Jackpots always possible with under-the-radar deals
Kazmir, Bonderman, Tejada among those looking to duplicate Vogelsong's comeback
There was Ryan Vogelsong, a 33-year-old right-hander with 10 career Major League wins and 11 more in three seasons in Japan, just trying to catch someone's eye.
There was Vogelsong, the quintessential journeyman, who had pitched for 14 different teams in the Minors, Majors and Japan, just trying to stick somewhere.
Here was Vogelsong, taking the ball from Giants manager Bruce Bochy in the club's most pivotal postseason affairs, posting a 3-0 record and 1.09 ERA in four playoff starts last October, including victories in two elimination games.
"It feels great when you think about Ryan and his story, and how much he did have to persevere, to see what he's doing now," Bochy said during the World Series. "You feel great and good for that guy because of all he's gone through, and all the work he's gone through to get to this point."
Vogelsong signed a Minor League contract with the Giants -- the team with which he started his career, having been drafted by them in 1998 and pitched for them in 2000-01 -- in January 2011. The nomadic veteran joined the San Francisco rotation in late April and never looked back, earning an All-Star nod, finishing fourth in the National League with a 2.71 ERA and winning more contests (13) than he had in six previous big league seasons combined.
He also provided inspiration for other organizations seeking those ever-desirable diamonds in the rough. Every winter, every team throws a handful of mud at the wall, hoping one or two non-roster invitees will stick.
Rarely does a pitcher ascend, like Vogelsong, from Spring Training space-filler to starting rotation anchor on a World Series champion. More often, those players bounce around from organization to organization, as Vogelsong did when he returned from the Far East, signed with the Phillies prior to the 2010 campaign, then the Angels after Philadelphia released him that July.
There are plenty of similar success stories.
The Pirates signed reliever Jason Grilli to a Minor League contract in July 2011. To that point, he had spent time with nine Major League organizations. But he found his niche in Pittsburgh. Grilli posted a 2.48 ERA over 28 appearances in 2011, and followed that up with a 2.91 ERA in 64 outings last season, as he struck out 90 batters in 58 2/3 innings. His 13.8 punchouts per nine innings ranked fourth among National League relievers.
That production earned him a two-year deal with the Pirates and potentially the closer role after the club traded Joel Hanrahan to Boston in December.
Grilli's teammate, Garrett Jones, has established himself as a powerful first baseman after originally signing a Minor League deal with the Pirates in 2008. Jones didn't initially make the team, but Pittsburgh purchased his contract that June. He has clubbed 85 homers over the past 3 1/2 seasons.
The Padres unearthed a gem in Kevin Correia in 2009, as the right-hander turned a Minor League deal into a 12-win season and 3.91 ERA.
Casey Kotchman actually performed better on a low-risk contract than he did while being paid a hefty sum. The first baseman inked a Minor League deal prior to the 2011 campaign with Tampa Bay, and he batted .306 in 146 games. The Indians signed Kotchman for $3 million for the ensuing season, but he hit just .229.
Some players on Minor League pacts have suffered through years of injury. Others have been plagued with inconsistency. Some are seeking the right situation; others, the right teachers.
Some will be getting their last chance, hoping to escape the brink of obscurity and instead summon a steady big league career.
Here is a look at some players who have signed Minor League deals with Spring Training invites and could pay dividends for their respective teams:
Trevor Crowe, Astros
Crowe will face a battle for attention with Justin Maxwell, Fernando Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Brandon Barnes and Jimmy Paredes. A former first-round Draft selection, Crowe played in 205 games for Cleveland between 2009-11, batting .245 with 29 stolen bases. He closed out last season by hitting .301 with 16 RBIs, 26 runs and 10 steals in 42 games with the Angels' Triple-A team.
Cory Wade, Cubs
The Cubs bullpen ranked last in the NL in 2012 in allowing inherited runners to score and tied for last in save percentage. Wade has posted an ERA below 2.30 in two of his four big league seasons. He fared well for the Yankees in the first half of last season but wore out, spent most of the second half in the Minors, and his ERA blew up to 6.46. If the coin flips the right way, Wade could help quell Chicago's relief issues.
Scott Kazmir, Indians
The southpaw will head to Goodyear, Ariz., to vie for one of two rotation openings against the likes of Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber. A first-round Draft pick in 2002, Kazmir won 10 or more games each season from 2005-09. Then he compiled a 9-15 mark and 5.94 ERA in 2010 for the Angels, appeared in only one game the following year and spent 2012 with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League. Kazmir, who struck out 27 in 22 2/3 innings in winter ball, could provide the Tribe with a left-handed option out of the bullpen. The club severed ties with southpaws Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez this offseason.
Jeremy Bonderman, Mariners
Finally healthy, the 30-year-old righty could play into Seattle's plans if the club prefers a veteran presence to round out its rotation. Bonderman hasn't pitched since 2010 because of shoulder trouble and Tommy John elbow surgery. Injuries also limited him in 2008 and '09. The long-time Tiger won 11 or more games in each of the four seasons before that.
"I got my elbow fixed and now I feel ready to roll," Bonderman said. "I feel like I've got a little left and I want to enjoy it."
Mike Jacobs, Mariners
With Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez on board, Seattle has a logjam at the first base and designated hitter positions, but Jacobs should have an opportunity at camp to prove himself. He batted .298 with 23 homers and 97 RBIs for the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate in 2011 and .279 with 18 homers and 60 RBIs for Arizona's Triple-A squad last season. Jacobs belted 88 homers for the Marlins and Royals from 2006-09.
John Maine, Marlins
In the past two years, Maine has signed Minor League deals with the Rockies, Red Sox and Yankees, but hasn't ascended to the big leagues. With shoulder ailments behind him, he could slot into a Miami rotation that has little experience. Maine won 15 games in 2007 and 10 in '08.
Willy Taveras, Royals
Five years ago, Taveras paced the NL with 68 stolen bases. He last played in the Majors in 2010, and he didn't play anywhere last season. Still, the 31-year-old could bring an element of speed as a fourth or fifth outfielder. He could fight with fellow non-roster invitee Endy Chavez for a potential opening.
Miguel Tejada, Royals
He'll turn 39 in May, but Tejada could provide veteran support to one of baseball's youngest teams. This isn't the same Tejada who played at least 158 games in all but one season between 1999-2009. Should he make the team, the six-time All-Star and 2002 American League Most Valuable Player could aid the continued development of such players as shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas.
"I'm going to try to help this team and their younger players," Tejada said. "I'm so happy because this is what I was aiming for, a chance to get back to the Majors."
Rich Harden, Twins
Health is always an unpredictable variable, though for Harden, injuries have become the norm. When healthy, the right-hander has been a force, as evidenced by his .608 win percentage, 3.76 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings during his nine-year career. He has only made more than 26 starts once, however. The Twins need help in the rotation, as their starters submitted quality starts in just 38 percent of their outings, the lowest mark in the AL.