Nate Stephens


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Callups Review: AL

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I once broke my ankle playing golf. It's a true story, one that's both painful physically to relive and emotionally to admit. It is always good for a laugh at least and in truth I suffered the injury by slipping in-between holes. However, one side effect of the injury is that the ankle would begin to swell and become weak when the humidity of a new storm rolled in. Similarly, my fingers swell, my wrists become weak, and my office chair cringes as each season nears September 1. That's because of the bevy of callups that occur when rosters expand to 40, thereby presenting the enjoyable yet daunting task of analyzing and writing up all of the pertinent players.

Below you'll see writeups on each callup who figures to either have a prominent role in September or who has a reasonable chance of a prominent role at some point in the future. Due to the length of the column I've posted the American League callups below, with the National League dosage due to be posted on Friday. More callups will trickle in over the next week or two as big league clubs wait for minor league playoff seasons to end, and I'll mix in a writeup of those players while doing my usual end-of-year reviews and next-season previews.

Major League Callups

American League

Alfredo Aceves – RHP Yankees – Aceves is one of the better feel-good stories of this year's callups after making the major leagues less than a year after pitching in the Mexican League. A strong season in winter ball helped the 25-year-old secure a contract, and he's breezed through three levels of the minors in under a year. The 6'3", 220-pound right-hander started the season in High-A and was at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre before his callup, posting a combined 2.62 ERA and 114/27 K/BB in 140 2/3 innings. Aceves did struggle some with an ERA over 4.00 once reaching Triple-A, though that was due mostly to the six homers he gave up in 43 2/3 innings.

A flyball pitcher with a low-90s fastball, curve, changeup, and cutter, Aceves survives on very good command and the ability to mix his pitches well. He's a mildly intriguing prospect, but his age and lack of elite stuff mean he'll top out as a No. 4 if all goes well. Aceves is more likely to work as a No. 5 or long man in a bullpen, but he could be a pretty solid one even for a team like the Yankees. The Yankees will use him in the bullpen for now, where he threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts and no baserunners in his first appearance. However, the Yankees could turn to Aceves if a starter was hurt, or if they got tired of running out Sidney Ponson and/or Darrell Rasner. If that happens, Aceves could be a sneaky, albeit risky, play in AL-only leagues.

Recommendation: Monitor in AL-only leagues.

Aaron Cunningham – OF Athletics – An underrated prospect who scouts don't like because he does everything well and nothing exceptionally, Cunningham was acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade this winter. He entered the year with a career line of .303/.377/.484 and a solid 213/104 K/BB in 1,081 at-bats while also stealing 54 bases in 83 attempts (65%). Cunningham continued to put up similar numbers for Double-A Midland this season, but he exploded with a .382/.461/.645 mark in 76 at-bats since promoted to Triple-A Sacramento. Overall he's batting .329 with 23 doubles, six triples, 17 homers, and 15 steals in 423 at-bats.

Cunningham's best season to date is really remarkably similar to his career line entering the year, with the exception of his batting average increasing. Given that his strikeout rate has actually gone up, it's probably not a real improvement. Still, Cunningham is a nice prospect that should be an average corner outfielder in both MLB and fantasy terms. The 5'11", 200-pound right-hander looks like a future .280-15-80-15 type of player, with a bit more power potential as the 22-year-old develops. The Athletics wouldn't have called him up if they weren't going to play him, so expect Cunningham to get at least four starts per week. Though in the long-term Cunningham could probably use another half season in Triple-A to get used to advanced pitching and further refine his strike zone command, he's still worth an AL-only league claim because he's talented and currently red-hot at the plate.

Recommendation: Claim in AL-only one-year and keeper formats; watch in deep keeper mixed leagues.

Chris Getz – 2B White Sox – I discussed Getz's prospects when he was promoted earlier in the year, and he finished his minor league season with a .302/.368/.448 mark in 404 at-bats. The now 25-year-old has shown better power this season, and he's always been a solid defender with good plate discipline and the ability to hit for average. He's probably just a quality bench player, but he could be something more than that thanks to a solid all-around game. However, that opportunity won't come with the White Sox thanks to the presence of Alexei Ramirez, and it certainly won't happen in September with the club in a pennant race. He's a trade candidate this winter, and he could be worth claiming in league-specific formats if he winds up in the right situation.

Recommendation: Ignore for now.

