Top 5: Good Minor Leaguers You’ve Never Heard Of

Last Monday, I learned that the Red Sox traded a bucket of balls to San Diego for a minor league outfielder named Henri Stanley. To everyone else, this was a minor move, picking up a non-prospect (Stanley’s 26) with some upside. To me, though, it was the most exciting move in baseball this year.

See, Henri Stanley was a guy I targeted a couple years ago, when I worked for Bill James, as a player the Red Sox should try to acquire. He had (and has) the sorts of skills that are undervalued, and for whatever reason he had slipped through the cracks as a prospect.

Today, I’m going to look at Stanley and four guys like him — obscure minor leaguers who deserve a shot in the Show. None of these guys will be major league superstars, but all are good enough to platoon in the bigs, and if you ask me, all could be decent regulars if given the opportunity.

1) Henri Stanley, Red Sox

Stanley went to Clemson, where he put up a .293/.419/.452 line in his four years there — mediocre numbers for an NCAA player. His last year with Clemson was 2001, when he batted .322/.401/.427.

There’s something odd about Stanley’s career that I can’t quite figure out. I’m staring at his 2001 Clemson stats right now … yet, he signed with the Astros as a non-drafted free agent on June 15, 2000, and played 46 games in the Appalachian League that summer.

Then, he played 114 games with Michigan in the Midwest League in 2001, putting together a fantastic season — .300/.408/.525 with 12 triples, 14 homers and 30 steals. He’s supposed to have also appeared in 55 games for Clemson, which just isn’t possible. I’m guessing somebody at Clemson wrote the wrong name when they were figuring the team’s ’01 stats, or something.

In any event, Stanley the Pro has been far better than Stanley the Amateur. He’s hit everywhere he’s gone in the minor leagues, with a career .296/.389/.494 line in 422 games entering 2004.

In 2003, the STATS Scouting Notebook was pretty high on Stanley:

[A]n intelligent player who runs well and hits with gap power, as his doubles and triples totals would indicate. He complements his high average with plenty of walks, so he’s constantly on base. Really, the only thing Stanley doesn’t do well is throw, which probably limits him to left field. Considering his undrafted status, it’s not surprising that he plays with a certain level of desire …”

That sounds something like Johnny Damon, actually — Damon is a center fielder who runs well but has a weak arm. Damon also has mid-range power and solid on-base skills. Of course, now Stanley gives the Red Sox some Damon insurance at Pawtucket, which is fitting.

Here are Stanley’s Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for the past two seasons:

YEAR     AB     R     H    2B   3B    HR    RBI    BB    SO    AVG    OBP    SLG
2002    437    70   124    32    7    13     56    56    89   .284   .365   .473
2003    496    77   138    27    6    10     44    54    98   .278   .350   .417

As a comparison, over the past two years, Johnny Damon has batted .286/.356/.443 and .273/.345/.405.

Houston apparently didn’t realize what they had in Stanley, and lost him to the Padres on waivers last fall. After a mediocre start this season (.248/.330/.386 in 28 games), the Pads shipped Stanley to the Boston organization, where he’s off to a 5-for-25 start. That start hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm, though, and I’m rooting for Henri Stanley even more now that he’s a Red Sock.

2) Ramon Castro, A’s

Even more so than with Henri Stanley, I begged Bill to convince the Red Sox to grab Ramon Castro. This Castro isn’t the Florida catcher; he’s a 24-year-old middle infielder who was in the Atlanta system until this season.

Castro first signed with the Braves out of Venezuela in 1996, and came around as a hitter with AA Greenville in 2001. He hits for a good average (to go with good plate discipline), plays solid defense, and rarely grounds into double plays (just 33 GDP in 691 career games).

Henri Stanley’s weakness is that he’s not a “toolsy” player; Ramon Castro’s weakness appears to be Triple-A pitching.

Castro has more than proven himself as a Double-A hitter, but he’s struggled in limited time at AAA. Look at his stats, broken down by level (2001-2003):

LVL     PA    AVG    OBP    SLG
AA     803   .307   .402   .468
AAA    384   .209   .288   .338

I just can’t believe that a guy who can tear up Double-A pitching is truly overmatched against Triple-A pitchers. At AAA Sacramento so far this year, Castro is batting .254/.352/.339.

