Messrs. Immaterial Aren't Always

TORONTO, CANADA: Rajai Davis #11 of the Toronto Blue Jays slides safely into second base as Blake Davis #28 of the Baltimore Orioles covers the bag during MLB game action at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)

If you follow the National Football League, you probably know about Mr. Irrelevant: the last player selected in the NFL draft. He gets an award and everything, and it's all in good fun. The really funny thing, though: Sometimes those guys actually make something of themselves in the pro game. Marty Moore played in a Super Bowl, David Vobora has been a starting linebacker in the NFL, and Ryan Succop has been the Chiefs' place-kicker since getting drafted.

Granted, Mr. Irrelevant isn't anything like what he once was. When the "award" was invented in 1976, the draft included 17 rounds and 487 players were selected; now, there are only seven rounds and (last year) 254 picks.

I thought about all this last week, when my annual Baseball America Prospect Handbook -- with reports on each organization's top 30 prospects -- arrived with the day's post. When you order directly (as I did), you receive an "exclusive bonus supplement": The 31st Prospects, in the form of a separately bound pamphlet.

I have to admit that in the past, I've not even skimmed this supplement, perhaps just looking at the Royals' 31st prospect and then filing it away. After all, how interesting could a prospect be, who couldn't even make the top 30? How relevant could he be?

I believe the supplement first appeared in 2009, so I decided to check. I'm going to just run through the names and you can stop me when you see a name you know. Ready? Here we go ...

Pat McAnaney. Concepcion Rodriguez. Blake Davis. Ryan Dent. Aaron Shafer. Jack Egbert. Philippe Valiquette. Mike Pontius. Andrew Graham. Jonah Nickerson. Todd Doolittle. Kyle Greenwalt. Edward Cegarra. P.J. Phillips. Justin Orenduff.

What? We're halfway through the list, and nothing yet? Hey, I don't blame you. There aren't any household names up there, though you might have recognized a major leaguer or two. Especially if you follow the Orioles.

Pat McAnaney didn't pitch professionally last year. Not that I can find, anyway. Concepcion Rodriguez has a perfectly lovely baseball name, but he didn't play in the minors last year, either.

Blake Davis is different. Baseball America doesn't like older prospects, because older prospects have little chance of becoming stars or even regulars. They do often become major leaguers, though, and Blake Davis got into 25 games with the Orioles last season. In fact, BA sorta called it: "Davis' defensive ability alone gives him a chance to win a big league utility job." He played at second base, shortstop and third base for the O's. And he even hit okay.

Ryan Dent batted .206 in Class AA last season. Aaron Shafer threw 94 in college but doesn't any more; last summer he did dominate hitters in his two Frontier League starts.

Jack Egbert actually reached the majors just a few months after gaining his entry in The 31st Prospects. In two brief appearances with the White Sox he gave up eight runs, and hasn't been seen (in the majors) since.

I believe that, given the highly arbitrary nature of the endeavor, the editors of The 31st Prospects occasionally make selections based on a player's story, or even his name. Which I'm pretty sure is how Philippe Valiquette got into the 2009 edition. He's a character from a Dumas novel! Why not? But it's actually even better than that. The Montreal native's full name is Philippe-Alexandre Valiquette. He's the next best thing to having les Expos back. Except he didn't pitch in the minors in 2011, despite having pitched decently in double- and triple-A in 2010. Où avez-vous disparu, Phillippe-Alexandre?

Since gaining his No. 31 status, Mike Pontius has done most of his pitching in the Canadian-American Association, which is definitely better than not pitching at all. If you really like pitching, I mean. Then there's Colorado's Andy Graham, who did his pitching last season in the Pacific Coast League, which would be good news except when you pitch for Colorado that means pitching for Colorado Springs, where earned-run averages go to die. Andy Graham's ERA in 31 games with the C-Springs SkYsOX: 7.21. Speaking of pitchers, Jonah Nickerson went 12-4 with a 3.99 ERA in Class A in 2008 and 8-12 with 5.33 ERA in AA in 2009 and that was it. Twenty-four years old. Second prize is you get to pitch in Colorado Springs. Third prize is you're fired.

