April 9, 2014
The Minor League Leaders Who Haven't Made It
If you haven’t heard of Guilder Rodriguez, don’t beat yourself up. Until fairly recently, I hadn’t heard of him either. Rodriguez is a 30-year-old Venezuelan middle infielder in the Rangers system who just started his 13th minor-league season. In those 13 seasons, he’s played in over 1000 games, made close to 4000 plate appearances, and hit one home run, back in 2009 with the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders. Rodriguez has played parts of the past five seasons in Frisco; if he were any good, either the fine folks of Frisco would’ve built him a statue by now, or he would have spent more time in Triple-A. But between his makeup and his ability to play shortstop, he’s soldiered on as an organizational guy, going weeks—and in one stretch last season, well over a month—without an extra-base hit.
Rodriguez really hasn’t had any competition for the title of “Least Power in Pro Baseball” since fellow career minor leaguer Carlos Rojas retired. And although Ben Revere might be making a run, Rodriguez has no recent big-league equivalent. Among major leaguers of the last 60 years, only Duane Kuiper and Frank Taveras (who played in a lower-power era) showed the same sort of staying power without hitting more home runs. Only two major leaguers have made as many plate appearances with as high a ratio between their OBP and SLG as Rodriguez’ career minor-league line (.338/.283), and both played during the Deadball Era.
The point is that the minor leagues contain multitudes, and their depths remain largely unexplored. We’ve all spent some time at the popular tourist spots, but today we’re going to go diving for wrecks. These are the players who lead all active minor leaguers in a certain statistical category and have never gotten into a major-league game. For each guy, I’ll give you some background and an explanation of why his cup of coffee still hasn’t come. (Note: We don’t have stats from Independent ball in our database. Rate stat leaders for position players are min. 2,000 PA; for pitchers, min. 1000 IP with a fudge factor (2*(G-GS)) to include relievers.)
Plate appearances: Chase Lambin (4,406)
Who the heck he is: The minor leagues lost three ironmen after the 2012 season, when Corey Smith, Michael Spidale, and Manny Mayorson (all of who had over 5,000 career plate appearances) left baseball. That left Lambin as the longest-tenured member of the minors. A 34-year-old second/third baseman drafted by the Mets in the 34th round of the 2002 draft, he’s played in the Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Twins, Marlins (again), and Royals systems, with detours to Japan (where he hit .192/.254/.358 in 58 games in 2009) and the independent Atlantic League, where he’ll play for the Sugar Land Skeeters this season.
Why he hasn’t made it: Lambin got a comment in Baseball Prospectus 2006 after a big 2005 season in which he hit .309/.372/.587 with 24 homers in 440 PA across Double- and Triple-A. The next year, in 37 more plate appearances split between the same two Mets affiliates, he hit .238/.340/.375 with nine homers. He hasn’t gotten a comment since. “The more I pressed and the more I tried, the worse I played,” he told the Washington Post about that 2006 season, last year. “...I was in a good position, and I just—I don’t know. I stumbled.”
Home runs: Brandon Waring (160)
Who the heck he is: Waring, a seventh-round selection by the Reds in 2007, is now a 28-year-old infield corner guy for the New Britain Rock Cats, the Twins’ Double-A affiliate. In 383 at-bats for Baltimore’s Double- and Triple-A teams last season, he hit 25 homers and whiffed 148 times, which tells you most of what you need to know.
Why he hasn’t made it: BP Prospect Staff member Al Skorupa saw Waring on Monday and said he had “some pop in the bat but does nothing else well and [has a] fatal amount of swing-and-miss.” Tucker Blair offered a similar scouting report: “Big and strong, easy plus raw power. Problems with pitch recognition. He has poor plate discipline and cannot identify a breaking ball. The swing is rather long and this clashes with his pull mentality. If he even had a fringe hit tool, it would probably get him to the majors.” You’ve heard this story before.
Batting Average and OF Assists: Daniel Robertson (.303 and 95, respectively)
Who the heck he is: A 28-year-old former 33rd-rounder who’s spent his whole career in the Padres system, splitting his time almost evenly between center field and right. A .377 average in 73 games against lowly Northwest League competition in his first pro season is buoying his batting average, but he has hit .294 in 265 Triple-A games, and in over 3,000 plate appearances, he’s struck out only three more times than he’s walked. He’s a “hard-nosed winner” who volunteers to do meet-and-greets with fans, and he doesn’t lack for confidence, saying last April, “If I was standing six feet or 6’2” with the exact same profile, I'd be in the big leagues. And I may have been there for five years now.”
