Mar. 5, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Jonathan Diaz fields a ground ball during spring training against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
Though he has yet to appear in a game, Drew Taylor became the 38th former N. C. State player to make it to the major leagues when the Los Angeles Angels added him to their 40-man roster and called him up from AAA Salt Lake when rosters expanded September 1st.
No other Wolfpack alum, save for San Francisco's Eric Surkamp, who is on the 60-day DL and out for the season, currently enjoys a spot on an MLB team's roster, but 5 former State standouts have reached at least AA and may have a shot at cracking their teams' respective big league rosters next year if things break right.
The most likely candidate is Cory Mazzoni, who has vaulted all the way to AA already after having been drafted just last year. The Mets' 2nd round pick posted a 3.10 ERA in A ball, but has hit a bit of a speed bump at AA Binghamton, where he is 5-5 with a 4.46 ERA in 14 starts. Mazzoni allowed just .42 home runs per 9 innings in A+ ball this year, but that number has grown to 1/9 in AA, and his strikeouts per 9 innings have fallen off as well. Still, he has a solid 2.8 K/BB ratio and advanced metrics see his fielding independent ERA at 4.08 in AA, so the hard-throwing righty has been a little unlucky.
Mazzoni, who is younger than the average AA baller at 22, will most likely return to Binghamton in 2013, and if he can successfully adjust to the level, getting his ERA back down in the 3's, he may find himself in the back end of the Mets' rotation before next year is over. Even if his performance remains about the same, as a high pick, Mazzoni would be a candidate to get added to the 40-man roster for a September cup of coffee and big league trial in 2013. The Mets are known for aggressively promoting prospects, and the brass is likely eager to see what kind of return they can get on the nearly half a million dollars they invested in Mazzoni on draft day.
Two other former Pack standouts have reached AAA, though, unlike Mazzoni, who SB Nation guru John Sickels ranks as the 10th best prospect in the Mets' system, Jake Buchanan and Jonathan Diaz are not considered top prospects.
Buchanan, an 8th round pick of the Astros in 2010, was shelled in 3 games in the pitcher-hating Pacific Coast League, where he went 0-1 with a 10.12 ERA. Though it is a small sample, the 17 hits Buchanan surrendered in 8 innings is a microcosm of the righty's minor league career. He does not walk many or give up the long ball at a prodigious rate, but he has given up over 10 hits per 9 innings in his professional career, and that will not get you a call up even to the major's worst club.
Fielding independent pitching has always liked him better than his actual ERA; he had a 3.90 FIP at AA Corpus Christi but a 4.96 actual ERA. FIP weights outcomes pitchers have the most control over, like walks, strikeouts, and giving up home runs, but posits that the number of hits a pitcher allows is largely due to defense and luck. It is hard to believe that Buchanan has simply had bad luck and bad defense for 369 professional innings, but perhaps there is some glimmer of hope that he can ride a lucky batting average on balls in play streak to the big leagues. He does have age (22 in AAA) and playing for the pitching-starved Astros on his side.
Jonathan Diaz was in his 4th stint at AAA in the Toronto Blue Jays organization for most of this season. The 7-year minor league veteran was a 12th round pick of the Jays in 2006 and has long held the ability to play a major-league caliber middle infield. The problem is that he cannot hit. His .374 on base percentage at Las Vegas looks solid, but it comes with a pathetic .317 slugging percentage in the most hitter-friendly environment this side of the moon. The 27-year-old will never enjoy a long career in the majors, but with his ability to play excellent defense all over the infield, an injury or two on the big league club could see him get some 25th man utility duty if he keeps holding on to the dream.
Alex Sogard, Buchanan's teammate at Corpus Christi for most of the season, could carve out a Drew Taylor-like surprise opportunity in the Show. Like Taylor, who went in the 34th round, Sogard was a late pick, lasting until the 26th round when the Astros plucked him in the 2010 draft. Sogard has pitched pretty well in AA, posting a 3.86 ERA out of the bullpen while allowing just 0.5 home runs per 9 innings; however, his walks have been on the rise and his strikeouts on the decline as the 25-year-old lefty has climbed the minor league ladder. After fanning over a batter an inning in A ball, his AA rate decreased to 5.87/9. That, and a walk rate going from the high 2's to the 4's, does not bode well for his chance of success at the next level, be it AAA or the big leagues.
One thing Taylor has to his advantage is that he is tough on lefties, giving him a chance to carve out a lefty specialist role for the Angels, but Sogard actually has reverse splits this season. Lefties are hitting .333 off of him, making the odds even longer for him to ascend to the majors. But, like Buchanan, he is in the right organization to get an opportunity.
Another former Pack lefty, James Gillheeney, looks suspect as a prospect on the surface. His career minor league ERA is 4.67, and he has been very prone to the gopher ball, giving up 1.3 per 9 innings over his 4-year stint since the Mariners tabbed him with their 8th round selection in the 2009 draft. But, over half of his professional innings have been in the hitter-friendly High Desert League. His K/BB ratios (8.5/3.3 for his career) have been solid wherever he has pitched, and his home runs allowed and ERA dropped significantly upon a late-season promotion to AA and the less hitterish Southern League. In 5 starts there, Gillheeney posted a 3.81 ERA. Though he is getting a little old for a prospect just reaching AA-Gillheeney turns 25 in November-he still has an outside shot at the majors and could post decent numbers pitching half his games in cavernous Safeco Field. Gillheeney has been a starter in all but 2 of his minor league appearances, but it would not be surprising if the Mariners try to see how his strikeout stuff plays in shorter stints out of the bullpen, where he could make for a solid middle reliever.
With the minor league seasons over save for the playoffs, we'll check back in with updates on Pack alum in the lower minors, like SALLY all-star Harold Riggins, in the near future.