On Sunday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of University of Chicago alumni along with Nate Silver and Christina Kahrl (both actual UofC alums). Following our talk, we took in an entertaining game between the White Sox and Rays, and at one point conversation turned to Joe Dillon. This shouldn’t be a big shock to anyone; when you go to a game with Baseball Prospectus folks, weird discussions happen. During the Dillon conversation, Nate wondered what would happen if one constructed a team of the best minor league players who are 30 or over-how many games would they win? Nate’s gut-feeling was 70, which I thought was way too high. The question stuck with me for a while, and in speaking to some people in the industry, I found reactions ranging from 55 to 64, with one outlier insisting that the number could be as low as 30. Gut-feelings are one thing, but let’s actually do the work; let’s build the team and then see where they lay. To be eligible, a player has to be on an active minor league roster.
Player Org Age AVG/ OBP/ SLG Jason Phillips ATL 31 .257/.301/.410 Mark Johnson SLN 32 .262/.374/.319
Phillips is a three-year starter in the big leagues with a little bit of power and a little bit of patience, so he’ll get the starting nod over Johnson, the former White Sox first-round pick (1994) who has a whole lot of patience, but no power at all. The White Sox gave him plenty of opportunities, but he just didn’t hit enough, and since then he’s plied his trade as a Triple-A backup for a different team in each of the last six years (A’s, Brewers, Cubs, Brewers again, Diamondbacks, and Cardinals).
Player Org Age AVG/ OBP/ SLG 1B Josh Phelps SLN 30 .291/.373/.568 2B Bobby Scales CHN 30 .319/.414/.496 3B Scott McClain SFN 36 .299/.388/.554 SS Erick Almonte DET 30 .255/.347/.397 CI Joe Dillon MIL 33 .258/.372/.413 MI Luis Figueroa CHN 34 .303/.356/.379 UT Jorge Velandia CLE 33 .255/.344/.331
Phelps would be the team’s cleanup hitter. He got a chance with the Yankees last year and failed to take advantage of it, but did quite well as a bench bat for the Pirates. He’s been one of the hottest hitters in the minor leagues during the second half of the season, slugging 14 home runs in July with an overall line of .316/.390/.735 (15 HR in 136 at-bats) since the All-Star break. A 14th-round pick in 1999, Scales came up through the Padres system and has put up incredibly consistent numbers at Triple-A in the last three seasons with the Padres, Phillies, and Red Sox organizations; from 2005-2007, his on-base percentage has been between .369 and .373, while slugging between .447 and .472. He’s picked it up one more notch this year, but he’s in the wrong organization to get a shot, as the Cubs have a glut of second basemen already on the big-league roster. I normally don’t believe that minor league veteran players get screwed, but McClain is one exception. In another time, and in some other places, he probably would have been able to carve out some kind of a big-league career, because the guy can really hit. This year represents his fifth 100-plus RBI season at Triple-A, and here’s hoping that he made some cash during his three-year stint in Japan, which included a 39-homer season for Seibu in 2001. Shortstop was the hardest position to fill. Almonte is a former Yankee farmhand who doesn’t have much of a bat or glove, but just enough to keep hanging around as an insurance policy. The previously mentioned Dillon sticks as a power bat that can play both corners, while Figueroa, a 140-pound switch hitter with speed and defensive chops backs up both in the middle positions. Velandia is a 25th man who could probably fill that kind of role in the big leagues.
