Stuck in the Mud
Rarely is a Major League ready prospect stuck in Triple-A an indictment of a franchise. Too often a good player finds himself blocked, with a good player or a big contract in his way. While these players become cornerstones to AAA franchises and minor league icons, we are left wondering about what they could do in the right situation.
For some reason, this year there seems to be an abundance of such circumstances, so today we will go exploring. Ladies and gentleman, jumping right into things, your Minor League All-Blocked Team:
First Base: Scott Thorman, Braves
I don't believe that Adam LaRoche is at the heart of the Atlanta Braves' problems. This year, Dave's son has provided the Braves with plenty of power, posting an Isolated Power of nearly .250. However, the power has come at the expense of his batting average, as his ISO is equivalent to his average. The reason? Poor contact skills, as LaRoche is striking out in more than 20% of his plate appearances.
Enter Thorman. While handing the everyday spot to him would be accepting some loss in terms of power (his ISO is only about .240 in AAA), it would help in the on-base percentage column. Thorman's reduced strikeout numbers would help get more batting average from the position, and while Thorman doesn't walk at LaRoche's rate, he does so at an acceptable pace; his OBP is .049 points higher than LaRoche's, albeit at a lower level.
Given his recent home run hot streak, which has helped double his home run rate over two weeks, the Braves would be best suited to try the flavor of the week. If that doesn't work, perhaps a trade would.
Second Base: Asdrubal Cabrera, Mariners
All right, all right, I know Cabrera isn't blocked yet. At .252/.341/.392, Cabrera has done little to prove he's ready for the Major Leagues. But he's 20, a defensive stallion, and right around the corner. The problem: the freakish .483 SLG emergence of Jose Lopez. Some people may have seen Lopez coming, but not me.
So with the Mariners' future middle infield already turning the double play in Seattle, Cabrera is left without a light at the end of his tunnel. Supremely talented, Cabrera has been unaffected by Seattle's desperate attempt to rush him in the last two seasons.
If anyone on this list deserves a midseason trade, it's Cabrera, one of baseball's best prospects a stat sheet has never heard of.
Shortstop: Jason Bartlett, Twins
.259/.305/.341. "Led" by Juan Castro, and his -6.2 VORP, this is the production Minnesota is receiving from the shortstop position. These numbers would be substantially lower if not for an odd, out-of-character season from Nick Punto, who is holding up the position's numbers in half the at-bats. The solution? Stick with the original plan.
The Twins weren't sure what they got in Jason Bartlett when they acquired him for Brian Buchanan, but like many of Terry Ryan's trades, it became quickly clear that Minnesota came out on the better end. Years later, that's still true, though the Twins have shown a vast reluctance to make Bartlett their full-time shortstop.
Currently 26, Bartlett is hitting .306/.328/.445 in Triple-A. Obviously, he isn't a star shortstop; he never walks and shows gap power at best. However, Bartlett represents a vast improvement over Castro and Punto. This is a point that pundits universally agree on, now it's the Twins turn.
Third Base: Josh Fields, White Sox
After his horrendous 2005 season, Josh Fields exited the prospect radar. At the age of 22, the athletic third baseman hit just .252/.341/.409 in the Southern League, striking out 142 times in the process. We assumed that Fields' power potential would never outweigh his inability to make contact. So far, so wrong.
This season, Fields has been other-worldly, hitting .343/.432/.599. Strikeouts? Still excessive, 63 in 207 at-bats, meaning the Sox prospect is sporting a .449 BABIP. So, we know that the numbers are coming down. But even when they reach a middle ground between last year and this season, Fields will be a worthy bargaining chip for a team dedicated to Joe Crede. The Oklahoma State quarterback offers fantastic power, a lot of patience, and tons of athleticism.
Even with the strikeouts, in the next nine months, some team will bite at Josh Fields. And, no matter how you slice it, any post-2005 impression is likely to be left in the dust.
Outfield: David Murphy, Red Sox; Chris Denorfia, Reds; Nelson Cruz, Brewers
Over the winter, I answered a few questions over at soxprospects.com. When asked about David Murphy, I returned this response:
I like Murphy a lot more than your average guy. In 2005, this is a player that struggled very, very badly out of the gate. So much so, in fact, that after 48 games he was hitting an abysmal .218/.278/.303, striking out in 24.2% of his at-bats. There was nothing to like. Then, however, something clicked in Murphy, as he finished the season hitting .304/.374/.495 the rest of the way, this time striking out just 13.5% of the time. Talk about a different player. The one I like to see is the second one, a centerfielder with good contact skills and solid pop with just enough speed and patience. However, David can't let slow starts continually bog him down. I like Murphy more than an Adam Stern or Bubba Crosby, and at worst, he should be a fourth outfielder in the Majors.
Murphy has continued his hot-hitting ways into this season, improving upon his AA numbers after a promotion to Pawtucket. The former Baylor outfielder has struck out just seven times in 16 Triple-A games, while hitting 11 extra-base hits. Theo Epstein's first round pick is starting to look a lot more like a late bloomer than a bust, fittingly months after the Red Sox committed their centerfield future to Coco Crisp. Hopefully, Murphy's hot start won't go unnoticed around the deadline.
