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February 6, 2013
Why Some Fringy Minor Leaguers Make It
My next two columns are going to identify minor-league free agent signees, one from each major-league organization, who stand a good chance of helping their big-league clubs this season. (See today’s Lineup Card for others’ NRI picks.) Most of these players have been in the majors before, and you’ll probably recognize many if not all of the names.
Who are they? Fringe relievers who are often just as good as guys on the 25-man. Utilitymen whose utility isn’t quite useful enough, or the wrong kind of utility for the parent club’s needs. Damaged goods that have been Bondoed or duct-taped and repackaged in new uniforms. NRIs: Not Really Interesting.
In other words, Replacement Level: that nebulous, even slightly dangerous place—a demimonde, a purgatory; an Outer Party, a Tenderloin—whose diverse, often aggrieved habitués contend with an elemental yet mysterious force, some tide or temperature or ténèbres which capriciously favors some while vanquishing others. It preys on relievers, utility infielders, outfield speedsters—and on you and me, too.
The line that separates the striving from the established is frequently crossed, in both directions and by the same players. It is often unclear why some manage to stick on the high side of the line and others don’t (or can’t cross it at all). On the one side there is the life we aim for, and on the other—the one where most of us toil—the one we muddle through, managing bills and injuries, terrified of slumps, paranoid about the boss. Most of us, in our milieus, are basically replacement players: we can do the job up there if called on, but without a chance to settle into it, master the contours and the grain, can we keep it? From our imperfect tense, we see, to borrow from the last lines of that old high school chestnut, The Great Gatsby, “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----“
Last year, a (very) limited edition t-shirt and poster circulated around the Durham Bulls’ clubhouse. On it was printed, in large type, the words “BEATS WILL RHYMES AND LIFE,” along with an image of Rhymes’ head and its excellent flow (see esp. def. 4 ). For a while, Rhymes lockered next to Jeff Salazar, making for a dynamic duo of ‘do.
This t-shirt and poster design was more than a glorious appropriation of the old A Tribe Called Quest title (or perhaps, though less likely, the Outlandish compilation of the same name). The Eats Shoots and Leaves-style amphibology encouraged a more philosophical question: What exactly is it that beats Will Rhymes, who was Detroit’s starting second baseman on Opening Day two years ago but, after losing that job and then spending a 2012 season going up and down between Durham and Tampa Bay, now seems likely to wait in Triple-A Syracuse for Steve Lombardozzi to get hurt? (Danny Espinosa already is, so there’s that).
What beats Will Rhymes, and Life?
He’s an exactly replacement-level player—mathematically so, by BP’s calculations, over the last two years (-0.3 WARP in 2011, +0.3 in 2012). That much we know. Crunch the numbers since Opening Day 2011, and at Replacement Level those numbers will spit out Will Rhymes.
Yet there are other players who offer, numerically, a zero value, yet cash major-league paychecks. Jose Tabata has 0.0 WARP since 2011, has missed over 100 games due to injuries since 2009, and is on a six-year, big-league, multimillion -dollar contract with Pittsburgh. The much-loved (and much-traveled) LOOGY Randy Choate, and his -0.1 WARP since 2011, just earned three years and $7.5 million from St. Louis. Xavier Nady, Greg Dobbs, etc. No doubt there’s some nemesis in your life, too, who keeps getting chances to make good while you don’t. Will Rhymes made a very promising first impression in his major-league debut in 2010, good for 1.0 WARP in 54 games after a late-July callup. Yet he heads for Syracuse and counts his money in the thousands, not the millions.
It’s tempting to blame Rhymes’ size. He’s generously listed at 5-foot-9 but isn’t. Yet Jose Altuve is shorter; every enlightened fan’s favorite whipping boy, David Eckstein, is 5-foot-7 (and good for only 2.3 cumulative WARP over his final five seasons). Brent Lillibridge/Lilliputian keeps landing on big-league benches. So it isn’t that. Nor is it the volume of Rhymes’ intensity that keeps him out of the major leagues. He’s an ardent, skilled, intelligent, versatile player, and also brings to the field an unusual genetic asset: he’s a left-handed-hitting middle infielder. (Yes, I know, Robinson Cano, Ben Zobrist.)
