PT TOMORROW: AL Central—September roster expansion, or churn?

Kansas City Royals

Salvador Perez (C, KC) leads all MLB catchers with 455 AB to date (stats through August 19), with 94 of those collected at DH, and the rest while behind the plate for his 768 innings to date (4th in MLB). News outlets are touting Perez’s chances to reach a 40-HR season, which has only been done by five catchers, most recently by Javy López (C, ATL) in 2003. His chances to do so would seem to be enhanced by a third catcher on the roster, which would allow him to get more time at DH over the final weeks of the season. 

Forcing that issue from his end is MJ Melendez, Jr. (C, KC; pictured above left), who has 31 HR of his own through 326 AB, which ranks second in the minor leagues as of this writing. All but three of those came at AA-Northwest Arkansas, leading to a promotion last week to AAA-Omaha (where he homered in his second game and twice since). 

Melendez was ranked as the #84 overall prospect in BaseballHQ’s 2019 Top 100 Prospects List, with a plus throwing arm and plus power (offset by contact issues). In 2021 he is still controlling the running game, throwing out 18-of-60 baserunners (30%) versus the current MLB average (25% CS), but has greatly improved his plate approach this season (55% ct% in 2019, 75% ct% in 2021). 

He credits his time spent in 2020 at the Royals alternate site, experimenting with his stance and swing without the daily pressure arising from the publication of statistics, and establishing a comfort level at the plate which has carried over as a major component of his 2021 success to date. Continued success in August could push him ahead of Cameron Gallagher (C, KC) in September and into 2022, as Gallagher’s offensive contributions to date (.626 OPS in 346 career AB) may not be enough to withstand the challenge from Melendez. 


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Minnesota Twins

The recent oblique strain for Michael Pineda (RHP, MIN), has reopened the starting rotation auditions in the Twin Cities. First up was Lewis Thorpe (LHP, MIN), who made two rehab starts in his return from a shoulder strain with encouraging results (6 K/ 1 BB in 8.1 innings), but then struggled on August 18 against CLE, yielding three walks and a home run while facing only eight batters. His early season stat line with the Twins showed promising decimals (3.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP in 14 innings), but a lack of dominance in the majors to date (18% K%: 46 K in 259 batters faced) puts a damper on his fantasy value. 

Other alternatives at AAA-St. Paul could include Andrew Albers (LHP, MIN) and Chandler Shepherd (RHP, MIN). The age-35 Albers pitched for the Twins in 2016, then after a year in Seattle, he pitched for three seasons with the Orix Buffaloes from 2018-20. With the Saints, Albers holds a 3.86 ERA and 1.30 WHIP across 91 innings (15 starts and one relief appearance), with a stingy 5% BB compensating for a weak 15% K%, and has been particularly effective over the past month (25 K/ 2 BB in 31.2 innings across five starts). 

The age-28 Shepherd (RHP, MIN) has been almost as good as Albers over the past month, with 24 K/ 9 BB in six starts totaling 32 innings. Shepherd’s MLB debut came in 2019 with Baltimore, after posting a 6% BB% across a 2300 inning minor league career, but he has struggled in 2019 and 2021 with the home run ball (40 HR in 203 IP equals 1.6 hr/9). Neither Shepherd nor Albers would fit in the the Twins long-range plans, but either/both could provide some decent innings depending on Thorpe’s near-term results and/ or Pineda’s return.

 

Chicago White Sox

While the Mayberry Method Health scores for Eloy Jiménez (OF, CHW), Luis Robert (OF, CHW), and Adam Engel (OF, CHW) were all A’s and B’s entering 2021, Engel (shoulder) is now expected to be out for the rest of August, while Jiménez and Robert are being eased back in after lengthy IL stays of their own in 2021. Maybe the White Sox will need another outfielder on the roster in September?

Andrew Vaughn (OF, CHW) was covered in this space recently as someone most likely to hold most of his playing time by cycling though 1B, DH and the outfield corners, but perhaps another outfielder, with both offensive and defensive skills, could be added, particularly considering Vaughn’s below-average range and fielding percentage in the outfield. 

Mikie Mahtook (OF, CHW) has been hot over the past month at AAA-Charlotte, slashing .321/.356/.705 in 78 AB with eight HR. He has demonstrated plus range and league-average fielding in his 2030.2 MLB innings in the field, (last seen in 2019 with DET), and has experience at all three outfield positions. 

