Reclamation projects are always an integral part of any team's spring training agenda.
Whether it's the no-longer top prospect who is still waiting and looking for that breakout year, or the old vet, looking for a few more days of glory at the major league level, spring training is the ideal milieu for the successful reclamation project.
Last year's success story was Lance Berkman.
After a crummy 2010 season where he was traded from his long-time home in Houston to be followed up by a miserable perfomance with the New York Yankees, Berkman came back with a vengeance in 2011 by helping the Cardinals win the World Series and winning NL Comeback Player of the Year himself.
This year, who will be reclaimed from the dredges of MLB infamy? Manny Ramirez? Adam Dunn? Jason Heyward?
To understand the future, though, you can't forget the past. Here are the greatest spring training reclamation projects in the history of each team.
All right, so maybe it's a bit of a stretch to say the Arizona Diamondbacks' most successful reclamation project ever was a guy who hit .273 and slugged just one home run in 110 at-bats in the year he came back.
But, in the case of Sean Burroughs, you have to consider exactly where the Diamondbacks attempted to reclaim him from.
Burroughs began his hopeful career as the No. 9 overall pick by the San Diego Padres in the 1998 amateur draft. In 2006, after a number of mediocre seasons in San Diego, Burroughs was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays where he hit just .190 before being demoted to Triple-A Durham.
After a brief stint with the Seattle Mariners and subsequent release in 2007, Burroughs' life fell apart.
He was out of baseball, wandering the streets of Las Vegas, checking in and out of the cheapest motels in the city and abusing drugs. In an interview with ESPN, Burroughs even admitted to eating cheeseburgers out of trash cans.
So when Burroughs made his return to the major leagues in 2011 after a four-year absence, it's clear why he was dubbed "the reclamation project."
Andres Galarraga must have felt he had gotten a raw deal from the Colorado Rockies after being released in 1997, after a season where he led the league with 140 RBI, smashed 41 home runs and hit .318. (Of course, those were pre-humidor days when if you didn't hit 40 home runs in a Rockies' uniform, there was something wrong with you.)
In any case, the Rockies ended up releasing Galarraga—then, 36—in favor of their hot first base prospect, Todd Helton.
For Galarraga, many believed with his advanced age and moving away from Coors Field, he would see a significant drop in production. But the Atlanta Braves believed in him and signed Galarraga to a three-year deal in 1998. In his first season in Atlanta, he hit 44 home runs, collected 121 RBI and batted .305.
Then, in 1999, Galarraga was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after suffering from a sore back during spring training. He ended up missing the entire 1999 season undergoing chemotherapy.
Amazingly, in his return to the Atlanta Braves in 2000, at the age of 39, Galarraga continued to defy his nay-sayers, hitting .302 with 28 home runs and 100 RBI.
At the time of the Baltimore Orioles' signing of 36-year-old Rick Sutcliffe in 1992, he was already a 15-year vet, coming off two consecutive injury-plagued years for the Chicago Cubs.
Needless to say, it appeared as if he were all but washed up, and it was a huge risk for the Orioles to take a shot with him.
Incredibly, however, Sutcliffe ended up anchoring the O's already solid pitching rotation behind starters Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.
That season, Sutcliffe went on to start a league-leading 36 games and won 16.
Note: An honorable mention must also go to the greatest reclamation project ever, Hoyt Wilhelm, but because he joined the Orioles mid-season via trade in 1958, he doesn't technically qualify as a spring training reclamation project.
Recently retired Tim Wakefield began his career with the Boston Red Sox as a reclamation project.
After converting to a knuckleball pitcher after he was told by one of his coaches that he would never ascend past Double-A ball as a first baseman, Wakefield ending up winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 1992, compiling an 8-1 record with a 2.15 ERA for the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Pirates.
However, his success in '92 was short-lived as he struggled for the Pirates in '93, losing his spot in the starting rotation. Wakefield was eventually demoted to the Pirates Double-A affiliate where he went 3-5 with an era just barely south of seven.
