Smart teams will use spring to mine for hidden gems
Plenty of possibilities open to those willing to look to fortify clubs for 2014 and beyond
When Stephen Vogt singled with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Oakland A's a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers and even the 2013 American League Division Series at 1-1, it's unlikely that he was thinking of the blip on the transaction wire six months earlier that signaled his move to a new team.
He was dealing with a mob of teammates on the basepaths, the looming specter of a shaving-cream pie to the face, and the knowledge that he had orchestrated at least one signature Major League highlight to savor for a lifetime.
"It's the moment that every kid dreams of," Vogt said. "I remember playing in my front yard with nobody else, imagining hitting a walk-off hit in a playoff game. It's everything you could dream of and more."
Out of nowhere, or, more accurately, out of the Tampa Bay Rays organization via a non-descript trade on April 5, the A's had unearthed a player who would ultimately help them in a big postseason way. The moral of the story is that it's never too late to sign or acquire players who can alter the course of your season.
In other words, it may be February and Spring Training is getting underway this week, but there are still many deals, big and small, to be had and profited from.
Just look at exactly a year ago today, for example. The Dodgers signed veteran reliever Kevin Gregg to a low-risk Minor League deal on that day, getting a player who had racked up at least 20 saves in each season from 2007-11. Gregg didn't fit into the deep Dodgers' plans and was released, but he was in game shape and signed with the Cubs on April 14. He ended up being Chicago's closer and saving 33 games.
A day later, on Feb. 11, the Indians took advantage of the late availability of Michael Bourn, one of the better outfielders on the free-agent market, signing him to a four-year, $48 million deal. Bourn had a down year on both sides of the ball by Michael Bourn standards, but still stole 23 bases and manned center field in 128 games for a playoff team. He has plenty of room to rebound to his previous stellar levels at the age of 31.
A year later, it's late in the Hot Stove game, but the free-agent board is still very much in play. Starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are looking for deals, while outfielder Nelson Cruz, shortstop Stephen Drew and designated hitter Kendrys Morales also remain unsigned. A host of role-player types are there for the taking, too.
Who knows which future impact players might get snapped up?
Who could have figured that the Mariners' quiet move in designating outfielder/first baseman Mike Carp for assignment last Feb. 12 would lead to a Feb. 20 trade to the Red Sox that would help fortify Boston's bench? It was a huge reason why they won the World Series eight months later.
Carp hit .296/.362/.523 with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 216 at-bats with Boston, and hit the team's first pinch-hit grand slam in 10 years in a win during the pennant race in September. The Mariners had designated Carp to clear roster space for starter Joe Saunders, who went 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA for Seattle, and now the Red Sox have a 27-year-old player who appears to have upside and value.
"That guy is a good hitter," teammate David Ortiz said. "One day he's going to get plenty of at-bats. He reminds me of myself when I first started. He doesn't get to play too much, but he has a good swing. He works hard to stay compact."
Meanwhile, a day after the Red Sox scored with Carp, the Mariners made another deal that might pay dividends in Seattle in years to come.
After clearing roster space for incoming catcher Kelly Shoppach by designating reliever Shawn Kelley, the Mariners traded Kelley to the Yankees for Minor League outfielder Abraham Almonte, a speedy sparkplug type who ended up making the big league club by the end of the year. Almonte showed promise that he might contend for a permanent role there.
"He can do it all," said Seattle shortstop Brad Miller, who was with Almonte at Triple-A Tacoma for a good portion of the 2013 season. "He plays hard, he runs -- I mean, he's pretty electric with his running. But I've seen him hit for the cycle this year, I've seen him hit bombs, I've seen him bunt and do a little bit of everything. He really has it all."
It remains to be seen if Almonte or any of last year's late deals and late steals will pan out in 2014. But with a lot of options still within the reach of eager and astute front offices, it wouldn't be surprising to read similar tales a year from now.