Prospects or Suspects: Players Out of Options
Spring training is no doubt a tumultuous time for Major League Baseball players. It is likely an even more confusing time for a minor league player on the cusp of securing a major league gig. Chartered flights with all the amenities are a lot more appealing than a 400-mile bus trip from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A catered post-game meal is a lot more tantalizing than peanut butter sandwiches thrown together by a minor league clubhouse staff. Oh, and there is the 'minor' difference of the salary.
In Major League Baseball, teams control a player's movements between the majors and minors - with some exceptions, of course - for three years with what are called option years. A more complex explanation of options can be found be reading Thomas Gorman's article at Baseball Prospectus (for subscribers) or an expanded version by Keith Law, which was published here at Baseball Analysts last year. In short, though, what you need to know is that once a team has exhausted a player's option years, they must then designate said player for assignment to be able to assign him to the minor leagues. That means every team in the majors has a chance to claim him.
The spring is generally the busiest time of the year for players out of options to be shifted off of the 40-man roster, often to clear room for non-roster players who have out-played them. This year stands to be no exception and I have compiled a list of five intriguing players who are out of options to keep an eye on this spring.
1. Andrew Brown, San Diego, RHP
10.0 IP | 5.40 H/9 | 7.20 K/9 | 6.30 BB/9 | 2.7 VORP
Brown was obtained this past off-season from the Cleveland Indians in the Kevin Kouzmanoff deal. Cleveland had no problems with dealing the enigmatic Brown because A) he is out of options, B) he continues to struggle with his control and C) they have numerous other bullpen options. Brown's repertoire consists of a 92-97 mph fastball and power slider.
One knock against Brown, 26, aside from his control problems, is that he has had trouble staying healthy. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander had Tommy John surgery in 2000 as a member of the Atlanta Braves' system, after being drafted by them in the sixth round out of high school in 1999. Brown was then traded to the Dodgers in the 2002 Gary Sheffield trade. He pitched in only one game in 2003 after elbow problems cropped up again. In 2004, Brown was part of the loot for Milton Bradley deal.
The bullpen competition:
Trevor Hoffman (LOCK)
Scott Linebrink (LOCK)
Cla Meredith (LOCK)
Kevin Cameron (Rule 5)
Frank Brooks (non-roster)
Adrian Burnside (non-roster)
Basically, if San Diego goes with a 12-man pitching staff, Brown is looking at competing with 11 other pitchers for four spots. Ring, Hampson, Burnside, Brooks and Ketchner figure to battle for two left-handed reliever roles, which then leaves two more spots.
Adams is battling injuries so we can assume he'll probably start the year on the disabled list or rehabbing in the minors. That leaves Bell, Cassidy, Brocail, Cameron and Strickland. A sentimental favorite, I'm not sure Brocail, who will be 40 in May, has enough left after two angioplasties. As such, I'll take him out of the mix.
Stickland was solid in Triple-A last year (2.09 ERA, 7.73 H/9, 1.84 BB/0, 8.59 K/9 in 73.1 innings) in the Pirates' organization after returning from 2005 Tommy John surgery. The 31-year-old will probably win a spot this spring and narrow the choice down to one. I don't see Cameron showing enough in a month to stick with so many other players around (he had an 8.59 ERA in the Arizona Fall League), so he heads back to Minnesota.
Cassidy, 31, did not impress the Padres enough to remain in San Diego for the entire year last year - despite OK numbers - so we'll designate him for assignment due to his limited upside. Bell, 29, had a 5.11 ERA for the Mets last year in 22 games and allowed 51 hits in 37 innings. Not good enough for this pen - at least to start the season. We, therefore, end up with a spot for Brown.
San Diego has a reputation for getting the most possible out of middle relievers (hello, Cla Meredith) so Brown will have every opportunity to realize his potential before facing the dreaded DFA. My prediction is that Brown will make the team and he'll be one of the better relievers on the Padres for the first half of the season and then struggle again with his control.
IP H BB-K ERA
2007 Prediction: 55.1 57 33-52 4.40
2. Francisco Rosario, Toronto, RHP
23.0 IP | 9.39 H/9 | 8.22 K/9 | 6.26 BB/9 | -0.1 VORP
Rosario's numbers don't look overly great, but he had a solid start to his debut season before fading late in the year - and struggling with concentration (one of the reasons he was shifted to the 'pen in the first place).
