The minor leagues are a vast landscape of prospects, fillers and veterans. Each year, players from all three of those category impact the major leagues — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But before they make their September callups or injury replacements, let us familiarize ourselves with some of the standouts.
International League (AAA)
The 31-year-old Eldred was slugging away in the Tigers minor league system (since released and playing in Japan). Like Dan Johnson (173 wRC+) with the White Sox, Eldred would have required multiple injuries before getting consideration at first base. The Tigers have both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, while the Sox have a trio in Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and now Kevin Youkilis. That cavalcade of injuries never came — nor an age of enlightenment in which Delmon Young is no longer a DH in Detroit — Eldred never got a steady shot with the Tigers.
Jack Cust (.405 OBP, .502 SLG, .406 wOBA, 157 wRC+)
Cust had an underwhelming 64 games with the Seattle Mariners in 2011, the net result of which was a return to the minor leagues, this time with the Yankees. Cust is now putting up his best numbers since 2007, when he was a Padres minor leauger, about to get traded to Oakland for a massive career resurgence. He was 28 then, and now that he’s 32, the retirement clock is ticking. The Yankees might like him off the bench in September, but if a fringe team finds themselves desiring a relatively low-risk gamble, Cust could probably be had on the cheap.
The 24-year-old Tillman got fairly blown up in his first three seasons in the majors, but now, after starting the year in Triple-A, Tillman leads the IL in FIP. He’s got his best numbers since 2007, when he was in High-A, and he’s looking like the player the Orioles had hoped he was. If the Orioles’ team ERA (3.81) matched their team FIP (4.06), then Tillman might have already made a showing this season.
Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Yusmeiro Petit (3.25 ERA, 2.69 FIP)
He has not been in the majors since 2009, but Yusmeiro Petit has seemingly changed his game way for the better. He dominated the Venezuelan League this winter, and now he is leading the PCL in FIP — the PCL, my friends! One has to think Petit is on the shortlist for an injury callup if and when the Giants need some starting pitching or swing man relief. If not, I feel Petit might reach the majors with another team. At age 27 — and in a hitter’s league — he has to be raising some brows.
Eaton (23) and Elmore (25) are basically the same person offensively. They live on contact hitting; they are young speedsters; and they are both playing for the Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate for the first times in their careers. Eaton, an outfielder, and Elmore, an infielder, both have the kinds of skills that make them safer bets in the PCL. Remember, the PCL made Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez and countless others look like home run champs in the making. Eaton and Elmore don’t hit for power, but earn their bacon on the base paths — and with great efficiency. Eaton is the prospect between the two of them, but Elmore’s strong performance could very likely net him a September callup.
Justin Christian (.432 OBP, .540 SLG, .427 wOBA, 155 wRC+)
He’s already in the majors, but we’ll talk about him anyway. The 32-year-old Christian, like the Eaton/Elmore duo, is a speed demon. Even at the age of 32, Christian still has wheels. He put up 36 steals in 2011, despite getting only 281 PA. The last time he got 500+ PA (2006 with the Yankees Double-A affiliate), he stole 68 bases while getting caught only 13 times. He’s likely slowed down since then, but nonetheless can add a special dimension to the Giants lineup and bench.
Mexican League (AAA)
The Mexican League is quite a different animal. I personally cannot recall the last time a player of great renown came from the Mexican League — it seems to function as a resting place for many Latin American stars on the decline, rather than a farm ready for harvest. It also is a league that skews towards offense, with smaller and funny-shaped parks, I’m told.
That being said, there are few players too intriguing to resist. These guys may not make it to the MLB, but they at least deserve a shot in the IL or PCL next season:
Leonardo Heras (.398 OBP, .557 SLG, .413 wOBA, 140 wRC+)
He has speed, power, and age on his side. Only 22 and ranking among the best hitters in the league, Heras is looking elite in a league that is 6 years older than him on average. If this is not the kind of player the ML exists to find, then who is?
Hector Rodriguez (2.59 ERA, 2.90 FIP)
At age 27, this lefty leads the (qualified) league with a 26.2% K-rate (over 2 points higher than the next closest pitcher) and ranks second with a 2.90 FIP (65 FIP-minus). His walk rate (9.3% BB-rate) is 11th-worst in the league, but his age, handedness, and overall degree of success as a starter means he could very possibly be an MLB swing man or LOOGY — at least — in the near future.
Andres Meza (4.07 ERA, 3.64 FIP)
He is 9th in the league with a 3.64 FIP, but what sets Meza apart is that he’s 2.6 years younger than the league at age 25. He has improved his K-rate in each of his three seasons in the league, and could potentially make for some excellent starting pitching depth or a bullpen swing man. And if the 3.64 FIP does not sound impressive, remember that this is a league with an average of 4.45 FIP — so he’s sporting an 82 FIP-minus (not adjusted to park).
Pablo Menchaca (4.50 ERA, 2.68 FIP)
Menchace (24 years old) spent his first few years in the Padres minor league system as a starter. Despite a 4-start-stint in the rotation this season, he has pitched primarily in relief — and looked sharp doing so. He has a 60 FIP-minus despite posting forgettable numbers the previous season. His 24.0% K-rate should draw a few eyes when Spring Training rolls around again next season.
And for giggles:
Jose Cabrera (1.14 ERA, 1.31 FIP)
The 40-year-old Jose Cabrera is in fact the Jose Cabrera who played briefly for the Astros and Brewers. He has a 29 FIP-minus, a 36.0% K-rate, and 2.6% BB-rate through 31.2 IP. No one can hold a candle to him in Mexico right now.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.