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March 21, 2012

Sobsequy

The Best of the Triple-A Retreads

by Adam Sobsey

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Imagine that you are Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and that among the little-known details of your character (aside from an obsession with time and a badly rotting tooth) is your quiet but intense lifelong love of the Chicago White Sox.

Well, first, welcome back to civilization, Chuck Noland. Enjoy all the crab legs, and sorry you missed out on Helen Hunt—it’s a game of inches, my friend. Second, you’re probably planning to make a beeline for your favorite baseball publication. Presumably, that is Baseball Prospectus, but then again, you’ve been marooned for a couple of years and may have sustained severe damage to your judgment, which now makes decisions based on survivalist instinct rather than careful consumer reasoning. Some help, in case you haven’t picked up your annual: an admittedly informal and incomplete survey of BP writers suggests that the White Sox are destined to finish somewhere around fourth place in the American League Central, with one of my colleagues asking if he could slot them sixth. Chuck, there are only five teams in the American League Central.

So that’s the take from the BP angle, but wherever you choose to get your White Sox news, Chuck, you’ll probably discover that your Southsiders aren’t given much chance to succeed this year. Not only do the Detroit Tigers now have Prince Fielder to go along with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander—and thus a very smooth inside track to the division title—the White Sox couldn’t score runs last year (fourth-worst in the league) and still have Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. You could, I suppose, take Jason Collette’s optimistic view: “The offense can only get better.” If it helps, Ozzie Guillen has taken his nameplate to Miami, and Kenny Williams hired Robin Ventura as his new manager. Rumor has it that if Neftali Feliz hits Paul Konerko in Arlington, Ventura is going to charge the Rangers’ team President’s box.

As BP 2012 puts it, “The Sox find themselves in offseason limbo, with an obvious need to re-tool for the future, but with enough talent on hand to put them on the edge of contention should everything break the club’s way.” Unfortunately, that re-tooling is not currently manifest. As the Annual observes with a sigh, there is “little help forthcoming from a farm system many consider the most barren in baseball.”

There are up-and-coming youngsters you can pin your hopes on. Look, for example, toward Dayan Viciedo, whom I watched torch the Durham Bulls often when he was in Triple-A Charlotte, and Addison Reed, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever with nasty stuff down in the zone who could very well wind up closing for Ventura by season’s end. Brent Morel improved his plate discipline late last season and started to look like a legit big-league third baseman.

But if you’re hoping that the farm system below has more Reeds and Viciedos in it, or living on the unreasonable faith that another Alejandro de Aza is lurking down there, as yet unblooming, well, who can blame you, Chuck? You didn’t get off that island by thinking rationally about your probability of safe escape. You plotted a course for Helen Hunt and talked to a volleyball.

But you may be regaining your clarity here, now that you’ve recovered from your fascination with cigarette lighters and pre-shredded coconut. You may, having heaved your own sigh over Dunn, Rios, and Peavy, and another sigh over a farm system as empty of prospects as your former island home, have started looking where one can’t help looking: at those almosters and Quad-A’ers hanging around in Triple-A trying to regain whatever mojo made them big-league prospects to begin with. Maybe one or two of them could help the big-league club.

You vaguely recall that Dallas McPherson was once the Angels’ third baseman of the future. You have read this, or this, or this, and discovered the rabbit’s foot known as Dan Johnson. And you looked and saw that Deunte Heath struck out 117 batters in 102 Triple-A innings last year, albeit with 62 walks. Maybe you even wondered if Ray Olmedo, the 30-year-old, switch-hitting, Venezuelan middle infielder, might be able to help. (In a word, no, but a guy can dream. At least Olmedo could pitch in a desperate circumstance, if necessary.)

You don’t know who it is, Chuck, but you do know that, at some point in the season, you will need one of these guys to come up from Charlotte to Chicago and do something good for your White Sox. Actually, I have no idea if you’re a White Sox fan, Chuck. I just wanted an excuse to mention Dan Johnson. I have no idea which baseball team you favor—maybe the Cardinals, since FedEx is based in Memphis? But I don’t want to make assumptions here, so in the spirit of you being Chuck Noland for a day and a fan of any of 30 major-league baseball teams, here is a list of aging minor-league free-agents not on 40-man rosters to keep an eye on this season. One of them is extremely likely to help his big-league club.

This is a completely objective, exhaustive, non-idiosyncratic, unbiased and scientific list that has absolutely nothing to do, Chuck, with my having seen all but one of the players named below in action at Durham Bulls Athletic Park within the last three seasons. I used algebra, algorithms, amulets, and azimuths to create this very unassailable, absolutely correct list of the 10 players most likely to make a name for themselves (again), in the Show. So put down that spear and read on.

1. Winston Abreu, Orioles, RHP, 35 years old. I admit that this first pick is a somewhat sentimental one. Abreu was the closer for the Durham Bulls for two seasons, compiling these eye-popping numbers: 106 1/3 innings pitched, 58 hits allowed, 37 walks. and 159 strikeouts. (And he did that despite offseason surgery for an aneurysm after the 2009 campaign.) His stats took a hit in 2011 with a trip to the PCL, where he pitched for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s—mainly because he was victimized for 12 homers in just 66 1/3 innings of work, likely the result of all that desert air.