Why he hasn’t made it: Robertson doesn’t stand six feet or 6’2”, and he’s short on power, posting sub-.100 ISOs in each of the past two seasons despite spending them in the PCL. That makes him the classic tweener type. One scout still gives him high praise by this list’s low standards, calling him “legitimately solid,” asserting that he “does everything okay,” and pegging him as future fourth outfielder type. He’s definitely a “tear the uniform off my back” type, so one way or another, he’s in this for the long haul.
On-base percentage: Vince Belnome (.410)
Who the heck he is: At 26, Belnome is the youngest player on this list, and perhaps the most promising, at least as far as the likelihood of graduating from it for a reason other than retirement. Not only is he the best of the bunch offensively, but the Rays, who acquired him from the Padres in December 2012, were concerned enough about the possibility of losing him via the Rule 5 draft that they added him to their 40-man roster over the winter.
Why he hasn’t made it: Injuries have slowed his progression, but he’s already come awfully close. When Sean Rodriguez took paternity leave last week, Belnome was promoted to the majors, but he didn’t appear in a game and was subsequently sent back down. Belnome plays first, second, and third, and while the Rays value defensive versatility, he’s no better than average at first base and below average at the others. He’s more of a doubles hitter than a home run guy, so he doesn’t fit the typical power-position profile, but right now, his plate discipline makes him the team’s 26th man. September might be his month.
Slugging percentage: Brian Cavazos-Galvez (.496)
Who the heck he is: Kyle Russell, who topped all college hitters with 27 homers in 2007 and was drafted by the Dodgers in the third round the following year, led in this category with a .508 SLG at the end of last season, but he walked away over the winter after being released by both the Braves and the Dodgers and floundering in Indy ball (cause of career death: “an exceptionally long swing,” according to Steffan Segui). That left 26-year-old Dodgers minor-league left fielder and 2009 12th-round pick Cavazos-Galvez in the top spot.
Why he hasn’t made it: Cavazos-Galvez wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for his stints in offense-friendly Rancho Cucamonga and Albuquerque (which is also his hometown). His comment in BP2013 summed him up succinctly: “Cavazos-Galvez has tremendous bat speed and a strong arm, but he's still a hacker with a poor approach at the plate, minimal defensive value, and a crowd of younger players behind him in the Dodgers chain.” If his plate discipline doesn’t improve, he could try taking that arm to the mound and taking aim at his old man’s career total of 20.7 innings pitched.
Stolen bases: Corey Wimberly (290)
Who the heck he is: Wimberly was drafted by the Rockies in the sixth round of the 2005 draft, but he’s since played for six other organizations, landing in Double-A with the Twins to start this season. The small, speedy switch-hitter’s main selling point (other than the steals) is that he’s played six positions, not counting his one appearance at pitcher. Two more points in his favor: He’s in good condition, and he’s not afraid of sharks.
Why he hasn’t made it: Although he’s been a pretty prolific basestealer, Wimberly hasn’t been notably efficient, posting only a 75.3 percent career success rate. His biggest offensive seasons came at the lower levels, and he has next to no power. Worse, he hasn’t played more than 84 games since 2010, and at age 30, he’s a little old to play his way onto a big-league bench in a Chone Figgins-style spot. Then again, I would’ve said the same thing about Figgins a few months ago.
Hit By Pitch: Seth Loman (149)
Who the heck he is: Seth, son of Doug, is a 28-year-old first baseman whose pro career got off to an undistinguished start when he was selected by the Angels in the 47th round of the 2005 draft. Loman was hit 30 times in 588 plate appearances with High-A Winston-Salem in 2010; no major leaguer has suffered the same fate since Craig Wilson took one for the team 30 times in 2004, but the HBP rate in the 2010 Carolina League was 1.6 times the major-league rate last season. Still, his HBP skill hasn’t evaporated at the higher levels: Loman was hit 21 times in only 374 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. Here he is getting grazed by Trevor Bauer last May, and here he is standing close to the plate. After four games in 2014, he’s already on the HBP board.
Why he hasn’t made it: The ability to get plunked doesn’t really qualify as a carrying tool, and Loman, who’s now biding time with the Braves in the Southern League, doesn’t do enough other things well to break in at first base.
