For those of you who have never heard of Mike Loree, and most of you probably haven’t, he was the dominant pitcher in the Atlantic League in this past season. He won the pitchers’ Triple Crown in the best of the Independent A leagues, recording 14 wins, a 1.98 ERA and 131 strikeouts for the league’s best and best-drawing team, the Long Island Ducks.
Loree pitched so well in the Atlantic League that a major league team came calling before the 2011 season was out. The Pirates’ organization signed him and sent him to Altoona in the AA Eastern League, where he made four relief appearances late in the year.
Although it was his first experience above the A level (not counting the Atlantic League, which is most likely somewhere between an A+ and AA level of play), and he was terrific, albeit for a very limited period. He pitched 7.2 innings, allowed six hits, three walks, one earned run and recorded 11 strikeouts.
In short, Loree has a realistic shot at having a major league career if he isn’t already too old.
I discovered Loree’s fine 2011 performance when I perused the Atlantic League’s website this afternoon, looking to see if anyone had the kind of year that might get them back into a major league organization and possibly, one day, the Show. Obviously, Loree stood out above all the others.
The Atlantic League lists his birth day as September 14, 1984. That means he’s already 27, the age at which ballplayers as a group peak. At age 26+, a fine 2011 season in the Atlantic League, with a wisp of great late-season pitching in the AA Eastern League, just isn’t a big deal.
However, when I went to mlb’s minor league website, it lists Loree’s birthday as September 14, 1986. If Loree has only just turned 25, he’s still very much a prospect.
The discrepancy peaked my curiosity, so I did a little more internet research. Baseball Reference and The Baseball Cube say he was born in 1986. On the other hand, his alma mater Villanova says he was born in 1984. The two different birth dates appear in different on-line articles regarding his signing by the Pirates.
I’m almost certain Loree was born in 1984. He was a four-year pitcher at Villanova, according to The Baseball Cube, and the Giants drafted him in the 50th round of the 2007 draft. If he was only 20 at the time the Giants drafted him, it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t have selected him before the 50th round coming out of a Big East school.
The plot thickens. Why does MLB’s minor league website have the wrong date? Is it simply a mistake? Or did Loree shave a couple of years off his age when the Pirates came calling? Did the scout who signed him do so in order to justify his decision with the front office?
The value of two years of age to any player hoping to be signed by a major league organization is enormous. This is why we hear every year about foreign players, usually from undeveloped countries in the Caribbean where ages and identifies are harder to confirm, who claimed to be 16 or 17 when they signed, but were really 18 0r 19 and often a different person from the name signed on the initial contract.
At least from Branch Rickey’s day as the General Manager for the Cardinals (specifically, the early 1930′s when the Cardinals began to assemble their enormous minor league system), major league teams have known that on average the younger a player is when he reaches a certain observable level of ability, the greater his peak performance is likely to be years down the road.
Today, two years of age can mean millions of dollars in a signing bonus, or a contract to play for a major league organization where one wouldn’t have been offered to the same player two years older. In fact, most, if not all, major league organizations will not even consider signing an amateur player who is older than age 23.
The only exception to this rule doesn’t really count. Cuban players playing in Cuba’s top league may still be “amateurs”, but, of course, they really aren’t — they’re just very poorly compensated professionals, which is why so many of them defect during international competitions.
At this point, whether Mike Loree is now 25 or 27 really doesn’t matter that much. If he has a strong Spring Training next March, he’ll likely stay in the Pirates’ organization until his minor league numbers slip below a certain threshold. If he gets bombed in Spring Training or in April, he’ll be back in the Independent A leagues come the Summer of 2012.
One thing that works in Loree’s favor: so long as a pitcher is striking hitters out and isn’t hurt, age isn’t quite so important. Major league teams are always looking for pitching.
I always root for the best of the Independent A players to claw their way back to the major leagues. Chris Jakubauskas and Scott Richard are marginal major leaguers, who never, ever would have made it to the bigs if not the for the Independent A leagues (they were, respectively, 24 and 25 when they started their professional careers in the Independent A’s).
And I still remember Chad Zerbe, who pitched for the Sonoma County Crushers in the now defunct Western League. He eventually made it up with the Giants, and the year they went to the World Series in 2002, he did a most excellent job as their last man in the bullpen, pitching in 50 games, eating up 56.1 innings and recording a 3.04 ERA. Hope springs eternal.