Minor league leaders find success in majors elusive
by Jim Callis
CHICAGOčNo sport is more romantic than baseball, and no baseball tales this summer were more romantic than Rick Short's.
After turning pro as a 33rd-round pick in 1994, Short had never reached the majors. He never gave up either. While chasing a .400 average in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this season, he finally got the call he had been waiting for June 11 from the Nationals, his fifth organization.
Short, 32, singled in his first at-bat against Joel Pineiro, but his stay in Washington lasted just two days before he was sent down. The Nationals would recall him twice more, and he went 6-for-15 with two homers before tearing the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder at the end of September.
That was a bitter end to a sweet season, one that included leading the minors in hitting with a .383 average. At least his big league success and his minor league batting crown give him something to build on.
However, that may not be much of a foundation. Precious few minor league leaders from 1995-2004 have developed into productive big leaguers.
Guerrero Towers Over Hitting Stars
Short already knew that firsthand, having also led the minors with a .352 average in 2002. That earned him a season in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines, but when Bobby Valentine came aboard after the 2003 season he dumped Short, who returned to the grind of the U.S. minors.
After the incomparable Vladimir Guerrero, the list of minor league batting titlists peters out quickly. The next-best players are Erubiel Durazo and Jeremy Giambi, while rookie Jeremy Reed has some upside. Kevin Coughlin faded quickly after hitting .372 in 1995 and never got past Triple-A.
Each of the home run leaders has reached the big leagues, but they're a mostly unimpressive bunch that runs the gamut from Russ Branyan (93 longballs in the majors) to Graham Koonce (zero). The lone future star is Ryan Howard, who hit 22 homers in 312 at-bats as a rookie this year.
The RBI champions have fared little better. Jason Lane responded when the Astros finally made him a regular this year, and Brad Eldred and Josh Barfield could become everyday players as well. But for every one one of them, there's a Chris Kirgan or a Mike Stoner or a Juan Silvestre who never made it all the way up.
Minor league stolen-base leaders are often specialists who can do little else but run, with Rafael Furcal the notable exception in recent years. Dave Roberts pulled off the most important steal in Red Sox history last October, but otherwise the stolen base crown has been worn by the likes of Alex Sanchez and Esix Snead. Anthony Felston and Chris Morris couldn't run their way to the majors, and it remains to be seen if Ruddy Yan or Josh Anderson will be able to.
Even topping the minor leagues in the most important stat doesn't guarantee stardom. Travis Hafner and Nick Johnson have set the standard in on-base percentage, but so have Jeff Ladd, Mike Berry and Jason Maule.
The 2005 leaders in these categories feature one blue-chip prospect, 43-homer Angels shortstop Brandon Wood. In addition to Short, they were: White Sox first baseman Leo Daigle, who collected most of his 120 RBIs as a 25-year-old in high Class A; Dodgers outfielder Todd Donovan, who stole most of his 65 bases as a 26-year-old in Double-A; and Pirates first baseman/outfielder Pat Magness, who had a .481 OBP at age 27 in high Class A.
Wins, Saves Mean Almost Nothing
Their pitching counterparts are a more motley group. Twenty pitchers shared part of the yearly victory lead from 1995-2004, and they've combined for a grand total of 58 big league wins, with Brian Rose (15), Gustavo Chacin (14) and Brad Halsey (nine) pulling most of the weight.
The wins leaders look like Cy Young Award winners compared to the best closers, however. Just three of the 11 have saved a game in the big leagues, and that includes Matt Whitesidečwho collected all nine of his saves at least nine years before sharing the 2004 minor league saves title. Joe Valentine (four saves) and Armando Almanza (two) are the only others to close a game in the majors, while six of the 11 haven't gotten there.
Pitchers capturing the ERA crown have been more reliable. Josh Beckett and Javier Vazquez led the minors in ERA, as did rookie sensation Zach Duke and Glendon Rusch. They more than balance out Robbie Crabtree and Mike Meyers, who topped out in Triple-A, and Calvin Chipperfield, who pitched just one game above Class A.
Like the home run champs, every pitcher who won the strikeout title got to the majors. None of them has developed into a big winner, in part because Paul Wilson got hurt, Ramon Ortiz proved to be three years older than he originally claimed and Rick Ankiel came down with Steve Blass Disease. But Dave Williams and Brandon Claussen had solid 2005 seasons, and rookie Brandon McCarthy showed a lot of promise.
This year's pitching leaders are a more impressive crop than the top hitters. Minnesota's Francisco Liriano (204 strikeouts) and Detroit's Justin Verlander (1.29) can make a case for being the game's two best pitching prospects.
Toronto's Zach Jackson (16 wins) pitched in the Futures Game and reached Triple-A in his first full year as a pro. Arizona's A.J. Shappi, who also had 16 victories in his first full season, relies mainly on savvy and command. But St. Louis' Mark Worrell (35 saves) has better stuff than most of the previous 10 years' worth of saves leaders.
Most of the minor league statistical leaders took advantage of parks and leagues that played to their strengths, and often they were older than their competition. The exceptions to those rules often became the better big leaguers down the line.
Short most likely doesn't have a bright future ahead of him. But he'll always have 2005.
You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to [email protected]