It is always sad when the Tampa Bay Rays need to get rid of a player. For some, like Grant Balfour, he has to wonder whether his successful career has reached the end of the line. For minor leaguers like Mikey O’Brien, meanwhile, they can’t know how many more chances they are going to get. There are always a multiplicity of questions following a release or trade, and several Rays will need to answer them for themselves in the coming days and weeks.
Grant Balfour was doing fine at Triple-A Durham. He registered a 2.79 ERA in 9.2 innings pitched, striking out 11 while walking 4. When a major leaguer puts up numbers like that on a rehab assignment, his team knows that he is ready to return. For Balfour, however, his numbers did not matter nearly as much as the stuff he was using to record them. His fastball was still more 90-91 MPH than 93-94. He didn’t show the arsenal to be an effective major league pitcher, especially given that command was never his strong suit.
It would have been something if Balfour had come back to the Rays after heading to the minors. If he had returned to the Rays, resumed their closer role, and led them to the World Series, it would have been the stuff of movies. We always knew, however, that the likely outcome was that Balfour’s minor league stint would just delay the inevitable. Balfour’s two-year, $12 million deal was only better than Pat Burrell‘s two-year deal because the Rays paid $4 million less. Despite Balfour’s best intentions, he simply didn’t have it anymore after joining the Rays.
Right after Mikey O’Brien was released by the Rays, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. That is the dream scenario–to have another team immediately show interest–and for O’Brien, it wasn’t the first time the Orioles had come calling. O’Brien had been a minor league signing by Baltimore last November before the Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. It can’t be a surprise, then, that the Orioles gave O’Brien a chance shortly after he became available again.
However, even after a scoreless first appearance with Baltimore’s Double-A Bowie affiliate, O’Brien has just a 5.47 ERA this season. You have to go back to 2012 for the last time he managed an ERA under 4.00 in any season. O’Brien is a short right-hander with middling stuff. He doesn’t have the profile that makes teams ooh and aah. The Orioles gave him a chance, but he doesn’t want to think about what will happen if he can’t turn around his season. He may feel even luckier about joining the Orioles so quickly after his next free agency experience.
The Rays really did everything they could with Zach Cooper. They signed him after he had been released by the Philadelphia Phillies because they saw two promising pitches, his mid-90’s fastball and his slider. Even after he managed a 5.92 ERA in 22 High-A appearances, they sent him to the Arizona Fall League and gave him another chance to establish himself. He failed, and now he is gone. Will another team take a gamble on him like the Rays did?
It is crazy how many pitchers with great stuff can’t get out of the minors. Cooper’s issue is, like most of them, horrific command. He walked 4.4 batters per 9 innings at High-A, but that is nothing compared to his 9-19 strikeout to walk ratio in 24.1 innings between the AFL and Double-A. However, it isn’t as though Cooper doesn’t have the talent to make the major leagues. Could he forgive himself for giving up knowing that maybe the next organization might have fixed him? The next step for Cooper may be Independent ball if the answer to that question is “no.”
Minor league baseball can be so fun to watch, but being a fan favorite at A-ball often has little correlation with having a successful career. Alexander Simon came up with some clutch hits for the Bowling Green Hot Rods. His .281 batting averaged ranked fifth on the team while his 49 RBI were third. He was a nice story after never having played above Rookie ball, and he came away with a solid season. However, Simon finds himself with the Chicago White Sox after the Rays sent him there in exchange for cash considerations. He simply wasn’t good enough for the Rays.
It was clear that Simon didn’t have a place in the Tampa Bay Rays organization anymore. The Rays had 2014 first rounder Casey Gillaspie at first base at Low-A and trade acquisition Jake Bauers at High-A. They didn’t have time for a long shot, even one coming off a decent year. They tried Simon in the outfield at High-A, but after just five games, they decided to end the experiment.
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The probability was low that Simon would hold his own at Bowling Green, but he managed to do so anyway. Maybe he has another gear in him that the White Sox can bring out. We don’t have to say that the Rays don’t like Simon as they send him away from only organization he has ever known. Their actions have given him a chance for additional playing time and a better opportunity to continue pursuing his dream. It’s a pity, however, how the numbers game can stop underdog stories before they start. Even when a team believes in a player, factors out of his control may whisk him away nonetheless.
Tampa Bay Rays baseball will certainly go on without these four players. Perhaps it is better that they are gone–stepping into their playing time are prospects with more potential. Even so, every professional baseball player is living a dream, and you never want to see that dream begin to wind down. They will have stories to tell years down the line, just as we told a little bit here, but they are hoping for just a couple more years that they can discuss. Only the successful players remain in our consciousness as we forget about almost everyone who fell short.