All the pieces of the formula appear to be there. You have a veteran reliever who has experienced success in the past. He features an effective fastball and a pair of excellent secondary pitches, a slider and a changeup. And finally, he’s available at extremely low price after a few bad years. He features an attitude problem, but that’s not something the Rays have shied away from. So is he worth a shot? Who knows, but the Rays would have to consider him, right?
The pitcher we’re talking about (if the title didn’t give it away) is Ugueth Urbina. Urbina, who will turn 39 in February, had a nice big league career from 1995 to 2005, saving 237 games while pitching to a 3.45 ERA (128 ERA+), a 10.5 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 583 appearances and 697.1 IP. Where he has he been since then? In a jail in Venezuela. Urbina was convicted for attempted murder after reportedly attacking five workers with a machete and pouring gasoline on them in an attempt to set them on fire because he believed they had stolen a gun from him. The whole situation is pretty sketchy, but the bottom line is that Urbina was in jail for the last 5 years and 9 months before getting out a few days ago on parole. The craziest thing may be that Urbina reportedly can still reach 90 MPH with his fastball after pitching with the prison baseball team during his time in the jail. (He also sponsored the team using the millions he made from his big league career and actually kept his charity going during his jail time.)
What in the world are we supposed to make of Urbina right now? Well, he used to be a good pitcher, he went to jail, and now he thanks his lucky stars (or whatever the Venezuelan equivalent is) that he’s out of jail. (Seriously, he was supposed to get a 14-year jail sentence and got out after 5 years and 9 months. How does that make any sense?) He also may be getting set to play some Winter Ball as his customary Winter Ball team, the Leones del Caracas, are willing to welcome him back, saying that he has “served his debt to society.” Maybe Urbina goes back for one game, gets pummeled, and wishes any dreams of a big league return goodbye. But what if his fastball really does still hit 90 MPH and his slider to righties and changeup to lefties remain swing-and-miss pitches as well? Could teams possibly pursue him?
Before we even talk about Urbina returning to the major leagues, he would have to secure a US work visa. Good luck to him with that- look how much trouble Roberto Hernandez had securing a visa even though all he did was fake his identity! The good news is that we (most likely) know Urbina’s true age and identity, but of course the US is not going to just nod their heads as a felon convicted for a serious crime waltzes into their county to play baseball. Even if he did, would anyone possibly give him a chance? If it would be anyone, it would be the Rays. Obviously you have to a draw a line between attitude problems and legitimate crimes, but this is the team that signed Matt Bush despite his DUI arrests and didn’t officially severe ties with him until months after he was put on trial for driving drunk with a suspended license and hitting and severely injuring a motorcyclist (although there was likely a procedural reason for that). They also just signed Hernandez this offseason after he was found to have a false identity. That being said, though, the Rays signing Urbina is almost assuredly isn’t going to happen and if they did, it would be the craziest thing they have ever done. But wait a second- it isn’t impossible to picture it happening, is it?
Can Rays fans be OK with the fact that seeing the Rays sign an ex-con isn’t out of the realm of possibility? In fact, they already did, acquiring right-hander Josh Lueke, who spent time behind bars after pleading down a rape accusation into a lesser charge! Isn’t there some alarm going off in your head right now? How can we let this happen? But at the same time, who are we to say these players don’t deserve second chances? We live in a society where the employment of ex-convicts is commended. Why should baseball players be any different? All the Rays are doing is conducting due diligence on players no matter their backgrounds in order to find success in a baseball landscape where they can’t afford to turn a player away if he can improve their team. Also, the Rays aren’t selfishly signing these types of players and exposing the public to danger in the process- they’re providing the players with an environment where they can reform their lives and work with them as much as they can to put whatever problems they had experienced in the past. If Urbina proves himself once again on the baseball diamond and the United States deems him worthy of a work visa to return to the US, who are the Rays to say that he doesn’t deserve a tryout? You can rip the Rays for signing players with troubled pasts (like the family of the victim in the Bush case did), but you would still have to commend them for their willingness to give players a second chance to get their lives together. The chances of the Rays signing Ugueth Urbina are extremely small- but the possibility of it happening is not the worst thing in the world, and under the right lens it may even be a positive reflection of the Rays as an organization.