Like many, I was introduced to sabermetrics by the venerable Bill James. My first exposure to advanced metrics was in the 1986 edition of his Baseball Abstract I delightfully found at a yard sale as a young girl, and I spent years calculating the secondary averages of every hitter I could find. Secondary average later became the basis for the projection system I built as a teenager (wherein I did all of the math by hand). I kept refining and tinkering with it for years before abandoning it in law school. It had its successes — it spat out a Ryan Howard comp for a 20-year-old Chris Davis. It also had its weaknesses, too; it was convinced, for example, that Chris Duncan was going to be a star.
But my favorite part of James’s Abstracts was the “Ken Phelps All-Star Team.” Ken Phelps was a talented hitter who nevertheless toiled for years in the minors, not exhausting his rookie eligibility until age 28. As Jeff Bower characterized it for Baseball Prospectus, the Phelps All-Star team represented “an assemblage of players with skills that made them useful, but who were generally not given a fair opportunity to prove their worth in the majors or had been given unwarranted labels they couldn’t shake.” Basically, the idea behind the exercise was to identify minor leaguers who, like Phelps himself, were not considered prospects and had earned a Quad-A label, and yet might be competent (or more) big leaguers if given the opportunity.
In honor of the beginning of the major-league season, I present to you my 2018 Ken Phelps All-Star Team.
Now, let me start with a couple of disclaimers. First, these players are not supposed to be prospects. So this isn’t like Carson’s Fringe Five series. And many of the labels these guys have earned may very well be accurate. I’m not expecting my fictional team to go and win 100 games. Instead, I’m looking for guys who, for whatever reason, have mastered the highest levels of the minors but are organizational depth at best, or forgotten entirely at worst, yet have skills which might (might!) make them useful on a big-league team.
Now, scouting and analytics are better than ever before, so that means that the idea behind this team has to change a bit. Major-league equivalencies have become mainstream, and that means that we have to do more than simple projected big-league performance. However, the essence remains.
I’m also going to tweak James’s criteria slightly. To qualify for my team, a player cannot have had more than 550 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues. He also must not have appeared on any FanGraphs organizational top prospect lists or the Fringe Five in the past two years (2017-18), and must be no younger than 25.
And with that said, here we go.
Left field: Jabari Blash
You know the book on Blash, 28, by now. He strikes out a ton, walks a ton, and hits for a ton of power. He hit 20 homers in just 291 plate appearances at Triple-A last year (a .332 ISO), and already has a .515 ISO and 209 wRC+ at Triple-A this year. But Blash, now will never see a big-league starting job so long as he’s striking out at a 30% clip at Triple-A (31% this year). In 2017, his only extended run (195 PA), he struck out at a 33.8% rate and yet still managed an 88 wRC+ due to his high walk rate. Blash will be an adventure in left field, and he might hit .190 over a full season, but I bet he hits 30 homers in the middle of our lineup. We’ll take him.
Center field: Slade Heathcott
Some of these guys are going to be erstwhile top prospects who never made it and are now bouncing around the minor leagues. Heathcott is one of them. Once upon a time, Heathcott, now 27, was the Yankees’ center fielder of the future, a potential five-tool stud and middle-of-the-order monster. Now, ravaged by injuries, he’s organizational depth for the Athletics, a team not exactly burgeoning with outfield talent. To show how far Heathcott has fallen, consider: he spent more time at Double-A than Triple-A last year for San Francisco, a team that was running out an outfield of spit and bailing wire. And yet, he still hit last year, posting a 114 wRC+ at Double-A and a 125 wRC+ at Triple-A, with 14 combined homers, 11 combined steals, and a combined walk rate over 10%. I’m betting the talent is still in there for the former first-rounder.
Right field: Bryce Brentz
Brentz, 29, hit for power and drew a boatload of walks while coming up in the Red Sox farm system — just not necessarily at the same time. Like Heathcott, he made an organizational prospect list as late as 2016, but he never had the breakout his talent suggested was possible — until last year, repeating Triple-A for the fourth time. Thirty-one homers, a 138 wRC+, and .258 ISO with not-terrible plate discipline at Pawtucket landed him briefly in Pittsburgh on his way to an organizational depth job with the Mets, where he’s behind 4,672 outfielders at the big-league level. I’m betting the breakout last year was real, and giving him our right-field job.
