Putting The Spotlight, For Once, On The MLB Journeyman

  • Monday, March 14, 2011 8:11 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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“He’s a true baseball vagabond, and with his thick horseshoe mustache and accompanying soul patch, you could almost picture him riding a Harley from one stop to the next, wandering into a new parking lot each night, offering his services for the game."

-- NBCSports.com’s Bob Harkins on Reds catcher Corky Miller, in one part of a recent six-article series about players’ roads to the big leagues.

“Baseball vagabond” is an awesome term and a cooler way of describing someone as a journeyman – a guy who has hung around on the fringes of the major leagues for a long time, for many different teams, without really establishing himself.

In fact, Miller is probably the exemplar of this category of ballplayer, considering that he has appeared in just 199 games since making his MLB debut in 2001. But even if nobody else can match Miller’s potent combination of awesome name, awesome facial hair and eternal 25th-man ceiling, baseball is loaded with similar types.

Here is a look at MLB’s journeymen, a group I defined as active players who are at least 10 years removed from their debuts, have played for at least five teams, have never made an all-star team and have a little je ne sais quoi.

The sturdy backstops
There is a reason Crash Davis was a catcher. Same goes for Miller. Because of the emphasis on skills like throwing out base-stealers, blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers, guys who can’t hit a lick can hang around forever as backups at the position.

Miller is the ultimate journeyman catcher, but props also go to Henry Blanco, aka Hank White, who got up for a brief cup of coffee with the Dodgers in 1997 and has since played for seven other teams. He can make it eight this season assuming he sticks with the Diamondbacks. Blanco sports a career OPS+ of 67 but has made a living on his sterling defensive reputation.

The Swiss Army knives
Catchers are not the only players who can survive on the margins of big-league rosters without the benefit of generating offense. Guys who can fill in around the diamond, especially in the middle infield, are in the same camp.

Look no further than someone like Miguel Cairo, who has played for nine clubs since debuting in 1996 without staying put for more than three years at a time. A classic Tony La Russa favorite for his versatility while with the Cardinals, Cairo has played everywhere except centerfield and catcher in his career while averaging 264 plate appearances per year. Cairo has posted a 77 OPS+ but enjoyed one of his better campaigns last season, at age 36, for the Reds.

Other players in this group include Juan Castro, Chris Woodward, Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston, Jr.

The Corner Bats
There are a handful of corner infield/outfield types who fit the journeyman label, but it’s a bit of a heterogeneous group. You’ve got the ultimate journeyman (in terms of career travels) in professional hitter Matt Stairs, who is on his record 13th team this season. Stairs has a career OPS+ of 118 and five seasons of at least 450 plate appearances but has been mostly a part-time player and pinch-hitter despite his enduring ability to hit the cover off the ball.

Nobody else in this group can match Stairs’ quantity (of uniforms) or quality (of play). Fernando Tatis gave me my coolest I-saw-it-in-person baseball moment when he hit a record two grand slams in one inning off Chan Ho Park at a game at Dodger Stadium in 1999. That was his only season with both 400 plate appearances and a 100 OPS+, and he didn’t play in the majors in 2004, 2005 or 2007. Ross Gload has -0.3 career WAR. Xavier Nady only technically belongs on this list, having made one MLB plate appearance in 2000 after being drafted out of Cal-Berkeley and not appearing in another game until 2003.

The Big-Time Prospect Who Turned Out Not To Be Nothing At All Like The Next Griffey But Who Has Managed To Cling To A Career Anyways
Corey Patterson

The Crafty Lefties
It is well known that after the apocalypse comes and wipes us all from this mortal coil, all that will remain will be the cockroach and the LOOGY. These guys manage to find a job every year (often with a new team) because everyone needs an antidote to all of the hard-hitting lefty batters out there. Will Ohman, Ron Mahay, Joe Beimel, Ron Villone, Dennys Reyes, Trever Miller and Darren Oliver all fit the journeyman label. In the realm of starters, ageless wonder Jamie Moyer probably has too accomplished a career to be a journeyman, but Bruce Chen has managed to pitch for 10 big-league clubs since 1998 while excelling at being extremely forgettable.

The Guys Who Keep Going Despite Throwing From The Not-So-Sinister Side
Octavio Dotel and LaTroy Hawkins (a combined 192 for 289 or 66.4% in save opportunities) stick around as set-up guys/closer fallback plans. I can’t really think of anything to say about David Riske or Scott Linebrink. Guys like Rodrigo Lopez, Nelson Figueroa and the incomparable Elmer Dessens always make you go, “That guy is STILL playing?!” And somehow, they are.

Their journey continues …

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