A Look Back

Zack Littell: Is he a Quintana or Militello?

Every year when the Major League trade deadline looms, minor league prospects and non-prospects get shuffled around from team to team. Sometimes their acquisition is a major coup – the Yankees getting Gleyber Torres from the Cubs for Aroldis Chapman; Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield coming over from Cleveland in exchange for Andrew Miller – and sometimes a team doesn’t really know the caliber of talent they have received for a player they’ve moved elsewhere.
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This past Sunday morning, the Yankees announced a trade for Minnesota Twins pitcher Jaime Garcia. The price was pitchers Zack Littell and Dietrich Enns. While Enns was largely overlooked on social media, a sizable number of  Yankees fans on Twitter expressed their upset at the loss of Littell.

My question is: did they have a reason to be upset? While Garcia was, at one time, a pretty good middle-of-the-rotation starter for the St. Louis Cardinals, Littell is still an unknown commodity. The ears of many Yankees fans pricked up when the trade announcement included Litell’s organizational #22 ranking by the MLB Pipeline. But, what does being ranked #22 really mean and should it impact the player’s valuation in a trade? Taking two former Yankees prospects into consideration, will Littell be the next Jose Quintana or the next Sam Militello? Or, perhaps somewhere in between?

Quintana’s Humble Beginnings

Quintana, who was recently traded across the city of Chicago from the White Sox to the Cubs, was signed in 2006 by the New York Mets. A little over a year later, the Mets released him. He then signed with the Yankees in 2008. After a couple of seasons playing for the Yankees’ Dominican league, Quintana spent 2010 with the Yankees’ Single-A squads in Charleston and Tampa.

The 21-year old struck batters out at a high rate, but he walked them at a high rate as well. In 2011, he had a stand-up-and-take notice minor league season. Playing the full year for Tampa, Quintana won 10 of 12 decisions and posted a 2.91 ERA. He made 12 starts and 18 relief appearances and allowed only 86 hits in 102.1 innings pitched.

Despite his improved performance, Quintana wasn’t mentioned in trade rumors and his name wasn’t on the lips of teams’ advance scouts. But, he became a minor league free agent and signed with the White Sox. After just nine starts in Double-A, he was promoted to the White Sox and posted decent numbers in 25 games, 22 of which were starts.

Over the last four years, Quintana reached 200 innings, averaged 7.3 K/9 IP and 0.8 HR/9 IP, and twice topped a WAR of 5.0. And, he accomplished this with a less than average defense behind him.So, Quintana not only lived up to his potential but he probably exceeded expectations. Now, Quintana is a star and can earn an average of $10MM through 2020.

The Rise and Fall of Sam Militello

Fans were just beginning to become more aware of minor leaguers when Quintana was in the Yankees’ farm system. When Militello played in the organization, there was next to no information on players trying to make it to the bigs.

Pitching for the University of Tampa, Militello was selected by the Yankees in the 6th round of the 1990 draft. He signed and reported to the Yankees’ New York-Penn League affiliate in Oneonta, where he immediately stood out.

Of the 13 starts he made, Militello completed three of them and tossed two shutouts. He struck out 12.1 batters / 9 IP and allowed just two home runs in 88 innings. He followed it up with a dominant 1991 season, split between Oneonta’s replacement in the NYPL, Albany-Colonie, and ‘A’ ball in Prince William of the Carolina League. In his 16 starts for Prince William, Militello allowed just 65 hits in 103.1 innings pitched. He also struck out 113 hitters and limited the opposition to a mere 27 walks.

Militello was well on his way to the Major Leagues and he earned a promotion after he dominated hitters in the International League. He made nine starts for New York in 1992 and was decent – 3.45 ERA, 43 hits allowed in 60 innings – but there were warning signs too. Militello’s strike out ratio dipped to 6.3 K/9 IP and he walked 4.8 batters/9 IP. His masterful control and ability to strike out hitters hadn’t translated to the Major Leagues.

The 1993 season was the beginning of the end for Militello. Arm injuries brought on by the strain of throwing off-speed pitches and the inability to throw strikes, finished off the promising right-hander’s career. He made two starts and a relief appearance for the Yankees in ’93 and was terrible. He allowed a combined 17 hits and walks in only 9.2 innings pitched.

Back in Triple-A Columbus, Militello walked 20 batters in 33 innings. He made only 11 more minor league appearances from 1994-1996. The Marlins took a chance on him in 1995, before his career ended back with the Yankees in ’96. He was only 26-years old.

A Little on Littell

So now that you read about the unexpected star and the cautionary tale, it’s time to take a look at Littell. The right-hander had been selected in the 11th round of the 2013 draft by the Seattle Mariners. Until last season, he wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Then, last November, the Mariners dealt him to the Yankees for fellow-pitcher James Pazos.

As for Littell’s Top-3o ranking within the Yankees’ organization, it really meant little. He’s not close to being in baseball’s Top-100 ranking, which isn’t always a true indicator of talent anyway. Sometimes it is just who is hot in the moment.

Minor league prospects are a crap shoot. Anyone that follows baseball closely would agree. Even the highest-rated prospects of all time don’t always become stars or even make it to the Major Leagues. Just look at the five players selected ahead of Derek Jeter in the 1992 draft.Some never made it to the Majors or barely lasted there. While others didn’t live up to the hype of a player selected that high.
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Repeated success, good health, and opportunity to realize one’s potential all play into a prospect’s ability to make it in the Majors. Quintana was much more fortunate than Militello was. Where will Littell end up? What about the prospects traded for Sonny Gray at this year’s deadline? What about the players acquired for Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran last year?

Garcia makes his Yankees debut Friday evening. For the prospects, time and patience will tell.

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