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April 6, 2016

Prospectus Feature

The Most Out-Of-Place Opening Day Player

by Rob Mains

Put yourself in a parlour with your six grandkids many decades from now, a cup of tea and a box full of vintage baseball cards. You're painting a picture for them of what baseball used to be like. Your 9-year-old grandson Mischief, or whatever kids are named 45 years from now, pulls out a card and asks you, "What about Jimmy Rollins? Who was he?"

You'll lead with the Phillies. Then a spark in your brain, and you'll recall the short time with Dodgers. Will you remember the White Sox? That's the question. One day after Jimmy Rollins started at shortstop for the White Sox on Opening Day, that's the question.

Opening Day starting pitchers are pretty easy to figure out: Staff ace, or something close to that—Price vs. Kluber, Archer vs. Stroman, Harvey vs. Ventura, that kind of thing. Position players aren’t the same. You’ll frequently get the weak half of a platoon, or the injury fill-in, or the prospect who doesn’t pan out. For the most part, Opening Day starters are regulars or established bench players with substantial time—past or future—with their club. Sometimes, though, a starter is someone who winds up having a did-that-really-happen tenure with his team, the kind of player you see in an Opening Day lineup listing years later and say either “Who was that?” or “When was he with the team?”

This is a list of the Opening Day starters who played the fewest games with each of the 30 major-league teams. (I excluded the inaugural seasons of expansion teams, on the theory that they were mostly just playing the hand they were dealt.) I went back to the beginning of divisional play in 1969, so this is nearly a half-century of history. For teams that moved, I’ve included their predecessors: Pilots/Brewers, Senators/Rangers, Expos/Nationals.

Fewest games with team, Opening Day players

Team

Position

Season

Player

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Angels

LF

1981

Tom Brunansky

11

41

.152

.317

.424

Athletics

1B

1987

Rob Nelson

12

35

.182

.206

.242

Astros

2B

1991

Mark McLemore

21

68

.148

.221

.164

Blue Jays

DH

1999

Dave Hollins

27

104

.222

.260

.333

Braves

1B

1990

Nick Esasky

9

39

.171

.256

.171

Brewers

C

1978

Andy Etchebarren

4

6

.400

.500

.600

Cardinals

SS

1973

Ray Busse

24

76

.143

.200

.343

Cubs

2B

2013

Brent Lillibridge

9

24

.042

.042

.042

Diamondbacks

1B

2004

Richie Sexson

23

104

.233

.337

.578

Dodgers

C

2006

Sandy Alomar

27

62

.323

.323

.403

Giants

SS

2008

Brian Bocock

32

93

.143

.258

.156

Indians

CF

2014

Nyjer Morgan

15

52

.341

.429

.439

Mariners

RF

2008

Brad Wilkerson

19

68

.232

.348

.304

Marlins

1B

2013

Casey Kotchman

6

21

.000

.048

.000

Mets

2B

2011

Brad Emaus

14

42

.162

.262

.162

Nationals

LF

1987

Alonzo Powell

14

46

.195

.283

.268

Orioles

CF

1995

Andy Van Slyke

17

68

.159

.221

.317

Padres

3B

2013

Cody Ransom

5

11

.000

.000

.000

Phillies

RF

1997

Danny Tartabull

3

11

.000

.364

.000

Pirates

C

2005

Benito Santiago

6

23

.261

.261

.391

Rangers

LF

1995

Billy Hatcher

6

13

.083

.154

.167

Rays

DH

2011

Manny Ramirez

5

17

.059

.059

.059

Red Sox

DH

2000

Gary Gaetti

5

11

.000

.000

.000

Reds

2B

2006

Tony Womack

9

23

.222

.364

.333

Rockies

2B

2008

Jayson Nix

22

65

.125

.234

.161

Royals

C

1987

Ed Hearn

13

39

.257

.333

.371

Tigers

C

1987

Orlando Mercado

10

24

.136

.208

.136

Twins

CF

1981

Greg Johnston

21

49

.163

.229

.233

White Sox

DH

1995

Chris Sabo

20

80

.254

.295

.366

Yankees

DH

2013

Ben Francisco

21

50

.114

.220

.182

Some interesting tidbits:

