Just a few days after the A's and Astros kicked off the trade deadline jams with the first big deal of the season, it could be instructive to look at which farmhands might be in line for a big league call-up once all the trade dust settles.
Erik Johnson, RHP, White Sox
2014 was a lost season for Erik Johnson. The promising right-hander out of Cal had spent the previous two years climbing four levels of pro ball, culminating in a September trial in the White Sox rotation at the end of 2013, where he acquitted himself well in five starts.
As spring training opened last year, Johnson was expected to slot into the Sox' no. 5 spot in the rotation and run with it. His spring troubles bled into the regular season, and he was optioned to AAA after 5 starts and an ugly 6.46 ERA. Johnson was promptly obliterated in Charlotte over 20 starts to the tune of a 6.73 ERA and .319 BAA - a season from hell.The first half of the 2015 season has seen Johnson restore his value in a big way. Among International League leaders he ranks 1st in K's, 2nd in ERA, and was tabbed to start for the IL in the AAA all-star game.
The White Sox are juggling whether to deal upcoming free agent Jeff Samardzija or hold tight and try to re-sign the former golden-domer, who grew up in Indiana as a fan of the Pale Hose. Sitting in last place in the AL Central and with the ability to both gather assets and sign the Shark as a free agent in the winter, signs are pointing to a rotation spot opening on the south side of Chicago very soon. GM Rick Hahn and co. will likely look to Erik Johnson to fill the void, and evaluate whether he can contribute at the back-end of their rotation next year at a minimal salary.
Chad Pinder, IF, Athletics
After dealing Scott Kazmir to a division rival, Oakland GM Billy Beane has tipped his hand this summer - he's selling. Teams are surely lining up for Oakland's other prized rental in 2B/swiss-army-knife Ben Zobrist; there aren't many clubs who *wouldn't* be interested in a switch-hitting veteran such as 'Zorilla' that plays multiple positions at an elite level.
While a Zobrist trade is a foregone conclusion, his successor in the Oakland lineup is less clear. The A's know what they have in Eric Sogard - a librarian masquerading as a utility infielder. What they may not know, after trading top prospects Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson in the last year, is whether they have any major-league ready middle infielders down on the farm.
Chad Pinder was drafted 71st overall by the Athletics in 2003, and the All-ACC first teamer out of Virginia Tech got his first taste of pro ball soon after, finishing out the year with Vermont of the NYP league. Oakland challenged Pinder in two ways the following season: he was assigned to the high-A Stockton club of the CAL league to start the season, skipping the team's Midwest League affiliate; and he'd begin to see time at shortstop.
This season, Pinder was again challenged with a promotion to the pitcher-friendly AA Texas League - this time, playing all of his games at SS. Again, he's answered the challenge, slashing .319/.476/.846 for Midland on the year and ranking near the top of the league in most statistical categories.
Admittedly, projecting Pinder for a major-league job this summer is a dicey proposition, as he's not on the 40-man roster and hasn't yet had a taste of the AAA level. But if history is any indication, the A's will continue to fast-track their talented infielder after losing most of their depth in previous trades.
Rymer Liriano, OF, Padres
After a two-month MLB trial at the end of 2014, Liriano was seen as a possible immediate contributor in the San Diego outfield. However, a flurry of offensive acquisitions by newly-minted GM A.J. Preller left Rymer to marinate in AAA El Paso at the start of the year.
In retrospect, this may have been the best thing for Liriano's development after seeing action in only 16 AAA games before getting the call to the bigs. The former top 50 prospect (by most outlets) has held his own in the PCL this year, slashing .270/.405/.781 and continuing to display solid-average speed and an average-plus arm in RF.
It's obvious now that Preller's grand Padre plan has not worked out, and the Friars look to be among the more active sellers this trade season. The team will undoubtedly look to cash in on Justin Upton before losing him in his walk year, and Will Venable has also garnered some interest on the market. With OF-1B Wil Myers still on the shelf and Liriano already on the 40-man roster, the path is clear for Rymer to roam the PetCo outfield after Preller and the Pads are done dealing.
Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
We round out this list at the same place we started - with a well-regarded White Sox farmhand knocking at the door of a return to the big club. Micah emerged from spring training this season as the opening day 2B for the ChiSox, only to be optioned back to AAA on May 17th after 27 games, with GM Rick Hahn citing inconsistent defense and a "couple of questionable baserunning decisions" as the reasons for his demotion.
The speedster took the demotion in stride, vowing to work on his defense and even showing a sense of humor about it on the twitter machines. Of course, it's easy to be fun and lighthearted when you're slashing .331/.486/.866 to go with 24 stolen bases for AAA Charlotte, as Johnson currently is.
While a trade of Jeff Samardzija stands in the way of teammate Erik Johnson's return to the majors, Micah only has to contend with the unholy infield trio of Carlos Sanchez, Gordon Beckham, and Tyler Saladino (combined 2015 WAR: -0.7) as a means to MLB playing time. With the White Sox bringing up the rear in their division and Micah Johnson continuing to push the issue at AAA (hitting a red-hot .386 in July), Sox brass will likely live with a defensive blunder here and there if Micah can ignite the lineup the same way he has for Charlotte.