One of my favorite parts of baseball writing is my annual “Ken Phelps All-Star Team,” in which I revived the greatest idea Bill James ever had and created a team of career minor leaguers who deserved a shot at MLB roles. I created teams for 2018 and 2019, and now I shall present, for your reading pleasure, the 2020 edition. Let’s start by reviewing the rules:
Remember, these players are not supposed to be prospects, so this isn’t like Carson [Cistulli]’s Fringe Five series. The Quad-A label earned by these players may very well be accurate, and we’re not expecting this fictional team to go and win 100 games. Instead, we’re looking for free talent – guys who, for whatever reason, have mastered the highest levels of the minors but are organizational depth at best, or forgotten entirely at worst, and yet have skills that might (might!) make them useful on a big-league team.
And because scouting and analytics are better than ever before, the idea behind this team has to change a bit. Major-league equivalencies have become mainstream, which means that we have to do more than simply project big-league performance. For that reason, we’re going to tweak James’ original criteria slightly. To qualify for our team, a player cannot have had more than 550 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues, which we’ll use as proxies for a season’s worth of MLB time. He also cannot have appeared on any of FanGraphs’ organizational top prospect lists or the Fringe Five in the past two years, and must be 25 or older. Oh, and just to make things fun, we won’t re-use anyone from [last year’s] team.
And now...the position players.
Batting First: Jason Krizan, Left Field
The 30-year-old Krizan is a former KATOH darling who never got the chance in the big leagues that he deserved. Krizan hasn’t posted a walk rate of less than double digits across a full minor league season since 2011. His 11.1% BB% in AAA with Detroit in 2018 was enough to make him a league-average bat (102 wRC+) all by itself. He doesn’t hit for average and has modest extra-base power, but all the walks add up and he rarely strikes out (9.8% in AA, 11.8% in AAA in 2019). As a result, his worst full-season wRC+ in the minor leagues was 99 in 2017.
Krizan is not a star, and probably isn’t anything more than a fourth outfielder. But he’s not at all dissimilar from Robbie Grossman, who also doesn’t really do much besides drawing walks. Plus, Krizan never really had a shot with the juiced ball, and adding a few homers to those walks could make him a second-division starter.
Batting second: David Freitas, Catcher
At a certain point, you have nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. For the 30-year-old Freitas, that probably should have come in 2016, when he bettered a 120 wRC+ at both AA and AAA in the Cubs’ farm system. Unfortunately, the Cubbies had some guy named Willson Contreras entrenched as their catcher of the future, so Freitas bounced between Atlantata, Milwaukee, and Seattle as a seldom-used backup catcher and AA pitchers’ nightmare. In 2019, Freitas hit - and this is not a joke - .387/.459/.571 with almost as many walks (42) as strikeouts (49) in 359 plate appearances. Even in the juiced ball environment of the PCL, that’s still a 155 wRC+.
With the vast wasteland that is the MLB catcher position, it’s frankly astonishing that no team has decided to take a chance on him. He’d be an automatic upgrade over Tony Wolters in Colorado and a great fit in Detroit or Baltimore as a C/1B/DH. Instead, he’s ticketed for another year of purgatory, destroying Triple-A pitchers and languishing at the end of an MLB team’s bench.
Batting third: Jose Rojas, Second Base
What if I told you that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a team which is starting actual Tommy La Stella at second base, had a minor leaguer who had hit .304/.381/.554 with 17 home runs at AA in 2018, then as an encore hit .293/.362/.577 with 31 home runs in 2019 at AAA - and left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft? And that nobody else selected him either?
Rojas is a southern California native who does nothing but hit. He’s not a juiced ball mirage. You can’t fake this power.
That he can play competent defense at third, second, and first is reminiscent of Max Muncy, another burly southpaw slugger who came on the scene relatively late. Rojas is already 27, but he deserves a shot in Anaheim, at least against right-handed pitching. The Angels are undoubtedly a better team with Rojas in the lineup than with Albert Pujols.
Batting fourth: John Nogowski, first base
Imagine the perfect hitter. You’d want him to walk a lot and not strike out much. You’d want him to hit for power. You’d want him to work the count and make pitchers expend effort even getting him out. In the majors, that’s Mike Trout. In the minors, that’s John Nogowski.
Nogowski is 27 and a former 34th round pick, and thus is no one’s idea of a traditional prospect. But he hits so well that he’s garnered some attention on Fangraphs. How well? In 2018, at Double-A, he hit .309/.392/.463 (136 wRC+) with twice as many walks (41) as strikeouts (21). In 2019, he hit .295/.413/.476 (122 wRC+) with more walks (69) than strikeouts (54). In short, Nogowski can flat hit, and even ZiPS and Steamer are believers, projecting him for just about league-average offense (97 wRC+) over a full season. By the standards of this team, a league average bat is a revelation.
Nogowski really does deserve a shot somewhere. He’s blocked by another righty-swinging first baseman in Saint Louis, but Colorado could use a platoon partner for Daniel Murphy and the Royals have nothing to lose from seeing what Nogowski can do given a full season’s worth of at-bats.
