Its amazing how quickly men grow old in the sports world. Look, for instance, for the stars of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series Champions today, and outside of Cole Hamels maintaining his All-Star quality stuff with the Texas Rangers, its hard to keep track of who is even still playing. In fact, as of this writing, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are still looking for teams to sign with for 2017 as they near their retirement, Shane Victorino’s agent is reporting he is mulling over an offer from an unnamed team after a year out of MLB, and Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins are with their fourth franchise in four seasons and third franchise in two seasons respectively (for more on that, read below).
As youth increasingly dominates the landscape of the sport with names like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and many many more, and with the sport finally moving on from the steroid era that saw players dominate well into their late thirties, once prominent stars are seemingly disappearing quicker and quicker. And yet, there are many names out there still fighting for a roster spot, or, in some cases, still quite productive ballplayers in their own right, that we have all but forgotten about.
With that in mind… here are the Top 15 MLB Players That You Didn’t Realize Were Still Active
15 Allen Craig
Allen Craig was known as a pure hitter without a true position. so it was hardly a surprise to anyone when he was moved at the 2014 trade deadline from the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League to go to the Boston Red Sox in the Junior Circuit. After two straight .300/90 RBI seasons, he had suddenly slumped for much of the spring into the summer, but the Sox had fallen apart after their 2013 championship run and were near the bottom of the AL, so hoping for a return to form from the guy who had hit .375 against them in the World Series was a risk they were willing to take.
Instead, Craig fell apart in Boston, hitting well under the Mendoza line (.200) in both 2014 and 2015. He didn’t even make it to the majors in 2016, and this spring training will possibly be his final gasp to try to make the Red Sox roster as he tries to follow through on a non-roster invitation. The timing is possibly ripe to succeed, as Craig is still just 32 and the position he is perhaps best suited for, designated hitter, finally has an opening in Boston for the first time since 2002. That was the year, of course, prior to when they traded for some journeyman hitter named… David Ortiz.
14 Mike Minor And Kris Medlen
Remember Mike Minor? He who pitched 200 innings for the 2013 Atlanta Braves, with a 4/1 strikeout/walk ratio as a 25-year-old former first round draft pick and ace of a 96-66 ball-club? How about Kris Medlen, a relatively unheralded 27-year-old who won 15 games that season with a 3.11 ERA after suddenly emerging into prominence in the 2012 stretch run? The sky was the limit, but the very next season Medlen underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the whole year, while Minor was sidelined three times with shoulder problems and watched his ERA jump from 3.21 to 4.77, and the team plummeted as a result, finishing under .500. Minor had shoulder surgery early in 2015 and neither pitcher got to the mound with the Braves again.
Medlen returned to the majors with the Kansas City Royals in 2015 and 2016, making relatively brief appearances each season to limited success, with shoulder problems of his own. Minor followed him to KC in 2016, but continued his own battle with shoulder issues, and never got on the field. Finally healthy, he’s on track to make the team in a bullpen role in 2017, while Medlen recently agreed to a minor league contract to return to Atlanta. "He will get an opportunity,'' Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "We love the person and the talent.’'
13 Carlos Ruiz
Nobody would have begrudged Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz had he retired following a 2016 season that saw him being traded away from the only franchise he had ever known, the Philadelphia Phillies, to the Los Angeles Dodgers.The former All-Star and fan favorite even would have walked away a post-season hero, delivering the go ahead RBI in the Game 5 NLDS clincher against the St. Louis Cardinals, pinch hitting for fellow aging former Phillie Chase Utley.
There’s no question however that Ruiz still has a lot to offer, even at an advanced age and limited to a back-up role. He hit a respectable .264 last year while throwing out a National League-best 42 percent of base stealers. He was traded to the Seattle Mariners in the off-season for veteran left-hander Vidal Nuno, part of one of the most extreme club overhauls Major League Baseball has ever seen (M’s GM Jerry Dipoto has made 36 trades since joining the club in September of 2015, and only 8 players remain from the 40 man roster he inherited 16 months ago.) “I think he’s one transaction that kind of goes under the radar,” manager Scott Servais said. We agree.