Both Brian Goodwin (OF, CHW), and Billy Hamilton (OF, CHW) have similar defensive chops to Mahtook, but Mahtook could see action as a right-handed platoon partner (at a minimum) to the LH-batting Goodwin, as the White Sox chase after the best record in the AL (currently three games behind TAM). Mahtook would also provide a much better batting alternative over Hamilton’s poor plate approach (64% ct%, 3% bb%, 0.08 Eye), leaving Hamilton reserved for pinch-running and late-inning defensive duty on an expanded roster.  

 

Cleveland Indians

Andrés Giménez (SS, CLE) was recalled on August 8, after spending almost three months at AAA-Columbus, where he slashed .287/.342/.502 in 209 AB, his best line since 2016 as a 17-year old in rookie ball. It’s still a small sample since his return, but that recent Triple-A success did not carry back to the majors, as he is only 4-for-24 (all singles) with five walks and three steals. Giménez clearly remains behind Amed Rosario (SS/OF, CLE) in the depth chart at short, and now must also contend with Ernie Clement (2B/3B, CLE) for playing time at second base.

Clement, through his first 98 AB, has a .642 OPS (already superior to Giménez), but over the past month with semi-regular play, those OPS components are all improving. His player box in BaseballHQ.com’s 2021 Minor League Baseball Analyst projected him as a reserve infielder with the defensive ability to move around the diamond while providing decent contact and a handful of steals.

It is more likely that the team will utilize their extra roster slots to bring back injured pitchers such as Shane Bieber (RHP, CLE), Aaron Civale (RHP, CLE), Nick Sandlin (RHP, CLE) and minor leaguers as needed, to spread the remaining innings around across their beleaguered 2021 staff. 

Bieber (shoulder strain) has thrown two successful bullpen sessions over the past week, and is personally targeting a mid-September return, while Civale (sprained finger) is on about the same timeline. Sandlin (shoulder strain), with 48 K/ 17 BB in his 34 innings as a rookie reliever, will be re-evaluated in the coming week to determine whether he will be ready to make a few appearances in 2021, or focus on readiness for 2022.

 

Detroit Tigers

As in Cleveland, the focus in the Motor City is on the pitching staff, particularly innings management for their stable of young pitchers, which we discussed in this space about a month ago. Since then, the team's five starting pitchers (each making five starts) combined for just under five innings per start, but the clock did strike midnight for Wily Peralta (RHP, DET), who has given up 11 walks and 17 earned runs (with six HR) in his last five starts (23 innings). However, reinforcements may be soon on the way to finish out the season. 

In mid-July, Tyler Alexander (LHP, DET) stepped into the rotation slot previously occupied by José Ureña (RHP, DET) who went out then with right groin tightness. Alexander boasts strong control (career 4% BB%), but delivers mediocre decimals thanks to a depressed 8.5 SwK (so he’s not fooling many batters). 

Ureña recently began his rehab assignment at AAA-Toledo, but was limited to a one inning appearance, leading to some speculation that he could return as a reliever or a tandem pitcher behind Matt Manning (RHP, DET), Casey Mize (RHP, DET) or Tarik Skubal (LHP, DET). However, Ureña’s career splits as a reliever (only 61 IP) are worse than those as starter (example: 6.20 ERA, 13% K% as a reliever, 4.65 ERA, 16% K% as a starter), so there may be more usage clues as his rehab assignment continues. 

Meanwhile, Matt Boyd (LHP, DET) threw his first (of reportedly three or four) rehab starts on August 13, as he works his way back from left elbow muscle discomfort. While his first outing was successful, that timeline means another alternative may be needed to replace Peralta in the near term. 

Those options could include MLB veteran starters Drew Hutchison (RHP, DET) and/or Mark Leiter (RHP, DET), both currently toeing the slab in Toledo. Hutchison has pitched decently for the Mud Hens in 2021 (3.63 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 24% K%, 11% BB% in 84 innings), but had a PQS-DISaster in his August 15 spot start with the big club. That could spin the wheel to Leiter, who last pitched in the majors in 2018, but has a 3.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his 10 starts (46.2 innings) in Toledo, supported by his even better 29% K% and 8% BB%. 


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