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Beyond the Minor Leagues' big names

Top prospects aren't the only ones having great seasons
May 7, 2010
Pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman have been far and away the biggest stories in Minor League Baseball this season. Each and every outing is rigorously analyzed and speculation runs rampant regarding just when, exactly, we'll see them in the big leagues.

The attention is warranted, but such unwavering interest in baseball's elite prospects has an unfortunate side effect in that so many other standout performers go unsung. After all, 120 teams are currently playing on a nightly basis. From coast to coast and everywhere in between, there are Minor League players exceeding expectations while getting virtually no recognition from the world at large.

This edition of Farm's Almanac is dedicated to shining a light on just a few of 2010's many Minor League overachievers. Those included were based on recommendations from team broadcasters, who as unceasing chroniclers of the long season are able to provide meaningful insight and a much-needed sense of perspective.

So take a break from analyzing Strasburg's pitch selection and Chapman's radar gun readings, and devote just a bit of attention to these relative unknowns:

Mario Mercedes, C, Peoria Chiefs: In 2009 Spring Training, Mario Mercedes went through baseball's version of a near-death experience. The veteran of five professional seasons was released by the Chicago Cubs organization, which had been less than impressed by his anemic numbers with the Peoria Chiefs the previous year. But Mercedes was issued a reprieve just two days later, when fellow backstop Michael Brenly (now with Daytona) suffered a concussion. The Cubs brought him back to the fold and Mercedes returned to Peoria, where he hit .271 while nailing 44 percent of prospective base-stealers.

In 2010, he's back for a third campaign in Peoria. He's been instrumental in helping converted infielder Jonathan Mota adjust to the catching position, and often works with the club's Latin American players on the fine points of pitching.

"He may be our second catcher, but when he gets into games Mario is batting .333 with five RBIs, including a game-winner," wrote Chiefs broadcaster Nathan Baliva. "He is easily the happiest guy on the team, always smiling, signing autographs, mingling with fans and encouraging his teammates. Oh, and he has also thrown out seven of 15 would-be base-stealers. ... Definitely coaching is in Mario's future, and he is what Minor League baseball is all about on the non-prospects' end: a young guy who has fun and plays the game cause he loves it."

"He's a very special ballplayer and hopefully he will one day be given the chance to coach," added Chiefs hitting coach Barbaro Garbey. "But he's been working hard, making the adjustments and playing more. You never know, he could turn out to be a great player."

Rossmel Perez, C, Visalia Rawhide: The California League is known as a hitter's circuit, but that doesn't quite account for the offensive prowess displayed by Visalia catcher Rossmel Perez. The 20-year-old Venezuelan, who entered the season with a .259 career average, currently ranks ninth in the league with a .354 average. A switch-hitter, he has hit left-handers to the tune of .450 (9-for-20).

"[Perez] is an infectiously energetic character who looks like the opposite of an athlete when you see him in street clothes," wrote Visalia broadcaster Donny Baarns. "He's relatively short [5-foot-10] and pudgy, and he came into the season with a reputation as a good defensive catcher with very modest offensive talent. Our hitting coach, Alan Zinter, has been around him for a few years, and he said he's never seen him perform like this at the plate. He compares Rossmel to a chihuahua that barks and snarls and nips at you and refuses to accept his physical limitations."

This dogged tenacity is exemplified by Perez's hitting approach.

"Perez stands almost on top of the plate and crouches down so that his upper body is leaning over the dish; he dares pitchers to try to bust him inside, and then turns on those fastballs with shockingly quick hands," continued Baarns. "If he keeps this up, he's going to start turning some heads. His reception skills behind the plate need to improve, but he already has a great arm, and he's starting to look like he could hold his own offensively. It'll be fascinating to watch his progression over the rest of the season."

Amalio Diaz, RHP, Arkansas Travelers: Although just 23 years old, Diaz is already in his third season with Double-A Arkansas. The Venezuelan right-hander's performance in the past has been erratic, but 2010 is shaping up to be the season in which it all comes together.

