Undrafted players make best of opportunities
Herrmann, Barajas, Nava took unlikely path to the Majors
CLEVELAND -- The call came in to the Cleveland Indians' bullpen earlier this month, and out popped Frank Herrmann, entrusted with a late one-run lead against the Red Sox.
It's the kind of call that never came for Herrmann on Draft day.
Herrmann recorded the hold in that 8-7 victory over Boston and has helped calm an erratic Indians bullpen in his short time in the Major Leagues. But the fact that he's even at this level is success, in and of itself.
When Herrmann was ready to begin his professional career five years ago, Major League organizations didn't make the call. More than 1,500 players were selected in the First-Year Player Draft that year, and Herrmann wasn't one of them.
"It's not like the NBA Draft with two rounds or the NFL with seven," Herrmann said. "Fifty rounds? It's tough to miss somebody."
But Herrmann is just one of many over the years who somehow slipped through the cracks.
An untraditional path
Each year, when the MLB Draft is held, we are reminded what an inexact science it is. Some players get passed over because of signability concerns, while others are judged not ready for the Majors.
Residents of the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and any other U.S. territory who have not previously signed a professional baseball contract are eligible for the Draft, as are non-residents attending high school or college in the U.S. Players previously selected who instead enrolled in a four-year college become eligible again after their junior year or when they turn 21.
From that wide-ranging field of eligible talent, 1,525 picks were made in the 50-round Draft earlier this month.
But beyond that group of 1,525, dozens of other ballplayers who were eligible will sign with a Major League club in the coming weeks and months, plucked from independent leagues or from among those players not drafted. And if history is any indication, some of them will have a shot at the show.
That's the path once traveled by the likes of Larry Parrish, Dan Quisenberry, Kevin Mitchell, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Leyritz, Mike Bordick and Kevin Millar, among others. It's a path Dodgers reliever George Sherrill knows well.
Sherrill went undrafted after graduating from Austin Peay State University. Uninterested in job-hunting, he instead signed on as a starting pitcher with Evansville in the independent Frontier League in 1999. His contract was purchased by Sioux Falls in the Northern League in 2001 and by Winnipeg in the same league in 2002. His numbers began to improve dramatically when Sioux Falls manager Doc Edwards slotted him into the back of the bullpen, and Major League scouts began to take notice.
Undrafted Major Leaguers
|Daniel Nava||OF||Red Sox|
And his career took off. Sherrill posted a 0.33 ERA in what remained of that '03 season at Double-A San Antonio. In '04, he was selected to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team while pitching for Triple-A Tacoma. He was at the All-Star banquet luncheon when he got the call to the Bigs.
Six years later, Sherrill has compiled more than 300 appearances in the Majors and earned nearly $9 million along the way.
"I definitely wouldn't trade paths with anybody," he said. "It's just kind of part of who you are and what makes you who you are, so I wouldn't change a thing."
Gaps in scouting
Relievers like Herrmann and Sherrill appear to have the best chance of overcoming the odds. The unpredictability of Major League bullpens leads teams to always be looking for that next arm that can help.
But relievers aren't the only ones who have overcome the stigma of going undrafted.
"These guys that slip through, there's probably not a common denominator," said John Mirabelli, the scouting director for the Indians. "That's probably why they slip through. Sometimes, there's an injury factor or [a lack of] playing time. In a lot of cases, it's just exposure. We can't be everywhere. We try to have all our bases covered, but we can't."
New England and the upper Midwest are considered two areas of the country that often get overlooked by scouts. It comes down to a numbers game. The largest percentages of drafted players who reach the Major Leaguers come from Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and California, where the sport can be played year-round. So that's where scouts devote the bulk of their attention.
"There's potential value [in New England and the upper Midwest]," Mirabelli said. "It just takes one guy to make it to the big leagues and be a productive player to make the investment worthwhile. But because of the demographics and the weather and the overall numbers, those two areas get short-changed more than any others."
And though the Draft certainly covers a lot of ground over the course of 50 rounds, it's not quite as expansive as it once was. The MLB Draft, when instituted in 1965, included three phases -- a June Draft for high school graduates and college players, a January draft for winter graduates and a late-summer draft for amateur summer league players.
By 1986, the Draft had been scaled down to the single-phase model currently in use. But until 1998, teams could select players for as many rounds as was deemed necessary. In 1996, the high-water mark was reached when 100 rounds were used and 1,738 players were taken.
Two years later, the league began limiting the Draft to 50 rounds. So post-draft signings of undrafted talent have become more common in the past dozen years.
Of course, none of the above helps to explain why a California kid like Rod Barajas went unpicked in the 87-round 1995 Draft.
