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Bears in the Pro: Cal baseball alumni in MLB and MiLB

Spring Training baseball is starting this past weekend from Florida and Arizona.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

With the 2020 MLB season starting soon, let’s take a look at all the Cal Baseball alumni in both the Major and Minor Leagues (particularly the ones ranked as top prospects). The following list, particularly for players in lower minor leagues who may be more “organizational depth” than prospects may be incomplete.

I will rely mostly on the free stats and rankings from FanGraphs for this article. FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR (wins above replacement) is slightly different from that of Baseball-Reference, but I won’t use a fWAR vs. bWAR distinction here.

Additionally, batting slash line is batting average / on-base-percentage / slugging percentage.

In MLB or opening in MLB camp

Oakland Athletics

The most prominent Cal Baseball presence in MLB for the past few seasons have clearly been with the nearby Oakland Athletics, led by a Cal alum at the helm in manager Bob Melvin. Marcus Semien has emerged as an AL MVP candidate in the 2019 season and Mark Canha has also had a major breakthrough season.

Marcus Semien, SS

With an amazing 7.6 WAR in 2019, Marcus Semien deservedly finished 3rd in the 2019 AL MVP vote behind Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the likely illegally boosted numbers from sign stealing of Alex Bergman of the Houston Astros.

After making his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox, Semien has really found a home back in the Bay Area. While Semien had put up a 27 homer season in 2017, his 33 homer 2019 season was significantly better offensively (.285/.369/.522 in 2019 over .238/.300/.435). Even more importantly for his value, Semien made a drastic improvement to his defense between the 2017 and the 2018 season. The drastic batting improvement occurred before the 2019 season to show just what kind of a complete player is he.

Marcus Semien should be looking at a big pay day (even bigger than the $13 million that he will earn this year in the final year of arbitration) via free agency at the end of the 2020 season. While a long extension, that will likely be a team record, with the A’s is still quite likely, there is also a chance of a midseason trade, particularly if the A’s fall out of postseason contention.

Mark Canha, OF

After toiling around the Minor League for 5 seasons, the former Cal standout finally made his MLB debut in 2015 with the Oakland A’s. Building on a great 2018 season (2.1 WAR), Canha had a breakout 4.0 WAR season in 2019, benefiting from the 2019 MLB balls that traveled further. Playing all 3 OF positions and sometimes 1B, Canha put up a batting lines of .273/.396/.517 to go with a career best 26 homers.

Canha has spent part of the past two seasons in AAA. He also still has minor league options for another year, but also just earned a deservedly huge salary boost via arbitration ($4.8 million) this offseason.

Manager Bob Melvin

Entering his 10th season as the manager of the Oakland A’s, Melvin is a 3x manager of the year (2007, 2012, 2018). With the retirement of Bruce Bochy with the San Francisco Giants, Melvin now holds the title as the longest tenured MLB manager with the same team.

Managing a team that has got a lot of production from both Cal alumni and Stanford alumni in recent years, Melvin is keenly aware of that Cal connection often in his interviews. The former Cal and MLB catcher can also often been seen in the front row of Cal men’s basketball games.

Outside of the Oakland A’s, Cal Baseball’s presence on other MLB roster for 2020 is tenuous at best. The following Cal Bears are either in less secure roles (back-up catcher, reliever) or are coming off injuries.

Philadelphia Phillies

Andrew Knapp, C (also 1B for 1 game)

Knapp, the incumbent backup catcher to iron man JT Realmuto in Philadelphia, should again has the inside track to a MLB roster spot, but has not hit all that well in limited playing time. A slash line of .213/.318/.324 is certainly below what was expected out of the switch-hitting catcher.

Just a couple of years ago, Knapp was battling Jorge Alfaro as the Phillies’ catcher of the future, but then the Phillies traded Alfaro and a top pitching prospect to get JT Realmuto. Realmuto will be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season.

