As June slowly fades into July and the trade deadline inches closer, rumors have begun to fly about which teams are looking for midseason help. When you think of moves that can propel a team into the playoffs, you think “trade.” But that’s not the only midseason acquistion that can help a contender. When the Milwaukee Brewers called up Yovani Gallardo last week, the first-place Brew Crew added an elite pitcher that PECOTA projected a 3.92 ERA from in 2007–and that was before he left Indianapolis with the minor league strikeout lead (110 in 77.2 innings).
It is doubtful a pitcher will change hands in July that matches Gallardo’s talent. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that, given a place in Milwaukee’s rotation for the season, Gallardo could outperform 2007’s big-name midseason acquisition, Roger Clemens. Prospects often fuel playoff pushes, and with the major league standings in such disarray, the call-ups of Gallardo, Chase Headley, or Kurt Suzuki could be enough to eventually propel their organizations into October.
Don’t believe me? Since 1996, the first year of 162-game baseball after the strike, 13 players have given their team a win and a half in the standings (more specifically, 15 VORP) despite not being called up until June 1. Here are the top eight:
1. Barry Zito, A’s, July 22, 2000.
2000 VORP: 37.8
Team Record in Appearances: 8-6
Minor League History: Zito was the ninth overall choice in the 1999 draft after a fantastic college career at USC. He finished that season splitting 13 starts between three levels, reaching Triple-A, and striking out 97 in 68.1 innings. Baseball America ranked Zito the 41st-best prospect in baseball during the winter. The A’s started the southpaw in Sacramento to begin the 2000 season, then called him up after 18 starts, when Zito had a 3.19 ERA after 101 innings.
Rookie Season: Zito began his major league career on an A’s team that was 51-44 and in third place in the AL West behind the Mariners, and a game behind the Angels for the AL Wild Card. Zito allowed just two hits in five innings in his debut, beating the Angels, one of three victories he would have in three starts against the AL West. Zito would ultimately finish tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting; teammate Terrence Long finished second with 24.5 VORP in a full season of work.
2. Joel Pineiro, Mariners, July 5, 2001.
2001 VORP: 25.8
Team Record in Appearances: 12-5
Minor League History: A 12th-round pick in the 1997 draft, Pineiro blossomed in the minor leagues. Pineiro showed good control in the minors and was pushed hard, moving to the California League at age 19 in 1998. Despite an 11.6 H/9 and 7.80 ERA in nine starts in the Cal League, the Mariners moved Pineiro to Double-A the next spring. He predictably struggled, allowing 190 hits in 166 innings. Things came together the next season, as Pineiro split time between Double- and Triple-A, got a cup of coffee in the major leagues, and was ranked the 80th-best prospect by Baseball America in the offseason. After a 3.62 ERA in 77 innings at Triple-A, the Mariners called up Pineiro in July.
Rookie Season: Pineiro started off in the major leagues as a reliever, throwing 9.1 scoreless innings over three losses to begin the 2001 season. The team decided to move John Halama to the bullpen, and Pineiro got his first start on July 21. He didn’t pitch well, walking four in just two innings of work, but the Mariners won, as they would in 10 of his 12 starts on the season. Pineiro had good control and kept the ball in the park, but his hit rate of 2001 has proven unrepeatable since.
Minor League History: On January 13, 1996, Hernandez was signed as a high-profile free agent by the Marlins; he was a Cuban with considerable promise. Before pitching an inning in the minor leagues, Baseball America ranked him as their eighth-best prospect in baseball. Expectations were high, and Hernandez didn’t really meet them, splitting a 4.62 ERA in 25 starts between Double- and Triple-A. Hernandez’ control and ability to keep the ball in the park wavered, and before 1997, BA dropped him to the 100th top prospect overall. Hernandez left the minors in 1997 with a 3.98 ERA and a 6.4 K/9 in 14 Triple-A starts.
Rookie Season: Hernandez came alive once he reached the big club. The Marlins were winners in his first seven starts, and at the end of August, Hernandez stood 9-0. The Marlins lost each game Hernandez pitched in September despite his relatively good outings, but Livan’s hero status in Miami wasn’t realized until October. Hernandez went 4-0 in the postseason, winning two starts in the World Series, and striking out 26 batters in five playoff appearances.