Mike Hessman – 3B/1B Tigers – The quintessential Triple-A slugger, Hessman blasted 34 homers in 399 at-bats for Toledo this season. It was the second straight season he belted at least 30 homers in the minors, and for his career he averages about one homer every 18 at-bats (Pat Burrell has about the same average in the majors, for reference). However, Hessman's strikeout rate, and thus batting averages, have always been an issue, preventing the now 30-year-old from ever getting an extended look in the majors. He was batting a solid .271 this year, but that was the second best mark of his career and it came with 140 strikeouts in those 399 at-bats.

Back in the U.S. after playing for Team USA in the Olympics, Hessman has the power to help both big league and fantasy clubs alike. However, his batting average will most likely be below .250 and as a result the Tigers figure to give him little playing time. Even if he did get hot and earn a few starts, the Tigers are looking to the future and likely more interested in getting looks at players like Jeff Larish, Matt Joyce, and Ryan Raburn.

Recommendation: Ignore for now.

Kila Kaaihue – 1B Royals – Perhaps the most interesting name in this year's crop of September callups, Ka'aihue has quickly become a fan favorite for all that follow the minor leagues. A 15th round pick in 2002 out of a Hawaiian high school, Ka'aihue's interesting name, long shot status, positive demeanor, and a lack of Hawaiian big leaguers made him a fun player to root for. While he looked like a prospect following a breakout 2005 campaign, Ka'aihue couldn't keep it going and slid back into non-prospect territory by the end of the 2007 campaign.

However, the 2008 season has been a breakout of epic proportions for Ka'aihue. Between 91 games in Double-A and 34 in Triple-A, Ka'aihue has hit a whopping 37 home runs. That's tied for fourth most in all of the minor leagues. To make Ka'aihue's season even more impressive, the 24-year-old left-hander is batting .314 to go with an insane 67/104 K/BB ratio. Overall he's batting .314/.456/.628 in 124 games between the two levels.

The positives with Ka'aihue are pretty clear: he's shown excellent home run power, his plate discipline is otherworldly and his contact skills superb, he wasn't all that old at age 24, and his production and plate discipline remained intact once promoted to Triple-A. The downsides are also mostly clear: his swing isn't the fastest, scouts have never liked him this much, Ka'aihue has never hit nearly this well, he has no defensive value, he was playing in favorable leagues (Texas/PCL) and he's not particularly young.

One other downside to Ka'aihue is that despite his breakout he's hit just 15 doubles and zero triples. This is caused in part by Ka'aihue's lack of speed in his 6'3", 235-pound frame, but also is somewhat indicative of his wait-and-swing-for-the-fences approach. In that sense he's similar to an Adam Dunn or Jack Cust, except that he's able to make contact far more frequently in the later stages of the count and thus has a higher batting average. That said, players like Dunn and Cust are extreme outliers, and it's rare to see players continually put up significantly more home runs than doubles.

So is Ka'aihue an outlier who can contribute good power and perhaps even a decent batting average, a minor leaguer having a fluke season, or some combination thereof? I think the last choice is the most likely. Ka'aihue's always had pretty good plate discipline, and a corresponding increase in production when he shows even better discipline isn't surprising. His power looks for real in games, and that he doesn't chase bad pitches bodes well. In total there seems to be real improvement here, but probably not as much as it appears. The batting average increase is as much due to BABIP fluctuation and park factors than true gains, and maintaining the 2B/HR ratio will be especially tough in the majors. So while expecting an OPS north of 1000 is unrealistic, I could see Ka'aihue posting a .260-30 HR-70 BB type of season if given a full-time shot. He has both upside and downside from that projection and the Royals lack a long-term first basemen, so he's an interesting one to watch.

The Royals didn't have to add Ka'aihue to the 40-man roster until this winter, but they rewarded him with a promotion anyway. Manager Trey Hillman is impressed by the youngster, and will look to get him playing time. Hillman will have to either put aside his Ross Gload love or move him to the outfield to make that happen, but he seems willing to do so. Ryan Shealy's presence further complicates matters, but the Royals gave up on Shealy long ago and he's really only a threat to take playing time from Ka'aihue when a southpaw is on the mound. Since he'll start against most right-handers and has intriguing power potential, Ka'aihue needs to be owned in all AL-only leagues.

Recommendation: Pursue aggressively in AL-only leagues; take a flier in AL-only and deep mixed keeper leagues.

