Prospect development is certainly more art than science. Each player progresses at a different pace. Some benefit from the ‘sink or swim’ approach of early promotion to the majors, whereas others need time to marinate across the full breadth of minor league levels. The MLB has undergone a prospect revolution of sorts over the past five years, with an increasing frequency of stud AA players skipping AAA and making an immediate impact in the majors (e.g., Andrew Benitendi, Miguel Sano, Lance McCullers). Even the players who do go to AAA end up spending a scant amount of time there (e.g., Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman), whereas in eras past it was standard for most prospects to accrue half to full seasons at AAA before tasting The Show.
Despite the game’s youth movement, there are a handful of prospects stuck in the minors for far too long. One of particular interest is Jose Berrios, a right-handed pitcher for the Twins who is finding it difficult to crack the MLB squad. Berrios, a Baseball America top 50 prospect since 2014, is one of the most exciting young arms in the game. Though it feels like he’s been around for forever, Berrios is still only 22 years old. He’s had a gradual ascent through the minors, debuting in A ball back in 2013 as an 18-year old and methodically eviscerating hitters all the way up through AAA.
Berrios has 104 A, 96 A+, 131 AA and 230 AAA innings in his professional career, good for over 550 minor league innings all told. He’s become especially familiar with Minnesota’s AAA affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, spending the better part of the last three seasons there. Berrios has acquitted himself well in Rochester, sporting a 2.51 ERA, 9.8 K/9, and 4.1 K/B ratio across 230 innings from 2015 to current day.
After logging impressive performances at every minor league level, Berrios finally earned a call-up to the Twins in late April 2016. The immediate results were not pretty, with Jose logging an 8.02 ERA / 6.20 FIP / 5.64 xFIP across 14 starts and 58 1/3 innings (in case you were counting, that’s barely over four innings per start).
Berrios, who owns a four-pitch repertoire consisting of a four-seamer, two-seamer, curveball and changeup, struggled mightily with his fastball command at the major league level. His off-speed pitches also got knocked around, with his changeup surrendering a .657 simple slugging percentage and a .371 isolated slugging percentage. Simply put, Berrios’ first taste of the MLB was an unmitigated disaster.
But Minnesota’s reticence to give Berrios another shot with the big club doesn’t make much sense. Jose took his lumps, went back down to AAA and continued to dominate. A career 2.51 ERA with a 4.1 K/BB ratio in AAA as a 20-22-year old are elite numbers. Unfortunately, Twins skipper Paul Molitor is not a fan of looking at those gosh-darn newfangled numbers:
“I don’t know if I want to start looking at all the numbers you have a tendency to use in today’s game,” Molitor said.
So Berrios clearly has that working against him. What does he have working for him? The decrepit state of Minnesota’s current pitching staff. While a combined staff era of 3.93 might not appear so bad, it is built on a house of cards. Their 5.03 xFIP is tied for the worst in the league. Kyle Gibson, whose 2017 ERA of 8.20 was somehow worse than Berrios’ 2016 ERA of 8.02, was recently sent down to Rochester. Adalberto Mejia was sent down to Rochester several weeks ago. Nick Tepesch, Mejia’s replacement, allowed seven runs, although only one earned, against the Red Sox over the weekend.
As it stands, Berrios can’t do any worse than what the Twins are trotting out there right now. And while a young player should not be promoted simply out of positional necessity in the majors, it’s difficult to see what else Berrios has to prove at the AAA level. The scuttlebutt is that Berrios could get the call to start Saturday in Cleveland, but the organization is non-committal. It’s time to throw Berrios into the fire and see what he’s got.