  • Andy Etchebarren is best remembered as the large-browed right-handed half of the catcher platoon for the great Orioles teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He got MVP support in his rookie year of 1966 despite hitting .221/.293/.364. Late in his career, the Angels sold him to the Brewers prior to the 1978 season. He went 1-for-3 with a double, a walk, and 2 RBIs on Opening Day. A week later, he started and went 1-for-2 against the Orioles. He played the late innings of a couple more games in April without getting a plate appearance and then retired. No Opening Day starter since 1969 got fewer plate appearances for his team that Etchebarren’s six.
  • Right fielder Danny Tartabull, coming off a .254/.340/.487, 101-RBI, .285 TAv, 2.0 VORP age 33 season for the White Sox in 1996, signed a free agent contract with the Phillies for a reported $2 million in 1997. He went 0-for-2 with two walks in the Phillies’ season opener, 0-for-2 with another walk four days later in San Diego, and 0-for-3 with a walk two days later in San Francisco. Then he discovered that he’d broken his foot on a foul tip in his first at-bat on Opening Day. That was the end of his career. He’s the only player since 1969 to have started Opening Day and played fewer than four games with his club.
  • First baseman Casey Kotchman, who started Opening Day for the Marlins in 2013, failed to get a hit during his six games with the club. He did walk once, though. Padres 2013 Opening Day third baseman Cody Ransom and Red Sox 2000 Opening Day DH Gary Gaetti each played five games and compiled 11 plate appearances with perfectly imperfect .000/.000/.000 slash lines for their respective clubs.

So who’s the potential 2016 version of 2006 Reds Tony Womack on this list (started on Opening Day, released three weeks later)?

This year, 24 teams’ Opening Day lineups included at least one position player or DH who’d played 10 or fewer games with the club in his career. Most were acquired via trade or free agency, including some major deals. We can pretty safely assume that most of them will last more than a few weeks. Justin Upton, Todd Frazier, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, and Ender Inciarte, to name five, are going to play a lot of games with their new teams, barring a Nick Esasky-type catastrophic injury.

Beyond the obvious players, there are several who, it stands to reason, will hang around unless their performance completely flatlines, and even then, it’ll probably take a sample size of more than 20 games to make that determination. Players like Jean Segura, Alexei Ramirez, Jedd Gyorko, Aaron Hicks, and Austin Jackson fall into that category.

But who’s at risk for a-couple-dozen-and-done? I think there are five candidates:

· Cedric Hunter, Phillies LF. He’s a 28-year-old rookie who’s not even on the BP team depth chart. He’ll probably get sent down when Cody Asche comes back from the disabled list. This is our best bet.

· Keon Broxton, Brewers CF. When you’re backing up Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who hasn’t played more than 64 games in a season since 2012, there should be playing time. But Broxton’s a nearly 26-year-old rookie (granted, until this year he was in the unenviable position of trying to break into the Pirates’ outfield) with a 28 percent strikeout rate in the minors.

· Rollins, White Sox SS. He’s penciled in as the starter, and there isn’t much of a Plan B in Chicago. But Rollins is 37, coming off a bad (.237 TAv, 0.5 WARP) 2015, and seems like the type of player who’s one injury away from being done.

· Joey Rickard, Orioles LF. He was the eighth player selected in the Rule 5 draft, from Tampa Bay. That should set off alarms: Rule 5 draft. Tampa Bay didn’t keep him. Given the quagmire that is Baltimore’s corner outfield positions, and his strong spring, he could stick. But Rule 5 picks don’t get a lot of rope.

· Mark Reynolds, Rockies 1B. He’s only 32, but he came into the league with old player skills, and in a world in which Pedro Alvarez and Chris Carter, both age 29, get non-tendered, you have to wonder how much time he’s got left.

Having said this, all five will probably play starring roles with their resurgent teams while Ben Zobrist decides to walk away from the game to become a life coach or an aromatherapist something. Somewhere, Manny Ramirez (1-for-17 for the 2011 Rays) is smiling.

Rob Mains is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rob's other articles. You can contact Rob by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago White Sox

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