Photo credit: © Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
January is a month for looking ahead: signing up for gym memberships, counting down the days until men play catch in uniforms, and combing the prospect lists, imagining the best possible tomorrow. And as the game develops and refines its approach to building baseball teams, observers have made their own transition. As baseball grows more window-focused and hyper-narrative in structure, more attention is devoted to each team’s young nucleus, the 25-and-unders for each team that will be there for the next trophy.
Meanwhile, other people play baseball. College kids drafted in the twenty-third round prepare for that one shot in Low-A before taking over a desk at the local insurance company. Eighteen-year-old pitchers wait to find out which lottery ticket is locked inside their arm. And then there are the minor league free agents, the veteran midshipmen, who have served their seven years in obscurity and are now granted their horrible freedom.
Hundreds of minor leaguers are granted free agency, as per MLB Rule 55; for most, it’s an indication that their time is up, but a fraction find a new home, and a fraction of those make their way back, or for the first time, to the major leagues. Ben and Jeff do a draft of these players every year on Effectively Wild, and the goal, sometimes is achieved, is to guess which players make it – not even succeed, just accumulate actual playing time. The odds, it cannot be stressed enough, are slim.
That’s why, as the 25-and-under lists continue to roll out, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate a different collection of players: Not just the minor league free agents, but those age 35 or older, men whose time has certainly passed and yet, for one reason or another, they persist. Sixteen men qualify for this dubious/inspiring honor. For most, if not all, this article will serve as their final mention on Baseball Prospectus. Join us in celebrating their plight.
Micah Owings, SP/DH
Owings probably doesn’t really belong on this list. He just recently finished up a stint in the Mariners organization, working in scouting and player development, a seeming acknowledgement that his playing career is over. It feels wrong that Owings is leaving the game just as his brand of baseball is becoming en vogue. It’s hard to fathom that it was a full decade ago that Owings burst onto the scene as a rookie, throwing 150+ innings of 111 ERA+ ball, and mashing four homers in 64 plate appearances, en route to a 1033 OPS. In July of 2012, Owings said:
“I really want to see what I can do. I have an idea. I think it would maybe take some creativity for a team to accept it. But if it worked, it might create an entirely new position in baseball … a position that would give a team an extra player.”
In 2018, per his LinkedIn page, he appears to be leaving baseball completely behind, just as it was ready to embrace him. (Craig Goldstein)
Chris Dickerson, OF
Last week on MLB Network, Matt Vasgersian, speaking to a besweatered Dickerson, mentioned that Dickerson “left the game in 2014/15.” But Dickerson never did leave the game, just last year logging 337 plate appearances in Triple-A. With Dickerson’s career carrying on so long that journalists stopped paying attention, it becomes clear that the outfielder’s time in baseball has always brushed against the twilight. He filled the Reds’ outfield void left by an aging Ken Griffey Jr., and the next year was traded for Jim Edmonds’ swan song. Dickerson spent time in seven organizations, his stops always brief, bracing for an end. Though his playing days are finally drawing to a close, Dickerson has co-founded Players for the Planet, a foundation which strives to help this aging, exhausted Earth keep taking swings for a few more years, before the sun sets on humanity’s Major League days. (Martin Nolan)
Devin Ivany, C
At every stop in his 9-year minor league career, Ivany shared catching duties with a player who would reach the majors: Luke Montz, Brian Schnieder, Jeff Clement, Derek Norris. Ivany himself, a 2004 sixth-round Montreal Expos draft pick, labored in Single and-Double-A for all but 47 of his 675-game career. Lacking both the offensive and defensive expertise that would have propelled him to the majors, Ivany nonetheless made the most of his professional career. He became so beloved by the Nationals’ organization that they employed him as a coach from 2013-2016 to impart wisdom on a new class of catchers. Maybe one day part of Ivany will make it to the majors. (Mary Craig)
Chris Narveson, SP
Chris Narveson is a free agent this year, looking for a team: he’ll probably get a minor league deal if he’s lucky.