Todd Doolittle pitches, too. Just not often enough. He did quite well last season with New Orleans, except for pitching in only 18 games. Still, it's been some career for a 5'10" right-hander who doesn't throw hard and wasn't drafted and was signed by a scout (supposedly) named Dave Dangles. Hey, you never know. Ryan Vogelsong.

Kyle Greenwalt reached Class AA last season. That must have felt good. Until the 7.86 ERA in 28 games. Then there's Edward Cegarra, who apparently is the 2009 sufferer of the famous Curse of 31; he hasn't pitched a professional inning since making the list. Shortstop P. J. Phillips missed all of 2010 and saw his limited action in 2011 with Inland Empire in the California League, at 24. Checking this year's Prospect Handbook ... Wow, there's P. J. Phillips! No. 2 on the Angels' list, right behind Mike Trout! No. Not really.

But Phillips might, last summer, have faced Justin Orenduff, who reached triple-A in 2008, went back to A-ball in 2009, missed 2010, and tried the California League again in 2011. Result: 8.74 ERA in eight games. Vogelsong.

That was the first 15 of our 30 31ers, and it's hard to argue that Baseball America really missed on any of them. But what about the second 15:

Erik Komatsu, Jason Pridie, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Kevin Russo, Pedro Figueroa, Sebastian Valle, Tony Watson, Deryk Hooker, Mike Ekstrom, Merkin Valdez, Mike Wilson, Justin Ruggiano, Mitch Moreland, Kyle Ginley, J.R. Higley

Now there are some familiar names, no? Six major leaguers! And one in particular, right?

But first there's Erik Komatsu, who got traded straight up last summer for Jerry Hairston, going from the Brewers to the Nationals. And just a few months later, the Nationals lost Komatsu to the Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft, so there's at least a chance that Komatsu will spend all of 2012 in the majors, lest the Cards have to give him back. That does seem unlikely, considering he didn't make this year's list of top 30 prospects for St. Louis. But somebody must like him.

Jason Pridie made the List of 31s after spending his Age 24 with triple-A Rochester and doing not much at all. But he'd once been a second-round draft choice, and he'd done well in the minors generally. He's not really hit at all since then, but last season the Mets were so desperate for outfield help that Pridie got into 101 games with the big club. And posted a .231/.309/.370 line, perhaps sealing his fate.

Speaking of the Mets, Kirk Nieuwenhuis played for the Mets' triple-A club in 2011 and played well, with a .298/.405/.505 line. The Mets were desperate. Nieuwenhuis looked ready. And then he got hurt. After 53 games in the minors, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder. Now he's reporting to camp this spring and hoping for a comeback. Whatever happens, he's already done better than most 31ers do.

So has Kevin Russo, who played in 31 games for the New York Yankees in 2010. Sure, the Yankees were desperate and Russo can't hit. But he was a New York Yankee for the better part of three months. Not bad for a 31er.

Pedro Figueroa went 13-6 with two Class A teams in 2009. Since then he's been hurt, mostly. Pitchers.

When catcher Sebastian Valle made the list in 2009, he was only 18 and coming off a fine season in rookie ball. Why didn't he sneak on to the Phillies' top 30 list? Hard to say. But Li'l Sebastian has grown up; though he's still not escaped Class A, he's now classed as the Phillies' No. 3 prospect and figures to reach the majors in 2013 or '14.

In 2009, pitcher Tony Watson reached Class AA for the first time but pitched in only five games. He gave up 18 runs in 15 innings. But then he pulled off a mini-Vogelsong. Shifting mostly to the bullpen in 2010, Watson returned to double-A and pitched brilliantly. And last year the left-hander debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates in June and finished the season with a 3.95 ERA. Watson issued too many walks and gave up too many home runs, but he's probably got a job with the big club lined up this spring and he's already done far more than anyone expected, three years ago.

It's too early to give up on Cardinal farmhand Deryk Hooker, too. He became a 31er three years after striking out 10 batters per nine innings in rookie- and A-ball. Then Hooker pitched only 61 innings in 2009, 111 in 2010, and 65 in 2011. John D. Hooker just doesn't seem to be physically equipped to pitch every five days. But he pitched in double-A last season and he's still only 22 and you never can tell with these guys.

