Every team brings to spring training at least one on-the-bubble young player who straddles the line between the majors and minors. Said player has spent several seasons on the 40-man roster without establishing himself in the big leagues, yet he has no minor league options remaining, blocking off the direct path back to Triple-A.
A player who reaches this juncture of his career typically has shown tantalizing promise in the high minors, with maybe a flash of greatness in the big leagues, but for whatever reason has not had sustained success at the highest level.
Last year in this space, we took a close look at how service time impacts minor league players—options years, Rule 5 draft clocks, etc.—and a closer look at 14 players, each of whom entered 2010 spring training having used his final option in ’09. That status forced his club's hands. Carry him, even if he's not one of the 25 best players, or expose him to waivers, where any one of the other 29 teams could claim him for a fixed fee.
As it turned out, all 14 players received the benefit of the doubt and made Opening Day rosters. We broke out seven position players and seven pitchers, but for this exercise let's go a bit deeper and reference the Out-Of-Options All-Star Team, which can be found in the comments section of this post. (Please note: this team includes only players who burned their final options in ’09. It does not try to capture all players who have no options remaining.)
We set out originally to prove or disprove the conventional wisdom, espoused by one front-office veteran, that out-of-option players really aren't worth the fuss. Would that prove to be a handy rule of thumb?
|OUT-OF-OPTIONS ALL-STARS • 2010 POSITION PLAYERS
|LF||Eric Patterson*||A's/Red Sox||204||.214||.272||.406||81||-0.2|
Source: Baseball-Reference.com. *Bats lefthanded. #Switch-hitter.
Quick take: Carlos Gonzalez stands out from this group, providing by far the most value (as measured by Wins Above Replacement) and registering the only above-average offensive campaign (by OPS+). But his is a special case that we'll address later. Aside form Gonzalez, the only positive contributors played up-the-middle positions and in part-time roles: the Royals' Mitch Maier, the Twins' Alexi Casilla and the Angels' Bobby Wilson. But while that trio made positive contributions, they were on a decidedly small scale.
In fact, tallying all the WAR contributions from this starting nine yields a grand total of 3.0, or roughly what a good team might expect from a single, quality regular position player. Remove the outliers—Gonzalez on the high side and Brandon Wood on the low—and 0.3 WAR remain, meaning that, as a group, this collection of players played at a level that theoretically could be replicated by any number of minor leaguers. Let's take our all-stars one by one, in descending order of WAR output:
• Carlos Gonzalez (4.5 WAR): He won the National League batting title (.336) and finished third in MVP voting last season, but his is a special case. He got off to a slow start to his big league career, compiling a .634 OPS as a 22-year-old A's rookie in 2008 and subsequently being traded to the Rockies for Matt Holliday that offseason. With Colorado in ’09, Gonzalez again started slowly, batting 20-for-94 (.213) with one homer through July 20. But from that point forward (counting the ’09 playoffs), he's hit .338/.384/.610 in 868 plate appearances.
So while Gonzalez entered the 2010 with no options remaining, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Rockies would have broken camp without him. Not with his prospect pedigree, his showing down the stretch in ’09 (and in the playoffs) and the fact that he was the main haul for Holliday, one of the franchise's all-time greats. (Status: Rockies starting left fielder.)
• Mitch Maier (0.7 WAR): With 525 2/3 innings logged in center field, he served as the Royals' de facto starter at the position. That changed after the trade-deadline acquisitions of Rick Ankiel and Gregor Blanco, though Maier made more plays per nine innings (3.01) in center than either of his rivals. No matter. Kansas City got all they could have expected from Maier—a steady glove and average-ish production versus righties (.274/.352/.368). (Status: Royals outfield reserve.)
• Bobby Wilson (0.4 WAR): As he had in the minors, Wilson hit for power and showed average defensive chops. He made 19 of 38 starts at catcher in the season's final two months, after returning from a concussion and ankle injury and after Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli faced reduced roles behind the plate. Following the season, the Angels shed Napoli (traded to Blue Jays for Vernon Wells) and Ryan Budde (minor league free agent) from the 40-man roster and added ’06 first-rounder Hank Conger. (Status: Angels backup catcher.)
• Alexi Casilla (0.2 WAR): Though he missed time with a pair of ailments (ankle, elbow) in 2010, Casilla positioned himself for a bigger role with a career-best offensive season. Oh, and the Twins will be without incumbent middle infielders J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. Minnesota intends to begin Casilla at shortstop this season, while plugging in Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second, but will the former's bat be up to the task? He hit just .271/.303/.365 in 91 plate appearances to close out 2010, when the Twins auditioned him as everyday shortstop. (Status: Twins starting shortstop.)
