In Spring Training 1999 the Arizona Diamondbacks had just finished their inaugural season and had been very active in the free agent market. They had signed or traded for several big name players including such notables as Greg, Colbrunn, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Tony Womack, Todd Stottlemyre, and of course Randy Johnson. The team had immediately gone from an expansion franchise to a play-off contender. There was a lot of excitement surrounding this club as fans began to wonder how good these players and this team could be. And while there was a lot of buzz around baseball around the Diamondbacks and their major league team they were also garnering press about some of their minor league players.
The Diamondbacks had three pitchers in the lower level of their system who were being groomed to become the pitching staff of the future. The plan was for Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Andy Benes and others to bridge the gap and hopefully bring the Diamondbacks some post season experience while these three pitchers matured to the point where they would form the basis of an extraordinary staff. Comparisons of these three were already being drawn with many believing that they would become as dominant as Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz were in Atlanta. These three minor league pitchers were invited to Spring Training in 1999 to spend time in the big league camp just to see what it was like. They were given lockers in the corner and the expectation was that they would just absorb what they could before being sent to minor league camp to begin their season in El Paso for the Diablos. Diamondbacks closer Gregg Olson nicknamed them the “Three Phenoms” and by all accounts they were the only untouchables in the Diamondbacks minor league system. They had come through the minor league system together. A plan the Diamondbacks had hatched early on to give the three continuity and also to allow them to compete against each other hopefully driving them to greatness. These pitchers were Diamondbacks 1996 first round selection left-hander Nick Bierbrodt, 1996 fifth-round selection Brad Penny, and Montreal Expos first round draft pick John Patterson. It was widely thought that Patterson had the best stuff while Penny had the best mental make-up and Bierbrodt had the most movement. The Diamondbacks plans for these three seemed to be working out quite well and estimates were that they should be ready to compete for spots in the starting rotation by 2000 or 2001. That all changed in July 1999 when the Diamondbacks found themselves in desperate need of a closer. It was somewhat appropriate that the “three phenoms” were broken up by the man who had given them that moniker. Arizona traded Brad Penny to the Florida Marlins along with Valdimir Nunez and a player to be named later (minor league outfielder Abraham Nunez) for closer Matt Mantei. Penny has gone on to become a very good pitcher for the Marlins and then the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nick Bierbrodt was brought up to the Diamondbacks in 2001 and had some success out of the bullpen before being traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for pitcher Albie Lopez. Bierbrodt’s career was sidelined when he was involved in a bizarre series of events where he was shot in the back of a cab while waiting at a drive thru window of a fast food establishment. He never fully recovered and is now out of baseball. John Patterson likewise was brought up to the Diamondbacks and had brief success. He was subsequently dealt to the Montreal Expos for left-handed reliever Randy Choate. Patterson was able to overcome his inconsistency and was named Washington Nationals Opening Day starter in 2007. His season looked to be getting off to a good start but arm problems continued to plague Patterson and he was put on the shelf after only 7 starts. After an extended rehabilitation Patterson was back in camp with the Nationals this spring and it sounded as though he was on his way to another Opening Day start. Suddenly that was no longer the case as the Nationals gave Patterson his outright release on March 20 with a brief statement by General Manager Jim Bowden, “We felt we should give the ball to the young starting pitchers that we have and continue to develop them.” And just like that the second of the “three phenoms” found himself on the outside of baseball looking in. There are rumors that the Houston Astros may have interest in Patterson’s services but with Opening Day only a week away it is questionable whether this move would benefit Patterson or the club. It’s interesting how differently things played out for these three players and it goes to show how risky it can be on teams who trade for high ceiling prospects.