The season's first weekend of games may be behind us, but the majority of our out-of-options all-star pitchers have yet to appear in a game. It's no coincidence. As a rule, the best big league pitchers establish themselves long before they run out of minor league options. So what we have here are a collection of No. 4 starters and low-leverage relievers—the types of pitchers one might not see in an initial three-game series.
Things can change quickly in baseball, however, especially in cases where a pitcher is given a fresh start in a new organization. One could construct a fine rotation built from out-of-options arms, beginning with Bronson Arroyo, Scott Baker, Jorge de la Rosa, Jeremy Guthrie, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson. We can even expand our list to include the latest of the late bloomers, like Doug Davis, R.A. Dickey and Colby Lewis.
Some of the game's finest relievers—like Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Brian Fuentes, Hong-Chi Kuo, Arthur Rhodes, Matt Thornton and Jose Valverde—needed all three optional assignments before they secured full-time play. Even the great Mariano Rivera burned through three options before setting out on his Hall of Fame career. There's only one Rivera, of course, but keep the other examples in mind before writing off any of this year's group.
• James McDonald, rhp, Pirates
Age: 26. Usage splits: 44 starts (98%), 1 relief game.
Optional assignments: 2008 with Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Las Vegas and 2009-10 with Triple-A Albuquerque.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 2, Dodgers, 2009.
Career Transactions: Selected by Dodgers in 11th round of 2002 draft; signed May 26, 2003 … Traded by Dodgers with OF Andrew Lambo to Pirates for RHP Octavio Dotel, July 31, 2010.
|JAMES McDONALD • 2008-10 DOUBLE-A & TRIPLE-A SPLITS
The Dodgers never seemed to know what to make of McDonald. They liked him well enough after a September 2008 callup and subsequent star turn in the NL Division Series, in which the rookie struck out seven and allowed three hits in 5 1/3 shutout innings. But that didn’t buy McDonald the benefit of the doubt in ’09, when Los Angeles banishing him to the bullpen after four April starts yielded 13 runs, 14 walks and 12 hits in 13 1/3 innings. (His control and effectiveness improved dramatically in 41 relief appearances.) The Dodgers gave McDonald another spin last season, but they quickly jumped ship after four July appearances produced an ugly 8.22 ERA and an average of more than two baserunners per inning. Los Angeles regarded McDonald so lightly that it traded him and Andrew Lambo to the Pirates at the deadline for reliever Octavio Dotel, who pitched to expectations but still got flipped to the Rockies before season’s end. In fact, the Dodgers effectively turned McDonald and Lambo, their top two prospects in ’09, into speed-oriented, 26-year-old center fielder Anthony Jackson, who has hit .236/.327/.310 in two cracks at Double-A.
After the trade to Pittsburgh, McDonald began penning the second chapter of his major league career, going 4-5, 3.52 in 11 starts for a hapless Pirates team, maintaining uniformly strong peripherals all the while. He retained his grip on his rotation spot this spring even after being limited with a sore side. In the high minors, McDonald struck out a lower percentage of lefthanded hitters overall, but those who did make contact also hit for less power—a testament to his quality changeup. With a fastball that can hit 93 mph and a change that can bottom out below 80 mph, he gets plenty of separation on his two top pitches. McDonald's most telling split, however, is his performance in home games in Las Vegas and Albuquerque, where the pronounced fly-ball pitcher made 10 starts from 2008-10—and lived to tell about it. McDonald logged 50 2/3 innings, striking out 52, walking 19 and allowing just four home runs—with a 3.20 ERA and 1.30 WHIP—all virtual matches for his road showing.
• Jeff Samardzija, rhp, Cubs
Age: 26. Usage splits: 79 starts (75%), 26 relief games (25%).
Optional assignments: 2007 with high Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, 2008 with Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa and 2009-10 with Iowa.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 2, Cubs, 2009.
