Friction & Discipline: An Epilogue, Part Four

Leslie Anderson. Photo by Revill Photographic.

The Orphan

Here is an example of the wide, uncrossable gap that separates Triple-A baseball teams from their parent clubs. The Durham Bulls named Leslie Anderson their team MVP this year (and last year, as well). The Tampa Bay Rays also named a team MVP for the Bulls, as they do every year for all of their minor-league affiliates. The Rays’ choice of honoree wasn’t Anderson. It was Vince Belnome.

The parent club always wins out where it matters, on the field. Vince Belnome started at first base and hit cleanup for the Bulls in every single game of the post-season. Leslie Anderson started only five of the eight games. In one of them, he was removed for a pinch hitter in a crucial late-game moment. One of the games Anderson did not start was the Bulls’ last of the year, the Triple-A National Championship game. They were facing a left-handed pitcher, and the lefty-swinging Anderson had a dreadful time hitting southpaws this season (.173/.304/.250). The right-handed Shelley Duncan, who also had a terrible year against lefties (.207/.305/.378) — and righties, for that matter (.217/.281/.383) — started instead. Anderson came into the game in the eighth inning, as a pinch hitter, replacing Duncan against a right-handed reliever, and he hit a long, long home run, the only run the Bulls would wind up scoring in the 2-1 loss.

Anderson’s home run was almost surely the final act of his four-year career as a Durham Bull and Tampa Bay Ray. Having improved his batting average in 2012 (he hit over .300), he improved his plate discipline in 2013, doubling his walk rate while keeping his strikeout rate steady. He is probably about as good as he’ll ever get, which is good enough for his Triple-A team to call him its MVP. But neither this season nor any other did the Tampa Bay organization ever call him up to the major leagues. When the Rays outrighted him off the 40-man roster two seasons ago, they gave Anderson his de facto pink slip. They let him keep playing in Durham because they had spent almost two million dollars on him and didn’t want to take a total loss, but the judgment was final. He was never going to play in a Rays uniform.

If Anderson resented this treatment, it did not show at all on Tuesday night. He told me after the game that he was grateful for the opportunity the Rays had given him, and that he considered Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and hitting coach Dave Myers “my family.” I asked him what he planned to do next season. He said that of course “I still have the ambition to play in the major leagues,” but that he hadn’t thought about 2014 yet. He said he might go down and play in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic this winter, but his first order of business was to go home and be with his wife and the rest of his family. They live in Tampa, where Anderson will no longer have any professional reason to stay once the major-league season ends, next month.

The story of Leslie Anderson begins, for our purposes, about five years ago. He appears briefly in a 2008 Vanity Fair feature on Cuban baseball by the great Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame:

[The player] you have to try not to watch is the Camagüey center-fielder. He moves with the assurance of a player who knows he is the best; he sets himself apart by wearing, under his jersey, the sleeves of the Cuban national team. He runs and throws like a big-leaguer and in the first six innings makes several sensational catches in center field. He singles in one run, doubles in two more, and does everything with the grace and ease of a young man playing an imaginary game against imaginary opponents. His name, oddly for a Cuban, is Leslie Anderson.

Anderson was playing frictionless baseball in Cuba (“an imaginary game against imaginary opponents”). The only visible contestant appears in the story’s accompanying photo of a much younger Anderson getting pointed words from none other than Fidel Castro. In the game in which Lewis has to “try not to watch” Anderson, Anderson comes to bat with the game on the line in the eighth inning and blasts a home run that “exits the park so quickly that Anderson doesn’t have time to do anything but watch it leave.”

After the game, Lewis asks an agent for Cuban ballplayers about Anderson. The agent’s reply predicts Anderson’s entire story to come: “If he washed up on Miami Beach he’d be a millionaire. The only question about him is his power.”

About two years later, the Rays made Anderson a millionaire and gave him four years to answer the question about his power. He hit eleven home runs in 2010, across three minor-league levels, the highest of the levels being Triple-A. He hit thirteen home runs in 2011, and fourteen in both 2012 and 2013. The two additional homers he hit in the 2013 post-season weren’t added to his total; playoff numbers don’t count toward overall statistics.

Anderson’s home run consistency has answered the question about his power, more or less, and the ballpark estimate is too low. Fourteen homers are too few for a guy who hits for average but not enough, who learned how to draw more walks but not enough, and who is a poor fielder: the player making “sensational catches in center field” in Cuba did not wash up on Miami Beach. Anderson’s only position, as scouts like to joke, is in the batter’s box, but it isn’t there, either, not with his level of power. That, anyway, is the peremptory, pat verdict on a case that is so much richer, so much more complex, than the one history will record.

Just the other day, the MLB Network was hyping the current wave of Cuban ballplayers in the major leagues, featuring Aroldis Chapman, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Yasiel Puig. There does seem to be a resurgent Cuban presence in the game right now, especially when you think of other exciting players like Yoenis Céspedes and José Iglesias, who had a breakout season. The recent defector José Dariél Abreu has also drawn attention.

