals' ascendency coincided with their decreasing reliance on Chen. While I selectively remember him baffling lefty-heavy Twins lineups with his assortment of junk in 2011, I was surprised when I realized he actually posted a 5.54 ERA against them for his Royals career. I'm not alone, either. Twins fans still make jokes about getting "BruceChenned" by an otherwise bad pitcher. But that's the mystery of Bruce Chen. You remember what he did at his best, and he Jedi mind-wiped you about the rest of his performance.
So what will change in the game now that Bruce Chen has put himself out to pasture? Precious little. There will always be a Bruce Chen. There must always be a Bruce Chen. Some replacement level lefty swingman will take his place. Maybe it will be John Danks, or Wandy Rodriguez, or Tommy Milone. If we are very lucky, it will be Barry Zito. Whoever it is, someone will step up and claim that mantle and be the man that teams turn to when they have nowhere else to go.
The Indians, meanwhile, are better with Shaun Marcum taking over the fifth spot in the starting rotation. That is the nature of Bruce Chen. He is not the pitcher you want. He is the pitcher you need when things get bad. There's something incredibly noble about his perseverance in that role for 17 long seasons and always being willing to answer that bell. I admire that a lot. Happy trails, Bruce.