The AAA level is an interesting one, in that young, promising prospects play with veterens on their last legs. Nowhere is that more evident than in Buffalo. Jason Bere, who has spent the past three seasons coming back from one arm injury after the other, recently retired after just three starts with the Bisons. The 33-year-old had little left; AAA hitters touched him up for 15 runs in just eight innings. You also have players like Ernie Young, who probably don’t have many opportunities left, but play anyway. Young is 35 years old, and the last time he made more than 100 plate appearances in the majors was 1996.
Then there’s the young prospects, who see Buffalo as the last obstacle in their paths to the majors. Fernando Cabrera, who got a cup of coffee with the Indians last year, seems to have put it all together in 2005; he’s cut down on his walks (3 in 21 innings), and if this were 2004, he’d already be in Cleveland. Andrew Brown, one half of the duo received for Milton Bradley, has had trouble adjusting to the bullpen thus far. Like Cabrera, Brown has been a starter his entire professional career, and made the switch to the bullpen once he reached the high minors. Ryan Garko, who has done nothing but hit since drafted in 2003, is on the cusp of the majors, but he has no set position; he was a catcher in college, but most think that he’ll be a first baseman or designated hitter in the majors. John Farrell, the Indians’ farm director, has said that Garko is one of the most polished offensive players he’s seen. “Pure bats,” or good offensive players without a position, tend to have a difficult time getting opportunities in the majors, and Ryan is already 24, but if he continues to hit, the Indians will have to shoehorn him onto their roster somehow.
Then there’s a group of players in their late 20s and early 30s who are running out of time to make a career for themselves. Jake Gautreau, the team’s third baseman, has had injuries derail his career so far. He’s hit well this season (.277/.323/.538), and given Aaron Boone’s struggles, he may get a shot soon. But many times, the call never comes, be it because of a veteren at the major-league level, or other circumstances. John Rodriguez, who had until this year spent his entire professional career in the Yankee organization probably knows all too well what can happen when the major-league club has little room for a young player. Rodriguez had a career year in 2004, hitting .294/.382/.542, but the Yankees had no need for him due to guys like Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui in their outfield. Others in this boat include outfielder Andy Abad and Steve Watkins, a pitcher from the Padre organization.
There’s also a group of disappointments who have returned to Buffalo to figure something out, whether that be a swing or a delivery. Brandon Phillips, who in 2003 was tabbed the Indians’ next star player, hit an absymal .208/.242/.311 during his stint with the Indians, was sent down, and hasn’t received an extended opportunity since. Now Jhonny Peralta, who played with Phillips in 2004, is playing for the Indians at short, and Ronnie Belliard, picked up in 2004, has become the team’s second baseman. Phillips is no longer talked about as a future core player, but in Buffalo, there’s still an opportunity for a young player to get a second chance. Jeremy Guthrie, a former first round pick, is looking for his first extended shot in the bigs. His problem is twofold; he’s 26, and he hasn’t had any appreciable success in two full seasons. Much of his problems stem from an inability to throw strikes, but even moreso, it seems like his confidence is lacking. His ability shows through at times; in tonight’s start, Jeremy pitched 6.1 dominant innings, and more importantly, 61 of his 97 pitches were strikes. Perhaps some light in Guthrie’s head has flickered on, but he has lot of ground to make up.
As a team, the Bisons currently have the International League’s best record. But for the players, the wins are secondary achievement; all of them are looking either for just one more shot in the majors, or their first opportunity to prove that they belong in the big leagues.