Third base: Mitch Walding
Once upon a time, Mike Newman called Walding a “gem” and counted him among the best pure hitters he’d seen, considering him a better prospect than Brandon Drury. That was 2012, though, and since then Walding has struggled, falling off the prospect map. Perhaps he shouldn’t have. Still only 25, Walding hit well at High-A in 2016 (137 wRC+) and then followed that up with a 128 wRC+ and 25 home runs at Double-A in 2017. He still strikes out a bunch, routinely exceeding 25%, but his plate discipline has remained intact through his struggles, and he continues to post double-digit walk rates. Walding won’t find a home in Philadelphia as long as Scott Kingery and Maikel Franco are around, so we’ll gladly take him here.
Shortstop: Dean Anna
Anna, 31, was never a top prospect, but he did get trumpeted for a while a few years back as a deep sleeper by this very site. He never made good on that promise, but it was never really his fault: he’s had just 26 big-league plate appearances, and none since 2015, when he had one. So, whereas some of the players on this team are here because they didn’t make the most of their opportunities, it seems fair in Anna’s case to say he never really got one.
Anna’s strengths are simple: he draws a ton of walks. His lowest career minor-league walk rate over a full season came last year, at 9.8%. It’s the only full minor-league season in which he hasn’t cracked double-digits in walk percentage. He has gap power, but doesn’t really have over-the-fence pop, and doesn’t run much. He’s just… always on base. The worst on-base percentage he ever posted in a full season was .344, and that was 2016. Given a full season of at-bats, he might be a poor man’s Cesar Hernandez, and we’re willing to give him that chance to find out.
Second Base: Ivan DeJesus
Ivan DeJesus, 30, has received 545 plate appearances in the major leagues, so he just sneaks under our self-imposed arbitrary rules. DeJesus was a top prospect coming up through the Dodgers system between 2010 and 2012, but he never was able to break into a loaded Dodgers team. Then he was dealt to the Red Sox in the famous “salary dump” deal that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto to Los Angeles. Of course, in Boston, he promptly found himself stuck behind Dustin Pedroia. It was never really fair to DeJesus, who did nothing but hit in the minor leagues yet never got an extended shot at a starting role.
DeJesus acquitted himself decently in the majors as a utility player for the Reds in 2015-16, yet was sent back to the minors and never heard from again. And yet he kept on hitting. In 2014, he posted a 109 wRC+ for Baltimore at Triple-A. In 2015, he posted a 124 wRC+ for Cincinnati at the same elvel. In 2017, he posted a 136 wRC+ for Milwaukee, once again at Triple-A, yet stayed in the minors even as Jonathan Villar looked lost at the plate. DeJesus has no real power to speak of, yet he’s posted decent walk rates (including in the big leagues) and has struck out in the minors more than 20% of the time just once since 2012. In a full-time role as a second baseman, he could surprise with a .280/.340/.380 season.
First base: Jamie Romak
With the return of Eric Thames, Romak, 32, might be the closest thing we have today to a modern Ken Phelps. Romak broke out across levels in 2010, mashed at Double-A in 2011 (114 wRC+, 23 HR, .210 ISO, 10.9% BB) then fell apart in 124 Triple-A plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2012 and was forgotten. Yet. since then, he’s hit 84 minor-league dingers and has kept up his plate discipline, including a 10.8% walk rate in 2016. He started 2017 with a 198 wRC+ and 11 homers in 102 plate appearances before heading to the KBO — which he entirely destroyed. In just 416 plate appearances in 2017, Romak hit 31 homers (giving him 42 overall for the year). And so far this year, he’s hitting .339/.426/.678 (albeit in a small sample size). He may be nothing more than a lefty-mashing platoon bat at the big-league level, but he’s showed enough that a team should find out.
Catcher: Dustin Garneau
Garneau, 30, has hit in the minor leagues in Colorado, flashing an above-average bat with a bit of pop at every level. It’s not necessarily a product of the Rockies’ farm system and PCL, either, although his gaudy 140 wRC+ at Triple-A in 2017 is probably beyond his talent level. In 2013 and 2014, he posted above-average batting lines at Double-A and posted a 139 wRC+ in A-ball in 2011. Garneau can hit and is a competent backstop. In the vast wasteland that is catching in 2018, that makes him valuable. He’s buried in Oakland behind Jonathan Lucroy and Bruce Maxwell, but he could (and should) probably start for a big-league team. On our team, that almost makes him a star.