12 James Loney
Would it surprise you if we said that veteran first baseman James Loney played 100 games with the New York Mets last season, even appearing briefly in the post-season, starting and hitting eighth in the Wild Card Game loss to the San Francisco Giants? After starting the year with the San Diego Padres’ triple-A affiliate, the 32-year-old was picked up by the club after Lucas Duda went down with a back injury, and got off to a hot-start posting an OPS of .814 in June, his first month with the club. He crashed back to earth after that however, and finished with a batting line reflective of a slow and steady decline since the theretofore career Dodger’s first season with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013 (he also briefly played for the Red Sox following a 2012 deadline deal).
Unless there is a more significant signing announced, such as a return of Mike Napoli, Loney, recently signed to a minor league deal, will compete this spring to replace Mitch Moreland as the Texas Rangers’ starting first baseman. He will face an uphill climb even then however, including facing off with a fellow member of this list (see #1, below).
11 Mark Appel
“He still has the tools to be a successful big league starter, but the clock is certainly ticking,” MLB.com wrote when they listed Appel as the Philadelphia Phillies’ 10th overall ranked prospect heading into the 2016 season. Indeed his ranking was quite a fall for a former #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft who had been the #17 overall prospect in the major leagues as recently as 2014. Acquired in the trade that sent promising young reliever Ken Giles to the Houston Astros, Appel would last just eight starts for the Phillies’ AAA affiliate Lehigh Valley to the tune of a 4.46 ERA and 4.7 BB/9 before having surgery to remove a bone spur to end his season.
If the clock was ticking then, its certainly close to midnight now. At 6’ 5” and 220 pound with a mid-90s fastball, its easy to see why expectations have always been so high on Appel. But he’s quickly becoming a forgotten man, just years into his career. He’s a far cry from the man selected #2 behind him in 2013… the reigning NL MVP, Kris Bryant.
10 Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan is a six-time All-Star and, with 377 saves, currently ranks 8th all-time (14 behind Dennis Eckersley) and 2nd amongst active players after Francisco Rodriguez. But Nathan is also 42 years old and has only made 11 major league appearances in the past two seasons for three different clubs after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery.
Still, Nathan’s last two all-star appearances were under the tutelage of pitching coach Mike Maddux while with the Texas Rangers in 2012 and 2013, and he will now be working with him again in spring training for a new organization after signing a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals. His formerly mid-90s fastball averaged around 91 last year, so expect him to be a middle reliever for the Nats, assuming he makes the team at all. If he does, the Braves’ Bartolo Colon and the Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki will be the only older active players across the Majors. Throw in fellow 42 year old Brave R.A. Dickey, and the NL East is certainly leading the way in the past-their-prime demographic.
9 Jonathan Broxton
Speaking of former closers, we wouldn’t blame you if you lost track of Jonathan Broxton after the hefty righty saved 58 games in back to back All-Star seasons in 2009 and 2010 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is now on his fifth team since 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals, to whom he arrived in a 2015 mid-season trade. He re-signed with the franchise and is entering 2017 on the back-end of a 7.5 million/2 year deal.
Its hard to believe Broxton, a 12-year-veteran who broke into the majors when he was just 21, will only be 32 entering this season. While he is not the pitcher he was in his early 20s with the Dodgers, he is still a 9.0 SO/9 set-up type who gave the Cardinals sixty solid innings from the pen last year. Still, his 4.30 ERA from last season is not ideal for a set-up man, so he will probably need to bounce back a bit in 2017 to guarantee another major league contract for a 285 LB pitcher who has show signs of wear and tear.