Rosario, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Jays in 1999, has all the makings of a dominating reliever - 93-96 mph fastball, above-average change and slider. Unfortunately, he has not been the same since Tommy John surgery in early 2003. Before the injury, Rosario had a breakout campaign as a starter in 2002 at the age of 21:
ERA IP H BB-K AVG
Charleston 2.56 67.0 50 14-78 .206
Dunedin 1.29 63.0 33 25-65 .151
With three years under his belt since the surgery, Rosario - now 26 - is out of options and facing a make-or-break year. There is likely a spot available for him on the team, but he needs to buckle down in spring training.
B.J. Ryan (LOCK)
Brandon League (LOCK - if healthy)
Jason Frasor (LOCK)
Scott Downs (LOCK)
Ryan, Frasor and Downs should be locks along with League, although he's battling a stiff shoulder. Accardo was not good at all after coming over from San Francisco in the Shea Hillenbrand trade. Romero is also battling some early spring soreness. Tallet should have a spot after spending most of 2006 in Toronto, but he needs better command. Roney, Machi, Taubenheim and Houston should all begin the season in Triple-A, although Houston had a lights-out winter league with his mid-90s fastball.
I saw Rosario pitch a fair bit last year and I have been following his career closely since 2002, but I just can't endorse him at this point. Like too many young pitchers, he looks absolutely brilliant one day and absolutely horrendous the next day.
If the Jays' pitchers are relatively healthy by the end of spring training, I see Rosario being shipped off in a trade for a reliable fourth outfielder - or perhaps another young player on the bubble - before the season begins. Even if he doesn't make the Jays, he (and his mid-90s fastball) won't make it through waivers.
IP H BB-K ERA
2007 Prediction: 36.2 41 19-22 5.60
3. Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore, RHP
19.3 IP | 11.17 H/9 | 6.52 K/9 | 6.98 BB/9 | -2.2 VORP
What the heck happened to Guthrie? The Indians drafted him 22nd overall (he dropped due to contract demands) during the 2002 draft. Guthrie ended his 2002 college season by being named the PAC-10 Pitcher of the Year, Stanford Regional MVP, First Team College All-American and a PAC-10 Conference All-Star.
The Indians rewarded him with a four-year, $4.5 million major league contract (yes, his agent was Scott Boras). Keep in mind, Guthrie was a senior in college, having turned down the Pirates and a $1.7 million offer the previous year as a junior.
Due to lengthy negotiations, Guthrie did not make his pro debut until the following year, at the age of 24. Not surprisingly, the Indians started Guthrie out in Double-A Akron and he dominated by allowing 44 hits in 62.2 innings (6.32 H/9), along with an ERA of 1.44. However, the first red flag was raised when he recorded only 35 strikeouts (5.03 K/9) to go along with his 14 walks (2.01 BB/9).
Later that year, Guthrie was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo and he struggled. The first-year pro allowed 129 hits in 96.2 innings (12.01 H/9). He walked 30 batters and struck out 62. Not good news, but even worse news would be coming: Guthrie would spend three more years at Triple-A and even revisit Double-A.
During the next three years, Guthrie posted ERAs of 7.91, 5.08 and (finally) 3.14 while playing for Buffalo. Overall in his minor league career, to that point, Guthrie allowed 597 hits in 568.2 innings (9.46 H/9). As well, over his minor league career, Guthrie struck out only 6.16 per nine innings.
In short MLB stints over the course of three seasons, Guthrie allowed 42 hits in 37 innings (10.22 H/9). He posted a 6.08 ERA and allowed 23 walks and 24 strikeouts. Cleveland finally decided to cut their losses after the 2006 season and designated Guthrie for assignment. He was claimed by the Baltimore Orioles and will now fight for a rotation spot on the veteran-ladened team.
The bad news for Guthrie is that Baltimore spent a ridiculous amount of money on aging middle relievers: Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, Danys Baez and Scott Williamson. They also added Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel to the starting rotation. The news that Kris Benson has a torn labrum could have helped Guthrie's chances, but Benson will now try a strengthening program rather than undergo surgery.
Based on his previous numbers, I can't see Guthrie competing for a spot in the starting rotation so his competition for a spot on the 25-man roster includes relievers:
Chris Ray (LOCK)
Danys Baez (LOCK)
Scott Williamson (LOCK)
Jamie Walker (LOCK)
Chad Bradford (LOCK)
Paul Shuey (non-roster)
The first five spots in the bullpen are locks, with second-year closer Chris Ray leading the way. If the Orioles go with a 12-man rotation, that leaves two spots for eight guys, including Guthrie.
The biggest threat is probably Williams, who has spent the past two years in the Baltimore bullpen. However, Williams was allowed to walk this past off-season - after posting ratios of 3.00 BB/9, 3.79 K/9, 12.00 H/9 and an ERA of 4.74 - only to be re-signed to a contract. Given Baltimore's infatuation with 30-something pitchers, I'll give him a spot on the 25-man roster.
