3 Big Leaguers Who Have No Business Blocking MLB Prospects
It’s unusual for a prospect to experience a quick, uninterrupted ascent to the major leagues.
Despite how it may seem after the emergence of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez and Xander Bogaerts in recent years, a team’s decision to promote a prospect to the major leagues has just as much to do with its 25- and 40-man roster situation as it does that player actually being ready for the highest level.
Often times, a prospect is kept in the minors for what seems like an unnecessarily long time because he’s blocked at the major league level by a veteran (and often costly) player. Other times it’s the exact opposite; a prospect is held in the minors because the organization already has a cost-effective option in the major leagues.
As a result, the club is less inclined to begin its prospect’s service-time clock with an early promotion in such a scenario.
Here are three big leaguers currently on a 25-man roster who have no business blocking MLB prospects.
Franklin Morales, LHP, Colorado Rockies
The Blocker: Franklin Morales, LHP, Colorado Rockies
Franklin Morales was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 8 overall prospect headed into 2008 after he reached the major leagues as a 21-year-old and made eight starts during the previous season. By 2009, however, control issues had forced Morales into a full-time bullpen role, working mostly against left-handed batters.
After posting a 5.24 ERA and a 68-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68.2 innings spanning 75 games between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Rockies decided to part ways with the once highly touted prospect the following year, as they allowed the Red Sox to purchase him a few months into the 2011 season.
Morales served as a valuable swingman for the Red Sox in 2012, making nine starts and appearing in 28 games out of the bullpen, and he enjoyed arguably the best season of his career with a 3.77 ERA and a 76-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.1 innings.
However, a pair of trips to the disabled list last year kept the left-hander from building on his success; Morales missed 52 games to begin the season due to a bulging disc in his lower back and then another 42 games surrounding the All-Star break with a left pectoral strain. When actually healthy, Morales struggled to the tune of a 4.62 ERA and a 21-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25.1 games.
Morales, now 28, returned to the Rockies this offseason via a trade with the Red Sox and ultimately earned a spot in the team’s Opening Day rotation behind a 2.10 ERA and a 28-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25.2 spring innings (seven starts). (I’d be remiss not to mention that the real reason he made the rotation is the result of injuries to Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood.)
Well, Morales’ strong spring hasn’t carried over into the regular season, and he’s now allowed nine earned runs on 16 hits and six walks through two starts (11.2 innings). With a pair of reputable left-handers (Rex Brothers, Boone Logan) in the bullpen, Morales’ sole purpose is to serve as a serviceable-at-best placeholder in the rotation until the team’s aforementioned injured starters return.
However, even when those guys return, it’ll only be a matter of time until their jobs are threatened by one of the Rockies’ high-end pitching prospects, specifically right-hander Eddie Butler.
The Blocked: Eddie Butler, RHP
Butler enjoyed a remarkable full-season debut in 2013, posting a stellar 1.80 ERA and a 143-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 149.2 innings across three levels.
After dominant showings with Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto, the Rockies promoted Butler to Double-A Tulsa in early August. The 23-year-old right-hander responded by putting together arguably his best month of the season, posting a 0.73 ERA and 22 strikeouts over five starts.
Overall, opposing hitters batted a paltry .180 against the right-hander.
Butler has three pitches that grade as plus or better as well as a vastly underrated feel for pitching. Butler’s fastball sits in the mid- to upper 90s with exceptional sink and run to the arm side, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss, wipeout slider in the upper 80s. Lastly, Butler possesses a filthy changeup in the same velocity range that dives off the table and evades barrels.
While the 23-year-old’s strenuous arm action and low release point will always provoke questions about his long-term durability, Butler has passed every test thus far with flying colors.
The right-hander was assigned back to Double-A to begin the season and has looked sharp in both his starts, posting a 2.25 ERA and a 12-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 innings. It shouldn’t be long until Butler gets his first crack at the major leagues.
Miguel Gonzalez, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
The Blocker: Miguel Gonzalez, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
Originally signed as a free agent in 2004 by the Los Angeles Angels, Miguel Gonzalez spent the first two seasons of his career working as a late-inning reliever, reaching Double-A in 2006 as a 22-year-old. The organization decided to move the right-hander into the starting rotation the following year, and he surpassed expectations with a 3.38 ERA in 130.2 innings.
During the subsequent offseason, the Red Sox selected Gonzalez in the Rule 5 draft; however, he ended up missing the entire 2008 season due to a knee injury. He then missed all of 2009 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the Red Sox outrighted him to Triple-A Pawtucket following the season.
