Continuing on with my list of contemporary minor league stars, who I define as players with at least 4,000 plate appearances in the high minors (AA and AAA) on the theory that they had to be pretty good ballplayers to last that long. Part I of this series can be found here.
3. Scott McClain (5,160 AAA plate appearances, 800 AA and 88 MLB). Before wrapping up his professional career at age 37 at the end of the 2009 season, McClain played a whopping 20 seasons of pro ball. His 5,160 plate appearances at the AAA level was the most of any contemporary player I could find.
McClain hit 292 home runs in the minor leagues and another 89 in Japan’s NPB. However, he only hit two HRs in the major leagues during cups of the coffee with the Rays in 1998, the Cubs in 2005 and the Giants in 2oo7 and 2008.
McClain played mostly 1B and 3B and didn’t become a great AAA hitter until he was age 26. He was at least able to make some money in his professional career by playing five season in Japan’s NPB, where American players generally earn at least the major league minimum.
4. Andy Tracy (4,519 AAA, 1,247 AA, 314 MLB). Another great minor league thumper, Tracy has hit 296 minor league home runs but only 13 in the show.
Tracy wasn’t highly regarded as a prospect out of college (Bowling Green in Ohio) and thus played four years in college before signing with a major league franchise. He had a huge year in the Eastern League at age 25, which got him substantial playing time the next year for the 2000 Montreal Expos. He got into 83 games that year and hit .260 with 11 HRs and an .824 OPS, excellent for a rookie.
However, Tracy got off to a dreadful start in 2001, hitting only .109 with a .427 OPS in 38 games before being sent down the minors, except for the briefest cups of coffee in 2004, 2008 and 2009 (a total of only 33 plate appearances), for good. Like McClain, Tracy played mostly 1B and 3B, and was a great AAA hitter for years.
Tracy’s last season was 2011, when he hit .288 with a .987 OPS in 85 games for the Reno Aces of the AAA Pacific Coast League. Reno is a great place to hit, but Tracy’s numbers are so impressive that I have to think that it was accumulated injuries (Tracy was 37 that year) that ended his professional career. For what it’s worth, I saw Tracy take Carlos Marmol deep in a game in New Orleans between the Zephyrs and the Iowa Cubs in May 2007.
5. Mike Cervenak. (3,785 AAA, 2,091 AA, 13 MLB). One of my favorite contemporary minor league stars, I’ve written about Cervenak before here and here. He’s playing in Taiwan this year, most likely finishing out his pro career at 36. He’s hit 192 minor league home runs.
6. Cody Ransom (4,455 AAA, 554 AA, 687+ MLB). Another one of my favorite contemporary minor league stars, almost certainly because, like Cervenak, Ransom’s a former Giants prospect. However, unlike Cervenak, who never really got a fair shot with the Gints, Ransom was once a highly regarded prospect even though he was 9th round draft pick. The Giants like toolsy prospects, and Cody had tools.
As I’ve written before a number of times, Cody is one of those rare players who developed significantly as a professional hitter after age 27, and he got his first significant major league playing time last year at the ripe old age of 37 (282 plate appearances for the Brewers and Diamondbacks after never getting more than 86 in any of his nine prior major league part-seasons).
Cody, or “Babe” as I like to call him, started the 2013 campaign with the San Diego Padres, but they designated him for assignment after he started the year 0-for-11. The Cubs claimed him off waivers and in three games he’s off to a 4-for-9 start with home run, two doubles and a walk. Given his red hot start as a Cubbie, and the fact that Wrigley Field is a great place for a guy with power like Ransom, there’s a good chance he’ll stick around in Chicago for a while. It doesn’t hurt that the 2013 Cubs look to be a bad team in need of players who can hit a little.
7. Kevin Barker (5,140 AAA, 1,320 AA, 323 MLB). Another minor league bomber, Barker hit 271 minor league home runs (but only six in the Show), finishing his professional career in 2011 for the Oaxaco Guerreros (“Warriors”) of the Mexican League.
Barker got into 78 games for the Brewers in 1999 and 2000 at ages 23 and 24, but he didn’t hit the second year, and got only a few cups of coffee after that. His best minor league season was probably 2009 when he hit 22 HRs and had a .927 OPS in 101 games for the AAA Louisville Bats.
8. Michael Restovich (3,503 AAA, 565 AA, 297 MLB). A former Twins prospect, Restovich hit 214 minor league home runs, but only six in the majors. He was a fine minor league hitter who just didn’t hit in the limited major league opportunities he got. His professional career ended in 2011.
9. Chris Richard (3,192 AAA, 1,065 AA, 1,006). Originally drafted by the Cardinals, at age 27 Richard played 136 games for the 2001 Orioles in which he hit .265 with 15 HRs and a .770 OPS, while playing RF, CF, 1B and DH (a very unusual combination). He didn’t hit well in 2002, however, and that was the end of his major league career except for cups of coffee with the 2003 Rockies and the 2009 Rays. Richard slugged 198 minor league HRs in addition to his 34 major league jacks. His professional career ended in 2010.
10. Jeff Bailey (2,995 AAA, 1,826 AA, 159 MLB). Yet another minor league slugger, he hit 191 minor league dingers but only six in the Show. Bailey spent parts of six seasons with the Pawtucket Red Sox from 2004 through 2009 and got three cups of coffee from the true Red Sox the last three of those seasons. He finished his professional career with the Rochester Red Wings in 2011.
11. Tike Redman (3,549 AAA, 724 AA, 1,461 MLB). Just in case you were thinking all contemporary minor league stars were sluggers, Redman was a center fielder who just wasn’t quite good enough on either side of the ball to have a long major league career. However, the Pirates certainly gave him opportunities, as his 1,461 career major league plate appearances attest.
12. Luis Figueroa (4,682 AAA, 1,602 AA, 16 MLB). A shortstop who apparently hit just well enough to be a AAA starter for years and whose glove, I presume, wasn’t quite good enough to make him a major league late inning defensive replacement, Figueroa’s North American career appears to have ended last year with the Oaxaca Guerreros. He got three major league cups of coffee in 2001, 2006, 2007, but appeared in a total of only 18 major league games.
13-16. Joe Thurston (4,868 AAA, 633 AA, 384 MLB), Esteban German (3,720, 511, 1,170), Ray Olmedo (3,381, 734, 484) and Bobby Scales (3,342, 708, 158). A quartet of middle infielders/jacks-of-all-trades.
Thurston got into 124 games for the 2009 Cardinals but didn’t hit. German was a briefly hot prospect who played semi-regularly for the Royals from 2006 through 2008 but hit worse each successive year — he’s now playing in Japan. Olmedo looks like a classic glove-tree shortstop who didn’t hit much even at AAA, but stuck around because of his defensive acrobatics.
Bobby Scales was a fine minor league hitter who played a lot of different positions but probably not well enough at 2B or 3B to keep him in the majors. He had a .373 on-base percentage last year for Japan’s Orix Buffaloes, but the team didn’t bring him back in 2013, probably because he didn’t hit for power and his defense wasn’t very good.
I strongly suspect there are other contemporary minor league stars I have failed to identify, and I invite you to send in comments identifying them. However, I think I’ve made a point: there are still a large number of minor league stars in today’s game playing great ball at the AAA level, who either through bad luck, late development or by virtue of being just a hair below the talent level of major leaguers have spent most of their long professional careers in the minor leagues.