Designated Hitter: Nick Buss
Given what he’s done in the minor leagues, it’s almost surprising that Buss, 31, never got a shot to prove himself at the big-league level. The owner of just 110 big-league plate appearances, Buss flashed both power and speed in the minors. In 2013, he posted a 131 wRC+ with 17 homers and 21 steals. Since then, he’s posted big batting lines but less gaudy counting stats, with a 112 wRC+ in 2016 and a 140 wRC+ in 2017. He’s a lefty-swinger our team needs, and while he doesn’t walk much, he also doesn’t strike out a lot either (just 13.8% last year). A team starting Jabari Blash full time needs a Nick Buss in the lineup, too.
Shawn Haviland, RHP
Haviland, 32, might be one name on this list that even diehard fans respond to with “Who?” A command-and-control guy whose claim to fame is giving up a home run to Yoan Moncada, Haviland features a decent fastball — albeit just 90 mph — and a decent breaking ball. He’s been organizational fodder for the past few years, soaking up innings in the high minors for the Athletics, White Sox, Red Sox, Indians, and Red Sox again, striking out seven batters or less per nine innings, walking about two per nine, and posting an xFIP between 3.5 and 4.5. Steamer thinks he’d post a 5-ish ERA and FIP in the big leagues, and that might be true, but he does have good command, which might play at the back of a big-league rotation or in a big-league bullpen. It’s doubtful we’ll find any aces for our team, so Haviland’s ability to soak innings means he’s anchoring our pitching staff.
Scott Copeland, RHP
Copeland, 30, is a sinker/slider ground-ball pitcher who got 15 big-league innings with Toronto in 2015 and struck out 3.52 per nine innings in that span. That is undoubtedly awful. But Copeland strangely started striking people out in the International League last year, with a 7.71 K/9 across 137 innings. It might be a mirage, especially since his results cratered (4.97 ERA, 5.22 FIP) and his walks spiked (3.46 per nine after back-to-back years below 3). But his xFIP has been fairly stable over his time at Triple-A, from a low of 3.52 in 2014 to a high of 4.33 last year. Steamer projects a 4.44 ERA and 4.49 FIP, which seems right to me. In this age of offense, a 4.5 ERA has value. Copeland can start for our team.
Deck McGuire, RHP
Other than Garneau, McGuire, 28, might be the only name on our team with a legitimate shot at a big-league future, but he meets our criteria so I’m including him. McGuire is a former top prospect who lost his velocity and then got it back. Signed by the Reds as organizational depth before the season, he obliterated Double-A unexpectedly (9.11 K/9, 3.05 BB/9, 2.79 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 3.21 xFIP). Even better, he hit 95 multiple times with his fastball during a 13.2-inning cup of coffee last year, and he still has a good pitch mix overall. There’s reason to be skeptical — he was a 28-year-old at Double-A, after all — but he showed the stuff was real with a 3.16 FIP in his big-league trial and he’s built like a tank at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. On a team of lottery tickets, McGuire might have the highest upside.
Ryan Carpenter, LHP
Carpenter, 27, is left-handed and breathing. That, in and of itself, means he should find a job in baseball. What makes him interesting is that he throws a fastball better than 90 mph from that left hand. What makes him more interesting is that he posted surprisingly competent numbers coming up through the Rockies’ system, including a 9.29 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, and a 3.92 xFIP across 156 Triple-AA innings in Albuquerque last year. From his limited big-league exposure, during which he has thrown a grand total of 24 pitches, all fastballs, we can confidently say absolutely nothing. But he appears to be roughly average, or slightly below, at almost everything. At worst, he’s a lefty specialist. At best, he might be more than that.
Nestor Molina, RHP
You may be surprised to learn that Molina never made the big leagues. Acquired as the return for Sergio Santos when the White Sox started their last rebuild, this site called Molina, now 29, an “exciting” return and compared him favorably to Paul Maholm. Oops. Molina’s K rate nosedived seemingly as soon as his plane landed in Chicago, and he spent a year in the Giants’ farm as a bullpen arm before becoming an innings-eating ace starter in the Mexican League, with a 1.89 ERA and 3.41 FIP across 152.2 innings. The stuff was still exciting enough that the Cardinals signed him to a minor-league deal this offseason with a spring-training invite, but they released him after being unable to find a spot for him in Triple-A, and he returned to the Mexican League. But our team does have a spot, and he’ll fit nicely at the back of our rotation.