BB/9: Richard Bleier
Who the heck he is: A 2008 sixth-rounder who stayed with the team that took him (Texas) through last season, then went to Toronto in this past winter’s Triple-A Rule 5 draft. The 6’3” lefty started 2013 at Triple-A but was bumped back down to Double-A after 19 innings. He’s back there again to begin 2014, this time in the Eastern League.
Why he hasn’t made it: At 26, he already relies too heavily on finesse to have much high-level success ahead of him. Bleier throws sinkers in the mid-to-high-80s, and even in the bullpen, his strikeout rates have been extremely low. He does get grounders, but that plus pounding the zone probably isn’t enough. Here’s some video, if you’re dying to see the guy I’ve described in action.
ERA and WHIP: Frank Gailey (2.62 and 1.096, respectively)
Who the heck he is: A former 23rd-round pick and a 28-year-old lefty who’s listed at 5’9”, Gailey has been a reliever from the get-go. He got into two Cactus League games with Oakland this spring but hasn’t appeared in a regular-season game. Here’s Gailey’s scouting report on himself from 2012: “88 to 92 (miles per hour). Like to throw the changeup, with a breaking ball and a split finger. I just attack the zone and let (batters) get themselves out.” Fun fact: the Phillie Phanatic attended his wedding.
Why he hasn’t made it: Short, pitch-to-contact lefty who doesn’t throw particularly hard and has a 3.80 career ERA out of the bullpen in Double-A. Still, you’d think he would have had more than one Triple-A inning.
HR/9: Pat Egan (0.3/9)
Who the heck he is: A 6’7” right-handed reliever who was drafted by Baltimore in 2006, bounced around the O’s organization through 2012, then spent last season with the Braves between Double-A and Triple-A. Gets enough grounders to keep the ball in the park (below Triple-A, at least) and has good control, but he doesn’t miss many bats. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t retired, but he doesn’t appear to be playing baseball.
Why he hasn’t made it: Tucker Blair’s take on Egan: “Egan is a huge pitcher, but his pitching plane does not play off his height. He throws low to mid 90s, and I have seen him top out around 96 mph, but hitters are able to barrel up on the sinker too often, and his change and slider are below-average offerings. He does not have a true out pitch. His control is solid, but a lot of his MiLB K's would not translate to the MLB level.”
Innings Pitched and Strikeouts: Matt Wright (1477 and 1271, respectively)
Who the heck he is: There are over 300 active minor-league position players who have amassed at least 2,000 plate appearances without ever making the majors. Surprisingly, though, there are only 12 active career minor league pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings. That’s probably a product of the elevated injury rate among arms, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that struggling minor-league starters are usually moved to the pen, where it’s tough to rack up innings. Wright has avoided that fate over a 14-year career, mixing in only 40 relief appearances among his 288 games. The Braves took him at age 18 in the in the 21st round of the 2000 draft, and he’s pitched in every season since, rotating through five organizations, two Indy teams, and the Kia Tigers of the KBO (though I’m unsure of his status for 2014).
Why he hasn’t made it: A 5.08 ERA with a 1.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 89 Triple-A games. Teams can take a hint.
SO/9: Ryan Buchter (11.2/9)
Who the heck he is: A big, hard-throwing left-hander whom the Nats plucked out of high school in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft. He’s still only 27, and he struck out 103(!) in 62 innings out of the pen for Triple-A Gwinnett in 2013. The bad news: He also walked 51. He’s a minor-league Mike Dunn.
Why he hasn’t made it: Ethan Purser on Buchter: “Buchter throws mid-90s gas with a plus slider, but control has been (and always will be) the issue.” Like Belnome, though, Buchter had a very near major-league miss this this spring: He made Atlanta’s Opening Day roster but was optioned to make room for Pedro Beato before he got into a game.
Hit By Pitch: Gary Daley (91)
Who the heck he is: Lest it be said that the Cardinals don’t do anything wrong, remember that they popped Daley in the third round of the 2006 draft. The right-hander has put up a 6.00 ERA in 186 games with St. Louis and Oakland, most of them as a starter. Last January, he caught a 50-game suspension for amphetamine use.
Why he hasn’t made it: Because he can’t control the ball. He has 102 wild pitches to go with his 91 HBP, and he’s walked 5.7 per nine. Worse, he doesn’t miss bats: Add his walks and HBP together, and they easily outnumber his strikeouts. At age 28, Daley might be done; after eight seasons, he’s pitched in only nine Triple-A innings, and he hasn’t appeared in a game since the A’s dropped him last June.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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