So, can Guthrie beat out six other guys? Based on his showings from previous spring trainings (10.24 H/9, 4.66 BB/9, 5.59 K/9, 5.12 ERA), he has a chance if he comes out throwing well at the beginning of camp. However, Rleal has better stuff and pitched in 42 games for Baltimore in 2006. That said, Rleal has his own issues: 9.26 H/9, 4.44 BB/9, 3.66 K/9.
Hoey had a 10.24 ERA in 9.2 innings for Baltimore in 2006, after playing at four levels and starting the year in A-ball. He probably needs more work. Burres pitched OK during a brief MLB stint but he still has options left. Both Birkins and Parrish are returning from elbow injuries and should not be counted on early in 2007. Shuey probably does not have much left in the tank.
As a result, Guthrie barely squeaks out a bullpen spot as a long reliever and possible spot starter. He may make the team, but his inclusion is tenuous at best. Again I ask: What the heck happened to Guthrie?
IP H BB-K ERA
2007 Prediction: 67.0 77 39-39 5.14
4. Sergio Mitre, Florida, RHP
41.0 IP | 9.66 H/9 | 6.80 K/9 | 4.39 BB/9 | -1.5 VORP
The Florida Marlins received some solid pitching from rookie hurlers Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson and Scott Olsen in 2006, but Mitre was not really one of them. He was obtained from the Chicago Cubs in the winter of 2005 along with fellow rookies Ricky Nolasco and Renyel Pinto for Juan Pierre.
The 26-year-old was originally drafted out of San Diego City College by the Cubs in the seventh round of the 2001 draft. After a solid pro debut in the Northwest League, Mitre was pitching for the Cubs by the end of his second full season. However, in parts of his four MLB seasons, Mitre's lowest ERA in any one year was 5.37.
IP H H/9 BB/9 K/9 WHIP
Minors 579.2 582 9.04 2.30 6.91 1.26
Majors 161.2 192 10.69 3.73 6.01 1.60
It's pretty clear to see what Mitre's problems have been at the major league level. He's allowing about three more runners on base per nine innings. Last season in Florida, Mitre also struggled with his command and walked 20 batters in 41 innings (4.39 BB/9).
Mitre's not overpowering with a sinker that has touched 94 mph and he also throws a curveball and change. He is probably best-suited for the bullpen, although he could be a pretty good No. 5 starter. With question marks surrounding the health of Sanchez and especially Johnson, Mitre will get a long look in spring training and should make the team. He will face competition from:
Dontrelle Willis (LOCK)
Scott Olsen (LOCK)
Josh Johnson (injured)
Kevin Gregg (LOCK)
Taylor Tankersley (LOCK)
Nate Field (non-roster)
Mike Koplove (non-roster)
Wes Obermueller (non-roster)
If Johnson continues to have arm problems, Mitre should be able to beat Petit out for the No. 5 spot behind Willis, Olsen, Sanchez, and Nolasco (originally considered for the closer's position). If by some miracle Johnson is healthy, Mitre should also have a good shot in the pen, with only two players a lock to make the team.
Field, Koplove and Obermueller should all begin the year in Triple-A, unless they absolutely dominate in the spring. Bowyer is not expected to be healthy for the start of the year so he's out of the equation.
Tyler walked more than six batters per nine innings in Double-A, so his control still needs serious work. Garcia has a nice ceiling and shouldn't be limited to the bullpen at this point in his career, so he should head to Triple-A for a little more experience.
As a result, the Marlins would be looking at a bullpen consisting of Gregg, Tankersley, Pinto, Messenger, Owens, Lindstrom and Mitre. I would fully expect Mitre to also see some spot starts.
IP H BB-K ERA
2007 Prediction: 110.2 126 47-78 4.84
5. Scott Hairston, Arizona, OF
15 ABs | .400 AVG | .438 OBP | .533 SLG | 2.0 VORP
Hairston, who turns 27 in May, has Travis Hafner disease. He is an aging prospect with tons of potential but lacks A) a position to play and B) an opportunity despite solid minor league numbers. Now, I'll readily admit his ceiling is nowhere near Hafner's but he could still win my most-underrated minor leaguer of the year award.
The biggest problem for Hairston is that Arizona has a pretty darn amazing outfield without him: Chris Young, Carlos Quentin and Eric Byrnes. Byrnes is one of those guys who will do anything in his power to win - including running through walls - and both Quentin and Young could be All-Stars within three to five years.
Hairston - the younger brother of Jerry Hairston Jr., son of Jerry Hairston Sr., nephew of Johnny Hairston and grandson of Sammy Hairston - has amazing bloodlines and was a third round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2001 and was the Junior College Player of the Year.