1994 wasn't much different for Wakefield. At Triple-A Buffalo, he led the league in losses, walks and home runs allowed, and although he was eventually called up in September, he never made it back to the majors due to the players strike.
The Boston Red Sox signed him six days after his release from the Pirates, and in 1995, after an encouraging stint with Triple-A Pawtucket—and under the guidance of former MLB knuckleballer Phil Niekro—Wakefield got the call-up to Boston.
Filling in because of injuries to Roger Clemens and Aaron Sele, Wakefield shocked the baseball world by going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA, helping Boston win the AL East.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Known mostly for his jocular disposition and zany antics in the clubhouse, Ryan Dempster has had a wild road to MLB success.
Although Dempster experienced initial success at the major league level with the Florida Marlins, winning a combined 29 games in 2000 and 2001, in the couple years that followed, Dempster's bright future was put in jeopardy due to arm troubles.
In 2003, after posting two consecutive seasons with a 5.00+ ERA with the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, Dempster finally underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
After making a miraculous recovery—taking less than a full year to recover from his surgery—the Chicago Cubs signed him in 2004. He went on to become the Cubs full-time closer from '05 to '07 where he compiled 85 saves in three years, and then made the transition to the starting rotation, where he has been an effective, consistent starter since.
Aside from bearing a remarkable resemblance to Joe Pantoliano in Memento, Eric Soderholm had a rather non-descript career in the majors, finishing with a pedestrian .264 career batting average and 102 home runs in nine professional seasons.
After a couple productive seasons with the Minnesota Twins in 1974 and '75, the third baseman suffered a knee injury, which kept him out for the entire 1976 season.
But Soderholm is probably best known for his 1977 season with the Chicago White Sox after they signed him as a free agent in November of the previous year.
He would pay dividends on the investment when he batted .280 and swatted 25 home runs, keeping the "South Side Hitmen" in the AL West pennant race until mid-August when the team eventually collapsed.
Ron Gant was a superb talent with the Atlanta Braves in the early 1990s, becoming just the third major league player—along with Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds—to reach 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in two consecutive seasons.
But after his monster 1993 campaign Gant broke his leg in a serious ATV accident and missed all of the 1994 season due to injury.
He was later released by the Braves.
Although still just 30, the Cincinnati Reds later signed Gant to a $3.6 million contract for one year, unsure about how he may perform after the serious injury. He came back in 1995 without a hitch, smashing 29 home runs and stealing 23 stolen bases.
After six brilliant seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers (including one of the greatest seasons ever for a starting pitcher in 1988), Orel Hershiser was a bonafide ace in the major leagues.
However, in the years following Hershiser's string of dominance in the mid to late '80s, the slight right-hander struggled with injuries in the early '90s. After leading the league in innings pitched in three consecutive seasons ('87-'89), it appeared as though the Dodgers may have run him ragged.
In 1990 and 1991, Hershiser combined to pitch just 137.1 innings, and in the three seasons to follow his injury-plagued years, he went a combined 28-35.
So when the Cleveland Indians signed him as a free agent in 1995, his performance was anything but assured.
He ended up being a very solid pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in the three years he was there. In 1995, Hershiser won 16 games, his highest win total since his stellar 1988 campaign, and was instrumental in taking the Indians to their first World Series since 1954.
At first glance, it may appear counter-intuitive that one player could qualify as a reclamation project twice.
But with Andres Galarraga, it really is true.
While Galarraga was discarded later in his career by the Colorado Rockies in favor of their star prospect Todd Helton, in 1993, when the Rockies first signed Galarraga, he was litttle more than an above-average first baseman with decent power and poor plate vision.
Although he had put together some solid years with the Montreal Expos, hitting more than 20 home runs three times and batting over .300 twice, in the two years directly preceding his signing with the Rockies, Galarraga's batting average had tapered badly, dipping to a combined .230 in 1991 and '92.