With a move back to the east coast, and in Norfolk’s cavernous Harbor Park, where home runs go to die, Abreu stands a good chance of returning to form and forcing the bullpen-disadvantaged Orioles to consider giving him his first big-league action since 2009. And if he doesn’t and is released onto the great sea of joblessness, Chuck, you can reach for him longingly as he bobs away from your raft and cry: “WIIINNSTONNN!”

2. Seth Bynum, Nationals, IF, 31. Maybe he’s just J. J. Furmaniak from further down I-65, but the Louisville, KY native always looked like a gamer in 2009 and 2010, when he logged lots of time in Triple-A Syracuse before getting hit with a 50-game suspension that sounds worse (amphetamines) than it appears to have actually been. Every team wants a gamer, of course, although in the case of the Nats, maybe they already have one—one who happens to play Bynum’s natural position and sounds, well, a lot like Bynum.

The BP Annual on Ian Desmond: “Desmond is kind of a known quantity at this point. He’s a hacking shortstop with a little bit of pop, won’t kill you with the glove, enough speed to steal a few bases… The Nats will be running a constant audition for his replacement throughout his career with them, in all likelihood.” Should Desmond falter or get hurt, and should Mark DeRosa, the 37-year-old, injury-ravaged utility guy, also go down—as you might expect—who knows but that Bynum will get a chance to Bondo Washington’s roster? And who knows, too, whether he might have that one magic run and make himself indispensable, at least for a while?

3. Jeff Fiorentino, A’s, OF, 28. He got on my radar in 2009 when he was in the Orioles’ organization and, as a Norfolk Tide, seemed to give the Durham Bulls a terrible time every time they faced him. After that, the lefty-hitting Fiorentino did a tour of duty in Japan, returning to the US in 2011 and splitting time with a few teams. He has some power, decent speed, and good plate discipline. Fiorentino’s chances have improved with the 50-game recreational-drug suspension levied on another lefty outfielder who may have been Sacramento-bound: Jason Pridie. Plus, Fiorentino is in the A’s system, which means he and every other guy in Triple-A is never far from a callup. And finally, he is nicknamed Screech, and it’s for the reason you were hoping.

4. Kevin Frandsen, Phillies, IF, 29. Maybe he would have been the heir to Jeff Kent’s second base job in San Francisco had he not ruptured his Achilles tendon in spring training in 2008. We’ll never know, of course, and Frandsen is a reminder that so many once-promising minor-league veterans have that status because of injuries and nothing more. The talent abides; the body, usually, does not. Frandsen probably got a kick out of playing some second base for Lehigh Valley last year, because the IronPigs’ manager was (and still is) a former pretty good second baseman by the name of Ryne Sandberg. (Frandsen can also play first, third and shortstop.)

Last year, in a game against the Durham Bulls, Frandsen made three superb fielding plays at second base, and Sandberg later said: "I keep red stars on the scorecard for good defensive plays, and that's the first time we've had three from a guy in one game." Red stars! Ryne Sandberg draws little red stars on his scorecard! That is so adorable! And those red stars on his scorecad in honor of Kevin Frandsen are reason enough to ticket Frandsen for Philly—that, and the news that Chase Utley may not be ready for Opening Day.

5. Mauro Gomez, Red Sox, 1B, 27. Okay, sure, the Red Sox have a decent first baseman—but come on, Adrian Gonzalez led the league in GIDP last year; how good can he really be? Maybe the Sox could platoon him with the righty Gomez, who mashed for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves last season, when he slugged .522, hit 24 homers, and stood somewhere near first base. Or maybe he could DH, since the Red Sox don’t have anyone suited for the role. All right, yes, they do, and maybe Gomez’s best shot at the majors is with another team. But he’s the second consecutive Hispanic first baseman (the other was Barbaro Canizares) to hit well for Gwinnett and get no big-league love for it. It’d be nice to see some redress there.

6. Nick Johnson, Orioles, 1B, 33. Who am I kidding? Nick Johnson, the walking wounded? Yes, okay, the guy is made of tinkertoys, but his lifetime major-league OBP, in over 3,000 career plate appearances, is .401. (In the minors, it’s .436.) Also, like Abreu, Johnson is in the Orioles’system, and that means the big leagues are never a stretch. There’s always the big if where Johnson’s health is concerned, but there’s no denying that he has top-notch skills. Chris Davis needs to produce, or he may find Johnson challenging him for a job.

