One of the most exciting aspects of having Minor League Baseball back is watching the players we all expect to be our next great superstars. Other exciting aspects include: strange regional foods, dizzy bat races among lucky fans, the works.
The point is, when we scour the Minor League box scores every day, we are looking, essentially, for the future: We want to know who’s coming next. The only problem with that is, well, baseball’s a tough, funny game. Sometimes it takes a while for players to figure themselves out. Remember, Mike Trout hit .220 in his first 40 games in the Majors. Just because someone’s a future star doesn’t mean they’re not going to struggle. And just because someone’s struggling doesn’t mean they’re not going to turn into a superstar.
So today, we look at five current superstars … and the worst year they had in the Minors. It’s a process, you know. It takes time. In the words of Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure … “They get better.”
José Ramírez, 3B, Cleveland
2013: 3 HR, .325 OBP, 533 plate appearances at Double-A
Can you imagine a world where Ramírez -- a guy who hit 39 homers in 2018 and hit 17 in 58 games last year -- only had three homers in 533 plate appearances? Ramírez was known for his speed and defense in the Minors, but certainly not for his bat. It’s not like his power exploded before he reached the Majors at all; he had only one homer at Triple-A Columbus in 44 games in 2015. But then he hit 11 with Cleveland in 2016, 29 in '17 and he was off. He didn’t lose that speed, though. Power can come late. With Ramírez, it came very late.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
2013: 7-7, 4.51 ERA in 26 starts across three levels, 10.2 H/IP
Ever wonder why it took deGrom so long to get to the Majors? (He was nearly 26 when he finally got the call in 2014.) Look at his 2013 numbers. deGrom made two starts at Class A, but the jumps to Double-A and Triple-A just ended up with him getting hit hard. Double-A was particularly tough: He had a 4.80 ERA in 10 starts, and can you imagine a world where deGrom only struck out 44 guys in 60 innings in Double-A? The next year, 2014, was his breakthrough, though, with seven terrific starts in Las Vegas before being called up and pitching to a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts in Flushing. And he has been Jacob deGrom ever since.
Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees
2015: .224 BA, .308 OBP, 74 K in 228 AB at Triple-A
Judge is another player who is older than you think he is (29), and that’s because it really did take him a while to lock in in the Minors. Obviously, he had plenty of power, but there was reason to wonder whether or not he’d ever decipher the intricacies and subtleties of hitting. (Not to mention his massive strike zone.) One more year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- in 2016, when he got on base at a .366 clip -- did the trick. Then, like many other players on this list, it all locked in for him when he arrived in the Majors. Funny how that works.
Blake Snell, LHP, Padres
2013: 4.27 ERA, 23 starts, 6.6 BB/9 at Class A
Like a lot of pitchers, Snell struggled with his control early on in his career, and it was never worse than his third year in the Rays' system, when he could barely get the ball over the plate. He still struck out a bunch of guys, more than one an inning, so the talent was clearly there. But if you saw him then, he looked a long, long way away from the Majors. He’d win an AL Cy Young Award five years later.
Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
2004: 5.37 ERA in 12 starts at Triple-A
The Cardinals’ pilfering of the Georgia boy Wainwright from the Braves in the J.D. Drew trade is considered one of the best deals in team history, but it’s worth noting, Wainwright, a highly regarded prospect, was awfully wobbly at first. In 12 starts for Memphis, he had a 5.37 ERA, with walks a big problem, averaging four per nine innings. It was also in 2004 that he began to work with a new batterymate: a 21-year-old named Yadier Molina.
And, just for historical perspective, here is Derek Jeter’s line in his first year in the Rookie League: 199 PA, three homers, two stolen bases, .202 batting average.
So remember: You just gotta give these kids some time. They’ll get there.