A recent statement by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got Kevin Goldstein wondering about the "AAAA hitter":
Just days before acquiring first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres, Cubs president Theo Epstein appeared on Chicago radio and reiterated his support for Bryan LaHair.
"Bryan LaHair is our first baseman," said Epstein. "I don't believe in the concept of 4-A players. The guy can hit."
It's clear that "the guy can hit" Triple-A pitching; he mashed it last year at a .331/.405/.664 pace, with 38 home runs, and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. Coincidentally, I wrote a feature on LaHair and the topic of the Quad-A hitter last September, mentioning names of a number of players who had made it after toiling in the minors until their late 20s:
There are guys like Nelson Cruz and Ryan Ludwick and Jack Cust and Travis Hafner, and before them John Jaha, Lee Stevens, Henry Rodriguez, Ron Coomer, Jeff Conine and Matt Stairs, guys who didn't get every-day playing time in the major leagues until they were about the age LaHair is now, and who still had some good major league seasons.
But the other side of the coin is players who hit just as well in the minor leagues but never made it:
The point is that for every Nelson Cruz, there's an Ivan Cruz. I-Cruz spent ten years crushing Triple-A pitching, hitting 181 homers there, without ever getting even a cup of major league coffee. For every Jeff Conine, there's an Ernie Young, who spent 13 years in Triple-A, twice hitting more than 30 homers and consistently posting OPS's over 900. Young hit .225 in 798 major league plate appearances. For every Travis Hafner, there's a Jason Dubois, once the Cubs' top power prospect, who hit 137 home runs in seven Triple-A seasons, but who hit .235 with seven home runs when essentially handed the Cubs' starting left-field job in 2005.
I noted 10 other players who were just like I-Cruz, Ernie Young and Jason Dubois.
Goldstein says there are three factors common to these types of players: they have to be able to hit, but they are unable to make adjustments at the major league level, or they just don't quite have the talent (he mentions Dallas McPherson as a good recent example of the latter). On adjustments:
For a veteran National League scout, the inability to make adjustments can lead to additional issues when it comes to makeup. "At first, it's not about the lights, or the two decks in the stadium, or the crowd," the scout insisted. "It's about the breaking balls and the depth of arsenals and the command. It's an inability to adjust that comes first, but that can lead to the mental stuff where players get overwhelmed, and the 4-A label just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Still, for the most part, the industry believes that there are some players who will never make the adjustments, and there are some scouting clues as to who those players will be.
And yet, he mentions Mike Morse as someone who figured it out. Who are some others who tore up Triple-A pitching at an advanced age in 2011, who might be sleepers in the future? In addition to LaHair, here are 10 players, all older than 25 and having spent at least three full seasons in Triple-A with minimal major league time. Maybe they'll be the next Morse. Or maybe the next Ernie Young. But some team might give them a shot.
10) Dusty Brown, age 29: Brown spent 10 years in the Red Sox organization and got just 16 MLB plate appearances, despite hitting reasonably well for a catcher (.290/.377/.471 with 12 HR in just 84 games in 2008). He got a few more PA (30) in the big leagues after the Pirates acquired him last year, but hit worse (.107). He'll get another shot at a major league backup job with the Rangers in spring camp this year.
9) Josh Fields, age 29: once a top 3B prospect of the White Sox, Fields might have a bit too much MLB success to qualify here, as he hit 23 HR for the Sox in 2007. He hit poorly after that and bounced from the Royals to the Rockies, where he hit .303/.361/.537 for their Triple-A squad at Colorado Springs in 2011. Perhaps playing in the thin air of Denver would help him; he can play first base, third base and the outfield. He'll be in spring camp with the Dodgers this year.
8) Wily Mo Pena, age 29: I know he'll be playing in Japan in 2012 with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Still... he can mash when he gets a chance. You'd think some MLB team would have an opening for a guy like this as their fulltime DH.
7) Jorge Vazquez, age 29: after eight years punishing Mexican League pitching, this first baseman was signed by the Yankees and led the International League with 32 home runs for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011. That's a pitchers' league, incidentally; no one else in the league hit more than 26 homers. Vazquez isn't likely to crack the Yankees' lineup, but you'd think someone else would give a shot to a guy who can hit with this kind of power (although, with a ton of K's -- 166 in 2011).
6) Val Pascucci, age 33: this is getting kind of old to "make it" after years in the minors, but Pascucci has 234 minor league home runs, 159 of them in seven Triple-A seasons, where he has hit .275/.393/.509. He has received 85 major league at-bats as a reward. Currently with the Mets, he might have a shot at making that club in 2012.
5) Justin Christian, age 31: at this age, many players are starting to decline. But Christian might have just figured things out. He hit .338/.428/.574 with 10 HR and 36 stolen bases in just 64 games for Triple-A Fresno in the Giants organization in 2011. In a brief callup by the Giants, he hit .255/.286/.362 in 51 PA. Hard to believe someone wouldn't give a guy with multiple skills (speed, walks, a bit of power) a chance.
4) Mike Wilson, age 28: hit .331/.418/.555 for Triple-A Tacoma in 2011, with 16 HR in 87 games. In his September callup by the Mariners -- for whom he has toiled in the minors for 10 seasons -- he went 4-for-27. But why not give a guy like this a shot?
3) Jai Miller, age 26: he strikes out a ton (179 K's in 2011). But he also hit 32 home runs for Triple-A Sacramento last year in just 110 games. He's had three brief callups for three teams (Marlins, Royals, Athletics) and will go to camp with the Orioles in 2012, a team that might actually have a spot for a guy like this.
2) Jerad Head, age 29: Head wasn't much of a hitter even in the minors until 2011, when he hit .284/.338/.526 with 24 home runs in 114 games. He got a brief callup to the Indians last September, and will go to spring training with the Tigers this season.
1) Brandon Moss, age 27: once the No. 72 overall prospect in MLB (Baseball America, 2005), Moss was supposed to be the Next Big Thing for the Red Sox. He was shipped to the Pirates in the Jason Bay deal, then wound up with the Phillies organization. He never stopped hitting; in 2011 he hit .275/.368/.509 with 23 HR for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He's got more MLB time than most on this list (749 PA with a .682 OPS); could be a candidate for a breakout season. He'll be in spring training with the A's.