When people talk about the idea of the Milwaukee Brewers trading Prince Fielder, they often opine that Milwaukee could be interested in acquiring First Base Prospect X in a return package as a long-term replacement for their hefty slugger. When Arizona didn't trade Adam LaRoche, nobody reacted as if the D-Backs had chosen to stick with the veteran while a top prospect clubs the ball at Triple-A. When Troy Tulowitzki went down and the Rockies needed middle infield help, they solicited the help of Jonathan Herrera, a 25-year-old with sub-.700 OPS marks in Triple-A stints in 2009 and 2010.
In all three of these situations, as they unfolded I wondered to myself, "Did these people forget that they have top prospects thriving in Triple-A right now or something?"
Because if Milwaukee deals Fielder, they're going to have Mat Gamel. And if Arizona trades LaRoche, they could easily replace him with Brandon Allen. And if Tulowitzki goes down all year, Colorado would have Christopher Nelson. Frankly, I'm just surprised that people aren't talking about these three more.
Gamel came into 2009 looking like the team's third baseman after a breakout performance in 2008, but some underwhelming production and the emergence of Casey McGehee led to a return to the minors. He played in 61 games with Milwaukee but spent most of the season in Triple-A, where his numbers were decent but paled in comparison to his 2008 marks.
The 24-year-old started 2010 on the DL with a slight tear in his right shoulder, but after shaking off the rust in May he's been absolutely killing the ball the past three months. As Triple-A Nashville's primary third baseman, Gamel has batted .316/.399/.493, including a .329/.401/.524 line when you exclude his rough 51 PA from May, during which he walked a lot but did little else. He'll never be much of a defender at third base, with move to first base or right field seemingly inevitable. But he's hit well for essentially his entire professional career, and even as a first baseman he should profile as a solid regular given his ability to hit for average, solid plate discipline and good power.
As for Brandon Allen, well, few players have looked more MLB-ready with the bat in the past 10 weeks than the 24-year-old first baseman. After a brutal start to the season, Allen's been one of the hottest hitters in the minors since the beginning of June, pushing his overall line up to .272/.415/.554 with 21 homers. Armed with a willingness to take a walk and plus power, Allen has been the team's first baseman of the future since being acquired from the White Sox last year for reliever Tony Pena.
After a breakout 2008 in the Chicago organization, he was traded during the 2009 season to Arizona. He continued to hit well in the minors there, but looked totally lost in a 32-game stint with the big league club. The D-Backs opted to send Allen back down to Triple-A for 2010 after they signed LaRoche to a one-year deal, but with the young slugger knocking on the door presumably LaRoche will be long gone for 2011.
Here are Allen's numbers since the beginning of June: .300/.446/.628 with 12 doubles, 3 triples and 18 homers, along with 52 walks and only 54 strikeouts in 285 plate appearances. It really doesn't take much commentary to know that this guy probably doesn't have much else to learn at Triple-A at this point.
Unlike the two guys above, Chris Nelson's never really had a chance to contribute in the majors yet. The 9th overall pick in the 2004 draft, Nelson was considered an elite prospect by most coming into the 2005 season. But he would spend both 2005 and 2006 trying to figure out the Single-A Sally League, and it took a breakout 2007 performance at Advanced Single-A Modesto to restore his prospect status. But Nelson would play in just 110 games over 2008 and 2009 as he battled injuries, although he hit well in his 29-game stint in Double-A last season before missing the remainder of the year with a wrist injury.
Coming into 2010, Nelson wasn't close to being the renowned prospect that he once was. He failed to make John Sickels' Top 20 Rockies prospects in the spring, getting an honorable mention as a C-grade prospect. Basically, Nelson looked to be nothing special anymore. And that didn't change in the season's first month, as Nelson spent April in extended spring training with a strained oblique and didn't get into games until May. But things have really been looking up since he got on the field.
The Rockies opted to go with Herrera at second base earlier in the season, but that certainly wasn't because Nelson was struggling. Even with a couple rough weeks to begin August, Nelson's Triple-A line still sits at .324/.380/.532 in 278 PA, and that includes the lowest K rate of his minor league career, too. And you can't just discount the numbers because of his home park either; StatCorner has Nelson's park-adjusted wOBA at .386 on the year. For a soon-to-be 25-year-old that's capable of playing solid defense at shortstop, second base and third base, those are some pretty intriguing numbers.
All three of these guys are in somewhat different positions with their teams. Allen seems like a lock to be Arizona's 2011 first baseman barring some unforeseen tragedy given that LaRoche's contract is up after 2011. Gamel and Nelson, on the other hand, don't really have clear routes to the major leagues right now. Gamel's blocked at all four positions that he could play, as the Brewers deploy Fielder, McGehee, Braun and Hart on the corners. Meanwhile the Rockies have Tulowitzki and Barmes in the majors, Herrera and Eric Young Jr. in Triple-A, and Hector Gomez in Double-A, so Nelson's got some serious competition if he wants a long-term spot in Colorado's middle infield.
Gamel seems more likely to find a spot in Milwaukee once Fielder is gone, which is almost a lock at this point given his reportedly exorbitant asking price. But Colorado doesn't seem to be nearly as infatuated with Nelson. I wouldn't be surprised if Nelson was Colorado's regular second baseman by mid-2011 or 2012, but if I was running a team looking for a young, cheap middle infielder, I'd probably give Dan O'Dowd a call about Mr. Nelson this winter.