So when the Colorado Rockies signed him in 1993, he was essentially pulled off the scrap heap.
That year, he went on to win his only batting title with a .370 average, and flirted with .400 into July. Galarraga's time in Colorado revitalized his career, and he went on to be one of the greatest hitters in Rockies history.
Once upon a time, Bill Gullickson was a No. 2 overall pick for the Montreal Expos and throughout the early '80s was an effective starter for them. But his best season for the Expos came in 1983 when he won 17 games with a 3.75 ERA and 10 complete games.
Eventually Gullickson moved from the Expos to the Cincinnati Reds to the New York Yankees with middling success. In New York, however, he became disillusioned as a journeyman MLB pitcher and ended up accepting an offer to pitch in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants.
After a two-year hiatus from MLB, Gullickson returned to the league with the Houston Astros in 1990, where he pitched adequately to garner a 10-14 record with a 3.82 ERA.
But it was in 1991 when he signed with the Detroit Tigers and ended up winning 20 games that he finally found his career apex. At 32, a ten-year veteran, Gullickson finished 8th in the Cy Young voting, and the Tigers gamble to sign him paid off. He went on to pitch for the next three seasons with the Tigers, but never matched the success he found in '91.
In 1965, Robin Roberts was a mere shell of the Hall of Fame pitcher he once was for Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s. But for one summer, he was once again brilliant.
Although technically Roberts wasn't a spring training reclamation project, his dominance in 1965 is well worth the story told here.
Okay, okay, so maybe I'm cheating a little by selecting two different guys as the Kansas City Royals most successful reclamation project—ahem, singular—ever. But how could you really choose between the two?
Both Gordon and Francoeur have similar stories. Observe:
- Both Gordon and Francoeur were drafted in the first round of their respective drafts.
- Both got off to great starts in their careers, only to follow their young success up with underwhelming mediocrity.
- And both broke back out in the same year, on the same team in 2011.
Due to the revitalization of these two still very young guys, the Royals are looking like a team poised for a future run at the postseason.
Reclamation projects unite!
Bert Blyleven entered the 1989 season coming off—arguably—his worst year as a professional player. In 1988 with the Minnesota Twins, Blyleven posted a career high in ERA (5.43) and tied for his career high in losses (17), while leading the league in the same category.
So when he was traded to the California Angels in November of '88, his new team was hoping the 38-year-old veteran would be able to force the setting sun on his career back up into the sky for a few more years.
And Blyleven did—well, at least for one year, anyway.
In 33 starts in 1989, Blyleven went a phenomenal 17-5 with an ERA under three (2.73) for the first time since 1984 and finished 4th in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Nomar Garciaparra was a former two-time AL batting champion, with a career .323 batting average with the Boston Red Sox from 1994 to 2004, and in the late '90s, he was one of the premiere shortstops in MLB.
After battling back from a serious wrist injury in 2001, Nomar continued to sparkle for the Red Sox in 2002 and '03, looking like a lock for the Hall of Fame one day.
However, after a bad slump in September of '03, a subsequently poor performance against the New York Yankees in the '03 postseason, and discussions swirling about his soon-expiring contract, Garciaparra became the target of many trade rumors during the offseason.
Enraged by this and Boston's apparent aloofness in regard to re-signing him for premiere money, Garciaparra made it clear he was unhappy in Boston.
In July of 2004, Garciaparra was traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he struggled with injuries, and, as a result, put up less-than-stellar numbers for his new club.
When he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006, there were plenty of question marks surrounding him. He hadn't hit more than nine home runs in a season since '03, and questions about his health abounded. Still, he ended up filling a huge hole for the Dodgers, playing first base, cracking 20 home runs and collecting 93 RBI, while hitting .303.
Jorge Cantu's career started off with a bang with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004 when he hit .304 in his rookie campaign. A year later, Cantu continued his solid beginning to his career with 28 home runs and a .286 batting average.
