If only Major League Baseball treated prospects as a kid does new toys. Kids are so excited to get new toys they can hardly contain their excitement as an adult opens the package and cuts the 23 twisties that hold it down inside the packaging to both deter theft and hold the product at just the right angle for display purposes in the box. Once the toy is freed from its capture, the child takes the toy and runs out to play with it in sand, dirt, asphalt, or in the air like that toy is their most favorite thing in the world much like Andy in the movie Toy Story. Fantasy league general managers are no different. They left their 2010 drafts last year with Buster Posey, Chris Carter, Jeremy Hellickson, Justin Smoak, Michael Taylor, Michael Stanton, and Stephen Strasburg with hopes of them making early major league splashes and helping carry those fantasy owners to the money later in the season. Posey and Stanton certainly did that, but owners had to wait longer than expected and for Hellickson, they had to wait even longer. The others had to wait even long yet, either due to ineffectiveness, or worse yet, roadblocks.
As I said in an earlier article, MLB general managers do not care about your fantasy team. They care about player development and service time clocks. If they can sign a low-priced veteran to plug a gap until the Super-Two deadline passes and/or that low-risk vet pays off, it is a win for that club because they buy an extra year of player control with their younger player. Conversely, it frustrates fantasy owners to no end when they see a less talented player plugging up a roster spot that they believe their fantasy prospect should be occupying. Here are several such scenarios in the American League to keep in mind when acquiring certain prospects; the National League will be the focus of next week's column.
Cleveland: Lonnie Chisenhall blocked by Jayson Nix; Jason Kipnis blocked by Orlando Cabrera
It was bad enough that Jason Donald, Luis Valbuena, and Jayson Nix were in the mix at second base and third base, but the Indians' latest addition of Orlando Cabrera complicates matters even more on the infield. One has to assume that Asdrubal Cabrera is locked in as the everyday shortstop which means Donald, Cabrera, and Valbuena fight over the second base job and backing up Nix at the hot corner. Since Chisenhall has yet to see a pitch in Triple-A, there is no rush to move him to the big leagues any earlier than June since the Indians are very unlikely to be AL Central contenders and Nix should not be the type of guy to block him for long. Kipnis hasn't seen Triple-A yet either, but he is coming off a very strong appearance in the AFL yet his path appears to be more crowded. It would not look as bad without the Cabrera signing, but that move was an indication to me that they expect to be more patient with Kipnis' promotion than originally thought.
Baltimore: Zach Britton blocked by Justin Duchscherer or Brad Bergesen
Britton is the best pitching prospect he Orioles have that is still in the farm system. Between Double-A and Triple-A last season, he had a 7.3 K/9IP, 2.4 K/BB, and gave up just seven home runs in 153.1 innings pitched as he continues to be a groundball machine. He has given up just 27 home runs in 538 innings pitched in his minor league career; that is how many Ervin Santana gave up in 223 innings pitched last season. The Orioles' rotation is already filled with youth as Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman back up Jeremy Guthrie and now either Duchscherer or Bergesen. If Duchscherer can stay healthy which is a big challenge for him that fifth spot in the rotation should be his as Bergesen simply does not miss enough bats to remain a starting pitcher. Without sounding too mean, Britton's path to the majors is but another Duchscherer injury away or a Tillman demotion to Triple-A if he is as wild as he was last season. The lowest groundball rate Britton has had at any level of his minor league career is 62% and that is a skill that can come in handy while pitching in Camden Yards with what is an improved infield defense.
Kansas City: John Lamb and Mike Montgomery blocked by stiffs
There is a lot to be excited about with the future of the Royals and if you tuned into our show on Sirius/XM on Friday, you heard Chris Liss talk about the prospects. Unfortunately, there is still very little to be excited about in the Royals' 2011 rotation. Luke Hochevar still does not look like a former top overall draft pick, Kyle Davies shows some signs of becoming serviceable, Vin Mazzaro moves over from Oakland where he was rather ineffective due to wildness and gopheritis, and Bruce Chen hopes his deal with the devil extends another season. Add on innings (among other things) eater Sean O'Sullivan and a recovering Jeff Francis and you have a lot of gigantic question marks in the rotation which bodes rather well for those who acquire top pitching targets. Both Lamb and Montgomery have more upside in their arms than the entire group of major league pitchers the Royals own, but the Royals will be very aware of service time and development time with these two. The upside is there, but Lamb has just 36 innings of experience above High-A while Montgomery has just 60 innings. Both could see some time in 2011, but it very likely to be a September callup unless the major league staff is hit with a rash of second-half injuries.
Minnesota: Kyle Gibson blocked by Nick Blackburn
Blackburn has been nothing more than an innings eater who produces a lot of groundballs while failing to miss a lot of bats. Just five percent of his pitches last season resulted in swinging strikes and his strikeout to walk ratio is in a three-year decline as he has become increasingly hittable. Gibson, meanwhile, had a successful pro debut as he struck out 126 in 152 innings while walking just 39 batters and surrendering just seven home runs. He pitched in High-A, Double-A, and briefly in Triple-A last season and Rochester is where he should return to start the season. The Twins gave Blackburn a new four-year, $14M deal in May of 2010 which makes it unlikely that they will move him into middle relief when he's being paid another $13.25M through 2013. In order for Gibson to see a lot of time in 2011, Blackburn has to be even less effective than he was last year and the Twins have to bite the bullet on his contract and realize it may have been a mistake.
Seattle: Dustin Ackley blocked by Adam Kennedy
The moves to acquire Kennedy and Ryan were transparent stopgaps to buy Ackley more time but Kennedy's recent arrest on DUI suspicion did him no favors with the Mariners so everything is up in the air now. Since Ackley is converting to second base from playing the outfield, extra time in the minor leagues to work on the position would be ideal and the oft-traded Kennedy is the perfect type of player to plug the gap as he can be moved to a reserve role or quickly flipped in a deal as he was by Tampa Bay to Oakland in 2009. In an ideal world, Ackley is up by the trade deadline and has the second base job by the end of the season, but an amazing start to the season or an awful showing by Kennedy or Brendan Ryan could accelerate that timetable. Simply put, this roadblock should not be that hard to push down.
Tampa Bay: Robinson Chirinos blocked by Kelly Shoppach; Desmond Jennings blocked by Johnny Damon
One of my previous columns broke down why Jennings was being blocked so there is no need to re-hash that argument here other than to say Jennings won't see a lot of 2011 playing time unless there is an injury to someone in the outfield or the first half of the season for the Rays goes badly. Shoppach, on the other hand, is in the cross hairs as the most expensive backup catcher in all of baseball and one coming off an extremely disappointing season of strikeouts and suspect defense. The Rays proved last season that they have no problem cutting dead weight when they jettisoned Pat Burrell and his $9M contract when he showed no life during the first seven weeks of the season as a DH and history could indeed repeat itself in 2011. The club values Shoppach's experience in working with both the pitching staff and young John Jaso, but Chirinos was one of the keys to the Matt Garza deal. Chirinos also hits right-handed and has shown upside both at the dish and behind it since being converted to catcher by the Cubs. The Rays' assistant director of minor league scouting was recently quoted in an interview as saying:
It's no secret how much we value versatility. But while Chirinos can play the infield, we're most impressed by his catching ability and the way he carries himself playing one of the more difficult positions in the field. To have taken to that role so quickly, and to care the way he does about handling a staff and running a game, says a lot about how he is made up. He also shows potential as a hitter, and we feel he has a chance to help us a lot in the future.
Clearly, the organization is excited about his potential and if Shoppach plays the first third of 2011 as he played most of 2010, Chirinos' path to the majors could open up quicker than expected.