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 East 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 Aaron Small in 2005, are AAAA journeymen who have a once-in-a-career season. Some, like Travis Shaw in 2015 for the Red Sox, are lower-ranked prospects who happen to fit the positional need for the major league team. Others, like Devon Travis, are highly rated prospects who are called up earlier than projected. We look back at last year’s surprises in the Eastern Division of the American League and see who might join them in jumping to the major leagues this season.
Toronto Blue Jays
The reigning AL East Champions called up Chris Colabello in early May last season, and the former Worcester Tornado became a mainstay in the Blue Jays’ lineup. The utility outfielder/first baseman was not expected to be a major contributor to the Torontonians after putting up poor numbers in his first two major league seasons for the Minnesota Twins in 2013 and 2014. However, Colabello saw action in 101 regular season games last season for the Jays, batting .321/.367/.520.
While Troy Tulowitzki is an impact bat for the Blue Jays at shortstop, his penchant for injury is part of the package. The only seasons Tulo has played more than 150 games were 2007 and 2009, and his 128 regular season games last season were the most he has played since 2011. A long-term injury to Tulowitzki may give Jiovanni Mier his first taste of the majors. A first round pick of the Houston Astros in 2009, Mier spent all of last season with AA Corpus Christi, batting .258/.350/.372. Signed as a free agent by the Blue Jays in November, Mier is expected to be the starting shortstop in AAA Buffalo. While the 25-year-old has been primarily a shortstop in his professional career, he has also played both second and third base, giving Jio the possibility of jumping to Toronto as a utility infielder.
It is unlikely that the Blue Jays pen will make it through the season without injury or ineffectiveness, and 25-year-old Chad Girodo will be in Buffalo waiting for the call. The left-handed sidearmer saw action in A-level Dunedin, AA New Hampshire and AAA Buffalo last season, putting up a combined 1.34 ERA and a 0.961 WHIP over 45 games out of the bullpen. Girodo struck out 58 batters in 60 1/3 innings while walking only nine and allowing a single home run.
New York Yankees
An injury to Mark Teixeira led the Yankees to promote 22-year-old Greg Bird last season, and Bird simply batted .261/.343/.529 in 46 games in his first exposure to the big leagues. Unfortunately for the Yankees, offseason shoulder surgery will keep Bird sidelined in 2016.
While Teixeira was once a good bet to play 150 games each season, the first baseman hasn’t played more than 123 games since 2011. With Bird out of the equation and Alex Rodriguez showing little aptitude for the position, the Yankees may have to get creative to fill the potential void. While it is possible that New York may turn to 25-year-old Matt Snyder, his lack of time above A-Ball renders that unlikely. An intriguing possibility is uber-prospect Aaron Judge, whose 6’ 7” frame would make an ideal target for infielders despite not having played first base professionally.
On the pitching front, 23-year-old Johnny Barbato may make his major-league debut out of the Yankees bullpen. In his first season with the Yankees organization, Barbato put up a 2.67 ERA and a 1.188 WHIP between the AA Trenton Thunder and the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders. More impressively, Barbato allowed just a single run in his 14 late-season appearances in AAA.
The Orioles have successfully navigated the difficult road of holding onto Rule 5 prospects the past few seasons, and last year was no exception. Snagging 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Jason Garcia from the Boston Red Sox was certainly a bold move, as the pitcher had not appeared above single-A while with the Red Sox. Garcia pitched 21 times out of the Orioles pen last season with a 4.25 ERA and a 1.416 WHIP.
Baltimore will once again look to keep a Rule 5 draftee on the roster this season, after picking outfielder Joey Rickard from the Tampa Bay Rays this off-season. Rickard saw action in Single A Charlotte, AA Montgomery and AAA Durham for the Rays last season, putting up a combined line of .321/.427/.447. Rickard also navigated all three outfield positions and showed some speed on the basepaths with eight triples and 23 stolen bases.
Another former Red Sox pitching prospect could make the trip to Baltimore this season, as Joe Gunkel – traded to Baltimore last season in exchange for outfielder Alejandro De Aza – impressed in AA Bowie. Gunkel started 17 games for the Baysox, going 8-4 with a 2.59 ERA and a 0.958 WHIP. While Joe is no strikeout artist – whiffing 113 batters in his 144 2/3 innings last season – he puts few runners on base, walking only 27 batters last season.
Tampa Bay Rays
After Bobby Wilson started the year with eight singles and 20 strikeouts in his first 59 plate appearances as the Rays backup catcher, 26-year-old Curt Casali was called up to Tampa. Casali had not shown much promise the previous year for the Rays (with a .477 OPS in 30 games) or in AAA Durham to start 2015 (.205/.326/.348 in 32 games). Curt showed a surprising power surge with the Rays, slugging ten home runs in 38 games – batting .238/.304/.594 – ending his season with a hamstring injury sustained while running the bases on his final home run of the season.
With Brad Miller, Logan Forsythe and Evan Longoria each playing at least 144 games last season, and Tim Beckham seeing action in 82 games as the primary utility infielder, the Rays seem all set in the infield. However, if Tampa suffers a rash of injuries, Juniel Querecuto may be the man called up. The 23-year-old Querecuto saw his first action in AA and AAA last season, putting up a combined line of .256/.328/.336 in 89 games across three levels. What Juniel lacks in batting prowess, he makes up for in positional flexibility, seeing 31 games at third base, 48 games at shortstop, and seven games at second base.
Picked up from the Independent League Grand Prairie AirHogs in 2013, Jared Mortensen navigated his way through AA Montgomery and AAA Durham last season, going 9-5 with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.225 WHIP in 26 appearances, 19 of which were starts. While the 27-year-old Mortensen had some major blowups on the mound, in eight of his starts – all going at least six innings – the right-hander did not allow an earned run. His ability to start or relieve could give him a leg up in getting a promotion to Tampa.
Boston Red Sox
The 2015 Red Sox predisposition for injury saw a number of players making surprise debuts in the majors. Blake Swihart became the primary catcher after Ryan Hanigan went down. Travis Shaw appeared in 65 games due to suspension (David Ortiz), injury (Pablo Sandoval) and trade (Mike Napoli). And the pitching staff’s inability to stay healthy forced the debuts of Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Noe Ramirez, and Jonathan Aro.
The 2016 Red Sox appear to have options on the 25-man roster to cover any initial injury, with Brock Holt, Travis Shaw, and Chris Young able to fill in for the seven non-battery positions. However, if the Red Sox bad luck with injuries continues this year, they may need to dip down to Pawtucket and pick up Marco Hernandez to help out in the infield. In his first season in the Red Sox organization last year, Hernandez saw action in 114 games for AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket, batting .305/.330/.454 with 45 extra base hits. While Hernandez appeared most often at shortstop, he also started 15 games at second base and an additional five at third base while with the PawSox.
While the Red Sox have added depth to their pitching staff with their acquisitions of David Price, Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, injuries are almost guaranteed. In the case of injury, the Red Sox may call for 28-year-old left-hander Daniel Rosenbaum to fill out the staff. Rosenbaum was traded to the Red Sox last season while rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery performed in 2014. While his record was abysmal for the AA Portland Sea Dogs last season – 0-7 with a 8.26 ERA over 11 starts – he proved to be much more effective against left handed batters, making him a possible LOOGY option out of the bullpen.
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.