But one season removed from being named the last-place Rays most valuable player, he scuffled in his next big league season, seeing a 37-point drop-off in his batting average and his home run numbers cut in half. After starting the next season in Triple-A, Cantu demanded a trade and was eventually dealt to the Cincinnati Reds, where his productivity increased slightly.
The next year, Cantu signed a minor-league deal with the Florida Marlins and received a spring training invitation.
They were so impressed with Cantu's play during spring training that they found a roster spot for him and he rewarded their faith by posting a .277/.327/.481 line with 29 home runs and 95 RBI.
LaTroy Hawkins has been passed around Major League Baseball about as often as Alyssa Milano.
Oops! Sorry, nothing against Alyssa; she's a lovely girl—and did excellent work on Who's the Boss? in the '80s.
As for LaTroy, while he started his steady career with the Minnesota Twins as a starter back in the late 1990s, since then it has been a roller coaster of a career for the 17-year vet.
But in 2011, at the age of 38, Hawkins finally reclaimed his fleeting brilliance, coming out of the bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers. After posting an atrocious 8.44 ERA in 18 games in 2010, Hawkins posted an ERA of 2.42, a full two runs less than his career ERA, and 1.24 WHIP in 2011, which was good enough to earn him a $3 million payday from the Los Angeles Angels this offseason.
Jerry Koosman is most famous for his considerable contributions to the "Miracle Mets" who won the World Series in 1969, but his career with the New York Mets didn't consist of all highlight-reel material.
Although he put together a 48-28 record in his first three full seasons with the Mets, he ended his Met career with a mediocre 140-137 record, including a 20-loss season in 1977, and a 3-15 record in his final season in New York in 1978.
It was after those two disappointing years that the Minnesota Twins then traded for the 36-year-old Koosman and gave him the opportunity to revitalize his career outside of New York. Koosman didn't disappoint, winning 20 games in 1979 with a 3.38 ERA. He continued his middle-aged baseball success well into his early 40s.
RA Dickey began his career, much in the same way fellow knuckleballer and reclamation project, Tim Wakefield, did—that is, as a minor league ballplayer without much of a future. He began his career as a dime-a-dozen pitcher with a fastball that topped out in the upper 80s, a curveball and a forkball he dubbed "The Thing."
Although throughout Dickey's early career he experienced moderate success at the minor-league level, it wasn't until he fully developed his knuckleball that he became the pitcher he is today.
In Dickey's first six professional seasons, he never compiled an ERA lower than 5.09, and his worst career performance was when he was with the Texas Rangers in 2006. That season, he got one start in which he went just 1.2 innings and gave up six home runs.
It wasn't until 2010 at the age of 35 that Dickey had his first successful season in the majors. That year with the New York Mets, he posted career-highs in SO/BB, innings pitched, and wins. He also posted career lows in BB/9 and ERA.
Steve Howe began his career as a hard-throwing lefty reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning the NL Rookie of the Year after gathering 17 saves in 1980, a rookie-record at the time.
His early-career success continued for his first four seasons in the bigs, but after numerous issues with both drug and alcohol abuse, Howe's career fell in to disarray.
He missed five full seasons in the majors due to his drug-related issues and was once banned for life by MLB for his continued substance abuse—though he eventually appealed the decision and was reinstated.
It wasn't until Howe was 33 and signed with the New York Yankees in 1991 that he regained any of the his former glory, however. That season, he was utilized as the Yankees left-handed specialist, compiling a 1.68 ERA and a dazzling 0.95 WHIP. Through 1995, Howe was a significant contributor out of the Yankees bullpen.
Frank Thomas was arguably the best pure hitter of the 1990s.
From 1990 to 1999, Thomas maintained a .320/.440/.573 line and smashed 301 home runs with the Chicago White Sox. His outstanding production continued into the next decade, but he saw a significant drop off after a 2001 triceps injury that caused him to miss most of the season.