Even including his ugly AAA stats, Castro’s MLEs suggest a .270-.280 hitter, with lots of walks and a slugging percentage over .400.

Heading into this past off-season, the Red Sox needed a second baseman. Lo and behold, Ramon Castro was available — since he signed when he was only 16, he was a minor-league free agent at just 24. Yet, a month later, he was still a minor-league free agent, at which point the A’s snapped him up.

3) Jon Knott, Padres

John Sickels seems to like Jon Knott too: “His age and lack of strong defense limit his grade to C+, but his bat is for real,” Sickels says in the 2004 Baseball Prospect Book. I swear, though, it wasn’t through Sickels that I stumbled upon Jon Knott.

Actually, it was last summer. My buddy Dave Holtzman, a die-hard Padres fan, was working part-time that summer for Bill. Dave and I were sitting around the office one afternoon, discussing minor leaguers who are better than their raw stats, and one of us (probably Dave) brought up Padres outfielder Jon Knott.

Knott was about to turn 25, so he was old for a prospect. Worse, he was in the midst of a season in which he batted .252 for AA Mobile. Of course, that batting average was horribly misleading. First of all, Knott was overflowing with secondary skills (32 doubles, 27 HR, 82 walks, 17 HBP), which translated to a .387 OBP and a .514 slugging percentage.

Still, on the surface he looked like little more than a Quadruple-A slugger. Until we took into account context.

Teams in the Midwest League averaged just 4.18 runs per game. Their Eastern League counterparts averaged 4.58, while clubs in the Texas League scored runs at a 4.72 clip.

So take Jon Knott’s AA stats, throw in his seven-game stint at AAA in September (where he batted .346), adjust for context, and what do we get? Here are Knott’s 2003 numbers, translated into a Major League Equivalency:

 AB     R     H    2B   3B    HR    RBI    BB    SO    AVG    OBP    SLG
451    81   111    32    0    26     80    79   126   .246   .375   .490

How is Jon Knott doing this year? Glad you asked. At AAA Portland, he’s dismantled the league, batting .313/.373/.639 with 13 homers and 47 RBIs in 42 games.

4) Josh Willingham, Marlins

Willingham is the first guy on this list to have been drafted — he was Florida’s 17th-round pick in the 2000 draft, out of North Alabama. He played 65 games in the New York-Penn League in 2000, seeing time at every infield position and in the outfield. He was mostly a third baseman in 2001, but last year the Marlins converted him to catcher.

Check out Willingham’s progression as a hitter since his first full pro season, 2001:

YEAR    OBP    SLG
2001   .382   .400
2002   .394   .487
2003   .431   .569
2004   .433   .573

That’s a nice pattern. Willingham missed a big chuck of time with a knee injury last year, but he’s recovered well enough to play 36 of his 40 games behind the plate this year, while tearing the cover off the ball as a hitter. According to John Sickels, Willingham has the arm strength and mobility necessary to be a solid defensive catcher, and of course his bat is a huge plus.

5) Bucky Jacobsen, Mariners

Edgar Martinez may have finally reached the end of the line. He’s probably earned the opportunity to prove otherwise, but the Mariners have the perfect DH replacement waiting at AAA: Bucky Jacobsen. Jacobsen isn’t a prospect (he’s 28 years old), but then, neither was Edgar when he finally became a regular.

Once upon a time, Bucky Jacobsen’s future looked bright. He was drafted by the Brewers in the 7th round in 1997, and batted .328 in rookie ball that summer. Then at Single-A in 1998, the 22-year-old Jacobsen batted .293/.399/.521 with 100 RBIs. His big chance was 1999 — a good season at AA Huntsville would surely lead to a big-league opportunity. So what did Bucky do? He fell apart, batting .193 (and slugging just .307) in 150 Double-A at-bats before being demoted.

After a strong 2000 season back with Huntsville, Jacobsen was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. Now 25, Bucky’s time was running out. And again, in a crucial season, he collapsed, hitting .247/.312/.433 and earning another demotion.

