This week’s installment of “Knocking Down The Door” includes the first player to repeat on the list, a slugging first baseman who is unlikely to break into the Majors with his current organization and a pitcher who could find himself in the starting rotation of a playoff contender two years after being purchased from an Independent League team.
Austin Hedges, C, San Diego Padres (Triple-A El Paso)
How do you make the “Knocking Down The Door” list after going 11-for-20 with five homers to earn last week’s honors? You go 14-for-29 with five more homers. Yes, Austin Hedges really did this. He ended up with 12 homers over a 14-start period.
Keep in mind that this is a guy known for his defense. Phrases like “he’d be valuable if he hit .220 with 10 homers because his defense is that good” are common when referring to the 23-year-old Hedges.
Still, this latest barrage of homers probably doesn’t affect his ETA much, if at all. As soon as general manager A.J. Preller gets a trade offer to his liking for Derek Norris, who has an OPS right around .800 over the past two months with nine doubles and ten home runs over, the “Austin Hedges” era will commence. Norris had a minor injury scare behind the plate last night when his elbow was hit by Brandon Drury’s swing, but Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune tweeted that x-rays were negative and Norris is day-to-day.
Joe Jimenez, RP, Detroit Tigers (Double-A Erie)
The Tigers finally have a reliable closer to shut down opponents in the 9th inning. Francisco Rodriguez is still getting the job done at 34 years of age with 23 saves in 25 chances. Finding a strong group of setup men to bridge the gap to him is a work in progress, however.
So can a 21-year-old who has pitched a total of 13 innings above A-ball be the solution?
Joe Jimenez is the rare prospect to be recognized as a “Future Closer” early in his career while still in the low minors. The Tigers have been patient with him, but as he gets closer to the majors, he’s becoming difficult to ignore.
The hard-throwing right-hander has completely dominated in 31 innings between Double-A and High-A, allowing just one earned run, 12 hits and nine walks while striking out 54 batters.
Jimenez might have the perfect mentor in Rodriguez, who debuted as a 20-year-old with the Angels late in the 2002 season and was an integral part of their World Series run as the setup man to Troy Percival. If the Tigers are to make a run at a playoff spot, they’ll likely need their own version of young “K-Rod”. Jimenez will need a cool nickname, though.
Jake Thompson, SP, Philadelphia Phillies (Triple-A Lehigh Valley)
Shortly after Zach Eflin got the call to the Majors last month, I named his former Triple-A rotation-mate Ben Lively as a pitcher who was “Knocking Down The Door” and also mentioned Jake Thompson as a deserving candidate. Since, Lively has not been as effective. The 22-year-old Thompson, however, continues to roll.
In his last six starts, Thompson has averaged over seven innings per start while posting an 0.85 ERA with 10 walks and 24 strikeouts. He should get a chance at some point in 2016 as the Phillies try to limit innings for their young starters. A big league promotion could also happen as soon as general manager Matt Klentak finds a taker for Jeremy Hellickson, who has boosted his trade value with what has probably been his best season since he was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Chicago Cubs (Triple-A Iowa)
We’ve known for years that the Cubs were flush with position player prospects. Many of them have reached the Majors, even if not as regulars at one position due to their defensive versatility. Javier Baez has played all over the infield. Willson Contreras is seeing time in left field in addition to his work behind the plate. Addison Russell had to play second base when he first arrived. Kris Bryant’s versatility has also allowed manager Joe Maddon to find at-bats for his young hitters.
This won’t be the case with Dan Vogelbach, though. He is limited to first base and blocked by Anthony Rizzo, who is also limited to first base.
When the 23-year-old Vogelbach, who has a .303/.416/.542 slash line in 80 games, finally beats down the door to the big leagues, he’ll likely be wearing a different uniform. With his stock on the rise, there should be plenty of teams asking about the left-handed hitting slugger in July.
Aaron Wilkerson, SP, Boston Red Sox (Triple-A Pawtucket)
Coming into the 2016 season, I wouldn’t have placed Aaron Wilkerson any higher than 11th or 12th on the team’s starting pitching depth chart. And yet, we’re not even to the All-Star break and Sean O’Sullivan is part of their current four-man rotation and Wilkerson is probably next in line for a call-up.
It’s not uncommon for a team to be dipping so deep into its pitching depth given the rash of pitcher injuries throughout the league, but that’s not the case with the Red Sox. Aside from Brian Johnson, who had been sidelined until recently while undergoing treatment for anxiety, the Sox just have a lot of guys who have pitched themselves out of an opportunity. Clay Buchholz has been moved to the bullpen twice. Joe Kelly, who is on the Triple-A disabled list, is expected to return as a reliever in the second half. Eduardo Rodriguez was ineffective in the Majors. Henry Owens has been inconsistent in Triple-A. And so on.
This Wilkerson guy, though, has been a rock. In 92.1 innings between Triple-A and Double-A, the 27-year-old has allowed just 69 hits with 25 walks and 102 strikeouts. He’s allowed two earned runs or less in 12 of his 16 starts. In 10 of those 12, he’s allowed one run or less.
There is a possibility that the Red Sox could start the secondnd half with O’Sullivan, knuckleballer Steven Wright and Wilkerson, who went undrafted out of college in 2011 and was purchased from an Independent League in 2014, in their starting rotation behind David Price and Rick Porcello. Baseball is so predictable.
“Knocking Down the Door” is a weekly feature that identifies minor leaguers who are making a case for a big league promotion.