Pro Scouting Plays Vital Role In Big League Success
The Yankees' Opening Day payroll registered at a hair more than $207 million, yet if it weren't for three astute additions to the pitching staff, then New York probably would be even further behind the pace set by the Red Sox in the American League East.
The defending World Series-champion Giants don't play in the same financial stratosphere as the Yankees, but their $119 million payroll on Opening Day handily surpassed all their National League West rivals except for the Dodgers. Like the Yankees, San Francisco received a first-half jolt from one very unexpected source, helping them to an early division lead.
Typically, when a team such as the Yankees or Giants receives contributions from an unexpected source, it arrives in the form of a top prospect turning himself into a top rookie—a credit to amateur scouting and player development—or in the form of a big leaguer acquired in trade or as a free agent. Credit goes to the major league scouting staff in such cases.
But occasionally a contender will strike it rich in less glamorous waters: the minor league free agent market. Such transactions require the dogged work of an army of professional scouts, who scour all levels of the minor leagues during the season, evaluating young players as targets for acquisition and veterans as potential minor league free agent signs. During the offseason, many of these scouts visit the Latin American winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to check in on the progression of players.
On the recommendation of such professional scouts, the Yankees signed veteran righthanders Bartolo Colon
, Freddy Garcia
and Luis Ayala
to minor league contracts in the offseason. Not one of them was guaranteed a spot on the big league pitching staff, yet all three have made major contributions to the Yankees' 3.51 team ERA, which, according to Baseball-Reference.com, ranks second in the AL once placed in the context of New York's home park.
Yankees pro scouting director Billy Eppler notes that all three of New York's signings had all been strong contributors, if not all-stars, in the past. "You're talking about some amount of reclamation project for these guys," he said, "but in these cases there's actually something to reclaim, because these guys were pretty high-level contributors at one time."
|Even major league teams contending for playoff spots this season have received contributions (however brief or underwhelming) from players who entered the year on minor league contracts. (The Angels are a notable exception here.) A sampling of such players:
• Indians: 3B Jack Hannahan, OF Travis Buck, SS Adam Everett, RHP Justin Germano
• Rays: 1B Casey Kotchman, 3B Felipe Lopez
• Rangers: OF Endy Chavez, RHP Dave Bush, RHP Brett Tomko
• Red Sox: 2B Drew Sutton, LHP Andrew Miller, LHP Rich Hill, LHP Tommy Hottovy, LHP Dennys Reyes
• Tigers: C Omir Santos, RHP Enrique Gonzalez
• Yankees: RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP Luis Ayala, RHP Freddy Garcia, RHP Cory Wade, RHP Buddy Carlyle, 3B Eric Chavez, C Gustavo Molina
• Braves: RHP Scott Proctor, OF Joe Mather, 2B Julio Lugo, C J.C. Boscan
• Brewers: OF Brandon Boggs, C Mike Rivera, 1B Erick Almonte, OF Jeremy Reed, RHP Mark DiFelice
• Cardinals: RHP Miguel Batista, LHP Raul Valdes,
• D-backs: OF Wily Mo Pena, 3B Sean Burroughs, RHP Micah Owings
• Giants: C Chris Stewart, RHP Ryan Vogelsong, RHP Guillermo Mota
• Phillies: C Dane Sardinha, 2B Pete Orr, LHP Juan Perez
• Pirates: C Dusty Brown, C Wyatt Toregas, RHP Jose Veras, LHP Joe Beimel, RHP Tim Wood
Among the Yankees trio, the 38-year-old Colon has made the biggest splash by going 6-4, 3.20 in 12 starts (plus three relief appearances) prior to the all-star break. He struck out 79 and walked just 22 over 90 innings, an astonishing performance given his age and injury history. Since winning the AL Cy Young award in 2005, Colon totaled just 257 innings in the four seasons from 2006-09, never reaching even 100 in a season. He missed the entire 2010 season after having surgery
to repair ligament damage to his elbow and repair a torn rotator cuff. Effectively, Colon had not turned in a full season of work in five years.
