There is no real glory in being a backup, but somebody has to do it.
Most backups are unappreciated—typically role players, hitters or pitchers on the team, backups are designed to do one job and one job only.
Some backups are expected to fill in at certain points, maybe at one point more than another.
They are widely unappreciated and often criticized when they don’t produce in the few opportunities they get.
Granted, while all 30 MLB teams have multiple backups at multiple positions, there are few who stick out to me as a cut above the rest.
There was one shortstop that I used to continuously bash when he was a Cleveland Indian. He would often come into the game filling in for Omar Viquel or another infielder and ground into a double play or strikeout.
I also seem to vividly remember only the bad defensive plays he made, rather than any of the good ones.
That shortstop's name is John McDonald, and right now, he’s the backup infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. A backup position he’s basically held since he was traded away from Cleveland.
It wasn’t until he put up his long run in Toronto that I started to appreciate John McDonald for what he is.
He is a backup and a damn good one at that.
He won’t hit for a high average and he’ll probably make you hang your head more than once for his offensive deficiencies, but that guy can play defense and he can play it well.
There is one play that still sticks with me to this day, and it’s the time McDonald threw from the seat of his pants. He very well may have made this play on multiple occasions, but that alone shows you just what kind of arm strength good old “Johnnie Mac” has. He routinely makes throws sitting down.
In the offseason, McDonald was a free agent and had the opportunity to move on from the rebuilding Blue Jays. He probably wasn’t lined up for a starting spot anywhere, but some players view the chance for contention as a high priority.
Instead of that, however, McDonald is now looking forward to being a mentor to younger players. As a savvy veteran, he has plenty of knowledge to pass down and experiences to share. And with a career that has pretty much restricted him to being a backup, he knows just how hard you have to work.
That’s someone who defines what I would want when looking for a backup. If you give me a scenario where my team is close to filled and all I need is a solid backup infielder, McDonald pretty much gets a check in every box.
He can play just about every infield position, he’s a strong leader, he plays solid defense, and most importantly, he’s a team-first guy. To be a backup, you need to have that team-first mentality, especially if you want to succeed.
One of the other big roles that McDonald will take on is being a dependable guy for a young pitching staff. You’d be surprised what a good defensive infield can do for young pitchers trying to gain confidence.
And that helps the team a little bit now, but mostly for the future. Perhaps a future McDonald won’t be on the team, but that is just a part of the game.
This is a player who embraces that role and embraces the thought of bettering someone, even if it won’t benefit himself all that much.
And while we are on that subject, there was no one who put the team first last year more than Los Angeles rookie pitcher Matt Palmer.
The thing about Palmer though, he wasn’t exactly a rookie in terms of age.
Palmer turns 31 years old next week, and was 29 when he made his major league debut with San Francisco in 2008. Typically, someone who doesn’t make it to the majors until they are in their late 20s, if they even make it at all, isn’t really considered to be a player with much long-term worth.
But, Palmer is out to prove he has staying power and for awhile thought he might have that opportunity. As I’m sure he’s learned many times before though, things aren’t easy, especially for someone who was a 30-year-old rookie.
The death of Nick Adenhart opened up a gap in the Angels' starting rotation late in the first month of the season. Palmer got his first start on April 23rd, and he picked up his first career victory against Detroit.
He’d ended up winning five straight decisions, one of which was a complete game against Boston where he struck out a career-high eight hitters. Palmer would make six more starts through June until moving to the bullpen to start the month of July.
While he handled relief work the rest of the season, he did get two more starts that year, and it provided him with two more wins to help reach his total of 11.
Overall, Palmer’s win-loss record was impressive, but the way he did it just adds to it.
Injuries forced Palmer into those starts, and returning starters forced him back into the bullpen.
Not only that, but Palmer was pitching in a variety of different roles in the bullpen. He entered games in the second, fourth, or even ninth inning at times last year.
He’d go two innings, four innings, or come in for a few hitters.
Palmer did pretty much anything the Angels called on him to do.
As a starter, he lost just one game, won nine, and carried a 4.66 ERA. The ERA doesn’t look spectacular, but the job of a starter is to keep his team in the ballgame and win. He did that on just about every occasion when the Angels had no one else to use.
As a relief pitcher, Palmer was excellent. In 46 innings of work he accumulated a 2.74 ERA.
Did he benefit from good run support as a starter? Sure he did, but you cannot deny the work Palmer did as a reliever and the overall versatility he showed in bailing the Angels out numerous times.
You would think Palmer’s season would put him in the running to be an option in the Angels plans for 2010, and you would be right. However, it isn’t as straight forward as owning a spot.
At one point when John Lackey signed with Boston, Palmer, and perhaps even the Angels, thought that he’d claim the fifth spot in the rotation. That was until the Angels went out and added Joel Pineiro.
To further complicate things for Palmer, the Angels added Fernando Rodney into the pen, taking up another possible spot for him on the pitching staff. Lucky for him, Darren Oliver is in Texas, so the job of long-relief is open for the taking, but he still must win that job from right-handed Brian Stokes.
Here’s where you shouldn’t worry about Palmer though:
This is a 162-game season and injuries are bound to happen, especially in the pitching staff.
So even if he is bound for Triple-A to start the season, I’m pretty sure Palmer will be up providing the same type of aid that he gave last year to the Angels' rotation.
That isn’t a role easy to accept, yet Palmer has done it gracefully and unselfishly. Those qualities are ones I really appreciate and make me love Matt Palmer.
"Players I Love" is a part of a month-long series of articles that are previewing the 2010 MLB season. For the other parts of "Players I Love" and a schedule, click here .