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So Close I Could Almost Touch It

April 13, 2008
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Unless you have been in the shoes of a professional baseball player it is hard to understand what being a Rule 5 draft pick is like. From the time these guys become professionals, making it to the major leagues is defined for them as a process. That process, including the patience that comes with it, is as much a rationalization for the excruciatingly long time it takes to just GET to the majors as it is the definition of “paying your dues” which, for the most part, means learning to play the game the right way and the way that maximizes the chance of being a successful major leaguer. The sometimes difficult ascent to the majors is dotted with landmines that range from physical injuries to mental roadblocks and, for the vast majority of prospects, the unspannable chasm that is the ultimate realization that they lack the skills necessary to be major league players.

But imagine this. In the midst of this seemingly endless climb, a hand reaches down offering to pull a player up…all the way up to the top, to the major leagues, to the level that he has probably been dreaming about since shortly after he picked up his first bat or put on his first glove.

He has been given a chance, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, to be a major leaguer…..NOW! That chance comes in the form of the Rule 5 draft.

For some players, this hand is extended to them when they are close enough (AA or AAA) to the summit they can actually see their goal. For some, the hand pulls them up from deep in the low minors when they think they are still years away from even sniffing their dream. But for each Rule 5 draftee the reality is the same: if they can only find a way to excel in one, glorious spring training, they are in ‘The Show’.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Rule 5 draft process it goes like this. Teams draft players from other teams over the winter but, in order to keep those players for good, the drafting team has to keep the players they draft on the 25-man major league roster for the ENTIRE next season. If the team chooses not to keep a Rule 5 player in the majors they have to put him through waivers during which time any team can pick him up along with the above requirement or, if he passes through waivers, he has to be offered back to the team he was drafted from and, most likely, return to the minors for yet another season of making very little money, riding buses and living on a shoestring…all so he can continue to chase his dream of being a big league player.

Usually teams only draft players they think have significant upside with some present, usable skills, as well. So, the team that drafts that player has a vested interest in finding a way to keep that player in the majors during the season and, in turn, keeping that upside long-term. That team WANTS to find a way to make it work. The player is trying to do his best to show that team that it CAN work. Therefore Rule 5 players get many more chances (in terms of at bats or innings pitched) to prove their worth than the average minor leaguer does in major league spring training. However, even with all parties wanting to make it work, it seldom does work out. Over 65% of major league Rule 5 draftees are offered back to the team they were drafted from by the end of spring training and greater than 90% fail to have significant major league careers. Even with those odds, the mantra of all minor leaguers that seems to be ‘I can only control what is in my control’ translates for the Rule 5 draftee into ‘just relax and play baseball and if it works out great and, if doesn’t, just go back to the minors and continue to plug away’. However, how can you not get caught up in the dream and the thought that all the years of proving and then reproving yourself can be leapfrogged if you can only find it within you to put together a month and a half of great baseball to convince the team that drafted you that you are good enough for the majors now?

Two players drafted in the 2007 Rule 5 draft were Brian Barton and Matt Whitney. Both were drafted from Cleveland, Barton by St. Louis and Whitney by Washington. What makes Barton and Whitney unusual is that they were among Cleveland’s best prospects, something that isn’t usually true for Rule 5 draft picks, as most teams protect their best prospects on their 40-man roster to avoid losing them in this draft. The thought by the Indians, who felt that they had a roster crunch, was that Barton might not be drafted because of the uncertainty caused by knee surgery he had after the 2007 season and that Whitney was too far from the majors and didn’t play a typical position (utility infielder, speedy outfielder or relief pitcher) that is coveted in the Rule 5 draft. Nevertheless, both players were drafted.

This is the story of their attempts to become major leaguers in the spring of 2008.