Although Thomas continued to produce, by the mid-2000s, the former slugging first baseman looked like he was in a state of decline. After his relationships with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Kenny Williams began to deteriorate, and Thomas was becoming increasingly unhappy, the White Sox finally released him in 2005.
At 38, with ostensibly diminished offensive firepower, the Oakland A's signed him to a $500K, one-year deal in 2006.
Although, his single season in Oakland started slow, Thomas eventually began to show flashes of his once prodigious power, and he ended the season with 39 home runs and 114 RBI, finishing fourth in MVP voting.
Rick Rueschel, in his time with the Chicago Cubs, was a solid—if somewhat pedestrian—pitcher in the 1970s.
Although he had some good years, including one 20-game, 2.79 ERA season, he also lost a league high 17 games for the Cubs in 1975.
In 1981, Rueschel was traded to the New York Yankees and went 4-4 with an ERA under 3.00, but in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was ineffective surrendering five walks and seven hits in 3.2 innings over two appearances.
The following year Rueschel tore his rotator cuff and ended up missing the entire 1982 season. In '83 and '84, Rueschel returned to the team who drafted him in 1970, the Cubs, but only saw limited action and his ineffective play continued through both seasons.
In the offseason of 1984, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him to anchor their otherwise horrible starting rotation, and Rueschel performed. That season, Rueschel turned in career-lows in ERA (2.27) and WHIP (1.06) and won 16 games, despite the team only winning 57.
Brad Lidge has had the perfect, prototypical erratic ace/closer's career. At times, he's been astounding good—untouchable, even.
And at other times, he's been unbelievably bad.
But in 2008, when Lidge helped push the Philadelphia Phillies over the hump to win their second World Series in franchise history, he was the former.
When he came over from the Houston Astros that year, he had just come off two disappointing seasons. In 2006, he had an ERA well over five and in 2007 got a little better with an ERA of 3.38, but his penchant for blowing saves was still intact. In his last two years in Houston, he had blown a combined 14 games.
Still, he will always be remembered in Philadelphia Phillies lore for working the last out of their championship run in '08.
And he also has one of the most memorable World Series celebrations in the last 10 years.
Rather than listing off the multiple reclamation-projects-turned-staff-ace the Padre... oh fine, I'll do it:
Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Chad Qualls, Clayton Richard, Kevin Correia and Heath Bell should all thank the city of San Diego for building Petco Park because, in truth, it rescued—or at the very least improved—all of their careers.
With the thick, breezy ocean air and the large and spacious confines of the field itself, Petco is a true pitcher's haven. And that makes it difficult to choose just one of many successful pitching reclamation projects that the San Diego Padres have flipped in the last few years.
Now the hitters... that's another story.
Mike McCormick had an interesting baseball career.
Coming up with the New York Giants in 1956 as a young man of just 17 years, McCormick was a highly anticipated pitching prospect early in his career. In 1960, McCormick reached his true potential as a pitcher, posting a 2.70 ERA and earning a nod to his first ever all-star game.
Over the following years however, McCormick would see much less success and bounce around the league a little bit before finally making his way back to San Francisco in 1967 as a 28-year-old with 11 years of major league experience under his belt.
That year he won 22 games and won the NL Cy Young Award.
While San Francisco Giants' Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres are both honorable mentions for successful reclamation projects, McCormick's sweeping history with the team suggests, historically, he is the most significant.
Many remember Willie Horton as the free-swinging slugger for the Detroit Tigers in the late '60s and '70s. Not many remember him as the 36-year-old vet on the Seattle Mariners who hit 29 home runs while playing in all 162 games in 1979. Then again, that may be because the Mariners lost a whopping 95 games that year.
In all truth, the fact that the 1979 Seattle Mariners were no good probably played a large part in why they were willing to take a risk on an old slugger like Horton was.
Nonetheless, the risk paid off as Horton ended up leading the team in home runs, RBI, games played and hits.