Yet when Rhymes signed a minor-league free agent contract with the Nationals after last season, Washington became his third team in three years. He’ll turn 30 three days before Syracuse opens its 2013 International League season. It’s probably safe to say that Rhymes has turned his career corner and found himself on the boulevard of broken dreams. He is now a Triple-A denizen. His future major-league service time will depend on the (mis)fortunes of other players, which is akin to the kindness of strangers. He’s no longer in control of his professional destiny.
In an interview last year, Joe Dillon—another versatile, intelligent, skilled player who spent most of his career in the minors—said that for most of his career he felt like he could force the parent club’s hand if he played well enough for long enough: They’d have no choice but to call him up if his numbers asserted sustained value. He retired, he said, after 2010, when age caught up with him and “I felt like I couldn’t force their hand anymore.” (Telling comment: “Velocity had never bothered me” he said, until he had to face pitchers like then-Gwinnett Brave Craig Kimbrel. The pitches don’t get faster. Your bat gets slower, and you know it.)
But is it really true that you can force a hand? There are plenty of players who put together sustained Triple-A success yet receive nary a look from the front office. One of Dillon’s former teammates, Leslie Anderson, discovered that last year. Anderson had a breakout season for the Durham Bulls, finally making good (or at least better) on the promise that led the Rays to give him a four-year, $1.725 million contract in 2010. He batted .309, good for third in the light-hitting International League, established a career high in home runs, and looked in every way like a more polished, poised hitter. He was consistent, too. Anderson started the 2012 season on a tear, hitting around .350 well into May. He leveled off at .314 on May 31 and was never more than seven points from that number for the rest of the season.
Yet despite that, despite the major-league money the Rays were paying him, and despite Tampa Bay’s parlous situation at first base (Carlos Pena) and designated hitter (Luke Scott)—the two positions for which Anderson is probably best suited—Anderson spent the whole season in Triple-A. He could not, no matter what he did, force the Rays’ hand. There was no way they were going to swap one of their player cards for his. So unimpressed were the Rays by Anderson’s 2012 performance that they waited out virtually the entire offseason and finally resigned Scott the other day, despite his injury-plagued, substandard performance last year. (Maybe they knew about this, though.) They did extend him a courtesy invitation to spring training this year—the last of his contract—but he barely qualifies as even Not Really Interesting.
Now let’s back up here for a moment. Even Leslie Anderson at his very best might never be as good as Luke Scott at his worst, i.e. 2012 for both men. Nor does Will Rhymes offer the same utility as Joe Dillon, who spent much of the 2009 season in the majors with Tampa Bay. Dillon collected a big-league paycheck to sit patiently and wait for a tough lefty reliever to come into a close game, or for a 17-inning attrition-marathon that called for an emergency catcher, a position Dillon could play in a pinch. Which is to say that, in more than two months in the majors, Dillon got only 35 plate appearances before he was outrighted to Triple-A.
Dillon hit for more power than Rhymes ever will. He was much, much slower, but he was a canny baserunner who made up for his lack of speed with excellent awareness and selective aggressiveness. He could put on a mask and catch. Joe Maddon seemed to like him quite a bit. It’s possible that, given regular playing time, Dillon might have rewarded the Rays with a surprising year of success. And it’s quite possible that Rhymes, getting three or four plate appearances a day, might have made himself into the reliable utility player the Rays sought almost all season (not counting luxury SUV Zobrist, of course). Players like Brooks Conrad and Elliot Johnson and Drew Sutton got their chances, too: there was territory up for grabs.
But players like Dillon and Rhymes don’t get much of a chance to claim it. Rhymes, as I said, was Detroit’s starting second baseman on Opening Day in 2011, but after just 18 starts—and, admittedly, a 556 OPS—Jim Leyland (or someone) lost patience, and in May Rhymes was banished to Toledo, where he languished until August. At the end of the season, the Tigers let him go. That was perhaps partly because of mild friction arising from Rhymes’ perceived second-guessing of Leyland’s tactics in the postseason, but teams don’t tend to care all that much about things they don’t love about your character as long as they’re happy with your production—or with your anticipated production, which is quite different.