The Yankees had reason to believe in Colon's potential, however, with his showing in the Dominican League last winter. New York scouts saw him pitching at 91 mph and running his fastball up to 94 (after a layoff of approximately 16 months), which helped him notch a 28-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 37 1/3 innings for Cibao's Eagles.
"When Colon made his very first start in the Dominican League," Eppler said, "I got an e-mail that night form Joe Caro, one of our (Tampa-based pro) scouts. He said something to the effect of, (Colon's) body is good when you compare it with what Bartolo's body usually looks like. So the body is in good shape, and he's certainly showing good stuff.
"Right away, we raised our eyebrows and kind of put him on our watch list. Joe went back to see his second start, and he told Tony Pena, who was manager for the Eagles (and also Yankees big league bench coach), to keep an eye on Bartolo.
"Then we had Bill Livesey, another one of our scouts, go down to see Colon's next two starts—so his first four stats were seen by somebody out of our pro department. We stayed in touch with Tony every week to ask, 'How did he look?' "
The Yankees then touched base with Colon's agent Mitch Frankel to gauge his client's receptiveness to signing a minor league deal as well as his willingness to compete for a bullpen job, the role New York had envisioned at first.
"We went through a few months of back and forth," Eppler said. "It was just a matter of trusting our scouts and getting looks, just staying on top of it. We finally got a (minor league) deal done in late January, when the process had started in mid-November. We just kept communicating."
Eppler speculates that some teams were scared off by Colon's poor finish to the DL season. He allowed 10 runs in his final 13 1/3 innings as he battled a cold in the last half of December. "It sounded like a few teams were on him," Eppler said, "but then the music started slowing down. That was just us staying on it."
The Giants, with a 3.15 team ERA, rank third in the NL in ballpark-adjusted ERA, thanks in part to their faith in Ryan Vogelsong
, a 33-year-old righty whose 2.02 ERA leads the league. He spent all of 2007-09 pitching in Japan and last season passed through the Phillies and Angels organizations on his way to minor league free agency. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, as manager for the NL all-star team this season, selected Vogelsong for his squad.
From organizational afterthought, twice over, to all-star in the span of a year, Vogelsong's tale is not a common one.
His early career held promise. The Giants made Vogelsong a fifth-round pick in 1998, and he made his big league debut as a 23-year-old September callup in 2000. He built on that success the following season, so much so that the Pirates essentially acquired him straight-up at the 2001 trade deadline
for Jason Schmidt, who twice finished among the top four vote-getters for the NL Cy Young award with the Giants.
Vogelsong proceeded to blow out his arm during his second Pirates appearance and had Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for most of 2002. He struggled to establish himself in Pittsburgh even when healthy, and he finished his Pirates career with a 6.00 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 280 career innings. So after parts of five big league seasons yielded little value, Pittsburgh outrighted Vogelsong to the minors and lost him as a minor league free agent following the 2006 season.
At that stage of his career, a 29-year-old Vogelsong opted to sign with Hanshin of Japan's Central League. He could make nice money overseas, with the added benefit of escaping the shadow of his big league failure. In two seasons with the Tigers and a third with Orix, Vogelsong pitched more effectively than he ever had in the U.S. majors, notching a 4.17 ERA over 214 innings to go with a 2.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Through it all, the Giants kept tabs on Vogelsong. "He was a player who came up through our system, and he's a player we've always thought highly of," Giants vice president for baseball operations Bobby Evans said. "When he became a free agent after '06, we had interest in him even then, but we weren't able to sign him. We maintained contact with him during his years in Japan, whether it be myself directly or with other members of our family like (big league pitching coach) Dave Righetti or (VP for player personnel) Dick Tidrow.
"Ultimately, when Ryan did come back (from Japan) we tried to sign him then, too."