The Dream Is Possible

Brian Barton, an outfielder who can play all three outfield positions and has good speed, power and defense, is the prototypical outfielder that teams look for in the Rule 5 draft. He also has a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Miami (FL) and is very driven to succeed as evidenced by his rapid rise through Cleveland’s minor league system after not even being drafted out of college. He did his work to understand the Rule 5 process (no small feat) and knew the opportunity that might be presented to him when Cleveland didn’t protect him on their roster after the 2007 season. “I wasn’t disappointed but I was a little surprised when the Indians didn’t put me on the 40-man roster but I realized that (the Rule 5 draft) could turn into a great opportunity for me.” Barton said. “I am confident in my abilities and I expected even before the Rule 5 draft to be a major leaguer sometime in 2008.” As an outfielder, Brian’s opportunity to make the St. Louis Cardinals was a good one as one of his major competitors to make the team, So Taguchi, was released to clear a spot on the 40-man roster that became Barton’s and the Cardinals then traded their starting center fielder, Jim Edmonds, opening up another outfield spot. In addition it was doubtful if their starting right fielder in 2007, Juan Encarnacion, would play again after being hit in the face with a batted ball last year, creating yet another opening in St. Louis’ outfield.

Matt Whitney, a first baseman now, was drafted out of high school as a third baseman. He was the top Indians’ position prospect early in his career and would have conceivably been in the majors already except that his career was derailed by a seriously broken leg he suffered in spring training in 2003. His prospect status improved dramatically in 2007 when he hit a combined 32 HRs and drove in 113 runs while splitting the year between low class A Lake County and high class A Kinston. However, even with that performance, 2007 was the second year in a row that Whitney was left off the 40-man roster. In 2006 Whitney didn’t have a very strong season and so didn’t pay much attention to the Rule 5 draft. However, his agent filled him in on what might happen before the 2007 Rule 5 draft so he was prepared this time around. “I didn’t know much about the Rule 5 draft before this off-season but once my agent talked me through it, it began to sink in what a great opportunity this could be for me.” Matt’s opportunity was a little more limited than Brian’s as the team that drafted him, Washington, had two first basemen on their roster: Dimitri Young, a 2007 all-star and Nick Johnson, who had been the starter for the Nationals at first base previously but who missed the entire 2007 season with a broken leg. Even if Matt returned to his original position, third base, his competition would by Ryan Zimmerman, one of the top, young third baseman in the major leagues.

The Opportunity Begins

Leading up to the draft there was a lot of buzz about Barton being drafted but very little, if any, about Whitney. As it turns out they were both drafted in the first round of the 2007 Rule 5 draft and Whitney was actually drafted before Barton. “It was bittersweet when I was drafted. On one hand I was excited to get the chance with Washington and to make a major league team but I was also disappointed to leave the Cleveland organization” said Whitney. “I didn’t even follow the Rule 5 draft on the internet the day I was drafted but my dad did and he called me right after I was selected.” Whitney got a welcome call from the Nationals about an hour after the draft. “Aside from that we only talked a couple of times over the winter.”

Barton did not follow the Rule 5 draft on the day he was drafted. He got a call from his agent right after he was drafted and got a welcome call from the Cardinals a few minutes later. However, after that he and the Cardinals “didn’t talk that much over the winter”, he said. The Cardinals also did not talk to him at any time about what he would have to do to make the team in spring training. “I am pretty confident, though” Barton said, “I knew that this chance could shorten my development time to get to the majors.”

Chasing the Dream

Brian Barton had a good insight into what is like to be a Rule 5 draftee because his roommate for most of 2007 in the minors at AA Akron was Ryan Goleski. Goleski was drafted from the Indians by the Athletics in the 2006 Rule 5 draft but was returned to the Indians after that next spring training when he couldn’t make the Athletics roster. For Matt Whitney, the whole process was new to him. He didn’t really know any guys who had gone through a spring training as a Rule 5 draftee and the Nationals didn’t talk him through what would be expected of him as a Rule 5 guy. “I knew what their roster situation was and I so knew the roster spot I was being considered for,” Whitney said, “but Rule 5 guys have stuck with the Nationals before so I am encouraged by that.”

So, it’s just the middle of February but as a Rule 5 guy you couldn’t be blamed if you thought a lot of eyes were on you when you reported to spring training. Interestingly, both Whitney and Barton said that they did not have any conversations with their teams either over the winter or at the beginning of camp about what was expected of them or what they had to do to make the team in spring training. Also, it didn’t appear to them that were getting extra instruction, although they did get a lot of playing time. “You don’t want to get ahead of yourself” said Barton “but I knew if I just played the way I knew I could, everything would work out.” Whitney, whose opportunity was not as good as Barton’s, said rather pragmatically, “I came to spring training trying to soak in as much as I can and to see how major leaguers go about getting their work in.”

