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 “Low Minors” as any of the Short-Season leagues, whether they’re Short-Season A-ball leagues (Northwest League and New York-Penn League) or Rookie Leagues (like the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League). The lowest level is the complex leagues — the Arizona Rookie League and the Gulf Coast League where major league teams have their minor league and spring training complexes.
Usually players will enter these leagues directly from the draft or from Latin American complex leagues (like the Dominican Summer League and Venezuelan Summer League). Most high school players drafted will start in the complex leagues although some highly touted youngins will jump directly to full-season leagues (like Bryce Harper did in 2011).
The archetypal players easily found in higher levels of the minors aren’t so easy to discern at the lowest levels, mainly because here, it’s more about potential than production for a lot of players. A pitcher with a great arm but no control or no secondary stuff will keep getting innings, even if he’s getting lit up every time out in order to get him experience in the hopes that the other weaknesses will come around. The same way a free swinger who strikes out 30% of the time will keep getting at bats in the hopes that the raw power he might have locked away will surface in the games.
Most players in these leagues are pretty raw, although you’ll find big differences between the players in a Short-Season A-ball league and the complex leagues. The players with more polish will stand out very quickly here. I’ve been told that a player like Clinton Hollon (2013 2nd round pick), who is showing very good secondary pitches and location, will eat up the GCL because he has the maturity and the baseball-sense that is beyond his level of competition.
Here are some of the Low Minors Archetypes:
You may hear this term thrown around a bit. Bonus babies are players who receive large signing bonuses. Sometimes these guys are high picks, sometimes they’re high-priced international free agents and sometimes (like Jake Brentz and Rowdy Tellez this year), they’re guys who have slipped in the draft due to perceived signability issues or injuries but their talent still merits (to the team) a larger bonus than would be expected.
There are really two kinds of bonus babies in the low minors. The ones that perform up to their hype and the ones that don’t. Because they’ve been handed upwards of a million dollars to sign their contracts, there will be great expectations from these players and usually prospect watchers might get disappointed from even a mediocre season.
Teams will treat these bonus babies in two different ways. Many pitchers will be coddled. They won’t get more than an inning or two at a time and the teams want the players to just get used to the rigours of the professional baseball routine. Others will be thrown out there, possibly at a level that might be a bit of a stretch for them to see how they do.
However a bonus baby plays, teams will be evaluating him more on the abilities he’s showing and the improvements that he makes rather than his statistical line. At these levels (up to a point) the stats don’t matter as much as how a player takes his at bats, how his swing looks, how a pitcher is commanding (or not commanding) the strike zone, etc.
A great example of a player who followed a year in the Low Minors without great success with great results after a promotion to full-season A-ball is Dwight Smith, Jr. Smith had pretty ugly numbers in Bluefield and Vancouver in 2012 and ended up in Extended Spring Training this year. Around late-April, he was sent to Lansing and he’s been one of the best and most consistent offensive players for them.
The Over-Age Player
The over-age player is a guy who is probably playing below his expected level of play. There are several guys in the low minors this year for the Blue Jays who, for a variety of reasons are 2-4 years older than the average player in their league. At the higher levels of the minors (A+ and higher this year), the Toronto Blue Jays have teams that are actually quite old. This can be seen very easily by going to the Baseball Reference minor league pages and comparing the average ages on the teams in each minor league.
In the high minors, this is not a big deal. Players get jammed up, particularly if there’s nowhere to go at the major league level. At the lower minor leagues, this can be a career death sentence. I once heard a scout asking about a player who had been recently sent to a low-minors team. The player’s number wasn’t on the team’s listed roster so he asked how old he was. As a 23 year old on a low-minors team, the scout’s immediate reaction was “oh.” He probably didn’t give this player another thought.
Some over-age players are in the low minors because of lack of opportunity at higher levels. The fact that they are over-age players who are not moving due to a lack of opportunity, however, speaks to the fact that they are in all likelihood NOT a “Bonus Baby” and therefore, the team doesn’t have as much of a financial and philosophical commitment to the player and this over-age player will be seen as more of an org guy and less as someone who needs to progress through the system. If a team didn’t pay a guy millions to sign, they’re not going to worry about where he plays as much as they do about a prospect that they’re investing in.
A couple of great examples of players in the Jays’ system who are “over-age” players are the GCL Blue Jays Thomas Collins III (a.k.a. “Boomer” Collins) and Eric Brown (formerly of the Vancouver Canadians).
Collins, an undrafted free agent out of college, is almost 23 years old in the Gulf Coast League and has been dominating the competition. However, he hasn’t been promoted (probably due to a log-jam in the outfield in Bluefield) although, theoretically, he could probably go straight to Vancouver. The Blue Jays may like him as a “character” guy, one who is a good teammate and a leader on the field and off.
Brown, a Thunder Bay native who played his college ball at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is now 24 and had spent parts of three seasons in Vancouver. This year, in particular, he had pitched extremely well, dominating the competition. He finally got his promotion to full-season ball just a couple of weeks ago as he made his way to Lansing. Stay tuned to Blue Jays from Away to hear our brief interview with him from Lansing!
The Under-Age Player
These guys are probably bonus babies but the guys who are REALLY playing at a level above their age-group make for a special case. In many cases, these guys are usually extremely talented but have shown a maturity on the field that belies their age. The best example in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system is pitcher Roberto Osuna who is now on the DL. He made his pro debut at 16 years old in the Mexican professional league — a league that is usually considered to be on par with the US Double-A or Triple-A level — in 2011 and came to the Blue Jays organization in 2012 as a 17 year old. In that season, he absolutely dominated in Bluefield and in Vancouver. In Vancouver he was playing against players 3-7 years older than him. He started off this year in Lansing and had similar results as an 18 year old. Unfortunately, he has had Tommy John surgery that has ended his season and he’ll return late in 2014 with a very low innings limit.
A player who repeats a level at the low minors isn’t necessarily a bust. Sometimes a team feels that some more playing time or reps at a level that the player has seen before can be a boost to his confidence. Other times, a player just hadn’t been able to make adjustments in his first year at the level and he might be able to make in a subsequent go-round. At the lower levels, it’s not as much of a career death sentence as it might be in the mid-minors (it’s much more common at the higher levels where paths can be blocked due to many reasons).
Generally, a player won’t be progressing as linearly or quickly as a team would like and can be sent back to the same level to work on some things. Often, if the repeat assignment is met with success, the player will be moved up quickly. Other times, he may be allowed to stay with the team he started the season with to help them in playoffs (some organizations believe that playoff experience in the minors is a very important development tool).
There are a couple of examples that the Blue Jays have this year. The first, positive one is Gabriel Cenas who is repeating the lowest minor league level (after a year with the Dominican Summer League team) in the Gulf Coast League. Cenas, last year, looked lost and had horrible numbers for the GCL Blue Jays. This year, he’s one of the team’s leading hitters, having made big strides.
An example of a player who repeated a level and had slightly better results (although they weren’t all that much better) is Derrick Loveless, currently with Bluefield. Loveless has been in the Jays’ system for 3 years now and repeated the GCL level. Eric Brown is another player who repeated a level a couple of times (repeating Vancouver for parts of 3 seasons) but he seems to be doing fairly well with Lansing and will hopefully be able to continue rising through the system.
These are players that are usually found throughout the lowest level of the minors. They’re usually guys who are new to pro ball and make up a vast majority of players in Rookie Ball. I won’t say much more but they’re the guys that are excited to be there playing in the pros. For them, the future has yet to be written and they will do everything they can to make the most of their time playing baseball.