Last offseason, we heard stories of teams continuously claiming players off waivers only to designate them for assignment again in an attempt to sneak them through to their Triple-A affiliate. The result was that several players, such as Casper Wells and Mickey Storey, ended up in DFA limbo as they bounced from team to team. It is tough from the players’ standpoints, but it will keep happening because teams love having additional depth at Triple-A that is not on their 40-man roster. Options no longer matter, and only if a need arises or a player proves himself deserving does he need to take up a roster spot. But that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. So far this offseason, the Rays have made two waiver claims: Jerry Sands and Pedro Figueroa. Both have now been designated for assignment, with Sands leaving in favor of Figueroa and Figueroa departing yesterday to clear room for Grant Balfour. Are the Rays simply the latest team to abuse the system?
One thing to note about the Rays designating Sands and Figueroa for assignment is that the Rays did not let either one go until acquiring another player necessitated a move. There was always going to be a chance that they made the team. Sands was a right-handed outfielder who would compete with Brandon Guyer for the fourth outfielder role. The lefty Figueroa, meanwhile, would compete with Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, and Jeff Beliveau for the last spot in the Rays bullpen. His odds were long, especially because he had an option remaining, but he also has the best stuff of any pitcher in that group. The Rays saw the possibility for depth and upside and deemed that each move was worth it at the time. But then circumstances change. When the Rays claimed Sands, they had a 40-man roster spot open and did not need to make a corresponding move. However, a lefty with an electric arm in Figueroa became available, and suddenly that spot to play with was gone. Then the Rays had the opportunity to sign Balfour, and they certainly weren’t going to let a player like Figueroa stand in their way. The Rays didn’t sign either player saying “let’s claim him and then try sneak him through waivers.” Instead, they made each decision in a vacuum, and sometimes outcomes like this transpire.
The other argument to defend the Rays is that neither Jerry Sands nor Pedro Figueroa is really a “major league player.” While Storey flashed dominance in his 26 relief appearances for the Houston Astros in 2012 and Wells had been a strong backup for parts of three seasons, Figueroa had walked more batters than he had struck out in his 24 big league games and Sands had logged just 24 big league plate appearances the previous two years. You can respond that the distinction between a “major league player” and a player a notch below is arbitrary, but neither player projects to be much of a contributor in the majors this coming season. The Rays showed enough faith in them to claim them, but they both have work to do. Especially if Sands is out of options, heading to Triple-A and reestablishing himself after a rough 2013 could be much better for his future outlook then bouncing around from team to team. 40-man roster spots will open up, and if he plays well enough, he will see time with the Rays this season after he passed through waivers. In Figueroa’s case, he has an option, but not utilizing it will make him a more valuable commodity if he does indeed figure out where his pitches are going. If a team claims Figueroa, good for him, but the best thing for him could be to keep his option and get back on a 40-man roster when he is ready to contribute to a big league bullpen. There is a good chance he will pass through waivers as well, and that could be a win-win situation.
The Rays call up more players not on their 40-man roster than most other teams. Last season, we knew all along that Jamey Wright would make the team after being signed to a minor league deal, but who would have guessed that Delmon Young, Shelley Duncan, and Jason Bourgeois would also see big league time? Then on the prospect front, there was Kevin Kiermaier, who was only added to the 40-man roster before Game 163. Everyone wants to be on the 40-man roster and be in the major leagues, but being on the outside looking in to begin the year is far from the worst thing. What really matters is that your team believes in you, and that is the case for the Rays regarding Jerry Sands and Pedro Figueroa. Getting designated for assignment can’t possibly be an enjoyable experience, but when it is the best thing for the team and quite possibly the player as well, it is a reality everyone just has to deal with.