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 NL 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 Casey McGehee in 2009, are AAAA journeymen who have a once-in-a-career season. Some, like Randal Grichuk last season for the St. Louis Cardinals, are lower-ranked prospects who happen to fit the positional need for the major league team. Others, like John Lamb, 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 National League and see who might join them in jumping to the major leagues this season.
St. Louis Cardinals
Tommy Pham’s long road through the Cardinals’ system started when he was drafted in the 16th round of the 2006 draft. In his eighth season, the outfielder finally climbed to AAA Memphis. In September of 2014, his ninth professional season, he finally got the call, seeing action in six games and garnering two plate appearances with the Cardinals. However, there was no expectation that Pham would be a major contributor for St. Louis in 2015 as a spring training quad injury kept him out of play until June. Called up to the Cardinals on July 3, Pham batted .182/.265/.341 over 13 games in his first meaningful major-league action. Sent back down to Memphis, Pham received another chance in mid-August and took the second opportunity with relish. After going 0-for-6 in his first two games back, Pham put up a line of .320/.398/.563 with five triples and four home runs in 36 games as the Cardinals roared to the NL Central title, holding off the Pirates and Cubs.
Yadier Molina has been a workhorse behind the plate for the Cardinals, seeing action in at least 136 games in six of the last seven seasons. However, a pair of off-season thumb surgeries may see Molina on the shelf to begin the season. Such a scenario may lead to Mike Ohlman making his major-league debut as the backup to Brayan Pena. Ohlman, an 11th round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, spent his first season with the Cardinals organization in 2015, batting .273/.356/.418 with 17 doubles and 12 homers for AA Springfield. Ohlman threw out 25% of the 79 baserunners attempting to steal on him last season.
If the Cardinals bullpen needs to replace Kevin Siegrist or Tyler Lyons due to injury, Dean Kiekhefer will be the likely candidate to come up from AAA Memphis. The 26-year-old lefty has been stout for the Redbirds the past two seasons, putting up a 2.54 ERA and a 0.935 WHIP in 40 relief appearances in 2014 and a 2.41 ERA with a 1.257 WHIP in 50 appearances in 2015. While Kiekhefer isn’t a strikeout artist, he was very stout against left-handed hitters, who batted .267/.290/.311 against him last season.
When Arquimedes Caminero’s contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Miami Marlins last February, it was considered a minor transaction. After all, the nine-year minor-league veteran, who had brief appearances for the Marlins in 2013 and 2014, had put up a 4.86 ERA and a 1.587 WHIP in 42 relief appearance for AAA New Orleans during the 2014 season. However, the right-handed reliever not only made the Pirates roster out of spring training, he put in 73 appearances for the Bucs, putting up a 3.62 ERA and a 1.232 WHIP. Caminero’s trademark wildness was still evident however, as he walked 29, hit six batters and threw a half-dozen wild pitches.
While the Pirates sport a pair of 30-year-old catchers in Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, it may be another 30-year-old who will get the call up if either of them go down. Ed Easley, who made the September roster for the St. Louis Cardinals last season, was signed as a minor league free agent in January. In his second season for the Cardinals last season, Easley slumped to a .251/.345/.337 line for AAA Memphis, after putting up an .832 OPS for the Redbirds in 2014 and an .872 OPS for AAA Reno as a member of the Diamondbacks organization in 2013. Easley also slumped in the field, throwing out only six of the 40 runners who attempted to steal on him in 2015 after throwing out 42% of attempted thieves in 2014. An early return to his 2014 form could see a quick call up to the majors for Easley.
Another offseason free agent, right-hander Trey Haley, could quickly ascend to the Pirates bullpen. The 25-year-old spent his first eight seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization, finally reaching AAA last season. In 43 games between AA Akron and AAA Columbus, Haley put up a 2.45 ERA and a 1.436 WHIP while striking out 60 batters in 55 innings. Like Caminero, Haley can be a bit wild – walking 32, hitting six and throwing nine wild pitches in 2015 – however since moving from the starting rotation in 2011, Haley has given up only five home runs and did not allow any in 2015.
When Kyle Schwarber started the 2015 season in AA Tennessee, there was certainly an expectation that the left-handed slugger would make his major-league debut sometime during the season. The fourth pick of the 2014 draft destroyed three A-ball leagues in 2014, batting .344/.428/.634 in his professional debut. However, even when Schwarber was called up to be the designated hitter during series at Cleveland and Minnesota in June – after crushing AA Southern league pitching to the tune of .320/.438/.579 – it was a thought to be a temporary boost up for an exciting hitting prospect. Sent to AAA Iowa after his six-game MLB debut, Schwarber obliterated the PCL with a .333/.403/.633 line over 19 games before the Cubs brought him back up. The Cubs maneuvered the catcher into the lineup, playing him largely in the outfield during the final three months of the season where Kyle batted .246/.355/.487 with 16 of his 23 extra-base hits leaving the ballpark.