8 Omar Infante
It doesn’t feel that long ago that Omar Infante was the pesky Kansas City Royals veteran second baseman who hit .318 in the 2014 World Series leading the team to within one win of clinching their first championship in nearly 30 years. His production took a dive in 2015 however, and after the team traded for Ben Zobrist, he was left off the postseason roster entirely and watched the franchise finally deliver a pennant. Plagued by under-performance, Infante was released in June of 2016 despite still being owed approximately $14.5 million through the following season. As a testament to his popularity as a player, the journeyman actually ranked fourth in AL All-Star voting at the time, behind only José Altuve, Robinson Canó, and Dustin Pedroia. He finished the year playing for the Triple-A affiliate for the Atlanta Braves.
He will enter 2017 in familiar territory, signed to a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers, for whom Infante, now 35 years old, started his career in 2002 and returned for a second stint in 2012-2013. He will battle Erick Ayber, who was acquired in a deal with the Atlanta Braves late last season, to be the team’s back-up infielder.
7 Matt Cain
In contrast to a player we may have lost track of like Omar Infante, returning to his old team for a third time, Matt Cain has disappeared from our radar without ever leaving the only franchise he has ever known. Now entering his 13th season as a member of the San Francisco Giants, Cain was a consistent force for the club from 2006-2013, starting more than 30 games each season. From 2014-2016, he reached 17 appearances in his best effort, succumbing to a number of injuries, and even ended up in the bullpen or the first time in his career last fall.
Approaching the end of what has been a disastrous six-year, $127.5 million contract, Cain is a favorite to regain his starting role heading into his 2017 walk season. “I’ve talked with Matt at length already this winter,” General Manager Bobby Evans said recently, “and his expectation and commitment is to come in here and fight for that fifth spot. I believe he can give us a significant number of innings and perform at the level we’re familiar with. We’re a much better team if he can do that.” Cain is just 32 but has thrown nearly 2000 innings in his big league career, meaning this is likely a make or break season not just to re-sign with the Giants, but to gain a major league contract anywhere this winter.
6 Bronson Arroyo
He hasn’t pitched a major league game in nearly three years, but Bronson Arroyo, he of the 90 degree angle leg kick, will be back in uniform this spring for his old ball club, the Cincinnati Reds. At one time Arroyo was the picture of consistency, starting at least 29 games in 10 straight seasons from 2004-2013. After being an integral part of the Boston Red Sox rotation for a squad that ended the curse in 2004, he joined the Reds in 2006 and was a constant on their staff through the end of his streak. He joined the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, and quickly broke down mid-way through the year, opting to receive Tommy John surgery. He has had only two minor league appearances in the two seasons since and it wasn’t until this past December, thanks to a last resort of stem cell therapy, that he has been able to throw pain-free.
He will be 40 and on a minor-league deal this spring, but Cincinnati is a rebuilding franchise that just might be a fit for his veteran leadership. For his part, Arroyo is optimistic. “This could be a springboard for me to have another two or three years here or somewhere else, and make good money again,” he said recently. However, he went on to note “this also could be, ‘Hey man, it’s your last spring training.’” Either way, we hope he stays with the Reds. It seems to be where he is supposed to be.
5 Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins recently decided, at age 38 and after 17 major league seasons, to accept a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants for one more shot to regain that championship feeling experienced long ago as a member of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies (see our introduction, above). Released by the White Sox last June thanks to a steep fall off in production in recent seasons, Rollins ended up working the post-season as an analyst for TBS. “As soon as I started covering the playoffs, that’s when I was like, ‘Now I actually miss baseball. I didn’t miss the 162. But this part of the year, I miss dearly,’” he recalled.
With Brandon Crawford entrenched as a starter, he will be called upon to be a utility infielder for the first time in his storied big league career that has seen him rack up over 2300 hits and 450 stolen bases. “That’s part of the formula for 2017, is find ways to balance the rest of all of our guys,” Giants GM Bobby Evans notes. “So that guys, even though they can grind through 12, 13 days in a row, there’s room for an off day,” Evans said. “If you do that, you’re ultimately better in the second half and better down the stretch.”