Nelson Cruz is in the opposite situation. No, not just because he was a player I frowned upon, but also because the Brewers have a spot opening for him. With Carlos Lee's impending trade from the organization, the hot-hitting Cruz should see a promotion. However, right now, the big outfielder is ready and sizzling. Cruz is on pace for a 30-30 season, with 14 home runs and 13 steals through 61 games in Nashville. Cruz is the rare example of a guy on this list that could, if things break as expected, be awaiting a full-time position by season's end.
This is not true for Chris Denorfia, as unjust as things might be. With the Reds offseason dealing, a spot should have opened up for Denorfia, with Adam Dunn moving to first base. However, an infatuation with Scott Hatteberg unexpectedly arose, and Denorfia was again pushed back to Triple-A. He has thrived in Louisville, improving upon last year's performance, striking out just 20 times in 182 at-bats. Denorfia doesn't have fantastic upside, but he represents the type of all-around solid player that the Reds, or teams trading with them, should not value lightly.
Starting Pitchers: Abe Alvarez, Red Sox; Rich Hill, Cubs; Joe Saunders, Angels; Evan MacLane, Mets; Dana Eveland, Brewers
Notice a trend? This group of southpaws is not one known to light up radar guns (Eveland excluded), but each has discovered a road to AAA success. Hill has his curveball, Saunders keeps the ball down, Alvarez attacks hitters. Whatever the formula, is has worked; as a group, they have a 2.37 ERA in 289 AAA innings this season.
The other thing they have in common (MacLane exluded), is a series of failures in the Majors. As a foursome, in 118.2 Major League innings, 108 earned runs have crossed the plate. So, trust me, it's hard to make an argument that a group of (generally) crafty southpaws belong in a league in which they have proved inadequate.
Maybe the answer is obvious, and the group is simply the left side of a Quad-A All-Star team. Perhaps a journey through AAA, a la Les Walrond, awaits each. But I'm not giving up quite so easily.
Obviously, Rich Hill needs a change in scenery. Wrigley Field has been his nightmare, the home of too many walks and home runs. And though his trade value is depleted, lefthanders with his strikeout numbers and his curveball are a wanted commodity.
Alvarez and Saunders are another pair of likely trade candidates, due to a combination of depth and surroundings. Fenway Park is not the right stomping ground for a bulldog lefty, and with (when healthy) enough depth, the Red Sox could stand to lose Alvarez. Plenty of other clubs would improve upon adding him; if Jim Parque was on his way to forging a Major League career (pre-injury), there is a spot for Alvarez.
Salt Lake is a proven pitcher's nightmare, yet no one has bothered to tell Saunders. When keeping the ball down, he might be able to succeed anywhere. However, the Angels aren't able to allow him to do so in Los Angeles; keeping Jered Weaver in the five-man is problem enough. Saunders is well on the second-tier in one of the game's most loaded farm systems, allowing some team to jump at his low stock while they can.
As for the other two, Eveland and MacLane, I don't see any reason why their organization must change. Eveland has proven his rotund body is best suited for the rotation, not the bullpen role to which he was slated in 2005. While his five starts this season went to hell, Dana simply needs more chances in an organization with time to give it. As for MacLane, he isn't quite ready yet, just as the Mets rotation isn't ready for him. However, when the likes of Steve Trachsel and El Duque fade into the darkness, even with the presence of Alay Soler and Mike Pelfrey, there should be a back-end spot open for MacLane.
Again, I'm not predicting this group offers a single Cy Young, All-Star, or deserving innings-eater. But, given an insane amount of success in the minors' highest level, they represent five southpaws with potential success indicators. Somewhere, this should mean something.
Relief Pitcher: Pat Neshek, Twins
Aaron Gleeman recently put together a better argument for Neshek than I could. In that Gleeman piece you will see Neshek's delivery, which while unconventional, spells death for right-handed hitters. He comes at hitters from an odd angle and in the strike zone - control has never been a problem. His one caveat has always been the lefthanded hitter, or the home run, or best yet, a combination of the two: the lefthanded home run.
The Twins bullpen is not, particularly, a problem: Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon shutting things down late have led to an aggregate 3.54 ERA. However, every bullpen has its' Achilles, and for Minnesota, Jesse Crain is it. The former top relief prospect has been awful in the Majors, and probably deserved to follow fellow Cougar Ryan Wagner's path back to the minors. In his spot should come Neshek, who would need a bad case of dead arm to not improve upon the .395/.418/.592 line that RH hitters have lit Crain up for in 2006.
By protecting Neshek from the Rule 5 draft this winter, the Twins indicated they have a potential commodity in Neshek. Now, more than ever, is their time to cash in.
* * * * *
Yes, our All-Blocked team is without a catcher, but Mike Rivera didn't fit the bill and Ryan Garko's catching days are long gone. And not only is Carlos Marmol unblocked, but he's on the mound these days. As far as finding a universal solution goes, to harp on an annual Jim Callis theme, we must bring up the idea of prospect-for-prospect trading. So much uncertainty is unlikely to be traded, but that can't help us from dreaming (Thorman for Bartlett, Cabrera and friends for Elijah Dukes ... the possibilities are endless!).
However, if we are keeping dreams realistic, go to bed tonight with deadline deals involving the Murphys, Hills, and Nesheks of the world as players to be named later dancing in your head.