(Oliver Perez, then with the Pirates, celebrates with catcher Humberto Coto after throwing a complete-game shutout against the Reds on April 25, 2004. Photo by Associated Press).
In the wake of yesterday’s signing by the Mariners of down-on-his-luck lefty Oliver Perez, I got this email today from a reader named Steve. He had a project for me: “I don’t think we will see Oliver Perez at Safeco any time soon; or ever. I think you should do a list of the top ten absolutely no-hope reclamation projects that actually worked. (Hint: Eric Byrnes isn’t one of them.).”
Well, I’m up for a good challenge, particularly on a snowed-in day like today while waiting for Prince Fielder updates and official confirmation of the Mariners-Yankees trade (still on hold another day because of travel issues by Jesus Montero getting to Seattle from Venezuela for his physical).
Admittedly, most of these kinds of transactions are duds. The player hit the skids for a reason — usually injury — and there simply is no happy ending to be had in the vast majority of cases. A great example I witnessed recently involved Chad Cordero, formerly an All-Star closer with the Nationals before shoulder problems brought him down. After the Nats cut him loose, the Mariners signed him to a minor-league deal in March of 2009. He arrived full of hope , and actually made it back to the majors with Seattle for nine games in 2010. He wasn’t very effective, however. The Mariners released him, and so, subsequently, did the Mets and Blue Jays, the latter in May of last season. It appears Cordero has reached the end of the line. He worked hard, was a great guy, did everything he could to return to form. But once an arm goes, there’s no guarantee it will ever come back.
It happens every year with guys like Kris Benson, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, et al — they come to camp, somewhere, trying to resurrect their careers. And it rarely happens.
But sometimes it does. Which is the point of this post.
When I got Steve’s email, I immediately flashed on one great example from long ago, which I witnessed firsthand: Dave Stewart. Once a promising pitcher in the Dodger organization, Stewart went a combined 10-4 with a 2.60 ERA for the Dodgers and Rangers in 1983 before hitting the skids. He was 0-6 with a 5.46 ERA for Texas in 1985, traded to the Phillies, then released by the Phillies in May of 1986. The A’s signed Stewart later in May of 1986 — and he developed into the ace of a team that went to three straight World Series from 1988-90, with Stewart putting together four straight 20-win seasons.
But that’s ancient history, right? There were several examples last year, starting most prominently with Ryan Vogelsong of the Giants. Once a highly regarded pitching prospect with the Giants, Vogelsong was a key part of the deal with PIttsburgh that brought Jason Schmidt to San Francisco in 2001. But elbow issues that resulted in Tommy John surgery sidetracked Vogelsong with the Pirates. He wound up spending a couple of years in Japan, then kicked around the minors in the Phillies and Angels organizations (getting released by the Phillies in July of 2010).
The Giants signed him to a minor-league deal and brought him to camp last year with minimal expectations. But Vogelsong got off to a great start in Triple-A, and when Barry Zito got hurt in April, they called him up. He pitched so well that manager Bruce Bochy couldn’t take him out of the rotation — well enough, in fact, to make the National League All-Star team. He wound up with a 13-7 record and won the National League ERA title at 2.71. Now Vogelsong is a fixture in the Giants’ rotation.
OK, that’s two. How about Jerome Williams, another washed-out GIants’ prospect (first-rounder in 1999)? He won 10 games for the GIants in 2004, but then plummeted, going a combined 0-7 with an ERA in the 7’s for the Cubs and Nationals in 2006 and 2007. Williams drifted through the A’s, Twins and Dodgers organizations, and back to the A’s, with no success. He pitched in Taiwan, Mexico, Puerto Rico and two independent leagues before making it back to the majors last year with the Angels. Williams was 4-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 10 games (six starts) and is likely to be the Angels’ fifth starter in 2012.
Another example from last year that will irk Mariners’ fans is first baseman Casey Kotchman. He struggled mightily with the Mariners in 2010, hitting .217/.280/.333. Then he got some vision problems corrected, resurfaced in Tampa Bay on a minor-league deal, and wound up winning the first-base job en route to putting up a strong 2011 season (.306/.378/.422) that those who saw him in Seattle never would have guessed he had in him.
It reminded me somewhat of Scott Spiezio, who looked about as finished as a player could be when the Mariners cut him in August of 2005 while Spiezio was hitting .064 (3-for-47. Repeat: Three hits in 47 at-bats). The Cardinals decided to sign him to a minor-league deal in 2006, and lo and behold, Spiezio was quite a useful player for them. He hit .272 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs, racked up an .862 OPS, and won a World Series championship ring. So there you go. That’s five.
Going back to the Rays, how about Carlos Pena, who put up a 27-homer season with the Tigers in 2004 but faltered after that and was released by Detroit in 2006. The Yankees signed and released him that year, and the Red Sox cut him loose after the season as well. The Rays brought Pena to camp on a minor-league deal in 2007, and were rewarded with a 46-homer, 121-RBI season. That was followed by 31 homers and 102 RBIs, 39 homers (most in the American League) and 100 RBIs, and 28 homers and 84 RBIs). Not a bad reclamation project.
WIth Dmitri Young trying to make a comeback this year, it brings to mind the 2007 season, when the Nationals signed Young — who had been released by the Tigers in September of 2006 — to a minor-league deal. The Nationals actually put him in minor-league camp, but Young wound up making the Opening Day roster, made the All-Star team, and was NL Comeback Player of the Year. The Nats wound up signing Young to a two-year, $10-million extension after the season that was a disaster, but that’s another story. The initial signing paid off extremely well.
Melky Cabrera was non-tendered by the Braves in 2010, hooked on with the Royals for a big pay cut in 2011, and had an excellent season last year — the best of his his career (.305 with 18 homers, 87 RBIs, 201 hits, 44 doubles). He’s since been traded to the Giants and signed for a big raise to avoid abritration.
Two more to go. How about Ruben Sierra, once a superstar with the Rangers before dropping off the face of the earth in the late 1990s. Sierra was relegated to playing in the independent Atlantic League in 1999 before returning to the Rangers in 2001 to put up a productive season: 23 homers in 344 at-bats, with an .884 OPS.
For my 10th and final reclamation example, I’m going to go with John Burkett, one of my favorite guys to cover (during his Giants’ incarnation). By 1997, Burkett was fading with the Rangers, putting up ERAs of 5.68 and 5.62 in ’97 and ’98. In 1999, he went to camp with Tampa Bay but was cut in late March. Burkett hooked on with the Braves in early April and wound up in their rotation, going 10-6, followed by a 12-12, 3.04 ERA season in 2001. Burkett then won 25 games the next two years with Boston, and pitched in the postseason three out of four years.
Not bad for a guy who looked like he was washed up. The fact is, most players who look like they’re washed up — are. But it’s the Vogelsongs and Williamses of the world that make minor-league invites an annual rite of spring.