One of my favorite baseball writing projects is my Ken Phelps All-Star team. Inspired by Bill James’ project in his 1986 Baseball Prospectus, the goal of the project is to find non-prospects who are better than Quad-A players – in other words, the quintessential “hidden gems.” You can see the 2018, 2019, and 2020 teams here. The COVID-shortened 2020 season washed out the 2021 edition, but one of the best parts of writing for Pitcher List is a chance to bring back the tradition for 2022.
As a refresher, remember we are not looking for prospects here. We’ll use the same qualifications we always have:
Remember, these players are not supposed to be prospects, so this isn’t like Carson [Cistulli]’s Fringe Five series. The Quad-A label earned by these players may very well be accurate, and we’re not expecting this fictional team to go and win 100 games. Instead, we’re looking for free talent – guys who, for whatever reason, have mastered the highest levels of the minors but are organizational depth at best, or forgotten entirely at worst, and yet have skills that might (might!) make them useful on a big-league team.
And because scouting and analytics are better than ever before, the idea behind this team has to change a bit. Major-league equivalencies have become mainstream, which means that we have to do more than simply project big-league performance. For that reason, we’re going to tweak James’ original criteria slightly. To qualify for our team, a player cannot have had more than 550 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues, which we’ll use as proxies for a season’s worth of MLB time. He also cannot have appeared on any of FanGraphs’ organizational top prospect lists or the Fringe Five in the past two years, and must be 25 or older. Oh, and just to make things fun, we won’t re-use anyone from [last year’s] team.
Let’s start with the position players.
Third Base: Aderlin Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers
Way back in 2o13, Rodriguez was a free-swinging fringe first base prospect in the Mets organization with plus raw power. A disastrous 2014 campaign at High-A St. Lucie – .242/.284/.366 (85 wRC+) with six homers in 360 plate appearances is no one’s idea of a competent first base bat – ended Rodriguez’s prospectdom, however, and he spent the rest of his time in the Mets’ system a below average bat at a premium offensive position at High-A and briefly AA.
Something strange happened when Rodriguez joined the Orioles’ organization as a 24-year-old in 2016, however. Though old for High-A Frederick, he absolutely destroyed Carolina League pitching to the tune of a .304/.359/.532 triple-slash (142 wRC+) with 26 homers and 23 doubles in just 542 plate appearances. Still, a 24-year-old repeating High-A should destroy the level. What makes Rodriguez interesting is that he never stopped hitting, even sliding up the defensive spectrum to spend significant time at third base. In 2017 at AA Bowie, Rodriguez hit .279/.341/.471 (120 wRC+) with a team-leading 22 homers. Sent back to Bowie in 2018, he hit a nearly identical .286/.335/.478 (123 wRC+) and again led the team in homers (23). Then in 2019, finally at AAA with San Diego, Rodriguez obliterated Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .321/.363/.634 line with 45 extra-base hits in under 300 plate appearances (really) and cut his strikeout rate to just 15.9%.
It would have been easy to chalk Rodriguez’s offensive mastery to the hitting haven that is the PCL, but in 2021 he once again reached a new offensive level. For AAA Toledo in the Tigers system, Rodriguz mashed to the tune of .290/.362/.565, setting career highs in walk rate (8.7%), wRC+ (144), and ISO (.274). In the East League, only Kansas City’s Ryan McBroom hit more homers than Rodriguez’s 29. Still, despite his offensive exploits, no MLB team has given Rodriguez even a cup of coffee in September.
Rodriguez is a right-handed hitter with a huge power who simply does not get cheated on swings and hits the ball a country mile.
He still has holes in his swing and doesn’t walk nearly enough, but an MLB team could do worse as a platoon corner infielder. If the NL does incorporate the designated hitter as expected, he makes a lot of sense for several teams. On ours, he slots in at third base, and Steamer’s .250/.298/.444 (99 wRC+) projection seems about right, and maybe a little light. Even if he is a league average bat, few would be so entertaining.
Selected by the Birds in the sixth round of the 2017 draft, McCoy has never been much of a prospect. He’s steadily marched up the minor league ladder from low-A at a level per year, hitting decently enough (career .267/.331/.376 minor league batting line) with BABIP-fueled offensive spikes in 2017 and 2019. The problem is that he just doesn’t have a standout offensive tool. He has only 18 career professional homers after just seven in his college career, so he doesn’t hit for much power. He has only 43 steals in 421 games, so he’s not a burner, either. He can spray the ball to the gaps a bit, but he probably should stop trying to do more than that; at AAA in 2021, he hit a career-high nine homers with a career-high .147 ISO, but an also career-high 29.2% K% that was almost twice his previous high. In other words, McCoy is a contact hitter who ZiPS projects would hit .223/.271/.334 (63 wRC+) as a full-time regular in 2022. That’s…not good.
