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 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 Domonic Brown in 2013, are AAAA players who have a once-in-a-career season. Some, like Hansel Robles last season for the New York Mets, are lower-ranked prospects who happen to fit the positional need for the major league team. Others, like Steven Matz, 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 National League and see who might join them in jumping to the major leagues this season.
New York Mets
There are few every day players who jump to the major leagues without at least a full season in the minors. Not many thought Michael Conforto would be one of the few exceptions to that maxim at the beginning of 2015 as the Mets assigned him to High-A St. Lucie. After 46 games in the Florida State League, where he batted .283/.350/.462, and an additional 45 games in AA Binghamton, where he put up a line of .312/.396/.503, the Mets deemed him ready for the rigors of the big leagues. Conforto’s MLB debut was on July 24, fifty-four weeks after signing with the Mets. Conforto showed no discomfort in the majors, hitting .270/.335/.506 in 56 regular season games while throwing out six runners from his left field perch. Conforto only picked up six hits in 34 at bats during the Mets’ postseason run, but half of those hits were home runs.
Utility infielder T.J. Rivera slowly worked his way through the Mets system, finally getting bumped to AAA Las Vegas midway through last season. Rivera, who played 56 games for AA Binghamton before finishing up the season with 54 in Nevada, put up a combined .325/.364/.449 line with 35 extra-base hits. Rivera played at second, third and shortstop last season, and had been utilized at first base in previous seasons. With the Mets’ starting entire infield over the age of 30, Rivera’s versatility could prove useful.
27-year-old right-handed pitcher Zack Thornton has pitched capably, if not spectacularly, in AAA Indianapolis and Las Vegas the past three seasons. Last year, Thornton pitched in 63 games for the 51s, putting up a 3.94 ERA and a 1.346 WHIP in the hitter-friendly PCL. Thornton struck out 55 batters in 61 2/3 innings for Las Vegas, a bit below his career 9.8 K/9 average. The Mets utilized nineteen pitchers out of the bullpen last season – from youngster Akeel Morris to 37-year-old Buddy Carlisle – so a call up for Thornton this season would not be a shock.
It certainly was a surprise that Felipe Rivero got an early call up to Washington in 2015. In ten starts for AA Harrisburg in 2014, Rivero went 2-7 with a 4.12 ERA and a 1.443 WHIP. His adventures in the Arizona Fall League were even worse, putting up a 6.08 ERA and a 1.563 WHIP in seven starts. Flipped to the bullpen, the 23-year-old left hander did not set AAA Syracuse on fire, posting a 6.75 ERA and a 1.950 WHIP in eight relief appearances (interrupted by his MLB debut on April 17). Nevertheless, Rivero was recalled in June and spent the rest of the season in the majors, putting up a 2.79 ERA and a 0.952 WHIP in 49 appearances out of the Nationals bullpen.
Outfielder Isaac Ballou traversed three levels last season to end the year in AAA Syracuse. In his third professional season, the 25-year-old began in High-A Potomac where he struggled, batting .249/.319/.336 over 70 games. Ballou was bumped up to AA Harrisburg in late June despite his struggles, and he flourished to a tune of .304/.383/.494 with 17 extra-base hits over 49 games. He went 6-for-20 in a five-game stint with AAA Syracuse to end the year. Ballou, who played the majority of his innings in left field, could see a quick call to Washington if incumbent left fielder Jayson Werth suffers another injury. Ballou also saw time in center and right field, making him a potential utility man.
23-year-old right hander Austin Voth was the ace of the AA Harrisburg Senators in 2015, putting up a 2.92 ERA and a 1.106 WHIP in 157 1/3 innings. Voth has always been a hit-suppressor, and his 7.7 H/9 ratio last season was above his career mark of 7.0. With 148 whiffs (8.5 K/9) and only 40 walks (2.3 BB/9). Voth is an ideal call up if injuries strike the Nationals rotation.
No one, literally no one, could have predicted that Kyle “The Claw” Barraclough would be a major part of the Miami Marlins bullpen at the end of last season. After all, when he started the 2015 season in High-A Palm Beach, he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Only a July 24 trade – with the Cardinals receiving Steve Cishek – gave the Marlins the option of bringing up Barraclough. The right-handed reliever showed his wild side with the Cardinals, allowing 28 hits and 29 walks between High A Palm Beach and AA Springfield over 39 2/3 innings – but striking out 51. After striking out nine batters in four appearances in AA Jacksonville, the Marlins called up the Claw, who proceeded to pitch 24 1/3 innings over 25 appearances, giving up 12 hits, walking 18 and striking out 30.