Batting Fifth: Rob Refsnyder, Right Field
Once upon a time, Refsnyder, now 28, was the Yankees’ second baseman of the future. After a promising cup of coffee in 2015 (.302/.348/.512 in 47 plate appearances), he fell on his face in 175 plate appearances across 58 games in 2016 (72 wRC+). He got about 200 MLB plate appearances spread across 2017-18 with the Blue Jays and Reds as a utility player, but never got regular playing time.
It’s a shame, too, because Refsnyder never really did stop hitting when given the chance to play. In 2017, he hit .312/.390/.464 (139 wRC+) at Triple-A with the Yankees. In 2018, he hit .283/.357/.402 (117 wRC+) at Triple-A with Tampa Bay. In 2019, he hit .315/.377/.500 (122 wRC+) at Triple-A with Cincinnati. In other words, Refsnyder continues to hit for average and draw walks wherever he goes. That might not be exciting in today’s game, but Placido Polanco carved out a long career with a similar profile. A big league team could do a lot worse than Refsnyder as a platoon partner for a lefty-swinging outfielder.
Batting sixth: John Andreoli, Center Field
Andreoli may well be the most exciting player in the minor leagues. He has legitimate power (.212 iso with Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate in 2019), steals bases (seven minor league seasons of 20 or more base thefts), draws a ton of walks (never below 11% BB% at any MiLB stop), and plays a highlight reel center field.
Unfortunately, Andreoli swings and misses a lot. He hasn’t struck out less than 20% of the time at any minor league stop since 2014. He struck out more than 30% of the time with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in 2019. Both ZiPS and Steamer project strikeout rates of better than 30% in a full season’s worth of plate appearances at the big league level, and that’s probably about right.
At the same time, though, Andreoli has the kind of profile that could succeed despite the strikeouts. His plate discipline would likely transfer well, meaning he’d draw walks at a double-digit rate. His speed and power mean he would be an actual 20-20 threat. In some ways, he’s not unlike the Nationals’ Michael Taylor.
Batting seventh: Matt Skole, Designated Hitter
If you liked Matt Stairs, you’ll love Matt Skole. They’re basically the same guy, really: positionless pseudosluggers with moderate power and lots of walks and strikeouts. Skole has never been worse than a 107 wRC+ at any level of baseball where’s spent more than 100 plate appearances, and he has scary opposite field power.
Skole was downright terrible in his 80-plate appearance audition with the White Sox down the stretch last year, but 80 plate appearances is way too small of a sample on which to judge Skole. His Triple-A walk rate (nearly 18%) and power (.248 iso) are in line with his career norms at the highest levels of the minors and far more indicative of his ability. Skole might hit .220, but he’ll mash his taters and draw his walks. He’s a much, much better player than Ryan O’Hearn in Kansas City, for example.
Batting eighth: Drew Maggi, third base
It’s actually surprising that a guy like Maggi has yet to appear in a single MLB game. He’s already 30, so he’s no youngster, but guys who can play a competent shortstop and aren’t a zero with the bat don’t grow on trees, even in the 21st century.
Last year, Maggi posted a 109 wRC+ on the back of a juiced-ball power surge, but Maggi isn’t on this list because he hits for power. In fact, he probably doesn’t. Instead, Maggi is here because he does two things well: draw walks (12.7% BB% in 2019) and run (double digit steals in every minor league season).
ZiPS projects Maggi for a 69 wRC+ given full time at-bats; Steamer pegs him for 73. But I would take the over on both systems; both think he could walk at a better than 8% rate in the big leagues right now, and with his speed, that could equate to a surprisingly large number of extra-base hits. Plus, Maggi has shown himself to be a good defender all over the infield.
On a real MLB team, he’s probably a good utility infielder. On ours, we’ll start him at third base.
Batting ninth: Juniel Querecuto, shortstop
You could be forgiven for having never heard of Querecuto, despite being one of the few players on this team who actually appeared in the Major Leagues. Querecuto actually made it into four games with the 2016 Rays, garnering a grand total of 11 plate appearances before he was banished back to the minors, never to be seen again.
The book on Querecuto is actually similar to Maggi: he’s a slick-fielding middle infielder who can run a little bit. But a strange things happened over the past couple of years: he actually started to hit.
And not just in winter ball either. Querecuto destroyed AA in 2018, to the tune of a .369/.413/.482 triple-slash. Yes, he was old for the level, but he kept hitting at AAA, too, with a .315/.359/.375 batting line. And in AAA in 2019, he hit a still-solid .288/.317/.438, which admittedly isn’t nearly as shiny in the hyperjuiced run environments of the Pacific Coast League but still is far better than his previous numbers - and not bad for a switch-hitter, either.
Though Querecuto is already 27 years old and just 5’9”, he’s also only 155 pounds - and I’d bet that if he adds more muscle, more bat could follow. There’s actual breakout potential here.
Next time, we’ll unveil the 2020 Ken Phelps pitching staff!