The youthful Cubs do have a pair of veteran catchers slated to begin the season, with Miguel Montero and David Ross expected to man the tools of ignorance. If injury were to occur to either, Schwarber may be moved back behind the plate from the outfield which could allow John Andreoli to make his major-league debut. The 25-year-old batted .277/.372/.401, stole 33 bases, and garnered six triples in his first season with AAA Iowa last season. Andreoli is well-versed in all fields, playing at least 26 games in left, center, and right fields for Iowa last season.
While the Cubs daily lineup is likely to feature six players under the age of 27, the starting rotation will only have a single starter under the age of 30. 24-year-old Pierce Johnson will likely start the season with AAA Iowa awaiting his chance to make his mark for the Chicagoans. In his two seasons for AA Tennessee, Johnson has gone 11-6 with a 2.31 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP in 34 appearances (33 starts). If there is a question mark with Johnson, it is his command. In 186 2/3 AA innings, Pierce has walked 86 batters (4.1 BB/9).
Brewers fans didn’t have a lot to cheer for during the 2015 season, but the emergence of Jason Rogers was one of the few bright spots. The utility man got a quick call up after going 9-for-25 with a pair of home runs in his first six AAA games, and struggled in his initial call up being utilized mostly in a pinch-hitting role. Batting .236/.284/.360 on June 30, Jones was sent back to AAA Colorado Springs where he hit .340/.454/.598 over 27 games. Called back up in August, a little more playing time saw Rogers bat .381/.473/.556 in the final 35 games, seeing action at first base, third base, and left field.
While the Brewers had a massive house cleaning in the offseason, there are still a couple of older stars on the roster who could be moved in the right deal. And if left fielder Ryan Braun is sent packing, Keon Broxton, who the Brewers picked up via trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, could benefit. The 25-year-old put up a combined line of .273/.357/.438 in 133 games between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis. The free-swinging speedster picked up 27 doubles, a dozen triples, and ten home runs to go along with his 156 strikeouts. Broxton did get a September call-up to the Pirates last season, garnering just two plate appearances but scoring three times as a pinch runner.
Damien Magnifico spent his first three seasons in the Brewers organization as a starting pitcher, going 8-6 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.271 WHIP as a 23-year-old in High-A Brevard County in 2014. However, the Brewers decided to put Magnifico in the pen for the 2015 season, and Damien responded with a 1.17 ERA and a 1.174 WHIP in 42 appearances for AA Biloxi. The right-hander, who picked up four wins and 20 saves last season, could move quickly if he can continue to suppress hits like he did last season, allowing only 41 in 53 2/3 innings.
Michael Lorenzen’s rocky debut season may have been a case of too much too soon. The Reds’ first round draft pick in 2013, Lorenzen saw action in 22 games – 21 innings – in his professional debut. In his first full season in 2014, Lorenzen started 24 games for AA Pensacola, throwing 120 2/3 innings with a 3.13 ERA and a 1.293 WHIP. Placed in AAA Louisville to begin the 2015 season, Michael went 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA in his first three starts before getting an early call up to Cincinnati after Homer Bailey was bit by injury once again. Lorenzen pitched well in his first dozen major-league games, putting up a 3.38 ERA in his first 61 1/3 major league innings. However, his 33 walks and ten home runs allowed during this time were a cause for concern. His next seven starts confirmed the concern, as the right-hander went 0-6 with a 9.82 ERA in 29 1/3 innings and was sent down to AAA for further seasoning. Coming back to the Reds at the end of August, Lorenzen finished the season with a further 22 2/3 innings – allowing 12 runs in four starts and a single run in four relief appearances.
Like the Brewers, the Reds are actively looking to move on from some of their veteran contracts like Jay Bruce. A Bruce trade may allow Phil Ervin to make a quick rise to the majors. The Reds drafted Ervin in the first round with Lorenzen in 2013, but his rise up the system has been slower. After batting .237/.305/.376 for Dayton in 2014, Ervin saw progress in his second full season. Between High-A Daytona and AA Pensacola, Ervin batted .241/.346/.379 with 14 home runs and 34 stolen bases. While the Reds would love to see Ervin’s batting average rise, his 66 walks and 11 hit by pitches make him a solid offensive performer despite the lower BA. Ervin has played primarily in left field during last season, but has also seen extensive time in center and right during his professional career.
Dayan Diaz was one of the few relievers in the higher reaches of the Red Sox system that didn’t get a shot in the Boston bullpen last season. Diaz saw action in 37 games out of the bullpens in AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket, putting up a 1.73 ERA and a 1.156 WHIP over 72 2/3 innings. The right-hander did struggle a bit in his first action in AAA however, seeing his walk rate jump from 1.1 BB/9 in Portland to 4.4 BB/9 for the Pawsox. Signed as a minor- league free agent in November, the 27-year-old Diaz has a good shot to help the Reds in the bullpen sometime this season.
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.