When Vogelsong returned to the States in January 2010, he signed a minor league deal with his hometown Phillies (he attended high school in Atglen, Pa.), but Philadelphia released him in mid-July and he finished out the year in the Angels system. In all, he went 3-8, 4.81 with 110 strikeouts and 62 walks in 95 innings for a pair of Triple-A cubs in Lehigh Valley and Salt Lake—not exactly a precursor of an all-star season in the big leagues.
Statistically speaking, Vogelsong began to right the ship during the 2010 Venezuelan League season, during which he struck out 53 in 60 innings for La Guaira while allowing just 69 baserunners and going 6-2, 2.25 in 11 starts.
The Giants finally agreed to terms with Vogelsong on a minor league deal in January, and he made the club look smart when he stepped in for an injured Barry Zito in mid-April and reeled off a string of quality starts. Through his first 15 starts (plus two relief outings), he went 7-1, 2.02 with 75 strikeouts and 33 walks in 98 innings.
"In Ryan's case, there's no silver-bullet scouting report," Evans said. "We just had a relationship with the player, and in two other instances tried to acquire him. He's just someone who's always been a favorite."
Among the Yankees' trio of minor league free agent imports, Colon has made the biggest impression but Ayala and Garcia also have exceeded expectations. "The common denominator for all three players was trusting the scouts," Eppler said. "If you were just attacking this from a quantitative basis, you're probably not pursuing these guys with the same aggressiveness."
As with Colon, Ayala distinguished himself by pitching in his native land during the offseason. He logged 26 appearances in the Mexican Pacific League last winter, saving 10 of 12 chances and leading all league relievers in walk rate with just four in 29 1/3 innings.
This was precisely the rebound the 33-year-old Ayala needed after three successive down years. He pitched for four big league teams in 2008-09, going 3-15, 5.68 with a 1.50 WHIP in 119 relief appearances. Things only got worse for Ayala in 2010 as he added three more organizations to his résumé, but this time he pitched exclusively in the minors. He logged a 6.42 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in 36 appearances for the Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliates of the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies.
Eppler said that Mexico-based scout Lee Sigman was instrumental to the Yankees' interest in Ayala. "(Sigman) e-mailed in late December to say, basically, that (Ayala) looks like he's back," Eppler said. "Lee is passionate about what he does and has a lot of credibility. He could tell us, this is what the velocity is, this is what the slider looks like. He looks back. Here's some video. It was another situation where you trust your personnel."
The Yankees signed Ayala to a minor league deal in February but called him quickly to the big leagues, where he had logged his share of high-leverage innings and had allowed just six runs in 27 appearances. Ayala's emergence helped New York cover for injuries to primary set-up relievers Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain.
Garcia stepped into a similar situation in the Yankees' rotation. New York lost Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez from last year's corps and contended with an injury to Phil Hughes for much of the first half. Enter: Garcia, the savvy, 34-year-old veteran.
"We had a lot of guys saying good things about Freddy during our pro scouting meeting at the end of last year," Eppler said. "What they really liked was the fact that he'll come here and he'll compete—he won't scare. He's been around the league so much that we know he can do some things to keep us in games.
"(Pro scout) Rick Williams covers the AL for us, but Bill Livesey, (special assistant) Gordon Blakeley and (pro scout) Bill Emslie also saw Freddy last year when he pitched against our club."
Garcia made just 23 big leagues starts in the three seasons from 2007-09 as he battled shoulder problems. He reestablished his value last season with the White Sox by making 28 starts and going 12-6, 4.64, for his first unblemished season in three years.
Said Eppler: "In Freddy's case, we saw plenty in 2010 in his two starts against us. We had scouts at six of his other games, so we had eyes on eight of the 28 starts he made last year. In his 13 years of major league service, Freddy had reinvented himself, going from vintage Garcia—up to 95 (mph), pitching at 93 and just overpowering—to now topping out at 91 and pitching at 88-89, while being able to miss the barrel of the bat."
That about sums it up. Garcia went 7-7, 3.43 with average strikeout (5.8 per nine innings) and walk (2.9) rates through his first 17 appearances, all but one of them starts.