"[Diaz] always showed flashes of brilliance, but also had some horrific moments when it looked like he was showing effects of Steve Blass disease", wrote Travelers broadcaster Phil Elson, referring to the lack of control that famously plagued former big leaguer Blass. "A few people thought his career was going to be finished because he had serious trouble throwing the ball to the plate."

Diaz was shifted to the bullpen during the 2009 campaign, a transition that resulted in a remarkable turnaround.

"He became a new pitcher," observed Elson. "Amalio is throwing in the low 90s but hitting 94 on occasion. He has a natural biting sink and he can get a lot of movement with his fastball. He's throwing a sharp slider too, and since his throwing motion is short-armed the ball gets out of his hand really quickly. "More than that, he's coming into the game and not messing around anymore. He's confident and has stood out even though he's joined in the bullpen by some outstanding talent. In fact, I'd put the combination of Diaz, Ryan Aldridge, Mike Kohn and Jordan Walden up against any 'back of the bullpen' in Minor League Baseball right now."

Pat Egan, RHP and Zach Clark, RHP, Bowie Baysox: Speaking of formidable bullpens, the Eastern League's Bowie Baysox have received outstanding efforts from a pair of unheralded names: Pat Egan (a former 36th-round pick) and Zach Clark (signed as an undrafted free agent).

Egan enjoyed something of a breakout season in 2009, compiling a 1.94 ERA in 36 games over three levels of play. This year, he has been lights-out. The 6-foot-8 right-hander has compiled an 0.55 ERA over eight appearances while holding batters to a .113 average.

"[Egan] currently has a scoreless streak of 13 innings," noted Tom Sedlacek, Bowie's communications manager. "The sinkerballer has allowed one hit over his last nine innings, and has only allowed two walks in 16 1/3 innings. Somehow, he remains in long relief, having thrown three or more innings three times this year."

Clark has been an asset in long relief as well, having pitched at least 1 2/3 innings in each of his seven appearances (including a season-high four against Erie on April 19). His ERA is just 1.00 and he has yet to allow an earned run over 12 innings on the road. Perhaps this is because he's used to being on the road -- the well-traveled reliever has played for at least three Baltimore affiliates in each of the last three seasons.

Terry Doyle, RHP, Kannapolis Intimidators: A 37th-round pick out of Boston College in 2008, Doyle pitched well in each of his first two Minor League campaigns (compiling a 1.88 ERA with Bristol in 2008 and a 2.98 ERA with Great Falls in 2009). He's now playing his first full season at the age of 24 and clearly has something to prove.

"How has Doyle responded in 2010?" asked Intimidators broadcaster Josh Ellis rhetorically. "He is currently 3-1 with a 1.09 ERA through five starts. He's second in the league with 34 strikeouts and has allowed only 25 hits in 33 innings pitched. Doyle's most recent start [May 1 against Lakewood] was an eight-inning gem where he struck out 11 and walked no one."

Shaeffer Hall, LHP, Charleston RiverDogs: Selected by the Yankees in the 25th round of last season's Draft, Hall signed late and ended up appearing in just two games for Class A Short-Season Staten Island. He's just now getting a chance to pitch professionally on a regular basis, and the results thus far have been encouraging. Hall experienced a rough outing on May 4 (allowing six runs -- five earned -- over 5 1/3 innings), but nonetheless still ranks seventh in the South Atlantic League with a 1.86 ERA. That, at the very least, speaks to the unwavering quality of his first six starts.

"For a guy who doesn't throw much harder than 88 mph, he works quickly to keep batters off-balance and he has command of his fastball, curve and changeup," wrote RiverDogs play-by-play man Danny Reed.

Jeremy Barnes, SS, Lakewood BlueClaws: BlueClaws broadcaster Greg Giombarrese ranks shortstop Jeremy Barnes among the team's biggest surprises this season. An 11th-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2009 (where he majored in anthropology), Barnes has been one of the most consistent hitters in the Lakewood line-up. His 13-game hitting streak came to an end Wednesday, but he is batting a team-leading .323 (ninth-best in South Atlantic League).

And -- who knows? -- if the BlueClaws ever need a position player to take the mound in relief of a depleted bullpen, they might do well to call on Barnes. He compiled a 1.31 ERA in 2004 while pitching for South Garland High, establishing a school record in the process.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for