Interview Triple-A guys for a few years, and you hear over and over again—from players, coaches, broadcasters et al—that the makeweight that lands you in the majors isn’t physical. It’s mental. You hear words like “confidence” and “determination” tossed around regularly, but less often do you hear “opportunity.” It’s quite clear that, for many of these players, confidence and determination—those sound-bite abstractions—are not the problem. Certainly you don’t even make it to Triple-A without confidence and determination (you can add “grit” if you must) if you’re a former 27th-round pick out of William & Mary, as Rhymes is.
But there’s a point at which you need opportunity, plain and simple, because it’s big-league opportunity that confirms a player’s reserve of inner confidence with a matching gift of external confidence. That’s what Triple-A ballplayers invoke most often in interviews. There’s nothing I can do about whether I get called up, they’ll say. All I can do is keep my head down and play hard. They’re trying to force the parent club’s hand—if they can.
But if they succeed, and then get only a brief chance, and then fail to capitalize immediately on that chance, there is often little accommodation of future failings. Sam Fuld, a marginal player like Rhymes, has a spot on Tampa Bay’s 25-man roster. He’s currently projected as the Rays’ fourth outfielder. That’s despite mostly subpar production and a major injury over the last couple of seasons. Yet Fuld made a miraculous first impression when he was traded to Tampa Bay two years ago. Eighteen games into his 2011 season, the exact number of games, and in the same month, in which Rhymes managed only a 556 OPS, Fuld’s OPS was 944, and he seemed to make a highlight-reel catch every third game or so. After that, he declined precipitously, but circumstances made it necessary to keep playing him. And who knew whether he might start raking again? He had done it once.
Similarly, Ryan Roberts made a major April impression in 2011 for the Diamondbacks. He hit .313/.413/.594 that month for Kirk Gibson, who was in his first season as non-interim skipper for Arizona. That April essentially bought Roberts the rest of the year, and although he had a good July, nothing about the rest of his production for the next season and a half kept the Diamondbacks from trading him to Tampa Bay for a Double-A infielder at last year’s non-waiver trade deadline. Roberts went on to give Tampa Bay 0.4 WARP and .214/.284/.364 in 60 games. I was sure they’d non-tender him at the end of the season, especially with such a crowded infield mix between the majors and Triple-A. Yet the Rays gave Roberts a $3 million contract, plus incentives, for 2013.
To drop back again and restate the obvious: yes, of course Ryan Roberts is a better player than Will Rhymes. That is not the debated point. “It is comforting to reflect that the disproportion of things in the world seems to be only arithmetical,” as Kafka writes, a line that is delivered, tonally, with a sort of warning sigh: it’s comforting yet not quite true. The disproportion is, in many aspects, not arithmetical at all. What is at issue is not whether Ryan Roberts is a better player than Will Rhymes, but whether Will Rhymes has received a fair shot to be a better player than Will Rhymes. Were 18 games in the spring of 2011 really enough for the Tigers to decide that he wasn’t the answer at second base? He never got another serious look after that. And his dubious ALCS tweets (see this article for more) probably helped write his ticket out of Detroit (and Toledo). That consigned him, probably permanently, to replacement level—not arithmetically as much perceptually: he’ll likely never be seen again as a potential starter, or even as a season-long 25-man roster fixture.
A few speculations, drawn from the above:
1) The baseball system is less about grooming players for success than about simply seeing which ones find a way to succeed. It is less a farm, cultivating produce (or livestock) and more a sea: throw the fish in and see who swims. More to the metaphor: plenty of fish in it. Throw it back if you don’t like the first catch.
This is a very American-Darwinist attitude, it seems to me. More players could be given a great chance to succeed with stronger tutelage, more patience, and the like, but there is so much supply that it isn’t necessary. Every organization has dozens of infielders, but you need only about half a dozen in the majors each year. There’s no reason to wait for Will Rhymes to bloom (or help him bloom) when you can try, as the Rays did last year, seven other reserve/utility infielders. Sports are competitive at the macro level—win, now—and thus at the 25th-man level, too. We don’t have time to wait for you to become good.
