The Land of Booms and Busts

Class-AAA baseball is the league of good-but-not-good-enough, the land of booms and busts. On one hand, that can be thrilling. You can find many of the game’s top prospects honing their talents in AAA before an inevitable ascent to the big leagues. On the other hand, it can be devastating. AAA rosters are littered with players who never took that final step, and still more who are desperately fighting for a chance to take it again.

This disparity makes for a unique spectator experience, and it was on full display when the Colorado Springs Sky Sox took on the Round Rock Express just north of Austin, Texas earlier this month. My wife and I made the drive from Houston to see a Saturday evening contest. When we bought our tickets in May, we were certain we’d catch a glimpse of some of the lauded prospects who would form the core of the next competitive Brewers club.

Of course, we should have remembered that you can’t predict baseball. To start with, the next competitive Brewers club is currently taking on the Pirates in Pittsburgh, which is not something I expected to be writing just a few months ago. As such, a number of members of Colorado Springs’ opening day roster, like Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff, have seen their developmental clocks tick a little faster than anticipated.

There was also the matter of the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, which was to take place the following afternoon in Miami. That event robbed the Sky Sox of crown jewel Lewis Brinson and slap-happy Mauricio Dubon. Meanwhile, toolsy outfielder Ryan Cordell was sidelined by a nagging shoulder injury. So when the Sky Sox took the field under the searing Texas sun, their lineup was short on star power and long on organizational depth:

# Player Position
5 Kyle Wren LF
6 Nate Orf 2B
11 Ivan De Jesus Jr. 3B
30 Garrett Cooper 1B
8 Brett Phillips CF
43 Jett Bandy C
33 Kirk Nieuwenhuis RF
15 Rene Garcia DH
9 Nick Noonan SS
27 Bubba Derby P

This was even more true of Round Rock. Including starting pitcher Tanner Scheppers, nine of the ten starters for the Express were 26 or older. Eight of those were at least 28, and seven had logged major league experience. Absent Ronald Guzman and Jason Martinson, the Express lineup was a who’s who of names you didn’t realize you’d forgotten:

# Player Position
15 Drew Stubbs CF
30 Jared Hoying DH
22 Brett Nicholas C
19 Will Middlebrooks 3B
31 Ronald Guzman 1B
45 Travis Snider LF
5 Jason Martinson 2B
9 Preston Beck RF
7 Doug Bernier SS
51 Tanner Scheppers P

The clubs lined up for a sloppy, seesaw game, rapping out 13 hits each and committing 5 combined errors in an eventual 10-9 Sky Sox loss. Brett Phillips starred as the best player on the field, contributing a double, a home run, two walks, and a HBP at the plate. He also flashed his plus speed and glove, running down a few long fly balls in the Dell Diamond power alleys. Round Rock, having had half a season with which to acquaint themselves with Phillips’s throwing arm, opted not to push their luck on the base paths.

Almost as impressive as Phillips’s four-tool display was Bubba Derby’s showing on the mound. The 23-year-old continued to excel in AAA, twirling five solid innings of two-run ball in his fourth Sky Sox start. Derby’s fastball sat at 89 mph, per the stadium gun, but he dialed it up to 91 in big situations and touched 92 in the fourth and fifth innings. The 5’11” righty flashed a good changeup, and mixed in an occasional slider and rare curve. Most importantly, he pounded the zone: Derby finished with seven strikeouts and just one walk, and he generally stayed ahead of his opposition. His is a middle-relief profile, but it’s not hard to squint and see major league contributions in his future.

Additional strong performances came from Nate Orf, who reached base four times in his campaign to see time in the show as a utility player, and new Yankee Garrett Cooper, who knocked a pair of singles to raise his batting average to .364 and his trade value to something approaching Tyler Webb.

It wasn’t all so rosy for the Sox, though, and nobody suffered more than a rehabbing Wily Peralta. The burly righty flashed his usual heat, but his fastball was straight as a laser and he fired his pitches with all the accuracy of a stormtrooper. Peralta was tagged for six runs (five earned) on four hits and two walks, and exited the game after recording just one out. It was an ignominious outing for the former rising star, so ineffective that I couldn’t help but wonder if Peralta was reaching the end of the line.

And in the end, that’s what stood out most in this game. On paper, AAA baseball is a hair’s breadth from the majors. But that one small step can sure look like a giant leap sometimes. Phillips and Cooper tasted the majors for the first time in 2017. Orf and Derby may join them this year or next, and Jett Bandy will find his way back to a 25-man roster at some point. But guys like Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Ivan De Jesus Jr. may never get another chance. And still they play on, be it for love of the game, fear of finding something else, or any number of unknowable reasons. They travel on the cheap and scrape by on microscopic wages, and they’re lucky to play in front of 10,000 fans. Between innings, they watch on-field promotions like “see if you can knock over five bottles of Evian with a baseball, suspended in a pair of pantyhose, attached to your head.”

They say baseball is a humbling sport. If the Sky Sox come your way in 2017, I hope you go and check out the next wave of young Brewers talent. Be sure to save some cheers for the rest of the roster, too.

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