Anderson signed with the Rays around the same time Chapman signed with the Cincinnati Reds. Looking back, and looking past Michael Lewis’s fulsome praise of Anderson, all you have to do is follow the money to see the truth. Anderson’s four-year deal with Tampa Bay was for less than two million dollars, essentially a pittance even for a low-budget franchise like the Rays. (This is the same team, after all, that paid Ryan Roberts, a middle infielder and middling infielder, three million dollars this season; Roberts didn’t even stick on the 40-man roster.) Chapman got over thirty million dollars for six years, including a signing bonus of over sixteen million dollars.

The Rays knew what Anderson was likely to be worth, comparatively and absolutely, and that’s approximately what they paid him. Had he turned out to be even as good as some of the other unsatisfactory left-handed bats they’ve tried over the last few years (e.g. Carlos Peña, or even Dan Johnson), he’d have been a bargain. He never persuaded them to give him a chance. The problem wasn’t the production, which looked good on paper; it was the machinery responsible for it. There were just too many things wrong with the way Anderson was hitting .300.

So his contract was a sunk cost, but not really much of one. Here again, what the big-league club knows and does occupies an entirely different plane from the minor-league world. Anderson was a four-year Bulls mainstay, an integral part of the team, twice its internal MVP. To the Rays, though, he was only a side bet, one it didn’t hurt to lose. They drew a bad hand, saw no reason to try to improve it, and quickly folded. This is a very hard truth.

A kind of shadow player, a corrective of sorts, emerged around the time Anderson came to the Bulls. Later in 2010, the Rays signed another Cuban defector named José Julio Ruiz. Like Anderson, Ruiz was a power-hitting left-handed outfielder-first baseman. This time, having perhaps learned a lesson with Anderson, whom they had seen play a little already when they signed Ruiz, the Rays hedged: they gave Ruiz a one-year deal with a team option for four more years and four million dollars. Ruiz was assigned first to the Rays’ Dominican rookie team, then transferred to Double-A Montgomery. He played in just twenty-three games there in the summer of 2010, but that was enough for the Rays to decide not to pick up the option on Ruiz’s contract. As quickly as he had landed on Durham’s potential prospect radar, he vanished for good.

The Texas Rangers, who had tried to sign Ruiz when he was first available, offered him a similar deal. Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels said of Ruiz something eerily similar to what the Cuban agent had said of Anderson two years earlier: “The question is, how much power will he have?” In 2011, Ruiz hit fifteen homers between Double-A and Triple-A, approximately what Anderson wound up hitting annually as a Durham Bull. The Rangers declined Ruiz’s option.

Ruiz has spent the last two years playing Independent League baseball. He spent 2013 with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the Atlantic League, where one of his teammates was former Bull Alvin Colina, and another was a fellow Cuban defector, Deinys Suarez, a pitcher who never panned out for the Minnesota Twins. The shores of American baseball are littered with Cuban detritus. Ruiz was an everyday player for the Blue Crabs this season, logging over five hundred plate appearances. His numbers were nothing special there, although he stole a surprising fifteen bases. But one statistic stands out: Ruiz hit just five home runs. He’s unlikely to play affiliated baseball ever again. And he can’t go back to Cuba.

Leslie Anderson will turn thirty-two just before the 2014 season starts. He is three years older than Ruiz. What will become of him, where will he go? He can’t go home to Cuba either, of course. We take for granted that these old Triple-A veterans will keep latching on with new teams, bounce around and reappear in other uniforms. We see Dan Johnson every year, repackaged as another team’s Quad-A first baseman, getting a late-season courtesy call from a desperate (or desiccated) team. The legendary Mike Hessman, a real-life Crash Davis, keeps adding to his minor-league home run record with whatever team will have him. But it’s not all that likely that we’ll see Anderson again at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

It wasn’t lost on me that Anderson’s first allusion to playing baseball again was focused not on the majors or even the minors, but on the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. It may simply be that Anderson was never entirely comfortable in the American milieu. He never learned to speak English, which seemed revealing. In some ways, he remained a permanent stranger while he was here: friendly, good-natured, and reliable (he never got injured once in four seasons), but never quite connected to the heartbeat of the team. He was the Durham Bulls’ orphan.

Tomorrow: J. D. Martin has some strong words for the Tampa Bay Rays.

One Comment on “Friction & Discipline: An Epilogue, Part Four

  1. If I understand you, the Rays made a cheap bet on Anderson and he didn’t pan out. Now that he’s a free agent, what would he be worth to a major league team looking for a really cheap, pretty-good-against-righties backup outfielder? In other words, a player to continue employing in Triple A, but as inexpensively as possible in case of injuries at the parent club?

    He might not be good enough to justify a $2 million salary, but it seems like he could be worthy of a minor league contract. As a cheap insurance policy, he’d only claim the major league minimum of $490,000 if his services in the majors were required.

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