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July 6, 2004

Breaking Balls

Put Me In, Uh...Me

by Derek Zumsteg

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Luis Sojo could be just a move away from doing something rarely seen in today's game.

Last year, Sojo got into four at-bats over three games. The year before, he managed the Yankees' Double-A-affiliate Norwich Navigators to an Eastern League Championship, then played in the Mexican League. The Yankees hired him as a "special assignment instructor" to help the team communicate better with their Latin players. He might have been a coach, but the Yankees were at their limit. Teams are limited to having "seven on-field uniformed coaches, instructors or bullpen coaches" which breaks down like this:

Manager: give the bunt sign
Bench coach: gets the idea to bunt
Pitching coach: works with the pitchers on mechanics, preparation
Hitting coach: gets fired when the team doesn't hit well
Bullpen coach: counts warm-up pitches
First-base coach: takes batting gloves, armor from runner on first about to be bunted to second
Third-base coach: relays sign to bunt to the batter

We can presume that the six-coach limit excludes the manager, since you can find all six of those coaches on the field or in the dugout at some point during the game along with the manager.)

Sojo traveled with the Yankees, was on the field for batting practice, but had to stay in the clubhouse during games (many people, left unsupervised for those early innings, probably would have gotten into trouble with Annies and the whirlpool, but Sojo's a veteran leader and beyond such mischief).

Interestingly, teams are not limited in the number of coaches or instructors they can have on the field during practices before or after the game. The Yankees could have a personal workout instructor for every player, or a whole gaggle including workout instructor, motivational speaker, nutritionist, concierge, makeup and hair assistants, masseuse, wellness coordinator, ghost writer, sponsor representative, and translator (as needed) for every player. And in Yankee tradition, each player's assigned entourage would take separate taxis to and from the ballpark every game and form cross-player cliques that fight bitter organizational wars over towel supplies.

When they brought him on as an instructor, Cashman said that Sojo wouldn't play for the team--he played anyway. When rosters expanded and Derek Jeter injured his ribs, they signed Sojo to a minor league deal and suited him up for real against the Blue Jays on Sept. 1.

After the season, Sojo signed on to become the Yankees' third-base coach where, I have no doubt, he's looking at Enrique Wilson and thinking he could outplay that kid if given the chance.

Though it rarely occurs, this could theoretically happen again, and not just on the Yankees ("Distributing championship rings to the undeserving since 1996!"). Many once-excellent players are hanging around currently-bad teams in coaching capacities, and it's easy to imagine that in a moment of weakness, a GM might consider a conversion. But with the wonder of modern aviation, a prospect even in the opposite corner of the country is only a non-stop six-hour flight away. Sure, maybe it's on ATA, and your player has to spend the flight as the pilot, but he'll turn up to meet the team in less than a day.

So while it's tempting to look at your hitting coach (say, Paul Molitor) and think "could he really be worse than the guys we're writing in there now?" the reality is that in almost every case, even if a team had to pick someone out of the indy leagues, it could do so and deploy the player with little more trouble than converting a coach. This is in part because the rules around the conversion are pretty complicated, and GMs already have enough on their minds.

For instance, if you convert a coach into a player, you can't put him back as a coach unless you waive and release him. So any other club with a free roster spot who wanted to be really annoying could claim him on waivers and blackmail you.

And in the opposite direction, you can't convert that veteran third catcher who's hanging around to tutor the new pitchers and stabilize the clubhouse into a coach until you've waived and released him (which runs into the same problem of having other clubs block the conversion). Then once the player is on a coach's contract, you can't convert him back to a player; so if you were hoping to use that roster spot for a while and then bring him back for the playoffs...can't be done. You're better off abusing the unenforced DL rules and putting the player on the 60-day DL for weakness due to prolonged kryptonite exposure.

While the possibility exists that you could hypothetically stack a coaching staff with potential injury replacements or surprise pinch-hitters, the rules around it make it so difficult to pull off with players that might be useful that you'd be better off stashing them in Triple-A. Or if they're too good for that, paying them to travel and hang around with the team off-roster.

I'm sad to learn all this. First because I love bizarre roster moves and that kind of related weirdness. It's just funny. And for no good reason, I'd love to see a return to the player-manager, and anything that encourages a clean break between the two worlds makes that less likely. Luis Sojo's been a player, a manager, an instructor, a player, and now a coach, but he's not going to be the first in a long time to do both in the major leagues, and there don't seem to be any good candidates that might do it in his stead.

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