San Francisco Giants

Tyson Ross, RHP (minor league pact)

Ross has become a journey man in the past few seasons since starting his MLB career with the Oakland A’s and then posting two solid seasons with the San Diego Padres in 2014-2015. Tyson Ross had 7 starts for the lowly Detroit Tigers in 2019 before a nerve issue in his neck shut him down (he may or may not be ready to go this spring). The SF Giants, with Cal alum Farhan Zaidi at the helm, probably sees Ross as a low risk minor league signing. Ross’ strike out rate has fall pretty significantly in the past 2-3 years. The 32 year old may still have more left in the tank, if he can just stay healthy.

Chicago Cubs

Brandon Morrow, RHP (minor league pact, recovering from injury)

After earning a big contract from the Cubs, Morrow has not been healthy for the most part in the past two seasons, coming off that 2017 World Series when Morrow tied the record for appearing in all 7 games of that World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Morrow was signed by the Cubs to be their closer (and was lights out for 30 innings to earn 22 saves in 2018), but since his injuries, Cubs has since signed Craig Kimbrel (who also had a down year in 2019) to that role.

The former highest drafted Cal Bears in history (5th overall in 2006) before Andrew Vaughn, Morrow had to battle injuries throughout his MLB career, mostly as a starter. A shift to the bullpen has rejuvenated his career in 2017. After being bought out of his 2020 option by the Cubs, a now healthy Morrow has signed a minor league deal with the team.

Boston Red Sox

Trevor Hildenberger, RHP (minor league pact)

Hildenberger was a key part of the surprising Minnesota Twins team that made the playoffs in 2017. The side armer got some chances to be the closer (recording 7 saves) in the 2018 season but had some ups and downs. His performance really suffered in the 2019 season as the Hildenberger was hit hard. Relying on a funky delivery to mask mediocre velocity, Hildenberger has a chance with the Red Sox this spring. Supposedly, Hildenberger adjusted his mechanics this offseason.

Milwaukee Brewers

Lucas Erceg, 3B (non-roster invitee to spring training)

The one time Cal Bear actually got drafted out of Menlo College (supposedly he had to transfer there from Cal due to academic reasons). Erceg was listed in the Brewers’ top 30 prospect list for awhile before recently falling off a bit. In AAA last year, Erceg only slashed .218/.305/.398 with 15 homers.

Minor League Cal Alumni

Andrew Vaughn, 1B - Chicago White Sox

The 2018 Golden Spikes winner is the 37th overall prospect in all of baseball, according to Fangraphs. MLB Pipeline also has Vaughn as the top 1B prospect overall, at 16th among all positions in their updated 2020 ranking.

After being drafted in the summer as the 3rd overall pick, Vaughn signed and played at the high-A level by the end of the 2019 season. Even as a dreaded right handed first baseman, Vaughn’s batting ability for both average and power gives him a high floor. Vaughn has been graded with a prospect value of 55 (on a 20-80 scale, 55 corresponds to a future WAR of between 3-5) and should make his MLB debut sometimes in 2021.

Daulton Jefferies, RHP - Oakland Athletics

The former Cal ace is now finally healthy after missing all of 2018 after a Tommy Johnson surgery. Jefferies had a great AA showing after returning from injury in 2019, sporting a nice 10 to 1 strikeout to walk (93 K to 5 BB) ratio. Jefferies earned a 40-men spot this offseason to be protected from the Rule V draft. He has quickly shot back up the A’s prospect rankings this offseason, Baseball America has him as the A’s 4th best prospect.

Fangraphs grades Jefferies with a future value of 40 (obviously not yet buying to the hype) with an ETA of 2020.

Korey Lee, C - Houston Astros

Lee was Cal Baseball’s other first round pick this past summer. Fangraphs has Lee as the Astros’ 8th best prospect with a 40+ future value and ETA of 2023 (catchers do take longer to develop). The bat first catcher had a solid debut with the Astros’ low-A club last summer after signing.

Tanner Dodson, RHP/OF - Tampa Bay Rays

The less heralded of the two-way prospects in the Rays system behind Brendan McKay, Dodson is only playing at the high-A level in an injury-interrupted 2019 season since being drafted as a competitive balance pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Nonetheless, he is ranked 23rd in the Rays system and projected to be a future big league reliever if not a true two-way player. Even in college, Dodson did not bat for much power, but he’s certainly athletic enough to play a solid CF.