• Josh Fields (0 WAR): Hip surgery kept Fields out of Kansas City until September, but he still managed to outplay the third baseman for whom he was traded, Mark Teahen (-0.4 WAR with White Sox). Non-tendered in December, Fields signed a minor league deal with the Pirates. (Status: Competing with other Pirates non-roster invitees Garrett Atkins and Andy Marte for roster spot as infield-corner backup and righthanded power source.)
• Joaquin Arias (-0.2 WAR): Designated for assignment three times in 2010, Arias played four positions but didn't hit a lick in limited action. His transactional odyssey began with the Rangers, who DFA'd him in August to make room for Alex Cora. Texas worked out a trade with the Mets, sending Arias to New York for Jeff Francouer. The Mets retained Arias through the end of the season before DFA-ing him to clear 40-man roster space. The Royals claimed him on waivers, only to DFA him one final time after bringing on four players in the Zack Greinke trade. Arias cleared waivers this time, though he may find it difficult to get back on the 40-man, even with a Kansas City club that figures to be uncompetitive. (Status: Behind Mike Aviles, Chris Getz and Wilson Betemit on Royals' second-base depth chart, and in line with fellow NRIs Irving Falu, Johnny Giavotella and Lance Zawadzki.)
• Eric Patterson (-0.2 WAR): Much like Arias, Patterson joined his third organization of 2010 last fall, though unlike Arias, he has managed to retain his 40-man roster spot through it all. The A's traded Patterson to the Red Sox (for lefty Fabian Williamson) at the end of June, and Boston in turn swapped him to the Padres in December as the throw-in to their trade for Adrian Gonzalez. (Status: In the mix to help as reserve at second base, behind Orlando Hudson and Everth Cabrera, or in the outfield, along with Chris Denorfia and Aaron Cunningham.)
• Jake Fox (-0.6 WAR): Suiting up as catcher for 19 games added value, but Fox's calling card—power—was in short supply in 2010 (.384 slugging, seven homers in roughly half a season). The A's jumped through hoops to carry Fox on Opening Day, optioning catcher Landon Powell and DFA-ing Jack Cust, but Oakland ultimately jumped ship in mid-June, trading him to the Orioles for minor league righty reliever Ross Wolf. (Status: Orioles backup catcher, corner infielder.)
• Brandon Wood (-1.8 WAR): The Angels turned over third base to Wood, but his historically bad offensive campaign forced them to turn to Alberto Callaspo, Kevin Frandsen and Maicer Izturis in the second half. Wood's 5 OPS+ last season ranks as the worst of the expansion era (min. 200 plate appearances), barely nudging Tony Pena Jr.'s ’08 campaign, not coincidentally his last as a position player. (Alas, Bill Bergen's 1909 (1 OPS+) and 1911 (-4) seasons top Wood all time.) If that weren't enough, Wood nearly holds the distinction of having the lowest batting average ever for a player with as many as his 479 PAs. He's eight points behind John Vukovich. (Status: Angels backup infielder.)
|OUT-OF-OPTIONS ALL-STARS • 2010 PITCHERS
Source: Baseball-Reference.com. *Throws lefthanded.
Quick take: Homer Bailey, Luke Hochevar and Mitch Talbot proved to be passable back-of-the-rotation starters for the Reds, Royals and Indians, respectively, but it was another Cleveland player who provided the most value, at least as far as WAR is concerned. Lefty reliever Rafael Perez produced results in high-leverage spots, yielding just three homers in 61 innings and notching scoreless outings in 56 of 71 appearances. Fellow lefty reliever Jose Mijares contributed to the Twins' cause, though he didn't serve as the same lefty killer (.776 OPS) as he had in ’09 (.480).
The Brewers and Padres/Pirates were able to minimize the damage inflicted by the likes of Manny Parra and Sean Gallagher by moving them into less demanding roles—or in the case of the Royals, they simply outrighted Mendoza to Triple-A after four disastrous outings yielded 10 hits, 10 runs and four homers allowed.
• Rafael Perez (0.8 WAR): The shining light of this collection of out-of-options players, Perez nevertheless came up short in the dominance department. His rate of strikeouts per nine innings has declined from a peak of 10.1 in 2008 to 6.0 in ’09 to 5.3 last year, while his OPS allowed to same-side batters, ignoring an aberrational 2009, has risen from .450 in 2007 to .599 in ’08 to .746 in ’10. (Status: Indians set-up reliever.)
