From A ball to MLB: Prospects on fast track

September 16th, 2020

The unique circumstances surrounding this year’s pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season have prompted teams to call up prospects at an unprecedented rate. Specifically, 193 players have already made their big league debuts in 2020 -- a total that is sure to increase with roughly two weeks remaining in this year’s 60-game regular-season schedule.

While that number is down from previous seasons, when teams played a full 162-game schedule, the frequency at which prospects have been promoted this year is particularly notable, especially when it comes to players who entered the year without Double-A experience getting called up to the Majors.

Of the 193 players to make their debuts this year, 19 have made the jump directly to the Major Leagues from either the Class A or Class A Advanced level. To help put that into context, there were only 16 players who made that same jump to the big leagues from 2013-19, a seven-year stretch during which a total of 1,746 reached the Majors for the first time.

And while 40-man roster status certainly played a role in influencing which prospects received promotions early in the season, it hasn’t been a factor in September, with service-time issues no longer a concern.

So, why are teams turning to inexperienced prospects more than ever this year?

Well, for some organizations, the decision to promote such players has served as a means of both improving their roster and playoff chances in a season where 16 postseason spots are up for grabs. Other teams, meanwhile, have had to call up prospects out of sheer necessity, using their farm system to help fill the vacancies on their Major League roster caused by injuries and/or illness, or, in some cases, to provide additional roster depth as they try to play a high volume of games in a short amount of time.

Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, some clubs just want to see what their future might look like and are using the 2020 season to give their top prospects invaluable experience at the highest level, hoping it will lead to expedited success in years to come.

In breaking down the crop of players who have jumped from Class A/Class A Advanced to the Major Leagues this year, we find that pitchers comprise 11 of the 19 spots on the ever-growing list. While that number isn’t all that surprising given the increased demand for arms under this year’s abbreviated regular season and expanded postseason format, the fact that four of those 11 hurlers made their big league debut as a starter is historic.

Prior to this season, there had been only five pitchers since the start of 2007 who started their Major League debut straight from Class A/Class A Advanced:
Nick Margevicius (SD), 3/30/19
Jose Fernandez (FLA), 4/7/13
Mike Leake (CIN), 4/11/10 (skipped Minors entirely)
Rick Porcello (DET), 4/9/09
Rick Van Den Hurk (FLA), 4/10/07

That list has grown to nine thanks to this season’s spate of callups and features several noteworthy names:
Jonathan Stiever (CWS No. 6), 9/13/20
Brax Garrett (MIA No. 7), 9/13/20
Humberto Mejía (MIA), 8/7/20
Kris Bubic (KC No. 7), 7/31/20

Bubic, whom the Royals selected 40th overall during their pitching-heavy, organization-changing 2018 Draft, joined Kansas City’s rotation in late July after an impressive first full season where he racked up a Minor League-best 185 strikeouts between Class A Lexington and Class A Advanced Wilmington. Garrett looked sharp and picked up the win in his debut against the Phillies, tossing five innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts a little more than four years after the Marlins took him with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 Draft. Stiever, a 2018 fifth-round pick, allowed one run on two hits over 3 2/3 innings against Detroit in his first taste of the Major Leagues, while Mejia -- the lone member of the group already on his team’s 40-man roster -- recorded six of his seven outs via strikeout in his first of three starts with Miami before joining the D-backs at the 2020 Trade Deadline.

Below is the list of the other pitchers who have debuted this season:
Johan Quezada (MIA), 9/12/20
Luis Garcia (HOU No. 16), 9/4/20
Phil Bickford (MIL), 9/1/20
Carlos Hernandez (KC No. 12), 9/1/20
Seth Romero (WSH No. 11), 8/13/20
Nivaldo Rodriguez (HOU No. 29), 7/28/20
Jordan Holloway (MIA No. 25), 7/26/20

Quezada and Bickford, a former first-round pick (2015) by San Francisco, are the only two non-Top 30 prospects on the above list as well as the oldest, having made their respective debuts at ages 26.018 and 25.053. Garcia and Rodriguez have both filled in admirably for the injury-plagued Astros. Romero, Washington’s 2017 first-round pick (No. 25 overall), and Hernandez are the only players this year to go straight from Class A to the Major Leagues.

The position players who have jumped from Class A/Class A Advanced to the Major Leagues this season are headlined by four catching prospects, all of whom are 22 or younger and currently rank among their organization’s Top 10 prospects. The headliners in that group, Luis Campusano (SD No. 4) and Sam Huff (TEX No. 2), are both Top 100 prospects, ranked 50th and 74th, respectively. They are joined by a pair of 21-year-olds in Alejandro Kirk (TOR No. 6), who recently became the youngest Blue Jays player to debut at catcher since Carlos Delgado in 1993, and the Phillies’ Rafael Marchan (No. 8).

In addition to Huff, the Rangers also have called up two other Top 10 prospects in their system in shortstop Anderson Tejeda (No. 7) and corner infielder Sherten Apostel (No. 10). The Reds, meanwhile, have turned over shortstop duties to José García (No. 6), a Cuban defector who signed for nearly $5 million back in July 2016, and former Top 100 prospect Estevan Florial, currently No. 7 on the Yankees’ Top 30, has been up with the Bronx Bombers on several occasions this season.

In terms of results, the 11 pitchers who’ve seen Major League action this season have combined for 1.1 bWAR over 87 innings. Bubic, who’s 1-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 40 innings (eight starts), leads the way with 0.6 WAR, followed by Garcia (0.5 WAR) and Garrett (0.3). And while hitters haven’t fared as well against big league pitching, with eight players collectively accruing -0.3 WAR, it’s also worth noting that García and Tejeda are the only members of this year’s class to have appeared in more than two games up to this point.

For many of the teams featured in this article, the experience gained by their young players far outweighs any on-field contributions (or lack therefore). Teams such as the Royals, Rangers and Marlins, organizations that all have strong farm systems to varying degrees, have their sights set on the future and hope many of the players they’ve promoted this season can become key contributors next year and beyond.

Whether this year’s trend of players being promoted from Class A/Class A Advanced to the Majors continues in 2021 will largely depend on the nature of the season -- i.e., the continuation of expanded rosters and a 16-team postseason format. Regardless, it will be interesting to assess at this time next year how the 2020 season’s flurry of prospect promotions might have impacted teams' decision-making process, and whether teams who previously were reluctant to call up younger, less-experienced players are more willing to do so.