May 30, 2014; Toledo, OH, USA; Toledo Mud Hens third basemanMike Hessman
(27) in the dugout prior to the game against the Charlotte Knights at Fifth Third Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
As fans, we tend to focus on the prospects: the skinny shortstops spinning web gems at 18, the 20 year old third baseman knocking balls into the upper deck of one of baseball’s biggest stadium, the 21 year old left-hander who just might face baseball’s best lineup and come away with a post-season victory two months after pitching in the College World Series. But just as prevalent in the minor leagues are those who never showed that potential, or those whose hype and hyperbole ended in a whimper of half-swings and wild pitches. Still, they hold on, biding time in the minors, hoping for that last chance, those few at-bats as a September call-up that maybe, just maybe, may lead into a full-time job. Too often ignored, we here at Grading on the Curve have decided to honor them today with the first annual All Minor League 30+ Team, an ode to an unappreciated motley of journeymen and dreamers.
First Base: Jake Fox
Team: Double-A Reading Phillies Organization: Philadelphia Phillies
Fox, a former utility man for the Cubs, Athletics and Orioles, found himself jobless last winter after receiving no offers from major league clubs. But a torrid spring in independent ball landed him a contract with the Phillies and an assignment to Triple-A reading. Once there, Fox hit .308 and launched 22 home runs in in just 286 at bats, finishing the season with 38 jacks between independent and affiliated ball. The only minor leaguers with more? Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo.
Second Base: Brian Burgamy
Team: Double-A Binghamton Mets Organization: New York Mets
In his first return to affiliated baseball since he appeared in eight games for the High-A Port St. Lucie Mets in 2007, the 33 year old Burgamy earned himself a spot as a Season-Ending Eastern League All Star Team. He tied for second in the league with 23 home runs, third with 73 RBI’s, sixth with a .504 slugging percentage, and 7th with a .371 on base percentage. A ninth round pick by the Padres in 2002, Burgamy bounced around to the Phillies and then the Mets before falling into the independent league for sixth seasons.He moved to the Mexican league last summer where a strong performance (1.075 OPS) in the Mexican and him a minor league contract with the and another shot at the dream
Third Base: Mike Hessman
Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens Organization: Detroit Tigers
Any discussion of great Minor League veterans would be remise without mention of the Hank Aaron of Triple-A, Mike Hessman. With a 3rd inning blast off of the Indianapolis Indians Jake Brigham on June 30th this year, his 15th of the season, Hessman captured the International League record for career home runs with 259. Despite fighting a wrist injury and a variety of minor maladies, the 36 year old Mud Hen still finished the year with 28 home runs. It marked his 13th season with at least 20 long balls and advanced his career minor league total to 417. Known for his power since he began his professional career in 1996 at the age of 18, an inability to consistently get on base has kept him below the equator for the better part of 18 seasons. In 223 career major league at bats, spread across five disparate seasons for three different clubs, he has hit 14 home runs but owns just a .188 average and .272 on base percentage.
Hessman has indicated his 18th season could be his last. If so, he could be leaving history on the table. Baseball’s marquee Quadruple-A-er is just 15 home runs shy of Buzz Arlet’s 77 year old minor league home run record.
Shortstop: Doug Bernier
Team: Triple-A Rochester Red-Wings Organization: Minnesota Twins
Applicants for this spot were scarce. The physical demands of the position pushes most players away from shortstop by the time they reach their third decade. Even Bernier played as many games at various positions around the diamond as he did at shortstop, but 63 appearances there were enough for us, especially given his strong batting line: .280/.348/.398, 107 weighted Runs Created (wRC+). Through seven seasons in the Rockies organization, Bernier received just 4 major league plate appearances. However, the Twins have rewarded consecutive strong Triple-A seasons with consecutive September call ups. Considering Minnesota’s shallow depth at middle infield, it would not be unfeasible for this career minor leaguer to win a big league job next spring. Unlikely, yes. But not out of the question.