Minor League History: The Mexican-born Durazo moved to the United States before he reached professional baseball, attending high school in Arizona and playing baseball at Pima Community College. But after JC, Durazo went back to Mexico, signing with Monterrey in 1997. The Diamondbacks found Durazo during his .350/.477/.571 sophomore season there. Durazo’s 1999 half-season in the minor leagues seems noteworthy, as it probably ranks among the all-time best performances of recent vintage: .404/.489/.703 in 94 games between the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues.
Rookie Season: Travis Lee was having a big sophomore slump in ’99, and once Durazo started hitting, the Diamondbacks handed the starting first base job to him. It paid off, because after 22 games he was hitting .350/.452/.600, and his next 30 games did little to dilute his season-ending 1016 OPS. As good as Durazo’s season was, he failed to receive a vote for NL Rookie of the Year. Following 1999, the Diamondbacks had a lot of monetary reasons to want Travis Lee to succeed, and as a result, Durazo would struggle to break into the Diamondbacks lineup for years.
T5. John Lackey, Angels, June 24, 2002.
2002 VORP: 19.3
Team Record in Appearances: 12-6
Minor League History: A second-round Texas hurler, Lackey would pitch in the minors for three and a half seasons, never cracking a Baseball America prospect list. In his first full season, 2000, he split time between three levels, reaching Double-A and only allowing nine walks in 57.1 innings there. His K/9 ratio stayed under seven, but Lackey was keeping the ball down and in the zone. In his final season, 2002, Lackey had a 2.57 ERA in Triple-A with a 7.3 K/9 when the Angels called him up in late June.
Rookie Season: Lackey was a tough-luck loser in his first start, allowing three runs in seven innings against the Texas Rangers. Better defense and run support could have really made Lackey’s rookie season much more impressive; as it was, he allowed 10 earned runs in 26 innings in four losses. Like fellow rookie Francisco Rodriguez, however, Lackey’s first year in the majors was defined by his postseason performance. The Halos leaned hard on Lackey in playoffs, and he responded, throwing seven shutout innings in an ALCS start and pitching effectively in three World Series appearances, winning Game Seven.
T5. Scot Shields, Angels, June 15, 2002.
2002 VORP: 19.3
Team Record in Appearances: 13-16
Minor League History: Shields was a 38th-round pick from Lincoln Memorial University, and started off in the Angels system as a reliever, succeeding in the role in the Northwest, Midwest, and California Leagues. In High-A at 24 with success under his belt, the Angels switched him to a starting pitcher. It looked good in 1999 when Shields struck out 194 batters, but not as good in 2000 and 2001, when he allowed 40 combined home runs in the Pacific Coast League. It was back to the bullpen in 2002, and he was dominating in Salt Lake when the Angels called him up: 39 hits, six walks, and 50 strikeouts in 47 innings.
Rookie Season: The Angels were below .500 in games that Scot Shields appeared in during 2002, a far cry from their 12-6 record in Lackey’s starts. Shields only pitched once in the postseason, a forgettable five-hit outing in the World Series. But in 29 games between June 15 and October, Shields gave the club the opportunity to come back in games they found themselves losing, which they did five times in part thanks to Shields’ good pitching.
Minor League History: For the first four years of his career Giles was understandably not noticed, often injured, and neither powerful nor quick. In 1993, he flashed a hint of power in the Eastern League, and in each of the next three seasons his slugging percentage would increase. In 1996, before the Indians called him up, Giles was hitting .314/.395/.594 at Buffalo.
Rookie Season: The 1996 Indians had a starting outfield of Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, and Manny Ramirez, and the trio averaged 155 games played on the season. That threesome was impossible for Giles to break into, but when Eddie Murray went down, Giles became an option to fill in or pinch-hit. Giles’ ability to make consistent contact and draw walks proved perfect for the role, and despite only 121 at-bats in 51 games, he hit .355/.434/.612. Giles didn’t play a lot, but he captured his opportunity to play everyday in subsequent seasons.