7. Shane Lindsay, Dodgers, RHP, 27. Chuck, I pulled a bit of a fast one on you here: the only representative of the Pale Hose on this list is in fact no longer with the organization. The Aussie reliever Lindsay threw boomerangs last year in Triple-A Charlotte, whiffing 78 in 63 2/3 innings in 2011. Yes, he did walk (close your eyes) 51 batters—not a fluke; 275 BB in 366 1/3 career minor-league innings—but he allowed only 28 hits en route to a 1.98 ERA. He finally got his first major-league callup, stunk, was dropped from the White Sox’ 40-man, and latched on with the Dodgers after the season. The ranks of Triple-A are loaded with hard-throwing right-handed relievers who can’t throw strikes, but a fair number of hard-throwing right-handed relievers in the majors who can throw strikes used to be in the former category and got their control together. If Lindsay can do that, he’ll probably have a job in Los Angeles or somewhere else, bullpens being the fungible, porous things that they are.

8. Adam Loewen, Mets, OF, 28. “Everybody loves pitching prospects turned hitting prospects,” begins the 2012 BP player card for the former Orioles prospect, once considered Baltimore’s next mainstay starting pitcher. (The list is painful in its shortcomings so far: Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and why not Rick Vandenhurk, too?) Reinvented as an outfielder after ruinous arm problems, Loewen climbed one level per year from 2009-11, reaching Triple-A last season and even earning an audition in the majors with Toronto. He put up an .885 OPS in Las Vegas before that (a PCL allowance should be made there). The Mets’ outfield is, unless I’m reading the BP Annual wrong, pretty close to a total mess, so if Loewen can keep hitting—despite the arm problems that derailed his pitching career, he can still gun down runners on basepaths—he’s got as good a shot as anyone at Ankieldom.

9. Andy Pettitte, Yankees, LHP, 39. I have only one memory of this guy, and it isn’t even really “of” Pettitte: back in 1997, I had a friend who had a friend who was the daughter of the owner of the Norwich (Conn.) Navigators, at the time the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. We went to a ballgame there and afterwards went to the owner’s house for dinner. There was a framed Andy Pettitte Navigators jersey on the wall, which makes no sense in hindsight because Andy Pettitte had never, to that point, played for Norwich. (He rehabbed there a bit in 2002). Anyway, I asked the owner why he had the jersey on his wall, and he told me that they had auctioned off all the players’ jerseys after the season in which Pettitte was on the team (which was when, exactly?) and Pettitte’s was the only jersey to receive no bids whatsoever. The owner figured what the hell and had the thing framed. 

Now, obviously, had Pettitte amounted to anything, the jersey would be worth something now, but the Louisiana lefty seems to have disappeared from affiliated baseball altogether after a good but hardly overwhelming 1994 season split between Double-A and Triple-A. He wound up playing for an independent-league team by the name of the New York Yankees for an astounding 13 seasons, plus three more in United League Baseball with a Houston-based team. All told, he won 240 games, so he must have been doing something right, albeit against indy-ball hitters. What Brian Cashman saw in him, I have no idea, never having seen Pettitte pitch, although at least he has a distant history in the organization.

It’s my understanding that his absurdly expensive $2.5 million minor-league contract owes to an obscure stipulation in the Steinbrenner family bylaws that the Yankees must have, at any given time, a left-handed pitcher with no prior experience in the big leagues earning at least five times the major-league minimum to pitch in Trenton and/or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (I mean, “The Empire State Yankees”). With Kei Igawa finally off the books, Pettitte is apparently the new beneficiary of the Steinbrenner trust. The best-case scenario here is probably something like Elmer Dessens’ twilight tenure with the Mets, when in his age 38 and 39 seasons he pitched 80 pretty effective innings out of the bullpen. If Pettitte can handle some swingman or even LOOGY duties for Joe Girardi after the inevitable injuries befall the Bronx, Cashman will consider it $2.5 million well spent. For any other franchise, Pettitte would be a hopeless waste of precious resources.

10. Dale Thayer, San Diego, RHP, 31. Finally back with the organization with which he began his career in 2002 as an undrafted free agent, the Chico (Calif.) State product is looking for an old-hat new-hat refit. Thayer has always been a strike-throwing late-inning reliever, with a decent fastball whose velocity he managed to improve in 2011 in the Mets’ organization. Long a 92-94 four-seamer, Thayer’s heater was at times clocked at 96-plus last year, and his slider, though only serviceable, forms most of the rest of his arsenal; he does have a changeup but seldom throws it.

Thayer’s problem has always been a tendency to pitch up in the strike zone too much—perhaps a consequence of his slingshot delivery to the plate—making him vulnerable to the long ball. If the high-desert air of Triple-A Tucson doesn’t eat him alive, Thayer will benefit (as nearly all pitchers do) from Petco Park. He’s a mild-mannered guy, but he is deceptively competitive and fearless: in the Media Guide for his 2009 minor-league team, Thayer’s personal-info section mentioned that he wanted to be a fireman after his career was over. That season, he found himself in a battle with another reliever to lead their Triple-A team in saves. The two were neck and neck most of the year, with each hurler leaving the team once for respective cups of coffee in the majors. But Thayer, determined, prevailed with 17 saves to edge out the 15 posted by his teammate, an aging minor-league veteran named Winston Abreu.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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