Gonzalez spent the next two seasons pitching at various full-season levels in Boston’s system, posting a 4.92 ERA in 130 innings, before his inevitable release in December 2011.
Gonzalez signed as a free agent with the Orioles in early March of the following year, and by the end of May he was in the major leagues making his first career start—as a 28-year-old.
Since his arrival, Gonzalez has been one of Baltimore’s more consistent starters. Specifically, 29 of his 43 starts over the last two seasons were quality starts, and the right-hander posted a 3.58 ERA and a 197-88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 276.2 innings during that time.
And let’s not forget Gonzalez’s impressive start in Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS against the Yankees, when he allowed one run on five hits and struck out eight batters in seven innings.
However, Gonzalez’s FIPs (4.38 in 2012, 4.45 in 2013) from FanGraphs have always suggested he’s due for a regression, and based on his shaky start to the current season, this could be the year. Luckily, the Orioles have an impact young arm in Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings at Triple-A Norfolk should that happen.
The Blocked: Kevin Gausman, RHP
It was a busy 2013 season for Kevin Gausman—the No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 draft—as he was rushed to the major leagues as a starter in May (7.66 ERA in 24.2 innings) before finally finding success as a reliever in September. On the year, the 23-year-old appeared in 15 games out of the bullpen, posting a 3.52 ERA and a 29-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 innings.
The 6’3” right-hander has easy velocity at 94-99 mph with his four-seam fastball; his two-seamer registers a few ticks slower but features more arm-side run. Gausman’s changeup is a legitimate plus-plus pitch in the low to mid-80s with devastating, splitter-like drop, and he’s made noticeable strides improving his slider over the last year.
In general, Gausman’s electric arsenal and plus command profile give him an insanely high ceiling, and with a more consistent and effective breaking ball, he could realize that potential in short order.
Back in the Triple-A rotation to begin the season, it didn’t take long for Gausman to remind everyone that he’s ready for the major leagues; in his season debut last week, the right-hander fired 4.2 shutout innings with six strikeouts.
Alex Presley, OF, Houston Astros
The Blocker: Alex Presley, OF, Houston Astros
An eighth-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2006, Alex Presley spent parts of four seasons (2010-13) bouncing between the minor and major leagues, primarily serving as the team’s fourth outfielder and a platoon option against right-handed pitching.
In 2012, Presley, 25 at the time, enjoyed the best season of his career, batting .298/.339/.465 with 22 extra-base hits and nine stolen bases in 52 games. The following year, however, he took on an expanded role and was overexposed against big league pitching, posting a .683 OPS and a 72-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104 games.
Presley appeared in only 29 games with the Pirates in 2013 before he was traded to the Twins on Aug. 31 as part of the Justin Morneau deal and posted a .699 OPS in 28 games for his new club in the final month of the regular season.
However, Presley’s stay in the Twin Cities was short-lived, as the Astros off waivers claimed him in late March after the 28-year-old failed to make Minnesota’s Opening Day roster.
Though he’s better suited for left field, Presley has and is expected to continue seeing occasional playing time in right field this season, as he provides the Astros with a left-handed hitting complement to the right-handed hitter L.J. Hoes.
Yet, with highly touted prospect George Springer on the cusp of the major leagues, Presley’s time as an Astro is seemingly running out; when Springer arrives, Hoes will likely be relegated to a bench role (or even sent to Triple-A) and Presley put on waivers.
The Blocked: George Springer
George Springer continued his assault on minor league pitching in 2013, as the now-24-year-old put up the kind of numbers that made his 2012 stats look like a warm-up act.
Splitting the season between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, Springer batted .303/.411/.600 with 68 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 106 runs and 108 RBI in 590 plate appearances.
And just for good measure, he also stole 45 bases in 53 attempts. The outfielder’s 30-30 performance was the first in the minor leagues since 2009, and he ultimately fell three home runs shy of joining the 40-40 club.
Few players in the minors—and soon to be majors—are as naturally gifted as Springer, who showcases four plus tools (power, speed, glove, arm) on any given night. For that reason, there are even fewer players with as high of a ceiling as the Astros’ future outfielder.
However, the ongoing development of Springer’s hit tool and plate discipline will ultimately determine whether he’s an All-Star-caliber player or a major league regular. Either way, he’ll receive his first taste of the major leagues this season, though it probably won’t happen until June (at the earliest), once he’s free of service-time concerns.