26 January 2013

Major League Retreads in the International League -- A Comparison

Among the stories of the 2012 Orioles were the returns of outfielders Lew Ford and Nate McLouth from baseball oblivion. Having been declared washed up by most, if not all teams, Orioles GM Dan Duquette took low-risk gambles in signing them to midseason minor-league contracts. After performing well at Norfolk, they were promoted to Baltimore where they made contributions to the team's playoff run. Duquette received a lot of credit for finding Ford and McLouth. Less known is that Duquette took several other low-risk gambles that didn't pay off, at least in that the players didn't contribute much to the 2012 Orioles. So the question is — was Duquette lucky or exceptionally talented, at least in comparison to the other GMs? This article will look at the other teams with International League franchises to compare the Orioles and those other teams in their use of last-chance talent.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I've been skeptical of Dan Duquette as a GM since I saw him quoted as saying that one of the hardest things to find, always, is a backup catcher. Also, although I don't believe I've ever formally met him, I have been working in the Norfolk press box when Dan Duquette was visiting the Tides general manager and have overheard their conversations. There's a certain amount of subjectivity in a big-picture overview like this; and while I hope my biases don't affect my conclusions, they might and you should be aware of them.

For this article, I'm going to focus on players most generically like Ford and McLouth — once-successful major-league players who were signed as free agents after spring training. The term "successful" is somewhat nebulous. However, if I tried to come up with some arbitrary definition, there would almost certainly be a borderline candidate on one side or the other of the line. All of the players identified were either long-term major-leaguers or had been a regular player for at least one full season. Limiting the players to those signed after spring training eliminates players who may have been free agents waiting for the right offer, and ensures that all the players had been truly given up on.

Below are all the retread major league players, based on the above definition, on International League teams in 2012. Players who made a significant contribution to the big-league team are in bold.

Buffalo (New York Mets)—C.J. Nitkowski
Charlotte (Chicago White Sox—Conor Jackson, Jose Lopez, Dewayne Wise
Columbus (Cleveland)—J.C. Romero
Durham (Tampa Bay)—Hideki Matsui
Gwinnett (Atlanta)—Miguel Batista, Lyle Overbay
Indianapolis (Pittsburgh)—None
Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia)—Mike Fontenot, Jake Fox
Louisville (Cincinnati)—Joey Gathright, Will Ohman
Norfolk (Baltimore)—Lew Ford, Bill Hall, Nate McLouth, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Miguel Tejada
Pawtucket (Boston)—Nelson Figueroa, Scott Podsednik, Mark Prior
Rochester (Minnesota)—None
Scranton / Wilkes-Barre (New York Yankees)—Jason Bulger, Kosuke Fukudome, John Maine, Ramon Ortiz
Syracuse (Washington)—Koyie Hill, Mike Gonzalez, Mike MacDougal
Toledo (Detroit)—None

Teams with affiliates in the International League took chances on 29 established major-leaguers who were available free agents during the 2012 season. Four, or just about 14%, or nearly 1 in 7, proved to be of at least marginal value to the parent club. Since most of these players were signed to minor-league contracts, there is little risk in signing these players, so even a 1-in-7 chance of getting a useful player out of it might seem worthwhile.

The 2012 Orioles signed seven of these players during the season, as many as were signed by any two other teams combined. That should not come as a surprise. The Orioles' farm system did not really have a lot of major-league ready players in the higher levels. Several of the players they did have had failed in previous chances. When holes opened up at second base, left field, and in the starting rotation, there weren't obvious solutions at Norfolk and it made sense for them to take chances.

And of the four such players who made contributions to the major-league team, the Orioles signed two of them. That's nearly twice the "success" rate of the entire set of teams. There are several possible reasons for this:
  • Luck. Dan Duquette and the Orioles just stumbled upon the right players.
  • Skill: Dan Duquette and his staff spotted and signed the players who had the best chance of helping.
  • Safety in Numbers: By signing as many as they did, they increased their chances of finding players who could help not merely in total but as a percentage.
  • Opportunity: The Orioles gave more of their retreads a major-league chance, and so more of them had a real opportunity to contribute.
  • Bias: I either considered too many or too few players, or identifed too many or too few as contributors.
All of these reasons can be examined more closely, and that's a task for another researcher and/or another day. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, the Orioles did gamble on more last-chance players than other teams, and they were more successful with them.

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