8. Jaret Wright, Indians, June 24, 1997.
1997 VORP: 17.5
Team Record in Appearances: 12-4
Minor League History: A big-time prospect coming out of high school, Wright was taken tenth overall in the 1994 draft, and after just 13.1 innings in his debut, Baseball America tabbed him as the game’s 66th-best overall prospect. The Indians kept him in Low-A for all of 1995, and he had a 3.00 ERA in 129 innings there, fueled more by his 6.5 H/9 than the 5.5 BB/9. The walks were still a problem the next season, but in High-A Wright allowed just 65 hits and one home run while striking out 109 batters in nineteen starts. Wright was BA’s 22nd-best prospect entering 1997. He was promoted to Buffalo before heading to Cleveland, and in seven Triple-A starts, he had a 1.80 ERA with 30 hits allowed in 45 innings.
Rookie Season: Wright wasn’t particularly dominating in his 16-start debut, but when he pitched, the Indians usually won. Wright was the beneficiary of good run support, receiving 6.6 runs per game, but was really helping the Tribe’s cause by eating innings through some enhanced efficiency. In the same vein as Hernandez and Lackey, Wright’s rookie season is best known for his performance in the World Series. While his control wavered in the playoffs, Wright allowed just seven hits and four earned runs in 12.1 World Series innings, including a quality start in a Game Seven that the Indians bullpen eventually blew.
It should be noted that the all-time leader in this category is Al Downing, with 39.4 VORP in 24 appearances for the 1963 Yankees. Zito ranks second all-time. The all-time leader for position players is Kevin Stocker, if you can believe it, who amassed 25.6 VORP for a 1993 Phillies team that only won their division by three games. Just to think, without Kevin Stocker we might never have had Joe Carter versus Mitch Williams.
Recognizing the value a prospect can have over an unproductive incumbent is often the best way for a GM to influence his organization’s immediate future in the the dog days of summer. We finish today with six prospects, presented in order of importance, who could help fill gaps on various contenders and who could make a difference in the standings, starting right now.
Adam Jones, OF, Mariners: .326/.398/.600 (Triple-A): The Mariners might not be considered contenders after being swept by the Astros over the weekend, but Jones is someone who can help them get back into the race. Jones would present a huge defensive improvement in left field over Raul Ibanez, who could then slide to either first base (affording Bill Bavasi the chance to trade Richie Sexson) or to DH, providing Mike Hargrove with enhanced platoon or bench options.
Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox: 1.96 ERA, 12.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 (Double-A): You won’t find a bigger Jon Lester fan than myself, but when the Red Sox decide to push Julian Tavarez to the bullpen, it’s Buchholz who is best prepared to succeed in the major leagues. Buchholz has vaulted to the top of the minor league ladder in terms of pitching prospects, and is showing three plus pitches in every outing. He’s ready.
Kevin Melillo, 2B, Athletics: .270/.366/.464 (Triple-A): Oakland needs to find ways to generate offense, and Joe Sheehan presented a good idea in Adam Dunn. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Having Melillo replace Mark Ellis–an asset in the field–could be a step in the right direction. Melillo has struck out too much this season, but his patience makes up for it, and his power numbers would be a welcome addition to the lineup.
Eulogio de la Cruz, RHP, Tigers: 3.52 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 (Double-A/Triple-A): Promoted from Erie to Toledo this month, de la Cruz was switched to a bullpen role, presumably to groom him to join the Tigers later this season. The fit has not been perfect, as his strikeout numbers are down and his walk numbers are up, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions. Losing Joel Zumaya was devastating to the big league team, but promoting de la Cruz would almost replace Zumaya’s velocity, if not quite his performance.
Brian Barton, OF, Indians: .307/.407/.447 (Double-A): The Indians are winning the AL Central despite a combined offensive performance of .259/.325/.409 from the outfield corners. Barton is not completely ready for the major leagues, but he’s an intelligent player whose speed and patience will play. He also crushes southpaws, so at worst, he could play the weak side of a platoon with David Dellucci. And while we’re on the Indians, I also believe Adam Miller could roll off the Disabled List and into the rotation at month’s end.
Alan Horne, RHP, Yankees: 2.50 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 (Double-A): Horne isn’t well known, but he should be. His selection from Florida in the 11th round of the 2005 draft was a hidden gem delivered by the Yankees’ scouting department. Horne is over the injury problems that plagued his college career, and he is suddenly somewhere in the mix for the organization’s best pitching prospect behind Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. While Hughes rehabs and Joba prepares further for The Show, I believe it’s Horne rather than Tyler Clippard who would be better suited to pitch every fifth day for the Yanks.
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