Jeff Larish – 1B/3B Tigers – I was a huge fan of Larish while he was in college at Arizona State, and his sophomore season vaulted him to a potential Top 5 selection for the 2004 draft. He was similar to recent ASU stud Brett Wallace, except he was even better at the plate. Unfortunately, Larish battled injuries and productivity issues as a junior. He rebounded as a senior, but his strikeout rate was curiously higher and his batting average also took a dip.

Larish has shown the expected power and ability to take a walk in the minors, posting a career HR/AB of about 18 and drawing 236 walks in 394 career minor league games. However, the drop in batting average and increase in strikeouts Larish saw as a senior also followed him to pro ball as he's a career .262 hitter with 329 strikeouts in those 394 games. This season has been more of the same for the 25-year-old, as Larish was batting .250 with 21 homers in 384 at-bats before being promoted.

Larish saw some time with the Tigers earlier in the year and has five starts in the last week due to Carlos Guillen's injury. He's hit .225 with a pair of homers in 71 at-bats during that span. Guillen should be back next week and the Tigers are pretty full at the corner spots with Miguel Cabrera, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, Marcus Thames, and Guillen. Ryan Raburn and Matt Joyce are also looking for at-bats, so don't expect Larish to play much once Guillen returns. Larish's power would give him a smidgen of value should he somehow earn regular starts, but that's not likely and even if it does it would come at the expense of a poor batting average and thus make him of limited utility.

Recommendation: Monitor in AL-only leagues.

John Meloan – RHP Indians – A former closer of the future candidate with the Dodgers, Meloan was moved into a starting role this season before being sent to the Indians in the Casey Blake trade. Meloan seemed like a good candidate for a starting role given his two fastballs, plus-slider, developing cutter, and passable changeup. However, his command wavered once moving to the rotation, and his fastball hasn't played as well while more consistently sitting in the low-90s. The Indians have moved Meloan back to a relief role, allowing the right-hander to hit the mid-90s more regularly, throw his slider more often, and worry less about mixing in his lesser offerings.

Meloan is still just 24 years old and posted a 2.03 ERA and 91/27 K/BB in 66 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He still has closer potential, and the Indians lack a clear long-term option in that role. If the club doesn't address that area with a high-priced, long-term contract this winter, Meloan will be on everyone's deep sleeper list next spring. He's well worth stashing away in AL-only keeper leagues, and those in other formats should be monitoring the talented reliever.

Recommendation: Claim in AL-only keeper formats.

Brandon Morrow – RHP Mariners – The Mariners made the right decision in sending Morrow to the minors to have him work on converting back into a starting role. The club was out of the playoff race, and some thought Morrow could make it as a starter when drafted out of the University of California in 2006. In four starts since the demotion to Triple-A Morrow has pitched 17 innings while allowing seven earned runs and posting a 22/8 K/BB. He went six innings in his last start, but Morrow still has the same problems in the rotation that he had in the bullpen: his command is poor, leading to both high pitch counts per inning and too many walks. The result is a pitcher who isn't going to pitch deep into games even when things are going well.

The Mariners will give Morrow a shot in the rotation for the final four weeks. Big league hitters will simply remain patient, hoping to draw walks or get ahead of the count and sit on his mid-90s fastball. That his fastball is so difficult to hit even when hitters are looking for it bodes well, but Morrow still isn't likely to supply fantasy value. Those in need of strikeouts may consider picking up Morrow, but if you're in a close race for ERA and especially WHIP I would stay away. That he's unlikely to pitch deep into games and playing for a poor team means help in the wins column is also unlikely, but if you're desperate he could be worth a flier.

Recommendation: Evaluate based on needs in AL-only leagues.

Fernando Perez – OF Rays – A well-rounded 25-year-old outfielder who put up an impressive 903 OPS in Double-A last season, Perez slipped to an uninspiring .288/.361/.393 mark in 129 games for Triple-A Durham in 2008. He had just 33 extra-base hits, including five homers, in 511 at-bats. He also struck out a whopping 156 times yet still maintained the .288 average. On the plus side Perez continued to show good patience with 53 walks and he stole 43 bases in 55 tries (78%).

Perez had a chance to eventually make it as a below average starter in a corner outfield, but now his most likely destination is a solid fourth outfielder. Fantasy leaguers would take notice if he ever got a shot to start because of his wheels and decent batting average, but he has no power to offer and status as a starter would only be temporary.

Recommendation: Ignore for now.

