The MLB season is a marathon, not a sprint. Because of this, each team needs to call up players from the minors to make up for under-performance and injuries. Brandon Magee brings us the 2016 AL Central edition of who could be this year’s surprise call ups.
Every baseball season, in every organization, there are players called up from the minors who are not well known but who make a positive contribution to the major league team. A few, like Will Rhymes in 2010, are AAAA journeymen who have a once-in-a-career season. Some, like Carlos Sanchez last season for the Chicago White Sox, are lower-ranked prospects who happen to fit the positional need for the major league team. Others, like Carlos Rodon, are highly rated prospects who are called up earlier than projected. We look back at last year’s surprises in the Central Division of the American League and see who might join them in jumping to the major leagues this season.
Kansas City Royals
Paulo Orlando spent nine seasons traversing the minor leagues before finally making it to the majors last year, starting the 2015 season on the Royals 25-man roster. The 29-year-old played much more than expected in his first MLB season due to Alex Rios’s broken hand and Alex Gordon’s strained groin, putting up a line of .249/.269/.444 over 86 games for the Royals.
If injury were to strike Eric Hosmer, or the Royals feel the need for a power boost, they may look down to Omaha and bring up Balbino Fuenmayor. The 26-year-old began his professional career with the Toronto Blue Jays, who cast him aside early in 2013, after seven years without advancing past A-Ball. But two years in independent league ball resulted in a power surge, causing the Royals to take a chance on the first baseman. Fuenmayor batted .358/.384/.589 between AA Northwest Arkansas and AAA Omaha, slugging 28 doubles and 17 dingers.
While the Royals rotation looks solid to begin the season, the Omaha rotation will sport Andy Ferguson, who is prepared to make his MLB debut. The 27-year-old spent his fifth season with the Royals organization last year, going 11-3 with a 2.49 ERA and a 1.032 WHIP combined in AA and AAA. In 22 appearances, 18 of which were starts, Ferguson put up a 9.3 K/9 and a 4.50 K/BB.
Pitcher J.R. Graham landed on a couple of top 100 lists prior to the 2013 season, after going 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA between Lynchburg of the Carolina League and Mississippi of the Southern League. However, two more increasingly difficult seasons of starting for the AA Braves in 2013 and 2014 kept Graham off Atlanta’s 40-man roster and allowed the Twins to pick him in the Rule 5 draft. Graham, placed in Minnesota’s bullpen, pitched 63 2/3 innings over 39 games in his MLB debut, putting up a 4.95 ERA and a 1.476 WHIP.
Wilfredo Tovar played sparingly for the New York Mets in 2013 and 2014 and has been in professional baseball since 2008. The 24-year-old infielder is hoping to find a more permanent home in Minnesota, where he signed a minor league contract in December. While Tovar has primarily played at the shortstop position in his minor league travels, the Mets had started diversifying his skills over the past few seasons. Last year for the Las Vegas 51s, Tovar played 55 games at shortstop, 21 games at second and 27 games at third base. He also appeared in the outfield early in his career, and gives the Twins a potential all-around utility player. However, Tovar should not be expected to hit much, as his .283/.327/.356 line for AAA Vegas last season is only slightly better than his overall numbers in the minors, .263/.324/.339
Pat Dean will turn 27 in late May, but may very well make his MLB debut by his birthday. Dean, who has spent the past six seasons as a starting pitcher in the Twins organization, was finally placed on the 40-man roster this offseason, after leading the Rochester Red Wings with a 12-11 record and a 2.82 ERA over 27 starts. The southpaw had his best minor league season with the AAA Red Wings, throwing a career-high five complete games including three shutouts.
Third base was a source of much consternation for the Indians last season. Lonnie Chisenhall (.246/.294/.372) and Mike Aviles (.231/.282/.317) both struggled in their dual roles of third baseman/outfielder leading to the unexpected debut of 23-year-old Giovanny Urshela. The third baseman was called up from AAA Columbus despite batting .272/.298/.469 over 22 games for the Clippers in the early season. Unsurprisingly, Urshela did not set the major leagues alight either, batting .225/.279/.330 in 81 games for Cleveland.
