Quadruple-A and the Garbage Player Phenomenon: An Exercise in Futility
No doubt you've heard of "Quadruple-A" players. You know, the guys who do well in Triple-A, but who, for whatever reason, just aren't cut out to be major league players?
Well, here's a newsflash for you: There is no more flawed concept in professional sports.
This offseason, the Phillies signed Geoff Jenkins to a two-year, $13 million contract to play right field. They might as well throw the money down the sewer.
Jenkins is the opposite of a Quad-A guy, and thus, a perfect example of what I like to call the "Garbage Player Phenomenon," or GPP.
The GPP basically occurs when a GM signs a player who is past his prime and is approximately average for his position to a contract like this. Jenkins hit .255/.319/.471 last year and .271/.357/.434 in 2006, both with the Brewers. He turns 34 in three months, so he isn't likely for a rebound. He can't hit lefties and he is limited to left or right field defensively. The Phillies signed Jenkins to platoon in right field. Provided he stays healthy, he should at least do an acceptable job.
But that's not the point.
While the Phillies were negotiating with Jenkins, the Minnesota Twins signed Jon Knott to a minor league contract. If Knott is called up at some point this year, he will thus make the league-minimum salary, which is less than $400,000.
Knott is a classic Quad-A player. He is a career .280/.371/.520 hitter in the minor leagues, and has hit 25+ homers four times. Yet Knott has 37 major league plate apperances to his credit. Scouts don't like his swing; they call it "too long to work against major league pitching." Knott is built more like a tight end than a baseball player at 6'3", 260, and therefore is merely acceptable in left or right field defensively.
I don't know if Jon Knott, who is now 29, would be a superstar at the big league level. But I will say this: There is absolutely no way Geoff Jenkins is worth $6.5 million this year, and Jon Knott is worth less than $400,000.
Should the Phillies have signed Knott instead of Jenkins? No, they needed a lefty bat to platoon with Jayson Werth, so Knott wouldn't work. But John-Ford Griffin would; he signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers instead. Craig Brazell would, but he went to Japan. Brooks Conrad would, but he signed a minor league deal with the A's.
And the list goes on.
Knott, Griffin, Brazell, Conrad, Scott McClain, Nate Gold, Marshall McDougall, Andy Tracy, Val Pascucci, J.R. House, Scott Seabol, Todd Linden, Joe Koshansky.
Every player on that list could be acquired from his current team for basically nothing, and be a good major leaguer.
The Phillies will be fine because they have money to spend, but teams like the Pirates, Orioles, and Giants need to listen up here. You don't build a good team by signing 9 Geoff Jenkinses to fill your lineup and 5 Carlos Silvas to fill your rotation. If you are a small-market team, you can't afford to waste millions of dollars on players who don't make you better. If you're a small market team, you have to build like this:
A.) Grow as much talent as possible in the farm system
B.) Use most of your free salary to sign high-level, difference-making players in free agency, and to sign homegrown stars to extensions.
C.) If A and B leave gaping holes in the roster, sign a Quad-A guy.
Instead, you see teams like the Orioles building (by the Orioles, I mean the pre-MacPhail Orioles) like this:
A.) Grow as much talent as possible in the farm system
Okay, good so far.
B.) Sign decent free agents and homegrown guys to provide adequacy in the lineup.
C.) Hope this works.
That strategy doesn't work in so many ways.
A.) You get a bunch of average-at-best guys like Aubrey Huff, Melvin Mora, Jay Payton, Steve Trachsel, and Kevin Millar on your team. Those guys will be close to average at their positions, but that locks those positions into mediocrity.
B.) You have to play those guys because they don't do badly enough to be benched, and their salary means they need to play.
C.) The Orioles had Jon Knott last year. They had J.R. House last year. In fact, Knott was called up to the Orioles in May, and on the second pitch he saw, he launched his first (and only) MLB homer over 400 feet to left field. He was sent down the next day because Mora was coming off the DL. J.R. House was on the team too, but they left him in AAA most of the year because of the mighty Ramon Hernandez-Paul Bako catching combination.
D.) Every dollar you spend on Millar, Mora, Payton etc. you can't spend on an actual impact player, either in the amateur draft or free-agent market.
That's all just simple economics.
There still is, however, the question of Quad-A itself. If scouts say Jon Knott's swing is too long for the majors, who am I to say it isn't?
Well, there are a lot of people who would answer that question with minor league translations and VORP and all kinds of statistical jargon. I could go that route, but I'm going to try it a different way.
There is no gigantic difference between "Triple-A pitching" and "major league pitching." Everybody in AAA is either a.) A fringe player or b.) A prospect who just needs some polishing to get to the majors.
Sure, the average MLB pitcher is way better than the average AAA pitcher. But is the stuff all that different?
Jon Knott hit his major league homer off of Brian Stokes, formerly of the Rays, now of the Mets. He is a good example of the first category of AAA pitching I was talking about, but he found himself in an organization with bad pitching and was in the majors last year. As Knott showed, Brian Stokes in MLB will give up homers to Quad-A guys just like he did in AAA.
This spring, Knott hit three homers in major league camp to go with a .339 average. On one, he took Clay Buchholz deep. Buchholz was in AAA last year for much of the year, and as we know, he is a big prospect. But Knott hits homers on prospects in AAA, and obviously it doesn't change when they go to the majors.
If that doesn't convince you, maybe this does.
Let's say that major league stuff is better than minor league stuff. It probably is. Let's say an MLB fastball goes an average of 92 mph. Let's say the average MLB breaking pitch breaks 12 inches.
Let's say the average AAA fastball goes 89 and breaking pitch breaks 9 inches.
And finally, let's say major league pitchers have 20% better command of their pitches (These are obviously all hypotheticals, I don't have the data).
Look at Knott's 2006 AAA stats here and tell me this: Could it really be that that extra 3 mph, 3" of break, and 20% of command reduces him from an MVP candidate to someone not worthy of a roster spot?
Here's where the stats come in.
Knott's teammate on the Portland Beavers that year was Jack Cust. Cust hit .293/.467/.549 to Knott's .280/.353/.572. Cust is a few months younger, walks more, hits lefty, and is even worse defensively than Knott is, but they are roughly comparable players in terms of overall value. Cust was considered a Quad-A guy as well, but because of an injury to Mike Piazza, Cust obviously wound up with the A's last year, where he hit .256/.408/.504 and became the A's best hitter.
Cust's AAA-to-MLB translation, thus, becomes this:
87.4% batting average
87.4% on-base percentage
91.8% slugging percentage
Going by these numbers, Knott's '06 AAA line translates to .245/.309/.525 in the majors.
Remember Geoff Jenkins? .255/.319/.471.
The fact that Knott, and everyone on that earlier list I made, continues to waste away in Triple-A not only hurts the players involved, but it hurts every team that signs garbage players. The sooner your favorite team's GM wakes up and realize plenty of guys like this are available for nothing, and you don't need to sign veteran mediocrities to expensive contracts, the sooner you'll see your team shoot up in the standings without taking any salary hits.
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