Minor League deals can give careers late life
Non-guaranteed contracts give players another chance at bigs
R.A. Dickey was looking for an opportunity, a fourth chance.
The right-hander was 35 years old, which is not particularly old for a knuckleball pitcher, but he had let three previous chances in the Major Leagues slip away. This time, though, he knew he had better control of his pitch.
So Dickey signed a Minor League contract with the Mets heading in the 2009-10 offseason. He was assigned to Triple-A Buffalo, where he threw a one-hitter in late April (the leadoff batter singled, then he retired the next 27). Twenty days later, he took the mound in Washington for the Mets.
"It went well, and it needed to," Dickey said. "I was older and was one of those guys who was always kind of like a 4-A kind of guy, and it needed to go well. I had a good start to the Minor League season, there was a need at the big league level and I was able to step in and carry on that success I'd been having."
It's not exactly a Cinderella story, nor would many dare to call it a comeback. Minor League deals, which frequently come with an invitation to Spring Training and a shot at the big leagues, are a dime a dozen. But for players who already know what it's like to be a Major Leaguer, they can be humbling alternatives to previous lucrative contracts.
Why a Minor League deal? It's usually the only way to get on the field. Minor League contracts are not guaranteed, and players who sign them don't need to be on the 40-man roster. Teams offer them as a way to see if a player can contribute without having to take much risk.
"If you're a knuckleballer, you really don't have much room for pride, so I was already in a place of humility," Dickey said. "When it's bad, it can be really bad -- my six-home-run game [in 2006] tied a Major League record -- so it wasn't an ego thing for me. I was happy to have an opportunity. I felt like I knew what I could do, and just needed the opportunity to do it, and the Minor League contract allowed me that avenue."
Look around Spring Training camps and you'll see plenty of players like Dickey who are hoping to take advantage of a Minor League contract and either reclaim their place in the Majors or squeeze at least one more year out of their careers. Jamie Moyer with Colorado. Livan Hernandez with Houston. Juan Pierre with Philadelphia. Omar Vizquel with Toronto. Carlos Guillen and Kevin Millwood with Seattle.
"For the most part, I'm just getting my feet under me," Millwood, a 163-game winner, said this week as he prepared for what could be his 16th big league season. "I try to hit spots, spin a few breaking balls. I'm not trying to throw it through the catcher or throw as hard as I can. I'm just feeling my mechanics out and trying to throw the ball where I want to."
There is another class of players with such contracts who are hoping their deals will springboard them to longevity in the big leagues -- players like Darnell McDonald with Boston or Chris Denorfia with San Diego, who have briefly been regulars but haven't been able to stick in the Majors for any length of time.
Or consider Bartolo Colon last season in New York. The Yankees' rotation was full of holes, and Colon was able to help patch one of them as the Bronx Bombers went on to win the American League East. No, he didn't carry them, but the 38-year-old's eight wins and 164 1/3 innings were important contributions.
"When we went into [the 2011 season], we weren't sure how many innings we could get out of him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
For some teams, the risk vs. reward scenario pays off in their favor. The Mariners are hoping to see results from Millwood and Guillen similar to those that came from other Minor League signees in 2011. Adam Kennedy, Jamey Wright, Chris Ray, Luis Rodriguez and Ryan Langerhans all made the initial 25-man roster. Kennedy and Wright stuck with the team all year, and Ray and Rodriguez were on the roster for most of the season.
Can any players this year replicate past glory? Vizquel has 11 Gold Gloves and 2,841 career hits. Guillen, Moyer, Millwood and fellow Minor League signees Brad Hawpe (Texas), Vicente Padilla (Boston), Aaron Cook (Boston) and Aaron Rowand (Florida) have been an All-Star at least once each. Hernandez led the National League in innings in three successive seasons, from 2003-05, and he was the World Series MVP with the Marlins in 1997.
"Any time you get a chance to bring in an experienced Major League veteran, you've got to consider it," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said of Hernandez. "He brings a lot to us in terms of a veteran presence in the clubhouse and his ability to pitch a lot of innings and give our team a chance to stay in games, and that's really a big part of why we wanted to do it."
Dickey has made 57 more starts for the Mets since that first one in May 2010. He is projected to figure prominently into the Mets' 2012 starting rotation. He knows how much of his success can be traced back to the Minor League contract he signed with New York.
"Obviously, that's a given," Dickey said. "That year of 2010 is a really special year for me because a lot of things came together."