Minor Leaguers are people. One of the reasons that I focus this blog on the Blue Jays’ minor league system is because I’m trying to shine a light on an otherwise overlooked part of professional baseball. Yes, sometimes we disassociate a prospect from the fact that he is, indeed, a living, breathing human being. We break them down into mechanics, velocities and statistical data, but we can’t forget that these are just young men trying to make their dreams come true and/or make a living doing what they’re best at.
One of the great things about writing this blog is that I’ve been able to meet, interview and talk with some of these players, hyped and unhyped, and try to see them a little bit more as people rather than prospects. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that few minor leaguers (especially those at the lower levels of the game) will even make the majors and even fewer will have long, productive careers. There are so many obstacles to be overcome, from physical injuries to mental and emotional demons, that a mental and physical toughness is required beyond the athletic gifts that these young men were bestowed.
Why do I preface this article with these thoughts? Because I’m going to explain how minor league players are categorized by writers, bloggers and even their own organizations. That’s not to say that players who aren’t as gifted can’t become major leaguers but their paths are certainly more difficult. Generally, once a player acquires a label, it’s difficult to shake it. Sometimes fortune smiles upon individuals not originally destined for The Show. Other times the obstacles mount too high for them to surmount and a once promising prospect languishes in obscurity.
For the purposes of this article, I define the “Mid-Minors” as full-season Class A ball and Advanced-A ball. As an aficionado of minor league baseball, this is one of the most interesting levels to watch. For most minor leaguers, full-season A ball offers the first real chance to expose the prospect to higher level competition and the rigours of the five-month grind of the minor league season. It’s also a level where consistency becomes one of the most important factors in player evaluation. It’s not about whether a player can show flashes of brilliance, it’s whether he can play high quality, fundamentally sound baseball over the course of a whole season. In full-season A-ball, teams play each other A LOT and players on both sides of the ball have to learn how to make adjustments to a competition that is making adjustments to them.
This player is dubbed a sure thing and is either a highly touted high school draftee or a highly touted college one. If he’s a high school guy, he’s already played a couple years of pro ball and is getting his first taste of full-season ball. If he’s a college guy, he’s probably just been drafted or is in his first full year of pro-ball.
Usually, they’ve already got their skills pretty well developed and are on their way up pretty quickly. It would be unusual to see one of these players spend an entire season at one level, unless they’re very young for the level and the team is being conservative with their development.
The sleeper is a guy who is taking a big step forward at this level. He’s probably put up decent numbers at lower levels and has always had good raw talent, it’s taken him 2-3 years to really put things together. Now that he’s figured it out, however, things are really taking off. There may be struggles with inconsistency or some bad habits that need to be worked out but the organization and those watching it can really see where things can go if everything works out.
Not everyone is successful at the minor league level. These are guys who may have all the talent in the world but just aren’t able to put it together in time. In time for what? Well, since teams are always drafting new players, every minor leaguer has a shelf life based on a number of factors. These factors range from perceived potential talent levels (“upside”) to the position a guy plays to his personality. A player who doesn’t get along with staff and teammates has a limited shelf-life unless he’s got a ton of talent and is playing well. A player who’s easy to get along with who plays a premium position well (catcher, middle infield, left-handed pitcher) or who is versatile defensively has a much longer shelf-life despite limited “upside.”
One great example is Balbino Fuenmayor, released this year after another poor start to the year in Lansing. Fuenmayor has been in the Jays’ system since 2007 and, despite showing outstanding power in his bat in BP, has never been able to succeed in full-season A ball. His best full year in Lansing was in 2009 (his third pro year), peaking with a .663 OPS but he never really cashed in on the promise that he showed at lower levels. Since Fuenmayor was a 1B/DH at best, he was cut loose.
I use Fuenmayor as an example so that I don’t have to name some of the players that I think are in great dangers of becoming wash-outs this season. It’s hard to see consistent failure out of players that are well liked but the world of professional baseball is very cutthroat and the only thing that keeps someone around longer than two or three years is success.
This is a player who may have loads and loads of talent but hasn’t quite figured out how to maximize it. There are lots of these players all the way through the minor leagues and most of the high-draft-pick busts out there become enigmas at a certain point before they bust completely.
The issues vary from player to player. Some have mechanical flaws that begin to become apparent at this level, or the “book” gets out and other teams learn how to neutralize the player’s natural gifts. It could also be a mental issue — a lack of confidence or too many distractions. The enigma is a guy who has, so far, cruised on his talent, particularly in amateur ball and the lower levels of the pros but has finally hit a level where either their natural talent isn’t enough or flaws in their game are exposed.
The enigma will go one of three ways: they’ll implode and completely flame out, they’ll show flashes of greatness (or even goodness) and be able to struggle along with decent stats for a few years, or they’ll figure things out and take a big leap forward.
This describes the vast majority of the minor league players in the mid-minors. These guys are all talented and have figured out how to have some degree of success. They work hard, day-in and day-out, trying to get the most out of their abilities. Some guys will struggle for years and never get above this level, yet will enjoy the ability to play professional baseball as long as they can while others will give up at some point.
One of the best examples of worker who is starting to reap the benefits is Ben White. White, a right-handed pitcher who was a non-drafted free agent signed in 2011, was “just a guy” making starts (without the best results) for the Northwest League champion Vancouver Canadians in 2011 and 2012. He was slated for the Lansing bullpen at the beginning of the year but was moved into the rotation for spot-starting duty where he has thrived. He’s got one of the best records for the Lugnuts and has been the most consistent starting pitcher throughout the entire season.
What White’s future hold is a big question, but for now, he goes to the park every day, does his work and tries to make himself the best player he can.