4 Tim Lincecum
Tim Lincecum is a long ways from the pitcher who won back-to-back Cy Young Awards with the San Francisco Giants in 2008 and 2009. He has not even had an above average season since his final All-Star appearance in 2011, and last year, his first away from SF, he finished with a whopping 9.16 ERA over nine starts with the Los Angeles Angels. After being sent down to AAA, Lincecum did show some signs of turning things around, finishing with a respectable 3.76 ERA, but ultimately the team felt he did not succeed enough to earn a recall upon roster expansion in September.
Lincecum is just 32 years old, with only about 1700 innings of mileage on his right arm, and his agent, Rick Thurman, has let clubs know his client “is throwing and getting ready for the season”, but he remains without a team as of this writing. Having battled back from double hip surgery in 2015 to make it to the majors with Los Angeles, its possible that another year removed from the operation, with time to rebuild his strength, offers enough hope for his return that some organization takes a risk on him. He could make a valuable bullpen arm if he can capture his legendary nastiness in short appearances.
3 Alex Rodriguez
Putting it simply, he hasn’t actually retired. Alex Rodriguez was “unconditionally released” by the New York Yankees last August, and, according to personal spokesman Ron Berkowitz, will not try to play for another team in 2017. A-Rod will instead serve the role of “special advisor” to owner Hal Steinbrenner and looks “forward to heading to spring training to work with the young guys as he said all along,” said Berkowitz recently.
On the Bronx Bombers side of things, GM Brian Cashman noted “Alex is… free to do as he pleases, if he wants to try and keep playing. We welcome the opportunity for him to impact our young players at spring training.” Rodriguez sits fourth all time in career home-runs at 696 and third all time in RBI at 2,084. Its not outside the realm of possibility that he would want to pursue climbing those lists further but, for now at least, he will remain on the sidelines.
2 Johan Santana
In what could be an incredible turn of the events, a man who is slated to be on next year’s Hall of Fame Ballot is attempting a comeback to Major League Baseball. Since you have to be out of the league five full seasons to be eligible for the Hall, basic math tells us that the last time Johan Santana played in a professional baseball game was in the 2012 season, at the age of 33. He will turn 38 during this spring training, assuming any team gives him the opportunity to compete for a job, attempting a return from shoulder and achilles injuries. Santana was arguably the best pitcher in baseball during his prime from 2003-2008 with the Minnesota Twins and the New York Mets, a period in which he won two Cy Young Awards and had two other top three finishes.
He was previously invited to the Toronto Blue Jays camp in 2015, so it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility someone will take a shot on him. Still, it would be amongst the more remarkable comebacks in major league history if he could pull it off.
1 Josh Hamilton
Speaking of remarkable comebacks, Josh Hamilton seems to be constantly attempting them. The most recent one will see a player who will turn 36 in a few months, a man who didn’t play a game in the majors last year and hasn’t played a full season since 2013, and will be arriving to the Texas Rangers with only a minor league contract, attempting to return to the show. Hamilton can opt out of the deal and become a free agent by April 1 if he doesn’t make the big-league club. If he does make the team they will pay him the league minimum, but his salary will be nicely supplemented by the final year of his disastrous five year contract signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 2013, to the tune of $26.41 million. He would hit only 31 home runs for the club and succumb to a relapse in his drug addition before being essentially given back to Texas for free (the Rangers will pay an additional $2 million of his previously owed salary this year).
Clearly, if Hamilton belongs anywhere in the majors right now, its Texas. The club has an aforementioned opening at first base currently which he plans to compete for, and the last time he played for the team for an extended period? He made his first remarkable comeback from drug addiction, won the 2010 AL MVP, and led them to their only two World Series appearances (2010 and 2011).
If anything close to that happens again, we can bet that everyone will know Josh Hamilton is still playing professional baseball come this time next year.
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