Chris Narveson is a free agent this year, looking for a team: his last useful season was in 2011, when he ate up 161.2 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Chris Narveson is a free agent this year, looking for a team: you remember him being a fantasy sleeper, and realize that that must have been six years ago, but that can’t be right can it??
Chris Narveson is a free agent this year, looking for a team: he has spent the last few years quietly toiling away in Miami and Cleveland in a last-ditch attempt to and you have spent the last few weeks toiling away at the Planet Fitness membership portal online in a last-ditch effort to lose twenty pounds.
Death cackles at us all like an addled theater-goer just beyond the footlights, but, high above where he can see the celestial order of things, Chris Narveson remains a free agent this year, looking for a team.
So, in your way, do you. (Trevor Strunk)
Jake Fox, 1B/LF
Asked in 2007 about Jake Fox’s prospects, BP’s Kevin Goldstein wrote: “I think he’s more likely to win a home run title in Japan three years from now than be starting in the bigs.” Nice try, Goldstein, keep the day job—Fox won A home run title in spring training, four years from then. In that same spring training, Buck Showalter benched him for swinging on 3-0. Fox was the Atlantic League Player of the Year in 2013 and played in Korea and Mexico, but here’s proof that he’s fully mature: in Double-A at age 32, he ate something bad before fielding drills, calmly puked in a dugout trash can, and went right back to playing first base. (Adam Sobsey)
Tom Gorzelanny, RP
The name “Tom Gorzelanny” brings to my mind two things, neither of them good. First, his… potato-y face. Potato-like. When Gorzelanny hurls the ball toward home plate, he contorts his face in a severely unflattering way, which has birthed a host of memorable images one can find with a quick Google search. Second, Gorzelanny’s name insists on reminding me of his presence on some of my least favorite Cubs teams of my lifetime. The lanky lefty was one of the first acquisitions made by the increasingly desperate Cubs following their two quick playoff exits in 2007 and 2008, when their roster became old and bloated and bad. (Zack Moser)
The Top 10
10. Ryan Howard, 1B
Most of the players on this list had mediocre or worse careers. Ryan Howard won a NL MVP, was Rookie of the Year, was a star on a World Series winner. He also had a second career—everything after his torn Achilles in the 2011 NLDS—where he increasingly stunk; he was worth a total of -1.4 WARP from 2012-16. The Phillies finally parted ways with their franchise legend after the contract that never ended ended, but Howard kept the flame alive, putting in a month at Triple-A Gwinnett to open 2017. After being unceremoniously released from that gig, he popped back up again for Albuquerque in the Colorado system in August and hit three homers down the Pacific Coast League stretch, thus qualifying the 38 year old for this bizarre list. Just this past week, Howard told TMZ that he’s planning another return and to “kill that [retirement] noise.” Even now, when all the light in his game has long since faded to black, Ryan Howard keeps fighting for his one last moment in the sun. (Jarrett Seidler)
9. Neal Cotts, RP
Hawk Harrelson sounded like he was straining to find a way to complement to Neal Cotts when he said that the lefty’s 90 mph fastball jumped on hitters like it was thrown at 100 mph. At the time in 2003, well before “extension” was a commonplace pitching buzzword, and Cotts was dying the first of many deaths in his career–this one being the end of his ambitions as a starter–and the only thing definitive about his fastball is that it was rarely a strike.
Six years later, after a stunning run as a dominant, 90 mph fastball-slinging member of the 2005 World Championship White Sox, Cotts was dying the more typical pitcher death. His elbow blew out in 2009, he managed to have four hip surgeries in a single calendar year in 2010, and went three years between appearances in a professional baseball game, let alone a major league one.
Yet there he was in 2013, pumping gas harder than ever (92 mph!) and handing the Rangers 57 innings of nearly 1.00 ERA ball, two deaths behind him and seemingly better for it.
