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Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Who are these guys? Long shots who made it

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Opening week means different things to different people. For Pedro Martinez, April has brought another health scare, and for Barry Zito, more alarm over declining radar gun readings.

For some other, lesser-known major leaguers, the start of the regular season has been accompanied by a dream attained, revisited or achieved under the most surprising of circumstances.

Several low-profile players made Opening Day rosters because of strong spring performances or more practical reasons. Maybe the catalyst was an injury, a payroll issue or the fact that the players were out of options and couldn't go to the minors without having to clear waivers first.

With apologies to Arizona's Alex Romero, San Francisco's Steve Holm, the Dodgers' Ramon Troncoso, Baltimore's Scott Moore, San Diego's Jody Gerut and Minnesota's Brian Bass, this week's Starting 9 is devoted to players who won roster spots in the face of adverse circumstances or difficult odds. Say hello to our "I don't know how I made it, but I'm sure glad to be here" squad.

Blake DeWitt

DeWitt

Blake DeWitt, 3B, Dodgers
1 Remember how Shea Stadium used to be known as a revolving door for third basemen? Now it's Chavez Ravine. Over the past five seasons, Adrian Beltre, Bill Mueller, Jose Valentin, Wilson Betemit and DeWitt have started on Opening Day for the Dodgers.

DeWitt ranked well down manager Joe Torre's depth chart upon arrival at spring training. But when Andy LaRoche, Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Abreu landed on the disabled list, opportunity knocked. In his Dodgers debut Monday, DeWitt singled off Zito in his first career at-bat, walked twice and scored two runs in a 5-0 victory over San Francisco.

In the 2004 draft, the Dodgers picked DeWitt and fellow Missouri native Scott Elbert in the first round. Former big league outfielder Mitch Webster, now a Dodgers scout, signed both players. According to Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker, Webster refers to them as the "Missouri Mules."

While DeWitt hits from the left side, one scout said his full-fledged devotion to baseball is similar to David Wright's.

"I loved him when I saw him in high school," the scout said. "He wanted to hit all day, and he'd do anything the scouts wanted him to do. He's sort of a baseball rat."

DeWitt has his teeth in an opportunity now, and he has a chance to make a big impression if he's ready to seize the moment.

Rico Washington, 3B, Cardinals
2 Until this spring, Washington had two claims to fame: (1) He's a product of the same Georgia high school that produced Rondell White and (2) he was once the honored guest at a Rico Washington Bobblehead Night in Altoona, Pa. But the truck carrying the merchandise failed to arrive on time, and the event had to be postponed.

It's been a long journey since Pittsburgh chose Washington in the 10th round of the 1997 draft. He appeared in 1,134 minor league games encompassing 3,980 at-bats before his breakthrough.

When manager Tony La Russa told Washington he'd made the Opening Day roster, the other Cardinals were so excited they crowded around to offer congratulations. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that some teammates offered to fly Washington's family to the opener.

At 29, Washington is the oldest St. Louis rookie since pitcher Kevin Ohme made a cameo at age 32 five years ago. Washington might be headed back to the minors when Brendan Ryan returns from a rib cage injury. But he's already enjoyed one memorable spring.

Billy Traber, LHP, Yankees
3 The common assumption that left-handed relievers have jobs for life is being tested this spring. Steve Kline, Mike Myers and Mike Stanton all were released recently and are still searching for employment. Yet here's Traber, a career journeyman, ready to go as the only lefty in manager Joe Girardi's bullpen.

Traber, 28, was once considered a hot commodity. The Mets picked him in the first round of the 2000 draft and offered him a signing bonus of $1.7 million. When an MRI uncovered elbow trouble, Traber settled for $400,000. He drifted from the Mets to Cleveland to Washington, and has 76 career appearances in his portfolio at age 28.

At 6-foot-5, Traber has some deception in his motion, and he's shown flashes of being well-suited for the role the Yankees have carved out for him. Left-handed hitters have a .210 batting average and 53 strikeouts in 200 plate appearances against Traber.

The Yankees will get an idea of what Traber is made of shortly, when the big lefty is summoned to face David Ortiz in a tight spot. Provided he sticks around, Traber also will be seeing lots of Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Carlos Pena, Grady Sizemore, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, to name a few.

Brian Bocock

Bocock

Brian Bocock, SS, Giants
4 When Omar Vizquel suffered a knee injury early in spring training, the Giants planned to hand over the shortstop position to Kevin Frandsen. Then Frandsen went through a rough stretch defensively and suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

Rather than go out and acquire, say, an Alex Cintron, the Giants chose to bridge the gap until Vizquel's return with Bocock. The kid can handle the job defensively, but he has a ways to go before he's even Adam Everett-caliber good at the plate.

Last year Bocock hit .220 in the Class A California League, which is known as a hitter's league.