Player Org Agr AVG/ OBP/ SLG LF Mike Cervenek PHI 32 .318/.340/.455 CF Andres Torres CHN 30 .301/.383/.496 RF Ben Broussard NYA 31 .275/.347/.514 OF Jason Lane BOS 31 .233/.333/.451 OF Timo Perez DET 33 .286/.360/.453
Undrafted out of college, Cerevenak was signed out of indy ball by the Giants in 2000 after hitting .357/.415/.620 in the Frontier League. He spent four years at Double-A and two in the Pacific Coast League, before becoming a free agent and spending last year in the Orioles system and being signed this year by the Phillies. He’s always been a smallish, un-athletic type who can hit for a bit of average, but doesn’t draw many walks and barely shows average power. That combination doesn’t get you to the big leagues, but you can start in left field on this team. Up-the-middle players were the biggest challenge on this team, so Torres was the pick for the center-field job pretty handily. A former Tigers prospect of some note, Torres is not the burner he once was, but he’s developed a surprising amount of power in recent years. He’s the third player from Triple-A Iowa on the roster, which helps explain why the I-Cubs are leading the Pacific Coast League with an 80-55 record. After collapsing this year in Texas, Broussard is bouncing around at Triple-A looking for another shot. He’s been pretty good, but not to the point where there are any teams lining up for his services, except this one. Lane can spell the starters at both corners and provide home runs, walks, and plenty of strikeouts. Perez makes the team as the only other backup outfielder capable of playing center; he’s been solid at Toledo for the last two years, and there are far worse bench outfielders pulling down big-league paychecks right now.
Pitcher Org Age ERA IP H BB K Les Warlond PHI 31 3.20 118.0 115 44 114 Lindsay Gulin MIL 31 3.63 131.1 110 70 115 Tomo Ohka CHA 32 4.01 134.2 143 34 110 Brian Mazone PHI 32 4.01 161.2 170 33 115 Adam Pettyjohn CIN 31 4.66 160.1 174 40 83
In other words, a nightmare. Basically it’s a staff of junkballers and strike-throwers. Walrond has pitched very well at Triple-A for the past couple of years, but his few big-league shots have not gone especially well, and he’s not going to get many more chances. To his credit, he does have one of the best single performances by a pitcher in the minors this year-a five-hit shutout of Louisville on July 6 that featured 17 strikeouts. Gulin is awfully fun to watch, as he’s a speed-changer who tops out at about 84 mph. If he was younger and named Rowdy, people would get all excited, but instead he toils away in anonymity. Ohka has 172 big-league starts under his belt, and he’s trying to pitch his way back, but isn’t showing enough in Charlotte to get any consideration from the White Sox. Another player who went undrafted and spent time in the indy leagues, Mazone is a finesse lefty who is actually having his worst season in the past four years, but is still good enough to make the tail end of this rotation. Pettyjohn is a former second-round pick (1998) who just never developed into more than a guy who could throw strikes-he doesn’t have an out pitch. That said, one could argue that none of these guys have an out pitch.
Pitcher Org Age ERA IP H BB K Jason Childers CHA 33 1.09 58.0 32 13 60 Ray King HOU 35 2.62 34.1 28 14 30 Justin Lehr CIN 31 2.03 62.0 48 10 40 Stephen Randolph PHI 34 2.50 57.2 35 40 87 Brian Sanches WAS 30 2.30 31.1 22 9 43 Scott Strickland NYA 32 3.73 62.2 48 24 70
In his 12th pro season after going undrafted out of a small Georgia college, Childers has had a remarkable year as Triple-A Charlotte’s closer, but he hardly has closer stuff-pitching backwards from his above-average secondary stuff and using guile and location to make up for an 85-88 mph fastball. Still, we’ll ride the hot hand here and let him close. At this point in his career, the rotund King looks like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, but he can still get left-handers out. Lehr was once a solid prospect in the Oakland system, but he has never found a consistent second pitch to go with a fastball that can get into the mid-90s, but it’s good to have someone around who can throw hard. Randolph spent a few years in the Arizona bullpen and definitely has big-league stuff, but he’s never conquered his control issues. A second-round pick by the Royals in 1999, Sanches is an undersized righty who throws strikes but spends way too much time working up in the zone; in 47 big-league innings, he’s given up 13 home runs. Strickland was once an excellent set-up man who saw his career sidetracked by injuries. He’s spent the last four years with the Mets, Astros, Pirates, Padres, and Yankees trying to get it back.
So how would they do competing against major league teams? Offensively, I think this squad would actually push some runs across the board at times, but the defense is bad, and the pitching is worse, and the bullpen is going to need to deliver about five innings per game. With the industry first-reaction range at 55-64 wins, I think that even that might be a bit high, and I would set the over/under at 52.