Although the stats don't really show it, in 2010 many people around baseball thought Lance Berkman was all but done as a major league hitter.
After consecutive years of steady declining production with the Houston Astros, struggles with injuries, and a dreadful stint with the New York Yankees at the end of the 2010 season, there were few who still had faith that "Fat Elvis" had anything left in the tank.
The St. Louis Cardinals, however, were willing to take a risk with Berkman. While many did not vehemently oppose the $8 million, one-year deal they offered him in 2011, there weren't too many praising the move either.
But Berkman and the Cardinals had the last laugh as they were able to win it all in 2011.
By the time Carlos Pena was 29 and starting his eighth season in the major leagues, he had already been with seven different teams. While he had flashes of success with the Tigers from '02 to '05, he never reached the full potential scouts expected from him, and as a result bounced around the league.
In 2006, after minor-league stints with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, Pena's prospects for a productive major league career were looking slim. At best, it appeared as if he would become nothing more than a journeyman first baseman.
But when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed Pena to a minor-league deal in 2007, Pena found his opportunity. He was invited to spring training, and, due to an injury to incumbent Devil Rays first baseman Greg Norton, Pena found regular playing time with the team.
After a slow start, Pena ended up hitting .282 with 46 home runs and 121 RBI. Not bad for a guy who was signed to a minor-league deal the year before. Pena went on to grow with the Devil Rays, and was part of the shocking 2008 Rays team that saw their first postseason in franchise history.
Ruben Sierra began his career with the Texas Rangers at the tender age of 20 when he hit 16 home runs and collected 55 RBI in just 382 at-bats. At 21, he had his breakout year in the majors as he hit 30 home runs and drove in 109 RBI.
After a slew of all-star caliber years in Texas, Sierra was eventually traded to the Oakland A's as part of a deal to bring Jose Canseco to Texas.
Later in his career he was moved as part of a deal to bring Cecil Fielder to the New York Yankees, and before Sierra knew it, he had solidified his journeyman status.
Due to nagging injuries throughout his career and steadily declining play, Sierra eventually found himself out of the league by 1999. But the Rangers brought him back for his second stint with the club in 2000.
Although he found little success that first year back with the Rangers—and still in limited action—in 2001, Sierra found his old form.
He ended up batting .291 with 23 home runs at the ripe age of 35.
Admittedly, I'm not entirely sure Jose Bautista technically qualifies as a true "reclamation project."
Meh, who cares? Joey Bats mashes!
Plus, his prodigious power came so far out of left field, it wouldn't be right to give his spot to anybody else.
Bautista began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting drafted in the 20th round of the 2000 amateur draft.
From there, he was tossed between the Orioles, Rays, Royals, Mets, back to the Pirates, and finally to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008.
It was in Toronto Bautista finally found his power stroke. In 2010, after a previous career-high of 16 home runs in 2006 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bautista obliterated his former personal-best by smashing 54 home runs.
His encore in 2011 was just as impressive, once again leading the league, this time, by belting 43 home runs.
Dmitri Young is a strange cat. What else do you expect from a guy whose nickname in the pros was "Da Meat Hook"?
While Young has seen his fair share of success in the major leagues, he has also been known for his erratic behavior and problems with drugs and alcohol off the field.
However, from 1998 to 2005 Dmitri Young was a fairly well known major leaguer who saw his best season with the 2003 Detroit Tigers—one of the few bright spots on one of the worst major league teams ever—as he hit .297 and 29 home runs.
But after a down season in 2006 and multiple off-the-field issues, Dmitri's future in MLB was in question.
That didn't stop the Washington Nationals from signing him before the 2007 season, though. And the decision paid off. With the Nationals that year, he was able to put together a .320 batting average and 13 home runs at the age of 33.
Though Young attempted a comeback this offseason with the Nationals, it looks like "Da Meat Hook" will remain retired—much to our collective chagrin.