Mud Hens' James McCann, right, here congratulating Eugenio Suarez, has only two home runs in 59 games this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
It’s acceptable to wonder what two men now playing at Toledo must do to get a shot in Detroit.
After all, pitchers have been shuttling to and from Comerica Park with such regularity Tigers owner Mike Ilitch might want to consider erecting a mass-transit system between Woodward Avenue and Toledo’s Fifth Third Field.
But tell outfielder Ezequiel Carrera Detroit is but an hour’s drive up I-75. Or, for that matter, mention to catcher James McCann he looks like the very brand of steady offensive ingredient the Tigers haven’t been getting from Alex Avila.
Each man has been performing deftly for the Mud Hens, even more so when you ponder those numbers from Carrera: .306 batting average in 62 games, with a .396 on-base percentage, and .413 slugging percentage, good for a sparkling OPS of .808.
Carrera, a left-handed batter and center fielder who played with the Indians and Phillies for portions of the past three seasons, has 31 stolen bases. Every bit as impressively, he has 33 walks and 44 strikeouts.
“He just has to be with the right fit,” said Larry Parrish, the Mud Hens manager who knows big-league outfielders are plentiful, and distinguishing one’s self can be difficult amid a wide and skilled crowd.
“When you hit the way he’s been hitting all year long, he’s hitting everything they can throw at him,” Parrish said, explaining opposing pitchers have yet to find any serious holes in Carrera’s swing. “He can put the ball in play, he can bunt, he does a lot of good things.
“And he’s a good base-stealer. He needs the pitcher to help a little there. He’s not like Rickey Henderson, where it didn’t matter what the pitcher was (time of delivery) to the plate, he was going to steal it.
“But late in a ballgame, when you get some of the power pitchers in there, a lot of them are slower to the plate. It would be easy for him to steal a bag.”
Left unsaid by Parrish is that Carrera’s offense transferred to the big leagues makes him almost exclusively a starting center fielder or a fourth outfielder. Corner outfield positions calls for more power than is shown by Carrera, who has three homers, three triples, and 10 doubles for the Mud Hens.
But, of course, it is not as if the Tigers’ answer in center, Austin Jackson, has been battering fences: three homers, three triples, and 14 doubles. Jackson’s OPS is a puny .683, which happens when you’re batting .249 and not delivering much in the way of extra-base hits.
Of course, Carrera has not exactly imitated Mike Trout when he has had his big-league opportunities. He batted .243 in 68 games for the Indians in 2011; .272 in 48 games with Cleveland in 2012; and was 3-for-17 in combined stints with the Indians and Phillies in 2013.
It is the failure to find a “fit” to which Parrish refers that explains why Carrera can’t earn regular work in Detroit, or elsewhere. Rival clubs know about him. But the Quadruple A implications to his skill set are, for now, chaining him to Triple A.
McCann’s situation is different only because his position is a long way from center field. McCann, the Tigers’ top draft pick in 2011, is a sturdy defender and fine game analyst. His preparation for opposing lineups is considered model. He does all the things behind the plate big-league clubs require. And he hits. For average, anyway.
But there, as with Carrera, is the rub. McCann is 6-2, 210 pounds, and a right-handed batter who should pack reasonable punch. He does not: two home runs and a .724 OPS in 59 games.
Avila, of course, is setting no performance records there: .696 OPS and .218 batting average, with four homers and 15 RBIs.
But to unseat a left-handed batter, particularly one who, for all his challenges, has had some heavy OPS numbers in the past, is a difficult mission for McCann.
“He shows some batting-practice power, but it’s not showing up in the game yet,” Parrish said of McCann, who played at the University of Arkansas. “That’s the step he has to make to be an everyday guy.
“He’s got a little leg-kick, and we’re trying to eliminate it. It doesn’t allow him to get the head of the bat out front, and that’s the sign of power, making contact outside of the plate, outside his body.”
It’s a complex, confounding game, baseball. And no challenge is as elusive, it seems, as that final step – from Triple A to the big leagues. For today’s lesson look no farther than Toledo.