While many follow Spring Training to see how young prospects look in their big-league tryouts, nothing is more fascinating than a former great taking one last shot at the Majors.
Spring Training is a time for young prospects and Major-League hopefuls to show the big-league club what they can offer. It’s when rookies try to earn their place in the big leagues. It’s also when established veterans get back in shape, adjust to a new team or position, and get themselves back in the mindset of another grind of a season. There’s one other group to pay attention to come Spring Training though; a group that’s neither trying to prove themselves for the first time nor simply falling into their usual spot on the team. I’m talking about the guys making one last shot at their former glory.
Every year, dozens of players get that last Minor-League contract and invitation to Spring Training. Guys who have seen dramatic decreases in their production, or are coming off injury, try to make one last big-league push before having to hang ‘em up. These players fascinate me. Whether it’s a Grady Sizemore trying to play a Major League game for the first time in three years, or a former great like Johan Santana trying to force his failing body to work one last time, these are the the guys with everything to lose. Prospects always have the allure of another shot, or a mid-season call up. These veterans can’t afford to spend time in the minors; it’s all or nothing as they try to reclaim former glory one last time.
Heading into 2015, there’s no shortage of these players. Because of the nature of the position, pitchers tend to make up the majority of these “last hurrah” players. Not only are pitchers more likely to suffer long-term injuries they must recover form, they’re also more likely to simply “lose it” one year, injuries or not. Whether their bodies failed on them, or they simply can’t find the success they once had, here are three pitchers taking what could be their final chances this spring. A successful Spring Training could mean a spot on another Major League roster. A bad spring, and we may never see them on a Major League diamond again. Other than that, no pressure though.
Barry Zito – Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics signed their former ace Barry Zito to a minor-league deal with an invite to Spring Training last week. After seven seasons in Oakland that ranged from “pretty good” to “Cy Young winner,” Zito signed a then-mammoth $126 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. He hasn’t been the same since.
With the exception of his rookie season, Zito never won fewer than 11 games with the A’s, going a combined 102-63, including a 23-win 2002 campaign during which he won the AL Cy Young. However, after moving to San Francisco, Zito never won more than 15 games in a season, and only topped 11 wins once, going a combined 63-80 over seven seasons. In addition, Zito’s ERA with the Giants (4.62) was more than a full run higher than that with Oakland (3.55).
Zito sat out all of 2014 after the Giants (predictably) failed to pick up his option. However, Zito never truly retired, and is now attempting a comeback in his old stomping grounds. One figures Zito has at least an outside shot at making the A’s rotation, which lost two quality arms this offseason. While Zito certainly didn’t bottom-out quite like the other two on this list, he did miss all of 2014 and hasn’t really been the same pitcher since his departure from Oakland.
Daniel Bard – Chicago Cubs
Bard, like Zito, isn’t trying to comeback from a major injury. Instead, he’s trying to come back from a bad case of the yips.
Bard signed a one-year deal with the Cubs this offseason, again including a Spring Training invite. It’s been a long road for Bard, who once showed great promise at the big-league level. Bard spent time in the Red Sox bullpen from 2009-2013, posting good numbers for much of it. Bard’s best season came in 2010, when he posted a 1.93 ERA in 74.2 IP, all out of the bullpen, mostly in the set-up role. Bard slipped a bit in 2011, but still posted a decent 3.33 ERA in 73 relief innings. The issues came in 2012, when the Red Sox (somewhat inexplicably) tried to turn Bard into a starter.
Bard started 10 games in 2012, and it was a disaster. He posted a 4-6 record as a starter with a 5.30 ERA, which included 36 walks in only 54 innings. His 1.62 WHIP was a major issue, as he simply couldn’t get outs. The Sox tried to move Bard back into the ‘pen, but by then, his confidence was shot. Bard struggled mightily in his return to relief duties, posting a staggering 16.20 ERA and 3.00 WHIP over seven appearances covering only five innings. Bard was sent to the minors, and made only a brief return to the big leagues in 2013, making two appearances and allowing one earned in one inning of work. He hasn’t thrown a Major League pitch since.
Bard was DFA’d by Boston in September, 2013, and claimed off waivers by the Cubs. He became a free agent after the 2013 season after being non-tendered. Bard then signed a minor-league deal with the Rangers before last season, but was released after only four Single-A appearances, where he put up the following, unbelievable line:
0.2 IP (in four appearances), 0 H, 9 BB, 1 K, 13 ER, 175.5 ERA, 13.50 WHIP
Bard wasn’t broken physically, but was shattered mentally. To give up 13 runs on no hits and nine walks – at Single-A, no less – is crazy. Now, his former GM Theo Epstein is giving Bard one final chance to get his head right and make a Major League roster, but I can’t think his chances are very good.
Dontrelle Willis – Milwaukee Brewers
I didn’t think I’d find anyone with a tougher road back to the big leagues than Daniel Bard, nor with a bigger fall from grace. Dontrelle Willis beats him in both categories. Willis signed a minor -league deal with the Brewers in late-January, in his latest (and perhaps last) chance at reclaiming big-league success.
Willis burst onto the scene in 2003 with the (then Florida) Marlins. “D-Train” was named an All-Star that year, as well as National League Rookie of the Year, after going 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 27 starts. The hard-throwing lefty with an unconventional windup helped lead the Marlins to a World Series championship, including three scoreless relief appearances in the Fall Classic.
Willis hit a sophomore slump the following season, seeing his ERA rise to 4.02 and his record fall to 10-11. However, Willis put it all together in 2005, leading the National League with 22 wins, cutting his ERA to 2.63. Willis was named an All-Star once again, and finished second in Cy Young voting.
Willis never reached those heights again, seeing his wins drop from 22, to 12, to 10, while his ERA rose from 2.63, to 3.87, to 5.17. Willis left the Marlins after the 2006 season, signing with the Tigers. Willis spent two-and-a-half unsuccessful seasons in Detroit, posting a 2-8 record with a 6.86 ERA. After equally unsuccessful stints in Arizona and Cincinnati, Willis hasn’t seen Major League action since 2011.
The D-Train has made numerous stops on his way back to big leagues. Willis signed minor-league deals with the Phillies, Orioles, and Cubs between 2011 and 2013, never getting out the minors after injuries, ineffectiveness, and disputes over his role with the clubs (Willis wanted to be a starter, most clubs saw him in the bullpen). Willis made a stop with the independent-league Long Island Ducks in 2013, and saw limited success there. That allowed him to sign a minor-league deal with the Angels in August, 2013, but he never saw big-league action. After another unsuccessful stint in the minors, this time in the Giants’ system, Willis found himself back in independent-league baseball, this time with the Atlantic League’s Bridgeport Bluefish, before signing his deal with the Brewers this winter.
It’s been quite a trip from Rookie of the Year to World Series champion to Cy Young candidate, to the minors, independent-league ball, and now back to the Brewers. One would have to think this is Dontrelle’s last chance to make a big-league roster.
Three pitchers, all trying for one last shot at the big-leagues, all with wildly different paths. I’d say Zito, who pitched in the Majors with more success, more recently, than Bard or Willis has the best chance to make a Major-League roster. Bard has never really needed to rehab a serious injury; he just needs to get his head right. Willis, on the other hand, is what Daniel Bard would be if he also had a bad throwing arm. This is what makes Spring Training so great, though. Former successful big-leaguers – two of them contributers on championship teams – now fighting with young prospects for a chance at a big-league roster spot. This trio will have to make the best of their Spring Training auditions; they just might be their last.