Richard Rodriguez, RHP
Rodriguez, 28, was notable enough to get mentioned in Chris Mitchell’s minor-league free-agent piece last year. Rodriguez has a decent fastball in the 92-94 range, a hard curve around 82-84, and enough deception to make the package work. As the closer for the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate last year, he was dominant, with a 10.19 K/9, 2.29 BB/9, and a 2.42 ERA backed by a 2.88 FIP. He was rocked in the big leagues in a five-inning trial during which his old bugaboo — bad control — resurfaced, but Steamer looks at his body of work and sees the potential for more. I think Rodriguez could be a Jose Veras type, and I’m glad to get him for our bullpen.
Matt Ramsey, RHP
Another 28-year-old, Ramsey is here because he has done almost nothing but strike guys out in the minor leagues. Well, almost nothing. For as impressive as Ramsey’s K numbers are — 11.77 per nine innings at Double-A last year, 11.06 and 12.30 per nine across two Double-A stops in 2014 — Ramsey also walks the entire world. In his Triple-A debut, he walked 6.75/9, which is, as they say, putrid. But for a hard-throwing late-game reliever, Ramsey’s shown decent ground-ball rates, and Steamer thinks he could approach a strikeout per inning in the big leagues with an ERA and FIP of around 4.50. On this team, that makes him a setup guy. In reality, he could probably hold his own in middle-relief somewhere.
Alex Wimmers, RHP
Wimmers, 29, has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. With a five-pitch mix too advanced for Triple-A led by a fastball in the low to mid-90s, Wimmers carved up Triple-A for two years in a row in the Twins’ organization, posting more than a strikeout per inning each time and posting FIPs of 3.25 and 3.38, respectively. He’s gotten 24 innings with the varsity squad during that time, during which he showed putrid control, but command wasn’t as big of a problem in the minors and 24 innings is a tiny sample size. His fastball/change combo is big-league ready, and I like it at the back of our bullpen. So here he goes.
Fourth Outfielder: Jeremy Barfield
Barfield, Jesse’s son, should get more attention than he does despite being 29 and a longtime veteran of the independent leagues. Barfield can flat hit, as demonstrated by the 157 wRC+ and 27 round-trippers he posted for Boston’s Double-A affiliate last year. He’s also flashed elite plate discipline, posting double-digit walk rates three straight seasons in Oakland’s organization (topping out at 16.8% in 2014). He’s blocked in Boston, but I’m betting his bat would play in the big leagues. For us, he’s either a platoon mate for Buss, or an alternative to Brentz.
CI: Brandon Snyder
Despite getting into 102 major-league games, Snyder, 31, has surprisingly only accrued 205 big-league plate appearances. The book on Snyder is simple: the power simply never developed since his days as an Orioles top farmhand. But that may not be entirely true, and Snyder may simply be a late bloomer. To wit: after escaping the Orioles’ farm system, Snyder posted a .193 ISO and 118 wRC+ for Pawtucket in the Red Sox system in 2013. He followed that up with a .238 ISO in 2014 and then went back to the Orioles’ farm system and posted a 139 wRC+ at Double-A in 2015. The past two years, in the high minors with the Braves and Nationals, he’s posted a 129 wRC+ and a 134 wRC+, showing both power and even a little speed (10 combined stolen bases). There might be some post-hype sleeper here, and even if the upside is Chris Colabello or Steve Pearce, that has value on the bench, particularly with Snyder’s ability to play both first and third base. He’ll fit nicely on our bench.
MI: Daniel Robertson
No, not Daniel Robertson. This is the other Daniel Robertson, who somehow hasn’t managed to get an extended big-league look despite the ability to play just about anywhere and an unerring ability to hit and draw walks. He has no power to speak of, but he steals bases and twice in the minors walked more than he struck out. In 2017, for the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate, he managed a 115 wRC+ on the back of a .383 OBP. In 2016, he walked more than he struck out on his way to a .357 OBP and 107 wRC+. All in all, this might be the better Daniel Robertson right now. We’ll take him on our team in a heartbeat, and he’ll see a lot of run playing around the diamond.
Backup Catcher: Xorge Carillo
With their injury woes behind the plate, it’s somewhat surprising the Metropolitans haven’t looked into bringing back Carillo, 29, who is currently in Tampa Bay’s system. Carillo was solid for the Mets’ high-minors affiliates behind the plate five years running, posting a wRC+ of 90 or better at six of seven stops and catching nearly a third of all base-stealers between 2015 and 2016. Carillo can hit a little bit, and he can throw, but he does allow too many passed balls. We can work on that, especially in our backup catcher.
So there it is: the 2018 Ken Phelps All-Star Team. Feel free to tell me who I missed and who doesn’t belong here. And next time, we’ll find out just how good this team really is.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.