Mike Ekstrom's an odd 31er; at the time of his inclusion, he had already pitched in the majors, with the Padres. Ekstrom pitched in a few more games with San Diego in 2009 and Tampa Bay in 2010, then pitched one inning with the Rays in 2011. He throws right-handed and doesn't throw hard and is 28, but he's just a heartbeat (or two) away from getting that seventh slot in the bullpen.

Merkin Valdez was a strange choice for a No. 31 slot. Not that he didn't deserve it. But Valdéz had actually pitched in the majors five years earlier, getting into a couple of games with the Giants in 2004. But Valdéz hadn't really earned that shot with his minor-league performance, and he spent the next two seasons in the minors before missing all of 2007 with an injury. Valdéz returned to the majors -- as a Giant, again -- in 2008 and pitched well in 17 games ... before struggling in 2009. He's seen major-league action in 2010 and '11, but most of that time's been spent in the minors. Unlike Ekstrom, a fellow right-handed reliever, Valdéz does throw hard, routinely hitting 95 on the gun. He doesn't always know where it's going.

Mike Wilson? Oh, just one more 31er who reached the majors. He made the list after hitting 27 home runs in Class AA. Of course, he was also 25 years old. Wilson didn't do nearly as well in AAA, either in 2009 or '10. But he got off to a good start last spring with triple-A Tacoma, debuted with the Mariners on the 10th of May and spent a few weeks with the big club. Wilson finished with a .331/.418/.555 line with Tacoma, and earned himself another season of paychecks to play the game, at least.

Justin Ruggiano's another guy who'd already played in the majors -- Tampa Bay, in his case -- before becoming a 31er. I actually thought Ruggiano would turn into a solid major leaguer. I was wrong about Ruggiano, and Baseball America was right. He spent all of 2009 and '10 with triple-A Durham, and most of '11 too. The Rays did give him another shot in the majors last year, and he went .248/.273/.400 in 111 plate appearances. Much like Dan Johnson and Russ Canzler, Ruggiano has solid minor-league numbers but apparently has been deemed by Rays management as a minor leaguer. And Rays management doesn't get many things wrong.

And at last, our List of 31s star: Mitch Moreland. I wrote about Moreland just last week, but here's an interesting tidbit from his Baseball America report:

Interestingly, if Moreland's bat doesn't play at higher levels, he could have a future as a left-handed reliever. He made two appearances during blowouts in 2008, and the Rangers let him pitch during instructional league. In short stints, he showed a 93-94 mph fastball, a promising slider and feel for a changeup. Texas has discussed developing a program that will allow him to both hit and pitch in high Class A this season. A fierce competitor, Moreland has the makeup to succeed in either role.

Scouting is hard. We all know that. But we have to admit that Baseball America really missed on Moreland, who was coming off a season in which, at 22, he'd batted .324/.400/.536 in the slow-A Midwest League. He was a 17th-round draft pick and not particularly young for his league and our man John Sickels didn't mention Moreland in his annual prospect book at all. He did make John's book a year later, in which John wrote, "He had a great year in the Midwest League in 2008, but scouting reports were still pretty negative, and I didn't bother to put him in the book ... Normally I'm all over guys like that, but I left him out for space reasons."

I know John well enough to believe him. The point is that guys will surprise you. And among the 31st Prospects, Moreland is obviously the best example, considering that just two years later he was playing first base in the World Series.

Then there's right-hander Kyle Ginley, who's pitched exactly seven and one-third innings since becoming a 31er. We can only guess -- without bothering to click the mouse a few times, of course -- which sorts of terrible things happened to his once-moderately impressive right arm.

And finally, we've got Class A outfielder J.R. Higley. He made the list after batting .346 in 35 games in the short-season Gulf Coast League, which was his first exposure to professional baseball after the Nationals made him a ninth-round draft pick. Last year he reached fast-A and ... well, he batted substantially less than .346. Higley turns 24 this summer, and time's running out on him.

But of our 30 No. 31 prospects, eight have played in the majors since gaining the appellation, which is certainly more than I would have guessed. I suppose there's a message in there, somewhere.

P.S. I just took a peek at this year's Book of 31 ... Haven't heard of a one of them. We'll check back in 2015.

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