He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015, he didn’t look too special the last time he was around, and who knows what the hell he’s thinking trying to keep going, but death has never been final in the career of Neal Cotts, so who can believe it ever will? (James Fegan)
8. Jonathan Albaladejo, SP
As part of some cursory research before I appeared on a podcast about the 2007 Mets collapse, I spent some time with their schedule and results page on baseball-reference. One game jumped out at me in particular. On September 17th, up 2.5 games on the Phillies, the Mets lost 12-4 against the lowly Nationals, kicking off a three-game series at RFK stadium. They would lose 5 of 6 to the Nats down the stretch, a large part of why they spent they never got to sip the champagne that I assume is still on ice in Willie Randolph’s refrigerator. Alabaldejo got the win in relief in a game started by Brian Lawrence and Tim Redding, neither of whom pitched into the fifth. I don’t have a distinct memory of watching this game. But I know this game. It resonated with me, a bit of presque vu.
At the time I was doing this research, I was also aware that Alabaldejo was pitching for the Mets Triple-A affiliate in Vegas, competently enough given the run environment. The Mets had plucked him out of the Atlantic League as their staff was decimated to the point that they had press ganged their remaining upper minors inventory into major league duty. After the season, Alabaldejo would be popped in the Atlantic League dispersal draft. The Bridgeport Bluefish were folding and that was the team that previously held his contract. I don’t know the exact calculus involved in an indyball dispersal draft, but I imagine success in the league, salary, and likelihood of getting a minor league deal from an actual organized team goes into it. By the end of the second round, the Lancaster Barnstormers figured “eh, he’ll probably be back” and put in their claim.
I find my Mets fandom approaching something akin to lapsed Catholicism, but while the lapsed Catholic may just feel a vague sense of guilt when they have a hamburger on Friday, I gladly spend my time preparing to be on a Phillies podcast to discuss a historic Mets collapse. So maybe it’s more akin to the early Christian ascetics. Suggesting it’s like Origen castrating himself is overly histrionic, but when you are a Mets fan the apocalypse is always around the corner. And Jonathan Alabaldejo is never staving it off, in 2007 or 2017. (Jeffrey Paternostro)
7. Logan Kensing, RP
Kensing could have had a pretty good nickname, were he able to stick consistently in the majors since his debut in 2004. He has been referred to as “Lord Kensing,” which seems incongruous for a second-rounder from Texas A&M. Sustained success could have led someone to identifying Logan as “Wolverine.” He could have grown out his sideburns and applied metal fingernails as an affectation. As it is, his full name of Logan French Kensing (which sounds like “French Kissing”) is not as useful, as his special “tongue ball” (not real) probably would be seen as an illegal pitch.
Instead, he’s just a guy trying to keep a career going. Over parts of nine seasons with five organizations, he has posted a 5.70 ERA in 181 2/3 innings, almost exclusively in relief. A self-described “Flamethrower,” he threw 93-94 four-seamers in his prime, and was clocked at 91-92 in his most-recent MLB stint.
Most of his big-league appearances came with the Marlins and Nationals between 2006-2009, before two shoulder surgeries in 2010 put his career in doubt. Kensing kept the dream alive and returned to the majors with the Rockies in 2013, the Mariners in 2015, and even made the Tigers out of spring training in 2016. He appeared in three April games before players returning from the disabled list squeezed him off the roster. (David Brown)
6. Brendan Ryan, SS
It’s baseball’s cruel justice that there have always been Brendan Ryans. Rather than the five-toolers with futures filled with question marks, Brendan Ryans are players simultaneously born and made—possessing a skill that seems both laboriously perfected and innate. For Ryan it was the space between third and second, first in St. Louis, then, Seattle. A near three-win season, a wRC+ of 84.