The answer to the possible ascension of J.T. Riddle is in his versatility. While Riddle was slotted in at shortstop in his three stops – High-A Jupiter, AA Jacksonville, and AAA New Orleans – last season, he played the majority of his games in his first two professional seasons at third base and also has played a handful of games at second. While Riddle’s overall line of .283/.323/.368 over 90 games was pedestrian at best, the numbers – albeit at a lower level – were not too dissimilar to those of Casey McGehee and incumbent third baseman Martin Prado.
At the trade deadline last season, the Marlins picked up Cody Ege from the Texas Rangers. The left-handed strikeout artist had a fantastic 2015 season, going 6-2 with a 0.96 ERA and a 1.056 WHIP across four teams at three levels with two different organizations. In 65 1/3 total innings over 48 appearances, Ege struck out 86 batters (11.8 K/9). While the lefty was just as stingy as Barraclough was with hits (43), he was better at avoiding walks (26). Ege should have high hopes in joining Barraclough, Mike Dunn, and A.J. Ramos in the Marlins strikeout pen.
When 30-year old Cuban Hector Olivera signed his first MLB contract – a six year, $62.5 million deal – in May of 2015, there was every expectation he would finish the season at the major-league level. Given that he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was not expected that his debut in the majors would come as a member of the Atlanta Braves. However, a massive 13-player, three-team trade at the trade deadline moved the infielder across the country. Olivera made his MLB debut on September 1, playing in 21 games for Atlanta in the final month and batting .253/.310/.405 with seven extra-base hits.
Utility infielder Levi Hyams spent parts of three seasons in the High-A Carolina League with results that could only be considered disappointing. However, despite putting up a .221/.299/.337 line for the Carolina Mudcats in 2015, the Braves moved the 25-year-old to AA Mississippi, where he was able to resuscitate his batting stroke. In 72 games with the AA Braves, Hyams batted .274/.375/.390 with four triples and three homers. Hyams has primarily taken on the role of second baseman, but started games last season at first, third, and shortstop and played an inning in right field as well. With 25-year old Jace Peterson manning second base, Hyams path to the majors may come through his flexibility.
Hunter Cervenka’s first stab at AAA was very nearly his last. The 25-year-old left-hander was promoted to the Iowa Cubs in mid-April of last season. Six weeks later, he was out of organized baseball, being released by the Cubs after putting up an 11.08 ERA and a 2.769 WHIP in a dozen appearances. Cervenka hooked up with the Independent Sugar Land Skeeters where he pitched eight scoreless innings while striking out a dozen, which earned him a contract with the Braves. Given his previous struggles in Iowa, Cervenka’s 0.00 ERA for the Braves – three appearances in AA Mississippi and fourteen in AAA Gwinnett – was unexpected. The lefty also struck out 31 batters in 20 2/3 innings, putting his major league dreams back on the map.
When Elvis Araujo was signed as a minor-league free agent by the Phillies in December of 2014, it was certainly not done with the intent that he would quickly join the Phillies bullpen. After all, he had compiled a 3.42 ERA and a 1.420 WHIP for the High-A Carolina Mudcats and the AA Akron RubberDucks in the Cleveland Indians organization the previous season. And his first seven appearances with the Phillies – in AA Reading – were not brimming with success, resulting in a 7.45 ERA and a 1.552 WHIP. Nevertheless, the hulking left-hander was brought up to Philadelphia where he put up a 3.38 ERA and a 1.385 WHIP in 40 appearances while striking out nearly a batter an inning.
With the huge contract of Ryan Howard occupying the Phillies first base position, it would be a surprise to see Brock Stassi get the call to the majors. However, the first base prospect, who has started to add some outfield play to his repertoire, was an Eastern League All-Star in 2015 and batted .300/.394/.470 with 15 home runs and more walks (77) than strikeouts (63). With a youth movement underway in Philadelphia, Stassi would fit right in.
In three seasons with the San Francisco Giants organization, Reinier Roibal was unable to proceed beyond short-season ball. Released in the spring of 2013, the Cuban import bounced around for two years, signing – but never playing – with the independent Newark Bears in 2013 and appearing in minor-league spring training with the Chicago Cubs in 2014. He signed with Philadelphia last spring training after appearing in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and the right-hander finally showed his promise. In 31 games – 25 with AA Reading – Reinier put up a 7-2 record with a 1.64 ERA and a 1.011 WHIP. The 27-year-old will likely start the season in AAA Lehigh Valley, but he will not be long for the minors if he can repeat his numbers from last 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.