The first couple of weeks of spring training are full of hard work, repetitive drills and little, if any, actual baseball. Barton’s spring started off pretty badly. He had some soreness in his surgically-repaired knee and his early camp play was described as “brutal” by one Cardinals’ official. Still, he was confident in his abilities. Matt Whitney operated mostly in quiet as most of the talk in the early part of the Nationals camp was about Nick Johnson’s recovery from a broken leg and how the Nationals were going to carry both Young and Johnson on the same roster. Whitney, seeing his competition and keeping good perspective, remarked: “Not only am I competing for a spot on this team but I am also auditioning for 28 other teams (besides the Indians and the Nationals) if I don’t make the roster here.”

When it was time to get playing, both Whitney and Barton started off with a bang in intrasquad games and against college teams in tuneup games for the exhibition season. But then it was time for the major league exhibition season to begin.

Let the Games Begin

There are really four questions that need to be answered in the spring training evaluation process for Rule 5 guys:

• How do the guys look against top level competition and can they handle their position(s) defensively?
• What level of consistency do they show over the course of the exhibition season and are they getting better or worse in production as spring training progresses when they start facing better pitching (or hitting, if they are a pitcher) as opponents’ rosters shrink toward the final 25?
• How do the guys look that they are competing with?
• With injuries, minor league options available for certain players and final roster configuration considered as spring training goes along, does it make sense to carry the Rule 5 guy on the roster to start the season?

This last question is the most difficult. For instance, Washington lost outfielders Elijah Dukes and Willy Mo Pena early in camp maybe for the start of the season. Unfortunately Matt Whitney was competing for playing time at first base against 2007 all-star first baseman Dimitri Young and former starting first baseman Nick Johnson, who missed all of 2007 with a broken leg. Thus the Nationals losing outfielders did not help Matt out that much. Neither did his performance in the first few weeks of the exhibition season as he went 3-23 (.130) with a double, a triple and a HR in his first 12 games. At that point in training camp, Matt had to consider the thought that he probably was going back to the minors. Based on comments from the Cleveland organization that they wanted him and Barton back, Matt had to consider the possibility that he be returned to Cleveland and be back in their minor league system again.

The story for Brian Barton, on the other hand, was completely different. After two weeks of spring training games Barton was 15-42 (.357) with a double, 3 triples and 2 HRs. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and GM John Mozoliek both heaped praise on his play. Barton, though, kept the proper perspective and even a sense of humor about it when he said: “I try not to think too far ahead but I have thought a little about making the opening day roster because I would have to go out and buy some suits for road trips.” Still, Tony LaRussa the Cardinals manager indicated that Barton had to keep up his level of play but that didn’t worry Barton. “Right now I feel like I am ‘there’ mentally and the mental side of the game is very important,” he said. “Confidence-wise I am the same but I am feeling a lot more comfortable in camp now than I felt early in camp.”

Decision Time

Along with the Cleveland Indians front office, prospect aficionados in Cleveland, Washington and St. Louis wait to see what is going to happen. Opening day is approaching and Washington and St. Louis have to decide if they are going to keep Whitney and Barton, respectively, offer them back to the Indians or see if they can make a trade with the Indians that would allow them to send Whitney and/or Barton to the minors. The Indians have already gone on record as saying they want Barton and Whitney back if they can get them. Still, although no one sees it, there is a lot of negotiation between the Indians, Nationals and Cardinals. The teams that drafted Barton and Whitney would like to keep them but they would have to give the Indians decent value to keep them IF they wanted to send these guys to the minors. Mark Shapiro has, recently, become a tough negotiator in those kinds of situations and so, if not kept by the team that drafted them, there is a good chance that both Barton and Whitney will come back to Cleveland, an organization that already has an excess of outfield and first base prospects at upper levels of the minors.

The first news comes on March 22nd and the Indians get an early Easter present when Matt Whitney is returned to them. Matt had a rough spring, hitting just .107 (3-28). His struggles were compounded by the Nationals having multiple veteran options at first base and also with other veterans who can sub at 1B if needed.

Matt was understandably disappointed but he reported right back to the Indians spring training facility and got right to work.