2) Opportunity is often not at all about the player and much about the organization. Justin Ruggiano got little love from the Rays—he’s the Durham Bulls’ all-time leader in plate appearances (2,064) over five seasons there, during which time he barely cracked 200 major-league PAs. A free agent after 2011, he signed with the Astros to be closer to home (he’s from Texas), then was dealt early last season to the Marlins, for whom he then proceeded to produce the 24th-highest TAv in baseball (min. 300 PA). It isn’t clear why Ruggiano never got a chance, really, from the Rays. It may have had more to do with perceived “character” or personality than with physical potential—as it may in the case of Rhymes, as well. First impressions are so, so important in an atmosphere this competitive (and this moneyed) that a manager, GM, or other power-wielder rubbed the wrong way once, whether by 18 poor, 556-OPS games to start a season, or a moment of attitude in an office or clubhouse, has the power to change a player’s career arc permanently via a snap decision.
3) It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: players in whom teams have little or no money invested get smaller chances. As mostly minor-league reliever Jason Childers (who was originally signed as a non-drafted free agent) put it in an interview a few years ago, "If they give you money, you have to prove that you can't play. If they don't give you money, you have to prove every day that you can."
4) Quiz: Who said this? “The game drips with intangibles.” The answer isn’t Joe Morgan, Tim McCarver, or any of your favorite comic villains in the Divine Baseball Comedy. It’s enlightened master-manager Joe Maddon, who said it to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Chen in an excellent article last September. Maddon goes on to say that base-stealing success at an “acceptable” percentage isn’t always the point. “The part that’s immeasurable is the impact it has on defense and pitch selection.”
Intangibles, we’re reminded, are very real, although they can’t always be expressed arithmetically. Replacement Level would seem to be rife with them: issues of opportunity and the confidence it begets; of the difference in lifestyle wear-and-tear between Triple-A and the majors and what that does to player production; of mismatches between player skills and team needs; of irascible managers. And so on. What happens to a player when you send him back down to Triple-A, i.e. replacement level? In what ways does this turn him into a replacement-quality player? I’m reminded of the tradition in Bordeaux whereby grape-growing land, if sold to, say, a deuxième cru chateau by a troisième cru chateau, is automatically reclassified as deuxième cru soil. Nothing has changed about the land save its affiliation. (The Burgundians laugh, like this.)
5) Smaller players may have to assert themselves differently. Note that Eckstein and Fuld have always been well-known nice guys, kind to the media, popular among teammates and peers. Eckstein won the Heart and Hustle Award and was named “Most Helpful” in his graduating high school class. Fuld has his diabetes sports camp, his boarding-school and Stanford appeal and intelligence, and his completely genuine geniality. Jose Altuve is totally charming in this video, mic’d up for the 2011 Futures Game. (My favorite moment comes at the end, when World Team manager Luis Gonzalez advises Altuve—cautions him is more like it—not to try to steal bases when big boppers are up. “If you’re gonna run with those guys up, run early. Don’t run with two strikes.” Gonzalez calls the run-producers “big horses” and then drives home the point at the end with more animal kingdom references: “You guys at the top are the ants, and the bulls drive you in, right?” The question is rhetorical, of course.)
Rhymes walks an edgier line. There was the doubtful tweeting about Leyland’s pinch-running choices in the ALCS in 2011. There was the strange incident last year when, after he was hit on the forearm by a pitch, he passed out near first base. The HBP didn’t make Rhymes look “weak” so much as slightly macabre, capable of producing unsettlement or even mild horror. His attitude around reporters in the Durham Bulls locker room, while accommodating and ultimately generous, always had a hint of suspiciousness to it, a sort of self-awareness that went something like: “I know I’m one of those interesting-to-talk-to players, but please don’t put me on the spot to say something interesting.” His Twitter feed reveals a fondness for often darker music than most; twice in a span of 24 hours last year, surrounding a game in which he’d been at the center of a bench-clearing incident in the Midwest, he tweeted this same line from “Gold Mine Gutted,” a moody song (which opens with a line that mentions Don DeLillo!) by the emo-ish Bright Eyes: “In the sorrowful Midwest / Well I did my best / To keep my head.”
And there was that t-shirt. Okay, so it was just a t-shirt: a little witticism taken to a public, published, wearable extreme, even if only among a few Triple-A teammates. Who knows whether Rhymes designed BEATS WILL RHYMES AND LIFE himself? He probably did, but he almost certainly didn’t intend any philosophical inquiry. Yet Rhymes’ t-shirt garbs the body of modern baseball thought in an essential, profoundly difficult question.