August 10, 2017
We have articles every day analyzing major leaguers and our prospect team does a fantastic job covering actual prospects, but there’s a player type that inevitably falls through the cracks. They’re too old to be considered prospects and have been deemed too flawed to be regulars in the majors, at least right now, but they’re also too good for the minors. Call them Quadruple-A guys or stat-head favorites or any number of other things. You know the type. In decades past BP championed the causes of hitters like Roberto Petagine and Erubiel Durazo, and before that Bill James (but definitely not Frank Costanza) had Ken Phelps.
Every once in awhile I get curious about those guys, if only because someone ought to be checking in on them. In looking over the current candidates I’m not sure that anyone warrants a full-blown “FREE HIM!” campaign like the old days—perhaps teams have just gotten better about giving them opportunities?—but plenty of intriguing names are having big seasons mostly out of sight. Below is my attempt to build the best lineup from Triple-A hitters who are at least 25 years old and have spent most or all of this season in the minors, with a focus on players I think could actually be assets to major-league teams.
Catcher: Mitch Garver, Rochester Red Wings (Twins)
Minnesota chose veteran Chris Gimenez over Garver as Jason Castro’s backup during spring training, so the 26-year-old has spent all season at Triple-A hitting .282/.382/.527 in 82 games. In an effort to increase his versatility, Garver has played some corner outfield and first base in addition to catcher. Minnesota has struggled to get production against left-handers out of those spots and Garver is hitting .286/.419/.543 off lefties, seemingly making him a good fit right now. However, the Twins repeatedly passed on calling him, most recently choosing to give designated hitter Kennys Vargas his fifth or sixth chance instead.
Prior to this year Garver’s career numbers were good rather than great, and his bat might be a little short anywhere but catcher. However, the Twins clearly like him. As part of Baseball Prospectus Night at Target Field last weekend, I interviewed general manager Thad Levine, who made a point to praise Garver and said he’ll be in the mix for an Opening Day job next spring. But why wait? Garver is 26 and in his second go-around at Triple-A, with a potential role for him in Minnesota as a platoon player. Levine and company could take a look at his bat now and also give him a few starts behind the plate with an eye toward 2018.
First Base: Luke Voit, Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals)
An unheralded 22nd-round pick out of Missouri State University in 2013 whose career got off to a slow start, Voit has added 100 points to his OPS in back-to-back seasons while moving from Single-A to the majors. His fit in St. Louis is unclear with Matt Carpenter manning first base, but Vogt hit .322/.406/.561 in 70 games at Triple-A to earn his first call-up. Those numbers are great in any context, but Memphis is one of the few pitcher-friendly environments in the hitting-dominated Pacific Coast League. In adjusting for that, Vogt leads all Triple-A hitters this season in True Average at .346.
Voit also hit .297/.372/.477 in 134 games at Double-A last season and has more than held his own in his first taste of the majors, hitting .257/.337/.473 in limited action with the Cardinals. He’s the least-heralded player on this team—which is really saying something—and 26-year-old Triple-A first basemen are not a group you generally want to be betting on long term, but Voit’s performance has been a clear step above merely very good and comes without the usual sky-high strikeout rates. His late-bloomer status could be due partly to beginning his pro career as a catcher, too.
Second Base: Tony Kemp, Fresno Grizzlies (Astros)
As a little second baseman with big batting averages, Kemp is in the wrong organization to get noticed for that skill set. He’ll never unseat Jose Altuve, but the 5-foot-6 former fifth-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt is hitting .323/.374/.473 in 96 games at Triple-A this year for his fourth season in a row with a batting average over .300. Kemp controls the strike zone, makes a lot of contact, sprays line drives, and runs well. His power is lacking, although Kemp does have a career-high nine homers already this season and fills the gaps with a fair number of doubles and triples.
It’s much harder to find a major-league niche as a “utility man” when shortstop isn’t on the list of playable positions, and Kemp is considered merely adequate at second base and center field. Houston is beyond stacked—at second base, in center field, and almost everywhere else—so the path for Kemp sticking in the big leagues isn’t a clear one, but there should be a role somewhere for his wheels, quasi-versatility, and a left-handed bat that starred in college and has produced a .310 batting average in nearly 2,300 plate appearances in the minors.
Third Base: Yandy Diaz, Columbus Clippers (Indians)
Diaz got some early run in Cleveland this season while Jason Kipnis was on the disabled list, but he has spent the bulk of a second straight year at Triple-A. He leads the International League with a .350 batting average and has more walks (52) than strikeouts (50) for a league-leading .457 on-base percentage. Diaz is lacking in the power department, but he’s a career .330/.417/.458 hitter in 172 games at Triple-A and hit .311 with a .417 OBP in 158 games at Double-A. Signed by the Indians for $300,000 out of Cuba in 2013, the 25-year-old certainly picked a very tough depth chart to crack as an infielder.