The Brewers released Jacobsen halfway through the 2002 season, but he was picked up by St. Louis and hit well down the stretch for AA New Haven. Bucky was at AA again last year, with Tennessee of the Southern League, where he led the league in home runs and slugging.

It was a hell of a year. Let’s pull an old-school Rob Neyer here, and look at two players, “Player A” and Player B”:

             AB    R     H    2B   3B    HR    RBI    BB    SO    AVG    OBP    SLG
Player A    447   88   133    25    1    32     88    59    96   .298   .379   .574
Player B    448   79   129    39    2    31    101    58    83   .288   .369   .592

Who are they? Well, Player A is Jacobsen, with his 2003 stats in MLE form. Player B is David Ortiz, who put up that line on his way to a fifth-place finish in last year’s AL MVP voting. They’re basically the same age, too — Jacobsen was born on August 30, 1975, and Ortiz was born on November 18 of the same year. Jacobsen is listed at 6’4″, 220 pounds; Ortiz is listed at 6’4″, 230.

The biggest differences between the two are a) Jacobsen is a right-handed batter and Ortiz is a lefty, and b) Jacobsen was in the Southern League, Ortiz in the American League. Remember, though, those stats for Bucky are in MLE form; that is, they’re approximately what he would’ve done in the major leagues. Which is pretty much the same as David Ortiz. (I’m not saying that Bucky Jacobsen is as good as David Ortiz. What I’m saying is that they were very similar last year. If Ortiz had been in Double-A, I expect he’d have done roughly what Jacobsen did.)

Jacobsen is a right-handed batter, but he tears up righties as well as he does lefties. Jacobsen’s big weakness, aside from blowing his big opportunities earlier in his career and now being over-the-hill for a prospect, is that he’s no great shakes defensively. He’s played first base in the past, but this year has exclusively been a DH.

Not that he hasn’t done the “Hitter” part of “DH” justice. At AAA Tacoma this season, Jacobsen is batting .301/.389/.603 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs in 35 games.

Come to think of it, there’s a chance you have heard of Bucky Jacobsen. He’s inspired a fan club, the Bucky Backers (established way back in 1998, if you can believe that), and had something of a cult following in spring training. Here’s a description of Jacobsen, from an MLB.com article this spring:

[Jacobsen] is 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds, sports a Jay Buhner haircut, has a red mustache and goatee and is a virtual cult hero in Peoria, Ariz., where fans sitting near the visiting dugout chant his first name every chance they get.

“He’s big, but more agile that you might think,” infield coach Dave Myers said. “He has some things he has to work on at first, but he makes a nice target and he’s made all the plays so far.”

I don’t know if he can play first base, but even with a questionable glove, he’d make for a better option than Scott Spiezio (the “first baseman of the future”) come 2005. If I were Seattle, I’d call him up right now.

*****

Why have these guys flown under the radar? There are explanations for each. Stanley’s got the weak arm, which means he’s not a great defensive center fielder, but his bat is nothing special at the corners. Castro has struggled at Triple-A. Knott is a little old, and until this year he hasn’t really hit for average. Willingham had the knee problems last year, and he’s in the process of becoming a catcher, which I think has hurt him in terms of getting noticed. Bucky Jacobsen is older than all the rest, he’s basically a DH, and he didn’t capitalize on opportunities early in his career.

The trouble is that, when people have looked at these players, they’ve focused on what they can’t do, as opposed to what they can. Henri Stanley may not have a great arm, but he’s decent in center and has a very good bat. Ramon Castro’s struggles at AAA have been in small sample sizes, and he’s been excellent at Double-A. Knott has power and patience, and Willingham is a fantastic hitter who also happens to be a backstop, which is a great bonus. Jacobsen, meanwhile, is one of the best sluggers in the minor leagues, and would make a great DH for any number of AL teams.

I’m confident that all five of these guys can be good major league ballplayers. All they need is an opportunity.

References & Resources
Bucky Jacobsen’s Bucky Backers have a website, buckybackers.com, which has archived pretty much every article on Jacobsen on the internet.

The best sources for minor league stats are The Baseball Cube (for historical stats) and Baseball America’s Player Finder (for in-season stats).

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