Barajas attended Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, Calif., and put up solid numbers as a catcher for the school's baseball team. He had opportunities to move on to a Division I school for his junior year, but his heart was set on going pro.
Alas, the Draft came and went, and Barajas went unpicked.
"I was pretty down," he said. "I had always performed in junior college. Being a catcher and always hearing how tough it is to find good catching, I kind of figured I would get picked somewhere."
Barajas signed on for another semester at Cerritos, his big league dreams looking further from reach. But one day he learned of a tryout the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks were holding to fill the Class A California League team they shared with the Tigers.
"I showed up, and they had us run, which didn't go too well," Barajas recalled, smiling. "But then they had us catch, throw, hit, all that kind of stuff. I think I'm 20 at this time, and pretty much everybody else there had already been released from other organizations. I'm looking at these guys, thinking, 'How did they have the opportunity to play pro ball, and I haven't gotten a chance?'"
Barajas would get his chance. The next day, a scout from the D-backs offered him a contract. No signing bonus. No promises. Just a spot on a professional roster.
"It was basically just rental players for the season," Barajas said. "When the season was over, we were going to be gone."
Barajas was used sparingly at Visalia, but he showed the coaches something with his batting-practice sessions and his work with pitchers in the bullpen. Upon the urging of the Visalia staff, the D-backs moved him to their Pioneer League team, where he became the starting catcher and batted .337 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs in 51 games. He spent the next two seasons in the High-A California League.
"From then on," Barajas said, "I went from no-name to prospect. I was on the radar screen."
Now, Barajas, the Mets' regular behind the plate, is in his 12th Major League season. He's played in more than 850 games, won a World Series and made more than $12 million.
And each year, when the Draft comes, he remembers being passed over.
"When you look at the Draft and the talent, you look at the guys who can run and throw and have all those tools," Barajas said. "But it's hard to look at the most important tool, and that's desire. Drive. The heart to play this game. That was something I don't think anybody could have seen. When it came to baseball, my mind was like a sponge. All the information I got, I stored.
"That's a part of the game that's hard to scout, the people who love the game and have the desire to give their best every single day."
Undaunted... and a little lucky
Daniel Nava had that desire.
Even when he was a mere equipment manager, not a player, at Santa Clara University, he believed in his abilities as a ballplayer. He transferred to juco at College of San Mateo and played two seasons, then transferred back to Santa Clara for his senior year, this time as a player.
After graduation, Nava latched on with the only team that would give him a chance, the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League. He won the league's MVP honor in 2007, and the Red Sox were watching. They bought his contract for a buck.
That $1 investment paid off June 12, when Nava became just the second player in MLB history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw in the Major Leagues. His father, Don, was in attendance for that magical moment at Fenway Park and recalled how far Daniel, who weighed just 70 pounds his freshman year of high school, had come.
"I thought back to Little League," Don Nava said. "You think of all the people that said he was too small, too slow, couldn't throw, can't hit with power and all the naysayers -- but he was not going to be denied. He doesn't have a girlfriend. He's focused on one thing, and that's playing baseball and playing to the best of his ability. I've never doubted him, ever. I looked at his heart, not what his size was."
For the undrafted, heart is a prerequisite. As is patience and perseverance. But don't forget good fortune.
After all, Nava wouldn't have been on the Red Sox roster or in the lineup that day had the club not traded Jonathan Van Avery back to the Pirates a week earlier or sent prospect Josh Reddick down to Triple-A for more seasoning.
Sometimes such breaks come at the lower levels, as Herrmann can attest.
After finishing up an injury-plagued junior year at Harvard in 2005, Herrmann received no attention in the Draft and was looking into internships in investment banking. But when he learned of a new summer league in Hawaii, the lure of pursuing a professional path in the tropics was too good to pass up.
"I really wanted to try to pursue this at a time where I was 21 or 22, as opposed to 23 or 24," Herrmann said, "because age means a lot in the Minor Leagues."
An Indians scout took notice of Herrmann and offered him a contract in August. The following spring, Herrmann reported to Spring Training camp, firmly expecting to begin the season in the loathsome existence that is extended spring.
"It was me and a bunch of 17- or 18-year-old Latin guys in one room," Herrmann said. "I spent one day in extended spring. Then somebody got hurt, and on the second or third day of the season, I was at [Class A] Lake County."
And with that break, he was on the proper path to the Bigs. Herrmann converted to relief work last year and made his Major League debut earlier this month. He's quickly become one of manager Manny Acta's go-to options in late relief.
Herrmann is just one of many who slipped through the Draft cracks, only to climb his way out.
"As an undrafted free agent, you need a little more than just to produce," Herrmann said. "You need a little bit of luck, too."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. He blogs about baseball at CastroTurf MLB.com reporter Ian Browne and associate reporter Matt Brown contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.