keyboard_arrow_uptop

If night is darkest just before the dawn, then dusk had only recently settled over Minute Maid Park in the winter of 2010. Following a surprisingly decent 76-86 season, the Astros were nonetheless on the cusp of a miserable half-decade. Management had stripped most of the team’s core, and the remaining pieces were either old or on the verge of skipping town themselves. And while the farm system had a couple of buried gems—Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez were the stars, but there were a few decent role players as well—the system wasn’t highly regarded at the time.

Of the thousands of scouting reports that Kevin Goldstein compiled for Baseball Prospectus, one from that Astros list stands out in my memory. Even retroactively accounting for breakouts from Altuve and Martinez, it was not a deep crop of players, and by the time Goldstein reached prospect no. 20, he had seemingly run out of positive things to say. Ever the professional, Goldstein never denigrated nor made fun of a player. Still, you won’t find a more dismissive comment in the archives than his blurb on Ross Seaton:

20: Ross Seaton, RHP: His inability to miss bats led to a battering in the Cal League.

Goldstein usually gave readers a straw to grasp. Jay Austin was “an intriguing center fielder with speed and power potential.” Aneury Rodriguez had a “plus fastball.” Austin Wates at least had “the potential to move up the list.” Seaton gets ‘inability’ and ‘battering.’ The only thing missing is a tombstone emoji.

But while Austin, Rodriguez, and many others from that list have faded from organized ball, Seaton endures. Drafted in the third round out of local Second Baptist School, Seaton initially drew interest due to a projectable slider and a fastball that touched the mid 90s. Over time, his fastball softened, his offspeed pitches never materialized as expected, and he fell out of favor as Houston accumulated pitching depth. His strike-throwing ability carried him to the high minors, and he settled in as a reliable, if unspectacular Double-A starter.

I know all of this because one morning, presumably around breakfast, I heard the word “battering.” Being a normal, well-adjusted adult with healthy hobbies, I checked Baseball Reference to see if Seaton was still kicking around. He is, as it turns out. The Astros cut him after an injury-plagued 2014 season, but the Tigers signed him soon after. A quick glance at his numbers suggests that he transitioned smoothly into his new system, as he compiled a 3.85 ERA with 95 strikeouts and 20 walks in 143 innings across two levels. Nothing to write home about, but perhaps enough to keep his big league dreams alive.

A further look revealed that he spent the lion’s share of 2015 in the Midwest League—a league he last saw in 2009, a circuit where 25-year-olds buy beer and answer to “dad” from teenage teammates.

Half a century ago, it wasn’t unusual for a player to drop a few rungs on the minor league ladder as he aged and finished out his career, particularly in organizations with a dozen or more affiliates. It’s less common today, as teams have limited space in their farm system, and players from all over the world competing for them. So, why would the Tigers burn a spot on Seaton, a 25-year-old arm without big league stuff?

The answer boils down to two factors that fans don’t often consider when roster decisions are made: winning and logistics. The winning we’ve covered in the past. To varying degrees, every organization wants their minor league clubs to win games. Dave Owen, Detroit’s Director of Player Development, acknowledges that player development is the primary focus in the minor leagues, but he still wants his farm clubs to be competitive: “You have to learn how to win like you learn how to do anything else.” As one of the cogs in a surprisingly durable rotation, Seaton helped West Michigan to a championship, and Owen credited the right-hander for his influence on the field and in the clubhouse: “he was a leader, and he went down there and embraced what was going on.”

More importantly, logistical factors also worked against Seaton. When he signed with Detroit, the organization planned on using him in Double-A or Triple-A. But Seaton fell victim to a numbers game. Toledo’s staff was stocked with starters boasting big-league experience and Erie’s rotation stayed remarkably stable throughout the season. He could conceivably have pitched in High-A, but the Florida State League limits the number of veteran players teams can carry on a roster, and the Tigers already had those spots filled. Out of alternatives, Seaton found himself riding the same buses he left behind six years earlier.

Owen appreciates how unusual Seaton’s circumstances were. He credited the pitcher’s makeup—”we wouldn’t have gone down that road otherwise, it would have been counter-productive”—and stressed that they wanted him to pitch as a starter last season. Developmentally, it worked best for him to do so in Low-A. While not a common path, the minor leagues are full of players with a glimmer of potential, a dash of talent that makes a baseball man say “I want this guy.” For the Tigers, Seaton had that glimmer.

Still, it’s easy to examine the situation cynically. Sure they liked him, you might say. The guy was probably miserable. I mean, the Tigers, of all teams, didn’t have room for him in the high minors, and thought so much of him that they sent him down to A-ball! They must think he stinks!

It would be fair to look at Seaton’s profile and assume that no team would covet a player whose career has so obviously stalled. But players aren’t cattle and teams aren’t robots. While neither Detroit nor Seaton anticipated a season like 2015, it's worth noting how both adjusted. The Tigers saw value in his leadership and experience, and asked him to put both to use around younger players, and Seaton embraced his role. In a landscape where clubs need veterans to eat innings and mentor younger talent, there will always be room for a player like Seaton, a guy looking for a chance, able and willing to help the team any way he can.

Interestingly enough, Seaton re-signed with the Tigers.