In 2002, Hairston was named a Midwest League All-Star, Baseball America First Team All-Star, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Minor League Player of the Year. He batted .332/.426/.563 a year after making his pro debut (where he hit .347/.432/.588 in Rookie ball). Hairston wasn't done in 2002, though, as he received a late promotion to Lancaster and hit .405/.442/.797.
His numbers took a bit of a tumble in 2003 at Double-A El Paso when he hit .276/.345/.469 in 88 games. But he recovered in Triple-A the next season when he hit .313/.375/.565 and earned a promotion to the majors after only 28 games.
Hairston struggled in the majors, although he appeared in 101 games. He hit .248/.293/.442 and walked only 21 times in 338 at-bats. After that season, Hairston was shifted to the outfield and began to battle injuries. He was also passed by other prospects and watched as Arizona made trades for Young, Byrnes and even Orlando Hudson. Hairston still has a good bat, but it was far more valuable as a second baseman than a corner outfielder.
There are seven outfielders, including Hairston, currently looking to secure five spots on the Diamondbacks' opening day roster:
Eric Byrnes (LOCK)
Carlos Quentin (LOCK)
Chris Young (LOCK)
Krynzel was acquired from Milwaukee and has trouble making consistent contact (107 strikeouts in 359 2006 Triple-A at-bats). He needs more seasoning. Romero is only 23 and probably needs a little more time at Triple-A. Those two quick-and-easy eliminations make it pretty clear that Hairston has a spot on the roster.
C Chris Snyder
IF Albert Callaspo
1B Tony Clark
OF Jeff DaVanon
OF Scott Hairston
However, he deserves the opportunity to prove he is more than a fifth outfielder. One trade that makes sense to me is Hairston to Toronto for reliever Francisco Rosario. Arizona needs pitching (and Rosario has a mid-90s fastball and plus change) and Toronto really needs a fourth outfielder (sorry, Matt Stairs doesn't cut it) and some pop off the bench.
AVG OBP SLG AB
2007 Prediction: .267 .323 .427 276
* * * * *
Others to Watch:
Edwin Jackson, Tampa Bay, RHP
Jackson, 23, has fallen a long way since being declared a phenom in 2003 while with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After three disappointing seasons, Jackson was shipped to Tampa Bay, along with fellow rookie Chuck Tiffany for Danys Baez and Lance Carter.
In parts of four major league seasons, Jackson has pitched 111.2 innings and allowed 121 hits (9.75 BB/9). As well, he has walked 5.16 per nine innings and struck out 6.04 batters per nine innings. He may have lost his shot at starting, but you never know with the Rays. His best chance to make the club in 2007 is probably the pen where there really aren't any locks to make the team.
Jason Davis, Cleveland, RHP
Davis was helped out by the surprise retirement by Keith Foulke early in spring training. Davis has the potential, but he needs to finally show some results. A change of scenery may benefit this career Cleveland Indian. In 2006, he had a 3.74 ERA in 55 innings - as well as ratios of 10.90 H/9, 2.28 BB/9 and 6.02 K/9 - but Cleveland still appeared to lack confidence in him.
Wil Ledezma, Detroit, RHP
The battle for spots on the Detroit Tigers will be a lot tougher this season than it has been for a number of years. Ledezma, a former Rule 5 pick, is oozing with potential but he needs to finally put it all together.
He could be a valuable long man in the Tigers' rotation, which should also feature Todd Jones, Jose Mesa, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya. Ledezma posted a 3.58 ERA in 60 innings between the bullpen and rotation in 2006.
J.D. Durbin, Minnesota, RHP
The Minnesota Twins need pitching in 2007 as witnessed by the fact they are all but guaranteeing spots to Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz. Durbin has some of the best stuff amongst Twins' rookies, but he has health issues. He had a bicep problem last year and has experienced "forearm tingling" early in spring training. When healthy last season, Durbin had a 2.33 ERA in Triple-A, but he also posted a 5.06 BB/9 ratio.
Dan Johnson, Oakland, 1B
Despite posting excellent minor league numbers, it looked like Johnson would never get his shot. But he finally did in 2005 and generated encouraging numbers. He secured himself another gig in 2006 but struggled mightily by hitting .234/.323/.381, which were terrible numbers for someone being counted on to drive in runs. This spring, Johnson revealed that he had been dealing with double vision. He said that it has been corrected. If so, he should have a good chance to make the A's, although Shannon Stewart will give him a run for his money.
*A special thanks to Jeff Euston at Cot's Baseball Contracts for confirming the contract status of certain players.