The Indians were happy to have Matt back and he will even get a promotion up to AA where he will play a little third base but mostly share 1B/DH responsibilities with Michael Aubrey, another first round pick whose career has been stalled by injuries. Ross Atkins, the Indians’ director of player development said that getting a Rule 5 selection back is sometimes creates an awkward situation but predicts that this won’t be the case with Whitney. Sometimes Rule 5 picks take it hard when they are returned to their former organization. First, there is the sense of returning to an organization that didn’t think enough of them to even put them on the 40-man roster. Second, if they are blocked at the major league level by established players they may feel that they are returning to an organization where they have no chance of making the majors. In some cases it can make them even think about giving up the dream. Recently, Cecil Cooper, currently the manager of the Houston Astros, said that he quit baseball for a couple of days after he found out that he was being returned to the Boston Red Sox after he failed to make the St. Louis Cardinals as a Rule 5 pick in the spring of 1971. His 17 year major league career started that same year with the Red Sox, a career in which he hit 241 homeruns. This initial disappointment, how the player handles it and what the player does in his first season after being picked in and returned from the Rule 5 draft can be what determines, to a large extent, if the returned Rule 5 draftee just becomes a career minor leaguer or goes on, like Cooper, to a successful major league career.

Meanwhile things are still going very well for Barton. “I am not even thinking about going back to Cleveland as there is no room for doubt in my mind at this point. My goal is to make the Cardinals big league team.” At this point Barton is hitting .327 (16-49) and has an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .994. The only person standing in Barton’s way for a roster spot now is Juan Gonzalez, the veteran outfielder who hasn’t played in 2 years and, at this point, is a long shot as he hasn’t played in over a week with an abdominal strain. If it means anything, the media in St. Louis have already given Barton a roster spot and indicated that if the Cardinals are really looking to develop young players it would contradictory to give a roster spot to a broken-down veteran like Gonzalez with the prospect of having to return Barton to Cleveland.

Decision Time, Part Deux

It is now Wednesday, March 26th and Brian Barton is told that he has made the opening day roster for the St. Louis Cardinals when he reports to camp that morning. He is so excited he wakes his mother up at 4 in the morning West Coast time. “I was really excited and happy when I found out,” said Barton. “I thought I had a good chance but there is always that anticipation when you are waiting for good news even though you are trying just to carry on with what you are doing.” Then, with his 7 am talk with Tony LaRussa still ringing in his ears, Brian is hit in the face with a pitch in Wednesday’s exhibition game. His face is bloody as he leaves the field with the help of the trainers. Barton recalled “It’s funny. The very first thing I thought was ‘Is my face cut?’ My first thought was about the cosmetics and not so much baseball. It wasn’t until later when it all sank in that I thought ‘Hey, I could have just had my dream of playing in the majors ended or really set back by this.’” It turns out, however, that the hit in the face was just a glancing blow, there isn’t even a welt and Brian was fine once they got his nose to quit bleeding. So a day that started out so great fortunately ended up just as good after his close facial encounter with a curveball. Brian Barton is a major leaguer and no one can take that away from him. He has his first game, his first hit, his first homerun and his first game-winning hit, among other firsts, to look forward to and the added benefit is that he gets to experience those things while playing in one of the best if not THE best baseball city in major leagues, St. Louis. Life, at this moment, is about as good as it could be for Brian Barton. The reality of it, however, is starting to sink in. “Today (Sunday) all the rookies had to get up and give a rookie speech. My heart was pounding and that was the first time I think it really hit me that this is real and I am really in the big leagues. I am going to try to stay calm tomorrow but I know I am going to be really excited to be in my first big league game.” Who wouldn’t be? Brian Barton is a big leaguer!

What’s Next?

For one player, the Rule 5 draft led to the fulfillment of his dreams of playing in the majors. The thought that Rule 5 draftees seldom have successful major league careers would never enter the mind of a player as confident as Brian Barton. He is just going to enjoy the moment and play as hard as he can and make his major league career last as long as it can. For the other player, Matt Whitney, it is back to the drawing board. Matt is a great guy who has been through a lot after his injury. “At this point, I am only looking forward” he says. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This, unfortunately, isn’t always the case for a Rule 5 draftee. However, like Cecil Cooper, Matt Whitney may go on to have a great career despite not being able to leverage the Rule 5 draft into a major league job. He is still young. His dream still has plenty of life left.

Article originally written by Dennis Nosco and reprinted with permission

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