Some fringe players persevere, become stars
Hard work, coming to terms with own talent can lead to higher level of success
On any given day, there are only 750 roster spots available for Major League players. Thirty teams, 25 men each. Take away the pitchers and you're down to somewhere around 400 or even fewer. It's a select group. You've got to earn it. Sometimes that takes years. It's almost impossible, they'll tell you.
That's one way to look at it, of course. The other way is to see 400 chances. Four hundred opportunities. Four hundred openings for position players with certain skill sets, certain leadership qualities, certain tools that can become keys to winning teams if they happen to shine at the right time and in the right place.
Just look around and you'll see plenty of players who have persevered to make themselves staples on their team's roster. Not all of them were super prospects who came to fruit in their early 20s, which scouts and pundits will say is necessary for bona fide long-term success. Many of them were your classic late bloomers.
Chris Davis is one. Everyone knew the Orioles slugger had the physical tools to succeed. He's 6-foot-3, weighs 230 pounds and if you've seen a minute of his batting-practice sessions, you know how far he can hit a baseball. The Rangers liked him enough to select him in the fifth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, but then a logjam settled in front of him.
There was Justin Smoak. There was Mitch Moreland. There was Mike Napoli. And after the Rangers toyed with the idea of moving Davis to third, they went out and signed Adrian Beltre. Davis struck out too much -- 150 times in 391 at-bats in 2009 and 63 times in 199 at-bats in '11 -- and it seemed as though each whiff would get him closer to being sent back to Triple-A, clearing the way for the next hot prospect in the Texas system. Finally, the Rangers had seen enough, and they orchestrated the July 2011 trade that sent Davis and pitcher Tommy Hunter to Baltimore for reliever Koji Uehara.
Davis is a fixture in Baltimore's lineup now, though. And although he still strikes out a lot (169 times last year), the Orioles understand that's his game. Davis will miss balls, but when he doesn't miss them, he really doesn't miss them. He hit 33 homers last year, his first season of more than 400 at-bats (he had 515), and this year he's been one of the hottest hitters, with American League-leading 11 homers and a Major League-leading 1.067 OPS entering Thursday's action.
The difference, Davis said, was a simple adjustment: peace of mind.
"It means a lot, knowing I'm going to be in the lineup every day, whether it's DHing, playing the outfield, playing first," Davis said. "It's big. Whenever you struggle at a young age and you constantly worry about whether you're going to be in there the next day, it puts a lot of pressure on you to go out and perform that day. It's been huge for me to come over here and play every day, and to do so on a winning team."
Brandon Moss shares that attitude. He was used to not living up to expectations as a power hitter since being drafted by the Red Sox in 2002 and never getting more than 236 big league at-bats in a season through the 2008. In '09, he got his first real shot, having ended up with the Pirates in the three-team 2008 Trade Deadline deal that sent Manny Ramirez from Boston to the Dodgers.
Moss got 385 at-bats for Pittsburgh in 2009 and didn't do a whole lot with them. He wound up a free agent after 2010 and struggled to find himself in a brief stint in the Phillies organization in '11.
"There were confidence issues just in knowing who I was as a player," said the 29-year-old Moss. "I knew that I did not succeed in the big leagues and I had to figure out why. When you're struggling, you've got people coming at you from every direction, and you can take it one way or the other. You can try not listening to anybody and trusting only yourself and what you're doing, or you can try every little bit of what everybody else is saying. I always went with what everyone else thought."
They told him to flatten his bat angle, to choke up, to close his stance, to go the other way.
By the time Oakland plucked him off the free-agent scrap heap in December 2011, he had undergone a simple transition.
"Just being myself," Moss said with a smile. "I'm a pull hitter who strikes out a lot. I always struck out a lot. I don't have an approach in me to not strike out a lot. But if teams can't take the bad with the good, there will never be a good, because they'd always focus on what I couldn't do."
Moss hit 21 homers in 265 at-bats with Oakland last year while striking out 90 times. But he batted .291 with a .954 OPS, and already has six homers and a .787 OPS as an A's regular this year.
"I've realized who I am as a hitter and I accepted it," he said. "I decided that I would be who I am for the rest of my career."
You can find players like Moss almost everywhere you look. There's Omar Infante with Detroit, Marco Scutaro with San Francisco and many more. Twenty-six-year-old Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders might be one of them, too.
The Mariners always liked Saunders' frame (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), power potential and speed, but his offensive approach was not working in multiple tries at the big league level from 2009-11.
"I'd see guys sometimes half my size who were hitting the ball sometimes twice as far as me, consistently putting up 25 homers a year, and I started wondering, 'How do these guys do it and I don't?' Saunders said.
Then Saunders, who grew up in Canada and has been a World Baseball Classic teammate and friend of Reds star Joey Votto for years, got an indelible piece of advice from his heralded countryman that seemed so simple.
"Joey basically flat-out told me to stop comparing yourself to everybody else," Saunders said. "Try to be the best Michael Saunders you can be. God made you who you are, and if you're not a 30-home-run guy, don't try to be. If you're not a 30-stolen-base guy, don't try to be. Just try to be the best version of yourself that you can be."
Saunders listened, worked on his mental approach, retooled his swing with a private hitting coach in the winter of 2011 and resurfaced last year with a breakout campaign (19 homers, 21 stolen bases) that has made him a regular in the Mariners lineup and outfield. He knows he still needs to improve, but, like all the late bloomers who are starting to flourish around the big leagues these days, he has one thing in his back pocket: he knows he belongs at this level.
"Now it's about playing until they take the jersey off your back," Saunders said. "Thankfully I didn't give them a reason to take it off early."