Highlighting under-the-radar saviors
Jesse Chavez, Chris Young and J.D. Martinez are delivering some big results
You can tell how much money is invested in an acquisition by the frenzy it creates. When a team spends nine figures on a free agent, trial balloons are floated, ownership gets involved, Twitter blows up with rumors and Scott Boras reacts to the announcement by throwing around words like "iconic."
Baseball's under-the-radar success stories unfold in a relative publicity vacuum. Maybe a scout lobbies for a player with a little extra passion in his voice, or a statistical analyst unearths an intriguing nugget or two to help sell a move. With a little luck and good timing, yesterday's reclamation project can turn into today's "find."
Scan the rosters of teams throughout baseball, and you'll find several players with relatively nondescript résumés or stagnant careers making significant impacts this season. Chances are Boras and Jay Z didn't fight over them, and they barely made a ripple in the blogosphere when they found new homes.
One such player, Casey McGehee, spent last season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. When he decided to return to the U.S., the Miami Marlins swooped in and signed him for a base salary of $1.1 million with $400,000 in incentives. Six months later, McGehee is hitting .308 with 48 RBIs and batting cleanup behind Giancarlo Stanton.
"I imagine there was somebody who was convincing enough to stand in a room and kind of vouch for me," McGehee said. "There's no getting away from the 'Moneyball' stuff and the sabermetric stuff. It's part of the game and it's here to stay. But you can't substitute for somebody who's been around and understands the game and can sit and watch a player with their own eyes. You can't put that into a computer. I think the scouts are way underrated as far as that goes. It's a skill. Not everybody can sit there and say, 'I think this guy has a chance to help us.'"
The little triumphs can help turn borderline contenders into playoff teams and give losing teams reason for encouragement down the road. Some of the players below have figured things out in a way that could allow their success to endure, while others are due for a regression. But they've already justified the investment their teams have made in them.
Jesse Chavez, Oakland Athletics (6-4, 2.94 ERA)
Oakland general manager Billy Beane doesn't subscribe to the romantic notion that an impact signing can or should be consummated strictly through the gut instincts of a scout. When even complementary acquisitions cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, Beane needs all the information he can muster to attain the requisite comfort level.
"All our moves have some quantitative analysis in the background," Beane said. "We don't subscribe to the magical powers of intuition."
Nevertheless, the old "Moneyball" labels paint a one-dimensional portrait that's not reflected by reality. Whether Oakland's attraction to a player begins with numbers and is supplemented by scouting observations or it's the other way around, the A's are committed to tapping every possible source.
Chavez, who has helped cushion the blow created by season-ending elbow injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, is a case in point. Even when he was bouncing around with several organizations, he had a reputation as a pitcher with the arm and the repertoire to be successful. In December 2009, the Atlanta Braves thought enough of Chavez to acquire him from Tampa Bay for reliever Rafael Soriano, who went on to save 45 games for the Rays in 2010.
"We used to beat him up bad when I was in Milwaukee," McGehee said. "But every time he came in it was like, 'God, this guy has good stuff. How is he getting hit?' You could see if he ever turned the corner, he had the stuff to do it, for sure."
The A's officially jumped on board when they acquired Chavez from Toronto in a cash transaction in August 2012. Dan Feinstein, Oakland's director of professional scouting, was Chavez's main advocate in the organization, and the A's looked at reams of proprietary data compiled by Farhan Zaidi, their MIT-educated assistant GM and lead statistical analyst. Beane, understandably, has no interest in sharing any of it for public consumption.
"I'm not going to say how the sausage is made," Beane said. "But it's a little more granular than just looking at strikeouts-to-walks."
Oakland's biggest leap of faith with Chavez was throwing him into the starting mix this spring even before injuries hurt their rotation. After Chavez retired 13 straight batters in a 3-2, 18-inning victory over the Yankees last June, Mark Teixeira told reporters, "The last guy that threw was the best we faced all day.'' That comment resonated with Beane and the A's, who were convinced that Chavez's four-pitch assortment would ease his transition to starting.
As Beane concedes, the Athletics' financial limitations force them to take chances and stick with players longer than teams in more demanding environments. Like the Rays, Pirates, Indians and other teams in less affluent markets, they're willing to take flyers on unheralded players because their circumstances require it.
Through the years, the A's have gotten contributions from the likes of Dan Otero, Stephen Vogt, Pat Neshek, Travis Blackley and Rajai Davis. At the other end of the spectrum, the Chris Resop, Brandon Allen, Hideki Okajima, Luke Hughes and Kila Ka'aihue experiments were rather short-lived.
Beane has been in the general manager's seat since 1997, and many of his top aides have been around so long that they predate the office furniture. When Beane, David Forst, Billy Owens, Chris Pittaro, Grady Fuson, Eric Kubota, Keith Lieppman, Zaidi and the crew gather around a table, the opinions fly and nobody worries about feelings getting hurt.
"We have such a camaraderie and sense of community here, guys can truly, honestly give their opinions without any fear that jobs are on the line," Beane said. "Every one of us has been here such a long time, we spend half our time joking about the mistakes we've made."
Chris Young, Seattle Mariners (7-4, 3.15 ERA)
The New York Mets took a flier to upgrade their outfield in November by signing Chris Young to a one-year contract. In exchange for the team's $7.25 million investment, Young is hitting .199 with a .276 OBP, and there are increased rumblings that he might not be long for Flushing Meadows.