Team: Triple-A Nashville Sounds Organization: Milwaukee Brewers
Fans following the minor leagues back in 2006 will surely remember this former first round pick, the Mike Stanton who came before Mike Stanton. In 2006, Baseball America named Hermida, then with the Marlins, as the game’s fourth best prospect and plastered his picture on the cover of their annual prospect handbook. Robust tools minor league numbers never quite translated into big league success in Florida. Or in Boston, or in Oakland, or in Cincinatti, or in San Diego. But the well travelled outfielder is still plugging away at at Triple-A. He hit 16 home runs and posted a .370 on base percentage in 108 games for the Brewers’ affiliate this season.
Team: Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies Organization: San Francisco Giants
Tommy John surgery has almost become par for the course for pitchers in today’s game, a nuisance certainly, but little more than small delay. The operation invokes even less apprehension among position players. However For Minicozzi, a down on his luck prospect in 2007, the ubiquitous procedure almost proved a career-ender.
In 2004, after a season in which he hit just .218 as a 24 year old in Double-A, Minicozzi was informed he would need Tommy John. Already unimpressed by his play, San Francisco decided he wasn’t worth the investment and opted to simply release the outfielder. Minicozzi had to spent a year rehabbing and then three in independent ball before he finally got a call from a major league club in 2012. It was the Giants again. Though he has yet to receive a big league call-up, the 31 year old has done everything he can to earn one. He posted an .844 OPS last season and hit .298/.400/.470 with 12 home runs in 89 games this year.
Team: Triple-A Round Rock Express Organization: Texas Rangers
Though never as heralded as Hermida, Snyder was a prospect in his own regard in 2006. Coming off of a season in which he hit .279 with 22 home runs for Cleveland’s Double-A and High-A affiliates, Snyder was named the 71st prospect in baseball by BA. However, that success didn’t carry over into Triple-A and by September of 2008, his stock had fallen to the point that the Indians put him on waivers, where he was claimed by the Cubs. Since then he’s bounced around to Houston and Arizona before arriving in with Texas this season. He only played half a season with the Round Rock before being granted free agency and heading to Japan, but he raked when on the field: 18 home runs, 51 RBIs, a .573 slugging percentage and a .923 OPS in just 61 Triple-A games.
He may have made the most prudent decision of any player on this list. Shunned by Major League teams, players like Wladimir Balentin, Matt Murton, and Hector Luna have gone on to stardom across the pacific.
Starting Pitcher: Chien Ming Wang
Teams: Triple-A Chattanooga and Louisville Organizations: Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox
There were several candidates for this spot, all pitchers in their early to mid-30s with a 10-13 wins and an ERA around 4.00. Ultimately, we settled with the sinker-baller and two time 19 game winner from Taiwan, Chien Ming Wang. Never the same since injuring his right foot running the bases in Houston in 2008 and subsequently imploding upon return the following April, Wang has attempted to his resurrect his career in Triple-A. This was the first season he failed to pitch in the majors, but he still went 13-8 with a 4.12 ERA, including an 8-5 and 3.70 mark with Louisville. He was in essence vintage Wang: ostensibly zero strikeouts (3.8 SO/9) against a sea of groundballs (51.3% ground ball rate, per Minor league central).
Closer: Kevin Whelan
Teams: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens Organizations: Detroit Tigers
There were markedly fewer eligible closers than starters. Clubs like to reserve the ninth inning role for hard-throwing youths, with live arms and potential. Aging journeyman are a tad less attractive. But with Detroit’s bullpen woes forcing them to call up or trade most of their young pitching, 30 year old Kevin Whalen became Triple-A Toledo’s late-inning stopper. He thrived in the role, pitching to a 2.70 ERA while racking up 20 saves and 54 strikeouts over 43.1 innings. It might be because Whelan has some velocity himself, with a fastball in the low-90s and a slider and splitter in the mid-80’s. His strong Triple-A play earned him a call up to Detroit in August, short-lived as it was. He threw just 1.1 innings in an 11-6 loss to pittsburgh, giving a pair of solo home runs before leaving the game, and the majors.