What is good, however, is McCoy’s defense, which has been compared favorably to teammate and fellow glove-first infielder Richie Martin. The difference is that McCoy may well have a bit of offensive upside; prior to his 2021 debacle, McCoy never posted worse than a 99 wRC+ at any minor league stop and showed good walk and strikeout rates. He’s probably not more than a utility player at the MLB level, but then, we thought that about Miguel Rojas, too, and McCoy is a better hitter than Rojas ever was.
Former Yankees farmhand and River Avenue Blues favorite Gosuke Katoh was once a serious prospect, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft. Things never panned out with the Yankees, however; although he always posted high walk rates, he never really hit, and struck out nearly a quarter of the time in the Yankees system.
Something strange happened in 2019, however. Katoh always idolized Ichiro Suzuki, even writing this fantastic piece for the Players’ Tribune about the erstwhile Mariner. That year, Ichiro invited Katoh to work out with him – and then completely revamped the younger player’s swing.
The COVID pandemic meant that the first time Katoh actually used his new swing was in 2021, mashing to the tune of a .306/.388/.474 batting line, which even in hitter-friendly AAA El Paso was good for a 117 wRC+. He kept his stellar walk rate (11.4%) whilst cutting his strikeout rate over five percentage points (20.9%, down from 26.7% in 2019) and posting full-season career highs in isolated power and line-drive percentage and cutting his groundball rate from 53.7% at AA in 2019 all the way down to 39.1% in 2021. In short, the swing changes look legitimate, as you can see from this opposite field shot from the diminutive infielder.
Unfortunately for Katoh, the infield spots in San Diego are filled with some guys named Machado, Tatis Jr., and Cronenworth, so there’s no room for him. [Update – as friend of the site Duncan Grainger pointed out, Katoh signed a minor league deal with Toronto on January 4, so there’s a path to at-bats if Cavan Biggio struggles.] Still, I’ll take the (way) over on his 82 wRC+ Steamer projection for 2022; best case is something like Frank Catalanotto.
MacKinnon was the 955th overall pick, a 32nd-rounder in the 2017 draft, so he’s just the sort of unheralded player we’re looking for. What makes MacKinnon interesting is that an injury wiped out almost all of his 2019, and there was no minor league season at all in 2020, so when he showed up to AA as a 27-year-old and hit .285/.380/.474 (139 wRC+) with really good walk (12.2%) and strikeout (19.5%) rates, it seemed like he had come out of the blue. MacKinnon had shown the ability to hit before – his 129 wRC+ at High-A in 2018 was his worst offensive showing to that point – but the power he showed in 2021 was new. Still, there are no real red flags in his profile; he hits the ball hard in the air a lot (just a 35.2% GB%), so his 10.7% HR/FB isn’t unreasonable. Steamer (101 wRC+) and ZiPS (98 wRC+) both think he’s a league average bat right now, and that’s just on the strength of his plate discipline; neither projects him to come close to matching his .189 isolated power mark in 2022. If he did, he’d easily hit enough to claim the Angels’ starting first base job and bump Jared Walsh to the outfield.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, one of my favorite tools is plate discipline and the ability to draw walks. Few players in affiliated baseball do that better than Jamie Ritchie, whose lowest walk rate at any level was 9.2% at a brief stop at AA in 2018. Ritchie had 95 walks in 498 plate appearances in 2015. He had just 58 walks in 414 plate appearances the next year, but added seven HBP for good measure. In 2019, he was sixth in walks at AAA Round Rock…in just 301 plate appearances. In 2017, he walked more than future big leaguer Ramon Laureano at AA…in half as many plate appearances. Over his minor league career, Ritchie has a 342:399 BB:K ratio. He walks, a lot, is the point.
Now, what also makes Ritchie interesting is that he can play a lot of different positions, but has caught at least thirty games every year since he turned pro. In 2021, he spent time at the infield corners, and sixteen games in left field, and 33 games behind the plate. ZiPS projects a .250/.338/.346 (91 wRC+) batting line in about 400 plate appearances for Ritchie at the MLB level in 2022. For comparison’s sake, Pedro Severino “hit” .248/.303/.383 as a starting catcher in 2021. Jorge Alfaro “hit” .244/.283/.342. In short, a 91 wRC+ from a catcher-eligible player is pretty much what Elias Diaz did in Colorado in 2021 (92 wRC+), and Diaz was 19th in wRC+ among all starting catchers.
Ritchie landing with the Pirates on a minor league deal this offseason means he’ll have a shot at the MLB level with Jacob Stallings in Miami, and he might just walk his way to the middle of the pack in catcher offense given enough playing time. We’re happy to have him getting on base from behind the plate for our squad.
Artwork by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)