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Jim Henneman's Baseball Leftovers: Modern Roster Construction, Orioles Trades Of Yesteryear And More

May 2, 2019
Rehashing leftovers on this week's menu -- some of them digestible, others not so tasty:

Ben Zobrist has been the poster boy for the so called "utility" player for more than a decade now.  So good in fact that his manager, Joe Maddon, lobbied successfully to get him an All-Star berth twice, once in the American League with the Tampa Bay Rays and once in the National League with the Chicago Cubs.

It's a mistake, however, to view everyone playing multiple positions as a potential Zobrist. It would be better to label the second-baseman-right-fielder-or-wherever-you-need-me as an All-Star caliber player who happens to play more than one position.

Suffice it to say that most utility players in the major leagues have more versatility than ability. We're not talking All-Stars in the making here. We're talking more about necessity than versatility.

The very real, though generally unspoken, reason for the importance of utility players, as Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has painfully found out, is very simple. The era of pitching specialists has left teams with such unbalanced rosters that there are few accredited backups other than catchers. With most teams carrying 13 pitchers, that leaves three reserves in the American League, which uses the designated hitter, and four in the National League, which doesn't. Remove the second catcher, rarely used beyond emergencies, and the shortage is magnified. 

The way baseball is either under or over valuing starting pitchers (take your pick) the shortage is only magnified. Thus the necessity for the "utility" player, just don't expect him to be a Zobrist clone.

***

Giving up 73 home runs before May 1 should be embarrassing for the Orioles, rebuild or not, but I'm not so sure it isn't even more embarrassing to have used three position players as pitchers during that same stretch. Especially given the fact they are operating with a 13-man staff (see above).

At the same time, it has to be equally embarrassing to trot out a lineup that often includes three or four players playing out of position (also see above). It's one of the reasons why these "rebuild" efforts are often called "tanking." The error-fest against the Chicago White Sox May 1 was an indictment of the O's roster makeup.

When they made that movie "Angels in the Outfield" years ago, they weren't referring to infielders -- or utility men.

***

Former O's PR executive Jeff Lanta raised an interesting question on social media when he wondered when a debut was as hyped as the one for Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. last month. I was tempted to say it was the most since Bryce Harper until I looked it up and saw that one took place on the road, Los Angeles, rather than in Washington, whereas VGJ had his coming out party in Toronto, where the party had been anticipated for a year.

Still, there was at least one similarity between the two -- the timing, which was hardly accidental. Guerrero broke in April 26, while Harper's first big league game came seven years ago April 28. In each case the delay was enough to assure neither player would log enough days to qualify for a full year's service time as a rookie. 

(It's part of the "business side" of the game, which almost certainly precludes O's fans from seeing Ryan Mountcastle much earlier at a similar date next year -- and Austin Hays, provided his thumb and bat are healthy before the All-Star break this year.)

Coincidentally, Guerrero's first game came on the same date his father hit his 100th career home run. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. reached that mark on April 26, 2000. For the record, Harper's first game at home came three days after his debut and drew 22,675 to Nationals Park, while Guerrero attracted 28,688 to Rogers Centre. Interestingly, in each case the curiosity level dropped almost exactly -- 6,434 fewer fans showed up for VGJ's second home game while Harper's drop off was 6,401. 

***

Of the 27 pitchers who appeared in games for the Orioles in 2009 there are two still active in the big leagues -- plus one other on the injured list. Chances are, without the aid of Google, you'd have a tough time naming any, let alone all of them.

The easiest is probably Rich Hill, currently on the Los Angeles Dodgers' injured list, but back then he was a struggling left-hander who would have to go to the independent Atlantic League to learn how to control his curveball. The other two? Remember Matt Albers and David Hernandez? 

Albers was one of the generally overlooked pieces to the 2007 trade that sent Miguel Tejada to Houston. That's when the Astros were in the last stages of being a pretender and the first stages of a "rebuild." Hernandez eventually went to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Mark Reynolds in a deal made by former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail.

Left-handed pitcher Troy Patton was supposed to be the signature player in the Tejada trade, but he turned out to be damaged goods and never recovered from shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, after the first month of this season, Albers had logged 560 big league games, all but 24 as a relief pitcher.

Hernandez originally was ticketed to be part of a rotation that would include Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Adam Loewen and friends and wasn't real happy when then-manager Dave Trembley suggested his career would benefit from a role in the back end of the bullpen. He started 19 games in 2009, eight more the following year -- and none since. After 488 relief appearances it's safe to say the move worked to his benefit.

*** 

Another not to be ignored leftover, this one from spring training:

Every trip to the Orioles' Twin Lakes minor league complex includes a visit with former O's pitcher and long time minor league instructor Dave Schmidt, who might be best remembered for getting the save in the win that broke the well-documented 21-game losing streak that started the 1987 season.

Thirty-two years later, the right-handed reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever still has vivid memories of that game.

"We were in Chicago, it was a Friday night and [manager Frank Robinson] had called Mark Williamson and myself into his office the night before," recalled Schmidt.  

"He said, 'I know you guys are relievers, but tomorrow (pointing to Williamson) you are going to pitch the first six innings and you (pointing to Schmidt) are going to pitch the last three and we're going to put a stop to this stuff.'' 

And they did, as the two relievers combined for a four-hit shutout and the Orioles scoring six runs in the last three innings for a 9-0 win halted the agony, at least temporarily.

Asked afterward what the feeling was to have the streak over, Schmidt remembers his reply: "Other than getting a win, the best thing will be getting all [the national media] following this train wreck out of here so we can get back to just the local guys."

His involvement in that game was a significant part, but not the highlight of Schmidt's time in Baltimore. In 1987-1988, when the Orioles were a combined 121-202, Schmidt somehow managed to go 18-10. All things considered, that was Cy Young-worthy stuff.

*** 

BTW, the Orioles would have to win 75 games this year to avoid eclipsing that 121-202 record as the worst back-to-back years in club history. Which is probably as good a note as any to sign off on this one.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.