PITTSBURGH—On the final day of spring training, as teammates packed all around him, some of them headed for the majors and others minors-bound, Jeremy Hazelbaker received word that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wanted to see him in his office.
Matheny quickly realized that Hazelbaker, during his seven years as a pro, had been involved in a few of these office meetings. They had not always been good news, and Matheny sensed that Hazelbaker could have some “bad relapses” if he didn’t assure the outfielder.
“I don’t think you’ve been in one quite like this,” Matheny said as Hazelbaker took a seat. “Welcome to the big leagues.”
Almost seven years and exactly 751 games in the minors, Hazelbaker had reached the majors, turning an impressive spring training into a spot on the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster. It wasn’t certain he would make the team until the final day of spring training, when he went 2-for-3 with a home run against the Yankees.
|OPENING DAY SURPRISES|
|Jeremy Hazelbaker was far from the only Opening Day surprise. We left Rule 5 picks out here and focused on 10 other players who made a big league roster for the first time this April.|
|Player||Pos.||Organization||Why It’s A Surprise|
|Jake Barrett||rhp||Diamondbacks||Two-time third-round pick had finished 2015 in Double-A|
|John Gant||rhp||Braves||Finished 2015 as Double-A starter; opens 2016 in Atlanta bullpen|
|Hyun-Soo Kim||of||Orioles||Baltimore tried to option Korean outfielder, but his contract precluded such a move|
|Dae-Ho Lee||1b||Mariners||33-year-old Korean will platoon with Adam Lind after signing minor league deal|
|Tyler Naquin||of||Indians||2012 first-round pick won starting center field job with Michael Brantley out|
|Robert Stephenson||rhp||Reds||2011 first-rounder struggled in 2015, but still is key to Reds’ rebuild|
|Trevor Story||ss||Rockies||Rockies’ No. 8 prospect took Zack Greinke deep twice in opener|
|Ross Stripling||rhp||Dodgers||Tommy John alum threw just 71 innings in 2015 now in big league rotation|
|Tyler White||1b||Astros||33rd-round pick in 2013 with .422 career OBP now starts for contender|
|Tony Wolters||c/2b||Rockies||February waiver claim from Indians has healthy knee—finally|
It wasn’t Hazelbaker’s performance that secured the spot on the 25-man roster. Rather it was an injury to shortstop Ruben Tejada that made the decision for the Cardinals. Then an injury to outfielder Tommy Pham on Opening Day and subsequent disabled-list stint should keep Hazelbaker in St. Louis for a while.
For days leading up to the final roster call, the Cardinals had described how “difficult” Hazelbaker had made their decision and how he forced them “into some tough decisions.” He led the team with two homers, was one of the leading basestealers in spring, and he proved that he could play all three outfield spots. The Cardinals weren’t looking for a lefthanded hitter to fill an outfield spot. Hazelbaker, a year removed from his release, forced them to.
“It’s become more than a nice story,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “It’s exciting to watch him go. He obviously had a very impressive few months with us last year. I think . . . the whole staff (has) been extremely impressed.”
Ten months ago, they were the only ones.
A fourth-round pick by the Red Sox in 2009 out of Ball State, Hazelbaker reached Triple-A in the organization and had his moments, but contact issues kept him out of the big leagues. He struck out at least 120 times every season from 2010-13, reaching Triple-A, before the Red Sox traded Hazelbaker to the Dodgers after the 2013 season.
After a poor start with Triple-A Alburquerque in 2014, he spent most of that season back at Double-A, then got into just 14 games at Tulsa in 2015 prior to his release.
Struggles from the previous season drizzled into 2015, and though Hazelbaker felt he was making progress with a swing change, he wasn’t getting the at-bats to complete the transformation. He had identified a mechanical flaw in how he brought his hands back, and it was sabotaging his timing. His load was too slow, so his swing was rushed into and through the zone.
When the Dodgers released him, he spent 12 days in baseball limbo. Only one team called.
“When the Cardinals picked me up, it kind of clicked,” said Hazelbaker, 28.
The Cardinals signed Hazelbaker as a minor league free agent because they needed a body at Double-A Springfield because of promotions and injuries elsewhere in the organization. The certainty of playing time allowed his new swing to take root and then take off.
Hazelbaker hit .308/.394/.503 in 40 games at Springfield to earn a promotion to Triple-A Memphis, a level he first had reached in 2012 with the Red Sox. With Memphis, he hit 10 homers in 58 games, batting .333/.403/.594, and word reached St. Louis that Hazelbaker was, according to outfielder Randal Grichuk, “the greatest hitter ever.”
After slugging his way through the second half, Hazelbaker hit the open market.
Now the Cardinals weren’t the only team interested in Hazelbaker, but they were the only team he was interested in.
“To be the only team that called after I got released shows me they saw something that they liked,” Hazelbaker said. “I want to stick with a team that sees something in me, and this is the team that saw something in me from the beginning.”
The Cardinals’ offer came with an invitation to major league spring training, and Hazelbaker didn’t bother checking the roster. The team did clear out some of its outfield depth over the offseason, losing Jason Heyward to free agency and trading Jon Jay to the Padres. But they had replacements at the ready, turning to Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty in center and right field, respectively.
The role for Hazelbaker was further limited by Pham’s versatility in the field and Brandon Moss’ lefthanded power.
And then, Hazelbaker showed both traits early in spring training. At one point, bench coach David Bell singled out Hazelbaker for the speed and aggressiveness he’d shown on the bases and the power he had the plate. It was the kind of blend the Cardinals felt could come off the bench and “help us out.”
They just didn’t have the room.
When the bus boarded for the last exhibition game in Tampa, Hazelbaker was one of several players told to pack for two eventualities: an outfit they could wear for the three-hour bus ride back to the Triple-A roster or a suit and tie for the flight to Pittsburgh with the major league team. Hazelbaker was back in limbo again, unsure if he were about to reach his dream or, Matheny’s term, have a relapse.
Hazelbaker returned from Matheny’s office, and teammates watched as he went to the bags he packed and pulled out a tie. He was getting on a plane, not another bus.
Not before he had to fight back tears.
“It’s indescribable,” he said. “It’s been a long journey, a long journey. It’s finally paid off. Hard work has paid off.”