So Close, So Far

Image credit: Charlie Tilson (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

DURHAM, N.C.—Minor league Opening Day is about endless possibilities. Everyone starts fresh on a still crisp evening as the burgeoning spring reminds all of us of the renewal that happens every year.

Scratch that.

Sitting behind home plate at one of the better Triple-A ballparks in the country, Opening Day is a reminder about the ticking clock of potential. Endless potential is the stuff of George Will columns and low Class A. Triple-A is reality and a race against time.

Here, the difference between being a long-time big leaguer and a long-time minor leaguer is sometimes decided by the slimmest of margins—and players can spend the next five seasons being reminded of that difference. One player who makes one adjustment ends up earning $10 million or more over their career, while another who can’t ends up as the dreaded AAAA player who makes less than one-tenth as much.

The Rays field one of the best infields in Triple-A. With first baseman Jake Bauers, shortstop Willy Adames and third baseman Christian Arroyo, the Rays’ Triple-A infield in Durham is prospect laden. Bauers and Adames are currently Top 100 Prospects while Arroyo has been a Top 100 Prospect in the recent past.

For all three, this trip to Durham is hopefully a last taste of the minor league life before a long career of five-star hotels, big league clubhouses and chartered flights.

But there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of those three will end up being like many of the other players on the field in Durham on Opening Day. Both lineups were filled with plenty of prominent players, but most were one-time prospects who offered the reminder of just how hard it is to become a big league regular.

Pick almost any player in Triple-A who’s not on their way up, and you have a story of what could have been or (hopefully) what’s yet to be.

They are some of the best baseball players in the world. A starter on a Triple-A team can confidently say that they are among the best 1,500 players in the world. But they are at the point where the difference between being the 1,500th best player in baseball and the 700th can be massive in terms of fame and financial rewards.

Mike Trout’s the best player in baseball. He’ll retire with the ability to purchase baseball teams or small islands if he so chooses. Someone like Daniel Nava can proudly claim to be around the 500th best player in baseball. Nava will retire a multi-millionaire. Daniel Palka or Patrick Leonard would rank somewhere around the 1,250-1,500th best player in baseball. At that level, they are looking for a good landing spot as a minor league free agent, which brings with it a solid middle-class wage and very little job security.

Most of the players in the Knights’ Opening Day lineup have been written up in at least one or more Baseball America Prospect Handbooks. Every one of them has one or more clear, obvious skills and tools that have gotten them to Triple-A. But for most of them, it was what they couldn’t do, or what they haven’t done so far, that has kept them on the wrong side of the biggest promotion in baseball.

Leadoff hitter and center fielder Charlie Tilson is one of the better defensive center fielders in the minors. He made six straight Top 30s for the Cardinals and White Sox as he can run, he can flag down balls in the gaps and he’s made it to the majors for one hit in two at-bats in 2016. But unless he shows improved power, he’s likely to remain in Triple-A.

Palka, the Knights’ cleanup hitter, is the inverse of Tilson. He has plenty of power—he hit 29 home runs in 2015 and 34 in 2016. After that season he ranked as the Twins’ No. 9 prospect. But that was the last time he made a Top 30. He had an injury plagued 2017, was waived by the Twins and claimed by the White Sox. Now the 26-year-old is trying to prove that he can hit Triple-A pitching consistently enough to get to his power.

Matt Skole was the Nationals No. 4 prospect twice in back-to-back seasons in 2012 and 2013, but he missed time with a wrist injury and Tommy John surgery and eventually slid from third base to first base. The offensive expectations for a first baseman are higher than for someone at the hot corner, and Skole has proven to be a useful Triple-A player. He came to the White Sox last offseason as a minor league free agent.

Triple-A is filled with players who are one adjustment or one missing skill away from the big leagues. But for most of those players, that one adjustment is something they simply can’t do. When a Class A pitcher can’t pitch to both sides of the plate, it’s easy to project an adjustment. One step from the big leagues, projection is often replaced by reality. When scouts watch a 20-year-old, they think of what could be. When they watch a 28-year-old, they are asking what can he do right now.

That was readily apparent In the ninth inning of the opener, when both teams sent flamethrowers to the mound.

Righthander Ryne Stanek made his first big league appearance with the Rays last year. The 26-year-old is just young enough that last year’s big league struggles can be seen as a useful reminder of the further refinement needed in order to make it back for good.

And as we saw on Thursday night, Stanek has an excellent arm. He sat at 95-97 mph. At times, he mixed in a solid mid-80s changeup. But the Bulls reliever also showed just how far he still has to go. Stanek’s fastball has plenty of run (meaning the ball tails away from lefthanded hitters), but with fringe-average control, he struggles to throw anything inside to lefties.

It’s an understandable hesitation for Stanek. He sets up far on the first base side of the rubber. If he tries to start his fastball at a lefthanded hitter’s hip and rely on his natural run to catch the black of the inner edge of the plate, a fastball that doesn’t run is a hit-by-pitch and a baserunner. If he starts the pitch just off the inner part of the plate and it runs like his fastball often does, he’ll catch the middle of the plate.

But without that ability to use both sides of the plate, hitters got more comfortable than they should be against a long-maned, scowling righthander with a high-90s fastball. He gave up one hit, walked two and gave up a run in his one inning of work. Big league success is still a few adjustments away.

Following Stanek to the mound was Bruce Rondon. Like Stanek, Rondon has been able to hit triple digits on the radar gun at his best. He had the best fastball in the Tigers organization for three consecutive seasons from 2011-2013 and made the Top 100 Prospects list—at No. 95—heading into 2014.

Rondon has made it to the big leagues for 123 appearances, sandwiched around a Tommy John surgery. But he’s never established himself there, as his 5.00 career MLB ERA attests. Rondon’s fastball still got up to 97-98 mph on Thursday, but his combination of at times iffy control and a still below-average slider were a reminder that he still has work to do.

Rondon every now and then will break off a slider that’s at least average, but even at 27, it’s hit-or-miss, which is why the White Sox were able to add him as a minor league free agent this offseason.

Both Rondon and Stanek are among the 200 hardest-throwing pitchers in all of baseball. If either of them figures out one or two adjustments, they may one day end up pitching useful innings in big league bullpens for years to come.

But for now, they sit on the wrong side of the greatest divide in baseball. And on Opening Day, watching them is a wonderful reminder of just how hard this game can be, especially when you’re watching one step from the big leagues.

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