#53 Starting Pitcher
The Mariners have gotten considerably more mileage out of their Chris Young. While his 47-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a bit worrisome, Young has a 1.16 WHIP and a WAR of 1.8. That's better than Madison Bumgarner, Sonny Gray, John Lackey and David Price, to name a few more-heralded starters.
Flash back to the end of spring training, and the Mariners were in serious need of stability at the back of the rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker were hurt, Scott Baker declined an offer to pitch in Triple-A ball with Seattle and signed with Texas, and Randy Wolf became a free agent when he refused to sign a clause that would have allowed the Mariners to release him within 45 days without having to pay his entire salary.
Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik had maintained a dialogue with Washington GM Mike Rizzo, and he knew that Young might be available as his opt-out clause with the Nationals approached near the end of spring training. Mariners special assistant Joe McIlvaine monitored Young in the Grapefruit League and assistant GM Jeff Kingston vouched for the pitcher's makeup from their time together in San Diego, and the Mariners pounced when Young opted out on March 25. Young threw six shutout innings against Oakland in his 2014 debut and he's never looked back.
Young's 75 percent fly ball ratio (highest in the majors) is less of a concern in Safeco Field than in most parks, and the velocity on his fastball has ticked up a notch from 84.6 to 85.4 mph after thoracic outlet surgery last summer. Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon recently called Young a "godsend" to the Mariners' rotation.
Zduriencik made a name for himself by drafting Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee, but the old scout in him takes just as much pride in the stealth hits. During Zduriencik's tenure, the Mariners saw closer potential in David Aardsma and Brandon League and coaxed a 31-homer season out of Russell Branyan for $1.4 million in 2009.
But finding enough talent to stack a roster is always a community effort. Seattle scouts Ted Heid and Patrick Guerrero signed Cuban defector Roenis Elias in Mexico, and amateur scouting director Tom McNamara had the foresight to select a Brooklyn, New York-born pitcher named James Jones in the fourth round of the 2009 draft with the idea that he could play the outfield. Five years later, Jones is the center fielder and leadoff hitter for a Seattle team that's in the hunt to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
"It happens all the time," Zduriencik said. "Just look at Pittsburgh last year with their pitching -- it was pretty remarkable. Regardless of what club you are, it's always great when someone comes in and surprises you. This year we've been fortunate. We've had a few of them."
J.D. Martinez, Tigers (10 homers, .982 OPS)
Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski is another executive with a tightly knit group of assistants who have ample latitude to state their opinions when they're sold on a player. Dombrowski's willingness to trust in his scouts has allowed the Tigers to get some mileage out of Alexis Gomez, Chad Durbin, Jason Grilli, Marcus Thames, Matt Tuiasosopo and Al Alburquerque in recent years.
The Tigers have hit pay dirt with Martinez, who is slugging .725 against right-handed pitching and recently won the American League Player of the Week award.
Martinez has always been blessed with power and the ability to hit. But the Astros probably rushed him when they summoned him to the big leagues after 90 Triple-A at-bats, and things went downhill for Martinez in Houston after an uncomfortable incident in April 2013. After Martinez swung at the first pitch (apparently in violation of a team directive) and popped out in a loss to Seattle, manager Bo Porter immediately pulled him from the game and called him out for his transgression. When the Astros released Martinez in late March, Porter observed, "Sometimes a change of scenery can do a guy really well."
Al Avila, Detroit's assistant general manager, had been familiar with Martinez for a while. Martinez grew up in Pembroke Pines, Florida, where Avila has a home, and played on a Little League team coached by Al's brother Ralph. He also played college ball at Nova Southeastern University on a team with Avila's nephew Nick and his youngest son, Alan.
Avila kept an eye on Martinez when he was tearing up the Venezuelan winter league last offseason, and he was on the phone with agent Bob Garber almost immediately after Houston cut Martinez loose. Avila's son Alex, Detroit's catcher, also called Martinez to put in a word for the Tigers.
"He went to our minor league camp, and from the first day he started hitting home runs," Al Avila said of Martinez. "It was an amazing thing."
How long can Martinez's success continue?
"He's streaky," said an AL scout who's familiar with Martinez. "I don't know if he can even maintain 75 or 80 percent of this pace. But he's a fighter. You have to give him a lot of credit for going to winter ball and battling his way back. It's a heck of a story."
Other low-profile success stories:
• Reliever Pat Neshek, who signed a minor league deal with St. Louis in February, has an 0.55 WHIP out of the Cardinals' bullpen.
• Collin McHugh, waived by Colorado in December, is averaging 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings through 13 starts with the Astros.
• Steve Pearce, a former South Carolina Gamecock who never cut it with the Pittsburgh organization, has broken through as an offensive weapon in his third season with the Orioles. Baltimore GM Dan Duquette has made a habit of adding productive, low-profile pickups through the years.
• Atlanta's Aaron Harang, released by Cleveland at the end of spring training, is tied for third in the National League with 14 quality starts.
• Jean Machi, who broke into pro ball with the Phillies in 2000, is 5-0 with a 1.32 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP out of the San Francisco bullpen.
• Kurt Suzuki, signed to a $2.75 million deal by Minnesota in December, leads American League catchers with a .304 batting average and a .362 OBP. With Joe Mauer having an off year and Phil Hughes and Glen Perkins potentially squeezed by pitchers with better numbers, Suzuki probably has the best case for an All-Star berth of any player on the Twins' roster.
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