Career Transactions: Selected by Cubs in fifth round of 2006 draft; signed June 20, 2006.
|JEFF SAMARDZIJA • 2007-10 HIGH-A, DOUBLE-A & TRIPLE-A SPLITS
The Cubs probably had a greater return in mind when they signed Samardzija to a five-year, $10 million big league deal in February 2007, but the former Notre Dame wideout will begin the season in Chicago's middle relief corps, where he’ll have to earn higher-leverage innings. His big league track record is not encouraging—and neither is his minor league ledger. The Cubs exercised four option years on Samardzija, but they still don't know what they've got. He's 6-foot-5, tops out at 97 mph and shows a quality hard slider at times, but Triple-A batters, particularly lefties, found success by waiting him out for walks in 13 percent of confrontations during the last three years. Spending the first half of ’10 in the Iowa bullpen did little to affect Samardzija's bottom line—he struck out a firm 8.2 batters per nine inning overall, but coupled with a career-high walk rate (5.4) he allowed a similar number of baserunners as in years past. The Cubs wisely will give Samardzija time to prove himself in the big league bullpen (he’s got no-trade rights as part of his deal), while crossing their fingers that he find command of his cutter—and of the strike zone.
• Glen Perkins, lhp, Twins
Age: 28. Usage splits: 31 starts (91%), 3 relief games.
Optional assignments: 2008-10 with Triple-A Rochester.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 14, Twins, 2008.
Career Transactions: Selected by Twins in first round (22nd overall) of 2004 draft; signed June 30, 2004.
|GLEN PERKINS • 2007-10 TRIPLE-A SPLITS
St. Paul native Perkins rocketed through the Twins system, earning a September callup in 2006, two years after being drafted 22nd overall. He spent the majority of 2007-09 in the big leagues—notching a 4.79 ERA, 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and yielding 1.3 homers per nine—but the Twins took advantage of their final option to send Perkins to Triple-A for much of 2010. With Rochester he did nothing to quell concerns that he can’t reliably retire lefthanders by striking out just 11.6 percent of the International League variety, while allowing a .326 average. With all the big league time (not to mention injury-truncated 2007 and ’09 seasons), Perkins logged by far his most Triple-A time in 2010, accounting for 77 percent of the above sample—so what you see is what you get. Minnesota begins the 2011 season with Perkins in the bullpen, where he figures to get middle innings as the third lefty behind Jose Mijares and Dusty Hughes. With 89-92 mph heat and an average slider and changeup, Perkins ought to be up to the task.
• Jo-Jo Reyes, lhp, Blue Jays
Age: 26. Usage splits: 34 starts (92%), 3 relief games.
Optional assignments: 2008 with Triple-A Richmond, 2009 with Triple-A Gwinnett and 2010 with Gwinnett and Double-A New Hampshire.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 8, Braves, 2007.
Career Transactions: Selected by Braves in second round of 2003 draft; signed June 3, 2003 … Traded by Braves with SS Yunel Escobar to Blue Jays for SSs Alex Gonzalez and Tyler Pastornicky and LHP Tim Collins, July 13, 2010.
|JO-JO REYES • 2008-10 DOUBLE-A & TRIPLE-A SPLITS
Late-blooming lefty or perpetual tease? The Braves had seen enough in their eight years with Reyes to convict him on the second count. In four stints with Atlanta, each a little shorter than the last, he logged a 6.40 ERA over 194 innings, with a 1.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 33 home runs allowed in 41 appearances. Scouting reports and performance analysis both conclude that Reyes is capable of much more than he's shown in the big leagues to date. In the minors he touched 94 mph, but more typically located an 88-92 mph fastball with tailing action and backed it up with three average secondary pitches. He throws a hard slider in the mid-80s as well as a curveball and changeup in the low 80s. While Reyes' peripherals in Triple-A are sturdy—7.6 strikeouts, 3.2 walks and 0.9 homers per nine, 1.31 WHIP—they don't scream ace material. But that's OK because the Blue Jays committed to him as the club's No. 4 starter after liking what they saw from him this spring (3.32 ERA, 0.74 WHIP over 19 innings). If Reyes truly has turned the corner, then acquiring him and Yunel Escobar for Alex Gonzalez may turn out to be one of Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos' most shrewd moves.
• Henry Rodriguez, rhp, Nationals
Age: 24. Usage splits: 69 relief games (76%), 22 starts (24%).
Optional assignments: 2008 with high Class A Stockton and Double-A Midland and 2009-10 with Triple-A Sacramento.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 13, Athletics, 2010.