Diaz is a quality defensive third baseman, but that position belongs to Jose Ramirez in Cleveland, so he’s played some left field and right field at Triple-A to increase his versatility. It may not come with the Indians, but it’s hard to imagine that Diaz couldn’t be a useful role player in the majors for some teams as a bench bat, platoon starter (he’s hitting .380/.488/.493 off lefties), or maybe even as a regular third baseman. He has a believer in PECOTA, and I’ll bet at least a few teams bring his name up in random offseason trade chatter with the Indians.
Shortstop: Nolan Fontana, Salt Lake Bees (Angels)
It’s difficult to find a credible shortstop for this hypothetical team, because decent Triple-A shortstops tend to become major leaguers in a hurry. Fontana got a cup of coffee with the Angels in May and remained on the 40-man roster after being sent back down, but he’s stayed at Triple-A since. Houston’s second-round pick in 2012, he emerged as a solid prospect thanks largely to elite walk-drawing ability in the low minors. Fontana had a .400 on-base percentage in each of his first three pro seasons, including 102 walks at high Single-A in 2013, but his actual hitting ability proved wanting at Double-A and Triple-A.
Claimed off waivers by the Angels in November, he’s hit .288/.401/.462 in 86 games at Triple-A, doing his usual thing with 57 walks in 371 plate appearances while also hitting more homers (eight) than he totaled in the previous three seasons combined and blowing away his previous career-high batting average by 26 points. Fontana is considered a limited but capable defender at shortstop, and has experience at second base and third base, so if nothing else the 26-year-old is certainly worth a look as a utility infielder. For the past two seasons Cliff Pennington has filled that role for the Angels, hitting .225/.283/.305.
Left Field: Oswaldo Arcia, Reno Aces (Diamondbacks)
Arcia was a consensus top-100 prospect coming up through the Twins’ farm system and fared well in his first two seasons as a major leaguer, slugging .442 with 34 homers in 723 at-bats through age 23. By his third season the Twins were growing tired of his awful defense, non-existent plate discipline, and inability to hit left-handed pitching, so when Arcia was sidelined by minor injuries they phased him out of their plans pretty quickly. He bounced around last season, seeing major-league time with four teams, and then signed a minor-league deal with the Diamondbacks this winter.
Arcia has hit .340/.428/.667 with 22 homers in 79 games at Triple-A, leading the Pacific Coast League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Those numbers are inflated by an extremely hitter-friendly environment and knocking around minor-league pitching is nothing new for Arcia, but it’s noteworthy that he’s drawing walks (42 in 359 plate appearances) and handling lefties (.387/.458/.532). Arcia’s defense is still a mess, but he was a league-average hitter in the majors through age 25 and is now crushing Triple-A while showing signs of improvement at age 26. He’s an MLB-caliber slugger in need of another chance.
Center Field: Tyler Naquin, Columbus Clippers (Indians)
Naquin hit .296/.372/.514 in 116 games for the Indians as a rookie last season, taking over as the team’s primary center fielder on the way to a third-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. This year he’s spent all of two weeks in the big leagues, as Michael Brantley’s return from injury and the emergence of newer, better prospect Bradley Zimmer pushed Naquin out of the picture and back to the minors. He's hit .323/.375/.532 in 55 games at Triple-A, basically duplicating his rookie production, but with Jay Bruce now added to the mix there’s seemingly no room for Naquin in Cleveland.
On one hand, it’s very odd to go from posting an .886 OPS as a rookie regular for the AL champs to being back in the minors without any follow-up opportunity. No doubt Naquin feels slighted, or at least confused. However, his issues defensively and versus left-handed pitching leave him as a 26-year-old with more question marks than you might see at first glance. Still, he’s hit .352/.392/.585 off righties at Triple-A after hitting .301/.372/.526 off righties in the majors. There has to be a spot for that kind of player, in Cleveland or elsewhere. He deserves a chance to sink or swim, but hasn’t been allowed back in the pool.
Right Field: Jabari Blash, El Paso Chihuahuas (Padres)
Blash was born for this team. Every year he’s a Three True Outcomes monster at Triple-A and every year he fails to get an extended opportunity in the majors. In a total of 177 career plate appearances spread over 68 games as a big leaguer, he’s drawn 26 walks and smacked 12 extra-base hits, but unfortunately he’s also struck out 64 times and batted .197. I’m convinced that if given regular playing time for an entire season Blash could hit 30 homers and draw 75 walks, but if this year’s version of the Padres aren’t willing to give him a chance what team will be?
Blash is hitting .289/.411/.628 with 19 homers and 40 walks in 65 games at Triple-A this season, making the 6-foot-5 slugger a career .264/.386/.553 hitter in nearly 1,500 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. The questions are whether he’s capable of making enough contact to hit, say, .240, and then if any team cares enough to give him that opportunity for more than a couple weeks at a time. He’s a good athlete and a capable defensive corner outfielder, but his patience at the plate sometimes comes across as passivity and low-average power is much less of a commodity right now.