"He made every play this spring," said a scout. "With the glove, he's very sound. But that bat is really weak. I may be wrong, but I don't think he'll ever hit."

Clete Thomas

Thomas

Clete Thomas, OF, Tigers
5 Yes, there are now two "Cletes" in the Baseball Encyclopedia. The first, Cletis Leroy Boyer, was part of a baseball brother act and spent 16 seasons in the majors with the Yankees, Kansas City and Atlanta.

The second, Michael Clete Thomas, ranks with Matt Joyce as one of the best outfield prospects in the Detroit chain now that Cameron Maybin is a Florida Marlin. Thomas hit .280 with a .359 on-base percentage for Double-A Erie last year and began this season as Baseball America's 12th-rated Tigers prospect.

The Tigers sent Thomas to minor league camp with the first cuts in the Grapefruit League, then recalled him when center fielder Curtis Granderson suffered a broken finger. Thomas showed enough speed, versatility and baseball savvy to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.

All he needed was a wardrobe enhancement. Thomas didn't own a sport coat, so his mother-in-law bought him one during a family junket to a Lakeland, Fla., Men's Wearhouse.

In Detroit's season-opening loss to Kansas City, Thomas appeared as a defensive replacement and doubled off Joakim Soria in his first at-bat. Twelve years after playing for Panama City, Fla., in the 1996 Little League World Series, Thomas had officially arrived.

Charlton Jimerson

Jimerson

Charlton Jimerson, OF, Mariners
6 Jimerson's tale of perseverance has earned him lots of admirers in baseball circles. His mother was a drug addict, his father left home when he was a youth, and he was raised by his sister in a rough section of Oakland. Jimerson made himself into an honor-roll student, walked onto the University of Miami baseball team, and led the Hurricanes to a College World Series victory in 2001.

After seven professional seasons with Houston and Seattle -- with 748 games in the minors and 30 in the majors -- Jimerson still refuses to give up the fight.

The Mariners decided to break camp with Jimerson as a spare outfielder and send prospect Wladimir Balentien to Triple-A Tacoma for regular work. Jimerson can steal a base, play defense and hit with power, but his holes at the plate have prompted some scouts to compare him to Reggie Abercrombie. Jimerson has 993 strikeouts and a career .304 OBP in 2,765 minor league at-bats.

"He's a dead-red fastball hitter, and if you spin it at all, he just doesn't recognize it," said a West Coast scout. "That's been his problem."

Buck Coats, OF, Blue Jays
7 Coats grew up in Valdosta, Ga., birthplace of the famous gunfighter and gambler Doc Holliday -- who is not to be confused with Toronto ace and former Cy Young Award winner Roy "Doc" Halladay.

After stops with the Cubs and Reds, Coats arrived from Cincinnati in December in a trade for pitcher Justin James. He clinched a spot on Toronto's season-opening roster when Scott Rolen suffered a broken finger in a fielding drill.

Until Rolen's return, Coats will provide value to the Jays for his versatility and speed. He can play all three outfield positions and has 138 stolen bases in the minors.

"He's the kind of guy who can sit for four or five days, and then get in there and help you," said general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "He's not one of those young guys who's never had to be in that role."

Luis Rivas

Rivas

Luis Rivas, 2B, Pirates
8 The 2001 Baseball America Prospect Handbook ranked Rivas as the fourth-best prospect in the Minnesota system -- right behind Michael Cuddyer and Michael Restovich, and one spot in front of Justin Morneau.

"Rivas and Cristian Guzman could form the Twins' double-play combination for years," BA wrote.

Well, sort of. Guzman left Minnesota to sign a four-year, $16.8 million deal with Washington in 2004, and Rivas drifted off the radar. He couldn't hit enough to warrant an everyday job, and some people in the Twins' organization saw an immaturity and lack of commitment. Rivas failed to show much in stints with Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

"I thought he was done three years ago," said a scout.

But Rivas showed up in February with more spring in his step and a dedicated look in his eye, and he tore up the Grapefruit League, leading the Pirates with a .368 batting average and 21 hits. He beat out Josh Wilson to win a bench job and doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

Elliot Johnson, 2B, Rays
9 Johnson set off a spring training firestorm when he broke catcher Francisco Cervelli's wrist with a hard slide and raised the ire of Yankees manager Joe Girardi. A few days later, New York's Shelley Duncan touched off a brawl with a spikes-first slide that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon labeled "borderline criminal."

Once the field cleared and the headlines subsided, Johnson was still standing. Top prospect Evan Longoria will begin the season in the minors, and Ben Zobrist, who was supposed to play a utility role for the Rays, might be out until mid-April with a fractured thumb.

Johnson hit .207 for Triple-A Durham last season but doesn't lack for athleticism -- as evidenced by a YouTube video titled "Johnson Dunks." Judging from his basketball skills, Johnson has enough of a vertical leap to jump over catchers rather than plow through them.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.