Career Transactions: Signed as nondrafted free agent by Athletics, July 18, 2003 … Traded by Athletics with OF Corey Brown to Nationals for OF Josh Willingham, Dec. 16, 2010.
|HENRY RODRIGUEZ • 2008-10 HIGH-A, DOUBLE-A & TRIPLE-A SPLITS
Rodriguez reached Double-A for the first time in 2008, five years after signing with the Athletics. His chief impediment to timely promotions along the way: poor control—as in a career rate of 6.6 walks per nine innings (through ’08). Even while working mostly as a starting pitcher in those early years, Rodriguez's fastball seldom observed the speed limit. He worked regularly in the high 90s and touched 100 mph, famously falling off the Yankee Stadium mound during delivery of one triple-digits heater at the ’08 Futures Game. But as is often the case, extreme heat does not necessarily equal positive results when paired with below-average control and lack of a second pitch. Observe Rodriguez's 4.77 ERA and 1.60 WHIP through the ’08 season. Why do I keep mentioning ’08, you ask? Well, that season represents a turning point in Rodriguez's career. Making his final five appearances that year out of the Double-A Midland bullpen, he embarked on a new career as full-time reliever, one that resulted in big league callups to Oakland in ’09 and ’10. But just when he appeared to turn a corner, cutting his Triple-A walk rate dramatically last season (to 7.7 percent versus righthanders and 11.8 percent against lefties), Rodriguez struggled to throw strikes in Nationals camp this spring (13 batters faced: three walks, three hits) and opened the year on the disabled list.
• David Purcey, lhp, Blue Jays
Age: 28. Usage splits: 43 starts (72%), 17 relief games (28%).
Optional assignments: 2008 with Triple-A Syracuse and 2009-10 with Triple-A Las Vegas.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 9, Blue Jays, 2008.
Career Transactions: Selected by Blue Jays in first round (16th overall) of 2004 draft; signed July 23, 2004.
|DAVID PURCEY • 2008-10 TRIPLE-A SPLITS
Selected six picks before Glen Perkins in the ’04 draft, Purcey has taken a different route to the same destination as has the Twins southpaw. Where Perkins sped to the big leagues in about two years, Purcey first debuted with the Blue Jays in ’08, making one start each in April, May and July before finishing out the year in Toronto. His strong Triple-A rates did not make the jump. In starting 21 total games in ’08 and ’09, Purcey went 4-9, 5.81 with too many walks (4.7 per nine), too many hits allowed (9.6) and too many homers allowed (1.2) to be tenable in a rotation role. Switched to the bullpen last year, he gave the Blue Jays what they were looking for by holding lefthanded batters to a .163 average (7-for-43), which combined with career-best rates elsewhere (8.5 strikeouts, 4.0 walks, 0.8 homers per nine; 1.20 WHIP) mapped out his future role. Ultimately, Purcey may be best suited for left-on-left work, even though he doesn't really look like a match-up reliever, what with a firm fastball (92 mph average in ’10) and a traditional three-quarters arm angle. He simply walks too many righthanded batters (13 percent in Triple-A; an improved 9.8 percent in the bigs with benefit of a year in the pen) and doesn't have the changeup to go after them.
• Adam Russell, rhp, Rays
Age: 27. Usage splits: 118 relief games.
Optional assignments: 2008 with Triple-A Charlotte, 2009 with Charlotte and Triple-A Portland and 2010 with Portland.
Last Prospect Handbook appearance: No. 27, White Sox, 2009.
Career Transactions: Selected by White Sox in sixth round of 2004 draft; signed June 16, 2004 … Traded by White Sox with LHPs Aaron Poreda and Clayton Richard and RHP Dexter Carter to Padres for RHP Jake Peavy, July 31, 2009 … Traded by Padres with RHP Brandon Gomes, LHP Cesar Ramos and 2B Cole Figueroa to Rays for SS Jason Bartlett and a player to be named, Dec. 17, 2001.
|ADAM RUSSELL • 2008-10 TRIPLE-A SPLITS
Joining James McDonald, Jo-Jo Reyes and Henry Rodriguez among the recently traded, Russell made the Rays out of spring training even as opponents hit .420 off him in March. Ah, to be out of options and part of the haul for Jason Bartlett, the shortstop for Tampa Bay's two AL East division winners. It's easy to get noticed when you're 6-foot-8 and can hit 96 mph, as Russell is and can. But while he looks the part of dominating late-game reliever, his big league results tell a different story. The strikeouts have been there (54 in 54 innings), but Russell has been too hittable (.690 OPS allowed, 1.53 WHIP) to find success in a high-leverage role. The Rays join Russell's two previous employers, the White Sox and Padres, in a quest to iron out the big man's mechanics. If they're successful, they could have a dominant set-up reliever on their hands. Even if the Rays are unsuccessful, Russell will have his uses in lower-leverage work because as erratic as he's been, he's still allowed only one home run in 49 big league appearances.
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