The minor leagues are awash with exciting young players just starting to bloom into their potential, getting their mechanics down and developing velocity and learning how to hit dingers. These are young men who have never gotten a taste of the majors or been in a Turkish prison, players who still have their rookie status. It’s sort of the minors’ whole deal. However, for every prospect born after 1999, there’s a guy trying to make a comeback. AAA in general is full of players who have surpassed rookie levels (helpfully defined by MLB: “(a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit”) but haven’t stuck on a big-league roster for whatever reason. Some have had fairly significant service time and some haven’t, but in any case, here they are… the non-prospects of the Charlotte Knights.
“Ryan Raburn was the Nick Punto of the Tigers for a long time” is a sentence that probably only makes sense to White Sox fans. Raburn, 36, has historically been a mediocre player with parts of 11 seasons in the majors, spanning stints with the Tigers (2004-2012), the Indians (2013-2015), and the Rockies (2016). However, for really no good reason, he just mashed against the Sox. Of his 91 career home runs, 20 have come against Chicago. Of his 16 total stolen bases, eight were allowed by Sox catchers, which is perhaps the least surprising stat. Raburn’s career slash line is .253/.317/.436, but against the White Sox, it’s .296/.354/.518. And that’s not a small sample, either, covering 122 games and 413 plate appearances.
In short, his was the ultimate if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em signing. Raburn has never caught or played shortstop in the majors, but he’s played every other position (he carries a 0.00 ERA over 1.2 presumably hilarious innings), so he provides valuable flexibility regardless of the level he’s assigned to. He’s a veteran presence for a team full of starry-eyed, talented youngsters, and perhaps he’ll impart to them the secret of being a really really good baseball player but only against one team.
First of all, Chris Volstad is very tall. He is, in fact, the tallest Knight, standing at 6’8”. Congratulations on accurately guessing that he is a pitcher! Volstad started his career with the Florida Marlins in 2008 and ended up bouncing around a bit (including half a season in Korea) before signing a minor-league deal with the Sox after the 2015 season. He’s been with the Knights ever since, eating up 176 2/3 innings last season. That’s really what he’s there for: eating innings, filling up a roster spot, maybe being ready to spot-start for the Sox if it ever comes to that. It’s hard to see the 30-year-old holding onto a contract after this year, as his ERA is approaching 10 in three appearances so far.
Pelfrey, the second-tallest Knight, is another innings-eater type. The Mets’ first-round draft pick in 2005, he never lived up to expectations, with an ERA of 4.57 over 1356 1/3 major-league innings. Despite this, he’s a much better candidate than Volstad for an emergency start should the Sox need it, and anyone with over 1000 big-league innings has got to have some wisdom to give to the next generation. If Dylan Covey ends up not working out as the fifth Sox starter, Pelfrey could see time this year in the majors.
Pelfrey is perhaps best known for licking his hands 89 times in one game.
Of all the people on this list, Purke is the one you’re least likely to have heard of (unless you watched a lot of late season White Sox games last year). He has a long and complicated backstory — originally drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Texas Rangers, he went to college instead, fell to the third round in 2011, signed with the Nationals but suffered a series of injuries, leading to Tommy John surgery in 2014 — and has only thrown 18 major-league innings. The Sox signed him out of free agency in 2015 and used the lefty for five innings last season, but he’s going to have to be more impressive than his career 4.61 minor-league ERA to make it back up to the bullpen and stick there. Luckily for him, he’s still only 26, which means he still has time to prove himself.
The two main reasons that Cory Luebke is on this list instead of still in the majors are his first Tommy John surgery and his second Tommy John surgery. Luebke, another former first-round pick (the Sox love swooping in on failed first-round picks, and sometimes they even expedite the process themselves), is 32 years old with just under 200 innings pitched in the bigs. He started out with the Padres before the injury bug bit him, and he resurfaced in 2016 with the Pirates for his first major-league appearances since 2012. The Sox signed him this January.
It’s safe to say that Luebke’s starting days are far behind him, but he still holds promise as a reliever. When he’s healthy, he can be very good; of course, at the time of this writing, he’s already hit the Charlotte DL with a hamstring injury, something he’s dealt with in the past. He has not appeared in a game out of spring training yet this season, so there’s still a lot up in the air for him.
Let’s clear the air here: it’s pronounced “booz-wah,” not “booj-ee.” Bourgeois has a special place in my heart because he was one of the very first Sox minor leaguers I got excited about as a wee lass, before I realized that just because you hit .311 one season in AAA doesn’t automatically mean you are good. At the time, I didn’t know what a “depth player” was. But now I do, and it’s Jason Bourgeois! He was acquired from the Diamondbacks in a trade last season and re-signed to a minor league contract in January.
The 35-year-old outfielder usually manages to get a breath of the majors every season with various teams (2016 being the first time it didn’t happen since 2007), and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him spend some time with the Sox depending on how the Jacob May situation shakes out. However, he’s never going to be a regular, and the Sox might want to see some more of that Garcia guy first (no, the other one).
Like Purke, Liriano is still young at 25. He was signed as a teenager by the Padres in 2008 and spent most of his time before his 2016 trade to the Brewers building up hype in the minors. Liriano exceeded rookie limits during a 38-game stint with the Padres in 2014 that didn’t go so well, but there was hope that he would turn it around until he got hit in the face with a pitch during a spring training game in 2016 and missed the entire season.
The Sox likely see him as a project, one with low risk and potentially high reward. The outfielder is off to a slow start with the Knights, but like Bourgeois and Raburn, at the very least he provides depth.
Cabrera is second only to Raburn in terms of major league at-bats. The shortstop spent 2009-2014 with the Padres and 2015 with Baltimore; he was the NL stolen base leader in 2012 and an All-Star in 2013, but was then hit by the Biogenesis banhammer for 50 games. He’s had a couple of brushes with the law as well. At 30 years old and with a checkered past, he’s not exactly a hot commodity, and his .143 average through six games with Charlotte might spell the end.
So, there you have it. Remember, baseball and time always win in the end. It’s impossible to predict which players on the roster today we’ll see again in ten years with a “what happened to him?!” But, as they say, youth is wasted on the young, and roster spots are wasted on washed-up old dudes who are trying one last time to make it. And maybe they will! It's a funny game like that.
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