Interestingly, there have been murmurs that Dodson could eventually be used along side a lefty two-way player like McKay if a team wants to switch between righty/lefty pitching at will during an inning (the person not pitching will share the defensive position).

Brett Cumberland, C/DH - Baltimore Orioles

The 2016 Pac-12 Player of the Year had struggled a bit in the last couple of years in AA. Traded to the Orioles during the 2018 season from the Atlanta Braves, Cumberland’s catching ability has continued to be questioned. One scout mentioned that Cumberland’s lack of framing ability may become less of an issue in the near future if/when MLB implement robot strike zone.

Cumberland has dropped to 35th in a weak Orioles system in prospect rankings. He was Rule V eligible but not selected this past offseason. O’s obviously drafted their new “catcher of the future” with Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman being the top overall pick this past summer.

With his bat, Cumberland .248/.395/.408 in 2019 which is acceptable for a catcher but not good enough as a DH.

Other recent Cal Baseball alumni who are in the minor leagues. I’m not including former Cal players, who have never made the Big League, that did not post affiliated minor league stats in 2019.

Aaron Knapp

Andrew’s younger brother changed organization between 2018 and 2019 from the Marlins to the Mariners. The OF struggled in 12 games at the AAA level but had slightly more success as a speedy but low batting average outfielder in AA.

Cameron Eden

Also drafted this past summer (2019), Eden had a few appearances in low-A with the Brewers. The SS/CF for the Cal Bears played primarily SS in his pro debut season.

Jonah Davis

Davis slashed .249/.327/.489 with 19 homers in A ball last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Coming off a great Rookie league debut after being drafted, Davis was a fringe top 40 prospect within the Pirates organization. While he did have more success, he is probably considered a bit older for that level of play, making the former 15th round pick a non-prospect.

Ryan Mason

A Minor League all-star in AA for the Minnesota Twins organization in 2019, Ryan Mason as a reliever may have the best chance in this group to make the Big League in the near future. Mason had a splendid 1.39 FIP with a great 10.96 K/9 in 2019. He was Rule V eligible but not selected.

Mitchell Kranson

The former Cal catcher had a mediocre first half (.217/.288/.333) with the Minnesota Twins AA team in 2019 before being released. That may have been it for Kranson’s pro baseball career. The Twins also released another Cal guy in 3B Chris Paul before the 2019 season.

Below are some Cal alumni free agents and/or recent retirees who have made the MLB in the past.

Tony Renda, 2B - One of the Cal hero in that 2011 College World Series run, Tony Renda technically won a World Series win with the Boston Rex Sox in 2018. Renda appeared in one game as a pinch runner - where he scored the game winning run on Sunday Night Baseball. Renda spent the 2019 season all with the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox but has not been signed yet this past offseason.

Erik Johnson, RHP - After going through a Tommy John surgery in 2016, Johnson struggled in the minor leagues with the San Diego Padres in 2018. He did not play affiliated baseball in 2019 but may or may not have officially retired. A former top prospect with the White Sox, Johnson was a big part of the trade, along with Fernando Tatis Jr, for James Shield.

Michael Brady, RHP - Brady had a cup of tea with the Oakland A’s in the 2017 season. He signed a minor league deal with the Brewers in 2018 and did not play affiliated ball in 2019. Interestingly, Brady played primarily short stop in his Cal career (2006-2009).

Allen Craig, 1B/OF - One of the most successful Cal Baseball alum in recent history, Craig has officially retired when he moved to a position in the San Diego Padres front office last April. His official title was “advisor to the baseball operations”. Craig, who won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals before signing a big contract extension ($31 million over 5 years) that did not work out well for his teams (traded to Red Sox in a salary dump move), finished his MLB career with a batting line of .276/.333/.435, to go with 59 home runs, 107 doubles, three triples, 239 runs scored and 296 RBI in 534 big league games.

Did I forget anyone? Please let me know in the comment section below.