In hindsight, I looked like a genius. Mike Aviles had been up a week with the Kansas City Royals and had started twice, seven games apart. He was 27, too old for a prospect. He had been repeating his third stint at Triple-A when manager Trey Hillman called him up to bat ninth May 29, 2008. Aviles responded by going 0-for-3 with a strikeout. The next six games Aviles sat on the bench, watching as Tony F. Pena, Esteban German and Alberto Callaspo took turns at shortstop.
On June 6, I compiled my list of players I would bid on that day in our monthly free agent auction. With $100 to spend all year, I cast my net widely and cheaply. I targeted a couple of power arms in bullpens, Grant Balfour and Jose Arrendondo. I picked up prospects who had gone undrafted in auction day: Michael Saunders, Peter Bourjos, Ryan Perry and Trevor Cahill. I picked up South Carolina Gamecock Justin Smoak before the major league draft. And I picked up Aviles, a guy no one in my league had heard of, and just to be sure I got him, I bid $2.
The night of our free agent auction, Mike Aviles had started for the second time in a week, picking up two hits in three at-bats and scoring a run. It would be July before Hillman would declare him the starting shortstop for the remainder of the season. I’d love to say I saw that coming. But the truth is, while I thought he might hit if given the chance, that was not the primary reason I bid on Aviles. No, my primary motivation was something altogether different and something any Royals fan could relate to.
Tony F. Pena Jr. was my starting fantasy shortstop.
Pena was hitting .155 as of the end of the day June 6. It was an empty .155: He had six walks on the season, two of those intentional, and none since May 5; five extra-base hits and no home runs. In short, he was hitting like a pitcher, a condition that would prove prophetic.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in the matter of how the heck I ended up with Pena in the first place, I plead temporary insanity. I had earlier that year inherited a fantasy club called the Brady Bunch that had never finished in the money and whose roster was devoid of any semblance of a well-valued hitter. Pena had hit .267 with 47 RBIs the previous year, his first full season in the majors, and with a salary of only $1, he seemed a capable third middle infielder so I made him a—shudder—keeper. And if you don’t buy that excuse, please allow me to give each of you an envelope on which you will write your name and address. My assistant will be collecting the envelopes—she’s the one with the fat checkbook. What’s that, your honor, what am I doing? Creating reasonable doubt.
Back to June 6, 2008. I was desperate to replace Pena in my lineup. More importantly, I knew—no, I felt—how desperate Hillman was to replace Pena in his lineup. Back then, amazing as it seems, the Royals were seen as up-and-comers. In 2007, they had won 13 more games than they had in 2005. Alex Gordon was not yet a synonym for prospect bust. Gil Meche could still throw. Mediocrity was around the corner. And Pena was standing in the way.
That’s why I picked up Aviles. I knew that even a 27-year-old non-prospect would get a chance to play. And even if he did not, a dead spot in my lineup would be a relief after two months of Pena.
That experience reinforced a lesson I try to follow: Get in the head of every manager and general manager in major league baseball. Trust me, in the case of Hillman and a number of others, there’s lots of room.
So where should you be looking in 2010? Start with Seattle, where a slow 11-19 start and an abysmal offense led the Mariners hierarchy on Sunday to fire hitting coach Alan Cockrell. General Manager Jack Zduriencik expects to win this year. Milton Bradley has been relegated to playing board games and Eric Byrnes to playing softball in Menlo Park, Calif., for a team sponsored by a local bar, The Dutch Goose. Left field is there for the taking, so much so there’s an audition for a prospect who opened to bad reviews last year and struggled this year at Triple-A, Michael Saunders.
There is much to like and dislike about Saunders. He’s shown flashes of power and speed, is a superior athlete, has long been regarded a strong prospect and he grew up in a hockey town, which is just the sort of guy you want around to liven up the occasional baseball brawl. He also has never fully realized his power or speed potential and has struggled, at times, with plate discipline. In one way he is the anti-Aviles, who was all production, no potential.
Aviles was drafted the seventh round of the 2003 MLB draft and signed to a whopping $1,000 bonus—the Royals, to save money, drafted five college seniors that year in rounds five through nine and signed them to $1,000 bonuses. Scouts doubted he could stick at shortstop and he was too old and too short to be taken seriously. He hit well in all but one minor league season but was stuck at Triple-A and destined to be a utility infielder until fate and Pena intervened.
I may like the Oakland As Michael Taylor or the Tampa Bay Rays’ Desmond Jennings more, but Saunders has one trait the other two lack for now: An organization desperate to find an outfielder who can hit his weight.
The pitching parallel right now can be found in Baltimore, where Orioles manager Dave Tremblay has seen Jim Johnson fall by the wayside. Alfredo Simon has gotten he early saves but a dark horse is Koji Uehara.