• Homer Bailey (0.5 WAR): He made one fewer start in 2010 than he had in ’09, but Bailey's peripherals all took positive steps. His strikeout rate rose (to 8.3 per nine innings) while his walk rate (3.3) and WHIP (1.37) declined. If those trends continue, then the soon-to-be-25-year-old could be much more effective this season—though it's not clear in which role because for all his advances, Bailey logged just 109 innings last season (because of an inflamed shoulder) while losing nearly two ticks off his fastball. (Status: Reds No. 4 starter.)
• Luke Hochevar (0.5 WAR): While his strikeout and walk rates remained largely unchanged, Hochevar was much less hittable and issued many fewer home runs in 2010. Correspondingly, his ERA plummeted from 6.55 in ’09 to 4.81 last season. Better still, his average fastball and slider velocity increased (to 93.5 and 84.6 mph, respectively) while his average changeup velo decreased (83.5 mph). Like Bailey, Hochevar's gains might not mean much if he doesn't improve his durability. He made 17 starts last season before being shut down with an elbow strain. (Status: Royals nominal No. 1 starter.)
• Jose Mijares (0.5 WAR): Last season was more of the same for Mijares, which is . . . OK. But the presence of Mijares in the pen did not dissuade the Twins from stockpiling other lefty relief options during the 2010 season (Randy Flores, Brian Fuentes, Ron Mahay), nor has it precluded the Twins from stocking up this offseason with Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond, waiver claim Dusty Hughes and minor league signees Phil Dumatrait and Chuck James. (Status: Twins set-up reliever.)
• Alberto Arias (0 WAR): Like Josh Fields among the position players, Arias had his 2010 campaign wiped out by injuries. He spent all season on the disabled list after having shoulder surgery. (Status: If healthy, he'll occupy a spot high up in the Astros' bullpen pecking order.)
• Mitch Talbot (-0.1 WAR): Only Fausto Carmona (3.77 ERA) and Justin Masterson (4.70) started more games or logged more innings for Cleveland than did Talbot (4.41). Unfortunately, that went a long way toward realizing the club's 93-loss season. Talbot's season would have looked much better if the season stopped at the all-star break, before which he went 8-8, 3.99 in 17 turns, with 54-44 strikeouts-walks and a 1.37 ground-to-fly out ratio. Even on a competitive team, he would be good enough to sop up innings as a No. 5 or 6 starter. (Status: Indians No. 3 starter.)
• Sean Gallagher (-0.6 WAR): As a Cubs farmhand, Gallagher opened eyes in the ’07 Pacific Coast League, making the best eight starts of his life for Triple-A Iowa, allowing only one home run and finishing with nearly three strikeouts for every walk. Cubs opponents apparently have the same reports because Gallagher has been a hot commodity on the trade market ever since, heading to Oakland for Rich Harden in ’08 and to San Diego for Scott Hairston in ’09. But after 15 desultory performances with the Padres last year, they packaged him to the Pirates for cash considerations. Pittsburgh received more of the same from Gallagher—way too many walks (6.4 per nine on the year) and too many hits allowed when the ball crossed the plate—so they outrighted him to Triple-A in November. (Status: Battling for low-leverage relief scraps with other Pirates NRI righties such as Fernando Nieve, Cesar Valdez, Jose Veras and Tyler Yates.)
• Manny Parra (-0.7 WAR): Parra began and finished 2010 in the bullpen, but in between he made 16 starts for the Brewers, going 2-7, 6.19 and yielding 16 home runs. That's been the story of his big league life. In 74 career starts, Parra has run up a 5.44 ERA and 1.69 WHIP, contrasted with 3.19 and 1.34 figures in 36 career appearances out of the bullpen. With pure strikeout stuff, Parra's always one pitch away from getting out of a jam—but unless the Brewers are overwhelmed with injuries this season, expect those jams to develop one inning at a time. (Status: Brewers set-up reliever.)
• Luis Mendoza (-0.7 WAR): The Royals bought low on Mendoza just prior to the 2010 season, sending cash considerations to the Rangers, and they got what they paid for. As outlined in the quick take, Mendoza was nothing short of disastrous (22.50 ERA, .455 opponent average), earning a quick outright to Triple-A. He signed on for another minor league deal with Kansas City in November. (Status: Even though he's in Royals camp as an NRI, he's destined for the Omaha rotation.)
Up next: We'll rummage through this year's bin of out-of-options all-stars to find potential late bloomers. While no MVP candidates like Carlos Gonzalez may surface, a useful piece like Homer Bailey or Alexi Casilla or Luke Hochevar is sure to turn up.