Travis Snider – OF Blue Jays – The best prospect called up in the American League so far, Snider has reached the big leagues in just over two years since being selected 14th overall out of a Washington high school. I ranked Snider the 18th best fantasy prospect of the 2006 draft two years ago, a ranking that looks undoubtedly low now. I thought Snider would be a quality power bat, not a potentially game-changing one. Given that the 20-year-old has 23 homers, 31 doubles, and a .205 isolated power spread between three levels at such a young age, there's a distinct chance he does indeed posses game-changing power down the line.

Perhaps even more impressive is that Snider spent most of the season at Double-A, and is now hitting well in Triple-A, despite not legally able to consume alcohol. The lone negative is that Snider has 154 strikeouts in 133 games, thus helping to limit his batting average to a mediocre .275. Given his age, success at multiple levels, and lack of hitter-friendly environments, I'm inclined to worry less about the strikeouts than normal. That he struck out in 43% of his at-bats in April and 29% since then hints that his true rate is a bit lower, albeit still high. Even if he continues to strike out so often I think Snider can become a power threat, but the question is if he has .250-25 potential, .300-40 potential, or something in-between. The obvious answer is somewhere in between, but that's a pretty decent floor and a very exciting ceiling for a 20-year-old.

The one thing that does seem certain for Snider is that he's not big league ready. Yes, he did have a 901 OPS in 18 Triple-A games before his callup, but he's still striking out too often and he's only 20. I don't see any harm in getting Snider a month of seasoning, then sending him back to the minors for at least half, if not all, of the 2009 campaign, and that's likely the Blue Jays' plan. However, one should keep expectations reasonable despite Snider's status as a Top 10 prospect. If you get a .250 average and three or four homers in September, be pleased.

Recommendation: Claim in AL-only leagues; pursue aggressively in all keeper formats.

Taylor Teagarden – C Rangers – A third round pick in the 2005 draft, Teagarden played in just seven games in 2006 after it was determined that he needed Tommy John surgery late in 2005. Teagarden rebounded with an excellent 2007 campaign, batting .310 and belting 27 homers in 110 games between High-A and Double-A. He was 23 and playing in some favorable hitting environments, but it was still a very impressive performance. However, 2008 has been a disappointment for Teagarden, who hit just .211/.319/.374 with 82 strikeouts in 73 games. He also didn't fare any better with Team USA in the Olympics.

Teagarden's disappointing year is a bit surprising, but it doesn't leave me too worried. He's never going to be a .300 hitter as he was in 2007, but his ability to take a walk and plus power will make him an above average catcher at the plate in time as long as he can hit .260 or so. Teagarden would be far from the first catcher to have some bumps along the road to being a productive big leaguer, and I'm going to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of lowering his stock too much based on a poor 73 games. On the plus side Teagarden is also a good defender, so I suspect he'll be one of the game's top 10 backstops during his peak. I expect the 6'1", 200-pound right-hander will have a big bounce back season in 2009, and will eventually force his way into the Rangers' everyday lineup by moving Jarrod Saltalamacchia to first base.

With Salty now hurt, the Rangers are going to split the catching duties between Gerald Laird and Teagarden. Teagarden isn't ready to hit for average yet, but his power is very real and he could smack a few homers before the season is out. That makes him worth a claim in two-catcher AL-only leagues.

Recommendation: Claim in two-catcher AL-only leagues; stash away in AL-only keeper formats.

Luis Valbuena – 2B Mariners – A 5'10", 200-pound middle infielder signed out of Venezuela, Valbuena never showed enough to be considered a prospect until this year. However, the left-handed hitter posted a respectable .303/.382/.431 mark split almost evenly between Double-A and Triple-A at the age of 22 this season. He also stole 18 bases in 26 attempts (69%) and recorded an impressive 69/59 K/BB. The impressive plate discipline isn't new to Valbuena and his power is still barely there, but the batting average spike is new and he has the speed and contact rate to support it.

Valbuena is still young enough that if the batting average gains are real he could develop into a passable reserve. However, since he has little power to speak of, the odds are he'll be a reserve player. Since he isn't exceptionally fast, fantasy leaguers shouldn't get too excited even if he were to secure regular time. He'll serve as a utility player for the Mariners down the stretch.

Recommendation: Ignore for now.

Now in his fifth season, Nate Stephens is one of Rotoworld's most tenured baseball analysts. He heads up the minor league coverage for the site while also contributing other columns and analysis.
Email :Nate Stephens

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