Former 1st round draftee Tyler Naquin finally conquered AA Akron in his third go-round last season, batting .348/.419/.468 in 34 games for the RubberDucks. While the 24-year-old centerfielder did not have the same success in AAA Columbus, Naquin did bat .263/.353/.430 for the Clippers over 50 games while showing a potential for home run power that had been missing in Akron: he drove six balls over the AAA fences, the same number he hit in 128 games for the RubberDucks. Naquin will likely start the season back in Columbus, but Abraham Almonte’s 80-game suspension may have opened the door for him to start the season with the Indians.
Like Naquin, Will Roberts spent three seasons in Akron, finally graduating to AAA Columbus last season after going 6-2 with a 3.77 ERA in 14 starts for the RubberDucks. The tall right-hander continued to impress in Columbus, putting up a 3.06 ERA and a 1.146 WHIP over 12 starts. Roberts walked only 23 batters over 156 2/3 innings last season, but no strikeout artist, whiffed just 84 batters over the same period. Roberts is likely to be placed back in Columbus to start the 2016 season but has a chance for his first major league appearance this season.
Chicago White Sox
Trayce Thompson jumped up the White Sox prospect ranks in 2012 by batting .253/.328/.482 with 62 extra base hits between A-League Winston-Salem, AA Birmingham and AAA Charlotte as a 21-year-old. However, the outfielder stalled for two years in AA Birmingham, with his batting average plummeting to .229 in 2013 and barely improving to .237 in 2014. Although the White Sox put Thompson on the 40-man roster in 2015, few expected him to make his major league debut. However, after putting up a line of .260/.304/.441 with 40 extra base hits for Charlotte, Thompson entered the big leagues in August and batted .295/.363/.533 over 44 games in the final two months of the season. Thompson was moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the off-season in the Todd Frazier trade.
The 2016 season may see another outfielder make a surprise MLB debut. Jason Coats jumped up to AAA Charlotte in his third minor league season last year, batting .270/.313/.438 with 47 extra base hits. The 26-year-old, who spent a total of 31 games in AA Birmingham between 2014 and 2015, has shown versatility in the outfield, playing primarily in right field in 2013 and 2014, left field in 2015, while also picking up three dozen games in center.
Left-hander Zach Phillips made a couple of brief appearances in the majors with Baltimore and Miami from 2011-13, seeing a grand total of 15 2/3 innings. After a year in Japan in 2014, he returned to the states last season, coming out of AAA Charlotte’s pen 46 times. Phillips put up a 3.13 ERA and a 1.226 WHIP for the Knights, striking out 64 batters in 54 2/3 innings. The well-traveled reliever could see a move up to Chicago if Zach Duke or Dan Jennings suffers injury or ineffectiveness.
Jefry Marte was already in his eighth professional season and his third organization when he finally hit the jackpot with the Tigers last season. The 24-year-old began by making his AAA debut in his first season with Detroit, batting .275/.341/.487 while playing mostly at third base for the Toledo Mud Hens. Marte then jumped to the majors in July, primarily manning first base for the Tigers while hitting .213/.284/.413. Marte, however, will not be with Detroit this season, having been traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Kody Eaves.
25-year-old outfielder Wynton Bernard may get his chance in the Tigers outfield this year if injuries strike. In his second season in the Detroit organization, Bernard batted .301/.352/.408 at the AA level, swiping 43 bases and legging out 29 doubles and eight triples. Over his four minor league seasons, Bernard has played 162 games in center, 96 games in right, and 75 games in left.
Joe Mantiply has never been a highly rated pitcher, but the left-handed reliever has quickly risen through the Detroit Tigers farm system. Mantiply, drafted in the 27th round in 2013, saw bullpen action in both AA and AAA last season, putting up an ERA of 2.27 and a WHIP of 1.074 in 39 appearances. While Mantiply was not overpowering last year, whiffing 51 batters in 63 1/3 innings, he walked a mere 13 batters and allowed only four home runs.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.