The 2014 major league baseball season is just past the first quarter pole, which is, of course, much too early to come to any conclusions about who’s best, or who is going to win. But we can see trends and tendencies. I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and so see everything through a Giants-centric prism, and since my team’s in first place, with the best record in the National League, that prism’s pretty rose-colored. The lads are doing splendidly. But which lads? That turns out to be an interesting question.
There are essentially four ways baseball teams accrue talent. They can do a good job of scouting and drafting and developing, using the amateur draft. They can get good players via trades. They can sign star players via free agency. And the Giants have good players acquired via all these routes. But the fourth way is the one least discussed. They can get good players off the scrap heap.
Every major league team in baseball has a minor league system, with hundreds of talented young players learning their craft in smaller cities, playing for smaller crowds, and of course, paid (absurdly) lower salaries. And every spring, teams draft forty or fifty new players, and have to correspondingly release approximately the same number of minor leaguers. Those guys, those released minor league players, constitute the scrap heap. They are obviously talented young men, and many of them have at least a few games major league experience, but for whatever reason, their parent clubs decided they weren’t good enough to keep under contract. Once released, anyone can sign them, and for not much money. Obviously, they’re flawed players–you’re not going to sign Willie Mays off the scrap heap. But nobody in baseball is better than the Giants at sifting through those guys and finding useful, productive major league players.
Everyone can do something. That’s the implicit operative philosophy here; rather than focus on what someone can’t do, why not concentrate on what they can do, and put them in a position to succeed?
This was very much the philosophy of Earl Weaver, the old Oriole Hall-of-Fame manager. He loved managing limited guys, guys like Benny Ayala. Ayala couldn’t run, couldn’t field, couldn’t hit right handed pitching, and couldn’t hit a left-handed fastball. But he clobbered curve balls thrown by lefties. Weaver would give Ayala 80 at bats a year, all against left handed curve ball pitchers, and Ayala looked like an All-Star. He couldn’t do anything else, but he didn’t need to.
It was also my philosophy as a theatre director, which I learned from watching Earl Weaver manage. Everyone can do something. When I was directing in college, we’d get a lot of kids auditioning who were limited as actors. But in an audition, maybe they’d show me a spark, suggesting what they were capable of doing. I’d cast them in a small part, but a part that required the specific skills that actor happened to have. And they’d shine. It’s nice if every actor auditioning for your show is Audra McDonald, but that doesn’t happen much, especially for a college production. I think big business could use an Earl Weaver approach sometimes. Figure out what people can do, give them a chance to succeed.
Nobody epitomizes this more, this year, than Mike Morse. The Giants were the worst team in baseball last year at hitting home runs. Their home ball park is a tough one for home runs, and they just didn’t have anyone on the team that can consistently hit the long ball. Mike Morse, otherwise known as The Beast, has bounced around; played for Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, Toronto. He’s a big, likeable, shaggy haired dude, with a huge swing and a mellow disposition. He’s also a brutally bad defensive outfielder. He’s slow, and he can’t throw, and his instincts are bad. And he’s a terrible baserunner. So the Giants pair him with Gregor Blanco, a very fast runner and a superb defensive outfielder, but not a power hitter. That combination has given the Giants 10 home runs from the left field position. Morse starts, and then, if we have a lead, in comes Blanco to play defense. It works.
Another scrap heap guy is our second baseman, Brandon Hicks. Hicks was drafted by the Braves as a shortstop, made the big club in 2011, disappointed, signed with Oakland, was released, signed with the Mets, was released, and the Giants signed him this year. Prototypical scrap heap guy. He swings hard, strikes out a lot, hits an occasional home run, and will draw a few walks. He’s never hit for any kind of batting average, and still isn’t now, because he strikes out too much. But the combination of walks and home runs give him value. The knock on him was that he wasn’t good defensively. It’s true that he’s a little slow. But he’s great at turning double plays. So he’s an interesting mix of positives and negatives. And when the Giants’ starting second baseman, Marco Scutaro, got hurt, Hicks filled in admirably. And he’s won three games with late inning home runs. Plus he gives the Giants an infield of Brandon Belt, Brandon Hicks and Brandon Crawford, plus odd-man-out third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Need a fourth Brandon, guys.
A third one is reserve outfielder Tyler Colvin. Colvin came up with the Cubs, and also played with the Rockies. He was a pretty good hitter for Chicago, but then, in 2010, was hit by the shard of a shattered bat, which punctured his lung and nearly killed him. It took Colvin months to recover from that accident, and finally the Rockies gave up on him. The word for a guy like Colvin is ‘tweener.’ He’s not quite a good enough fielder to play center field, but doesn’t hit quite enough to play left or right. But he’s a terrific reserve, and the Giants are making good use of him.
The best Giants’ scrap-head acquisition, though, has to be Ryan Vogelsong. Once upon a time, he was the Giants’ top minor league pitcher. But in 2001, he was traded to the Pirates, tried to hard to impress the new organization, got hurt, and started bouncing around–Pirates, Phillies, Angels, two different teams in Japan. In 2010, he and his wife talked it over, and decided it was time to quit. All that scuffling, and he still hadn’t established himself as a major leaguer. Time to find a real job. But that winter, the Giants called and offered him a chance to try out for the team in the spring of 2011. Just a try out. He made the club, pitched his heart out, and began a long stretch of sustained great pitching that led to an All-Star game appearance in 2011, and a World Series ring in 2012. He’s still with the team, still defying expectations, but now with a big league contract. Which means a guaranteed contract for sufficient money that he never has to work again if he doesn’t want to.
That’s the dream. That’s the hope. And in baseball, it’s achievable. Even for guys plucked off the scrap heap. Never give up, because you honestly never know.