But then, some prospects. He was shipped to New York in 2013 where his thirties started to catch up to him—those extra milliseconds reaching a grounder started to make his .167 average all the worse. But elite defenders always believe they will reach the ball, which is why they dive where others might let it pass. It’s hard to imagine a season without Ryan out there, somewhere, still diving. (Matt Ellis)
5. Omar Infante, INF
Infante was always good enough to stick around, but rarely good enough to play regularly. He did everything, but the most valuable skills a player can have (patience and power) were the ones he lacked. He ran well when he was young, but wasn’t an efficient base stealer, and while he was both lithe and sure-handed at second base and threw well enough to acquit himself at third, he was only capable of occasional work at short. He became an All-Star as a supersub in 2010, mostly thanks to Bobby Cox’s largesse.
In 15 MLB seasons, he only qualified for the batting title five times. He became an average-plus everyday second baseman at 29, though, and got an ill-advised four-year deal from the Royals two years later. That deal just wrapped up last season, but Infante spent the last year and a half of it in the minors, first with the Braves (his second stint in that organization) and then with the Tigers (his original team, and one he’d bounced back to once in the interim, too), trading on the goodwill he’d built up by being a good teammate and foot soldier for so long. (Matthew Trueblood)
4. Josh Wilson, INF
“Replacement-level player’ is a theoretical concept. “Josh Wilson” is not. What Wilson is, however, is a replacement-level player. He’s appeared in parts of eight big-league seasons, amassing zero Wins Above Replacement, per both BP and Baseball-Reference’s measures. His last spin in the majors saw him post a 106 OPS+ in 21 games.That performance made BP 2016 predict he would “randomly appear on a big-league roster near you.” It did not. Wilson spent 2016 with the York Revolution, then returned to Triple-A in 2017. He’s arbitration-eligible for the final time, and will join a crowded free-agent class next winter if he can amass the necessary service time. He will not. (R.J. Anderson)
3. Jarrett Grube, SP
It’s hard to decide which of Grube’s call-ups is more emblematic of a career spent on the fringes of the majors. There’s his debut in May 2014, which came at the age of 33 after ten seasons in the minors. Grube recorded his only two major league outs, including Josh Donaldson; sandwiched between them was Yoenis Cespedes, who blasted a three-run home run over the left field fence. His other glimmer of a chance, when he was summoned for bullpen cover by the depleted Mariners a year and a half later, faded over seven quality innings from Felix Hernandez. Grube himself refuses to fade away: with 134 innings of a 3.56 ERA at Triple-A in 2017, he brought his minor league innings total to 1360. (Darius Austin)
2. Brayan Pena, C
Pena’s trip to MLB as a hefty #teen was well documented in his Players Tribune post, but it should be stressed his escape from Cuba was getting the security guard to stand outside the bathroom while he took a dump. Twenty years later he’s still performing No. 2, this time as a backup catcher, and still acting like a 16-year-old, whether it’s walking around with an infectious smile or tweeting about his nipples. He’s a cut above the rest of the players here in that he’s no longer a free agent, thanks to the Tigers — his No. 2 stint with them. (Matt Sussman)
1. Michael Martinez, INF
Technically, Martinez is a utility player; really, he’s a perfect demonstration of the failure of that term. He can be penciled in at several positions, yes, but he can’t play any of them especially well anymore. The utility is limited, and a career TAv of .195 doesn’t help matters. But Cleveland’s front office has repeatedly demonstrated that they love Martinez enough to overlook all this. (See: Terry Francona heaping praise on Martinez for being “always ready” while describing his lifetime .243 on-base percentage simply with, “I don’t know that he’s known for his bat.”)(The problem is that he is.) They made a point of going after Martinez again and again through 2015 and 2016 and 2017, a period that saw him tossed around through trades and waiver claims but always ended with him back in Cleveland.
In his three separate stints with Cleveland, he hasn’t especially improved or surprised or done anything except for get older. But Cleveland remains as committed to proving love is blind as they were when they first picked him up—they’ve signed him to another minor-league deal, and elevated him to the top of this list. (Emma Baccellieri)