The Val Majewski Conundrum
We can all agree that getting Val Majewski back from the Texas Rangers for the playoffs was pretty cool. After all, he did help us win a championship. But perhaps more than a few wondered why he wasn’t in the big leagues helping the Texas Rangers win back to back American League pennants in September, after tearing it up in Triple-A.
Majewski earned All-Star Game honors with the Revolution with a .317/11/48 showing in 71 games before having his contract purchased by Texas and assigned to Triple-A Round Rock on July 25. Impressive numbers to be sure, but with the Atlantic League a cut under Triple-A in terms of competition, most who reach that level out of our league see a slight decline in their numbers. But not Majewski. In 35 games before the end of Round Rock’s season, Majewski batted .333/5/33, even better than his showing in York. And those numbers even including Val cooling off a bit, as for most of those 35 games he was over .340. Now Majewski had only been with the Rangers briefly, so his lack of a MLB call-up in September, even with those numbers didn’t seem too offensive, considering Texas has plenty of outfield talent. What really was offensive was who got called up over Majewski based on the numbers, not so much that Val returned to York instead of the Majors.
With an MLB team, you have the 25-man active roster in the Majors, and the 40-man roster, consisting of the 25 big league guys and 15 minor leaguers, most of which are in Triple-A. (Some highly-paid early round draft picks find their way onto the 40-man in lower levels). It’s much more complicated than this explanation, but minor leaguers on the 40-man can be moved easily to and from the big leagues to the Triple-A club for the most part. And teams can also add and remove minor and major leaguers from the 40-man. On September 1, MLB clubs have the freedom to expand their rosters from 25 to no more than 40 for the remainder of the regular season, giving them the opportunity to call up any minor leaguers they want. (Of course no teams go all the way up to 40, after 9/1 MLB rosters usually inflate to between 28-30 depending on the needs of the team.) This time often serves as an audition period, to see who can hack it at the big league level and it helps the front office make decisions about the following season.
So while it would’ve taken some shuffling for Majewski to a) be put on the 40-man roster and b) called up to the Majors, it was certainly possible. In fact, this was a banner year for Atlantic League alums to be called to the big leagues from Triple-A, especially for Southern Maryland. The Blue Crabs saw alums Mike O’Connor (LHP ’09) get called up to the Mets, Dane De La Rosa (RHP ’09) to the Rays and OF Justian Christian (OF ’10) to the Giants this season. It was a good alum year for Camden as well, with former Riversharks Rene Rivera (C ’10) getting the call to the Twins, and Val Pascucci (OF ’10) with the Mets. The most notable name was MLB vet OF/1B Wily Mo Pena (CIN, BOS, WAS) returning to the Majors this season for the first time since ’08 with the Diamondbacks and then the Mariners after spending part of 2010 with the Bridgeport Bluefish.
Special congratulations to De La Rosa, who made his MLB debut with Tampa Bay. The others on that list had previously been in the Majors before; O’Connor (WAS), Christian (NYY), Rivera (SEA), Pascucci (MTL). But as hard as all of these guys have worked to realize their dream, and as deserving as their promotions were, all of their numbers pale in comparasion to Majewski, in terms of excelling in Triple-A. The real frustration came on August 30, when the Rangers called up outfielder Leonys Martin from Round Rock, two days in advance of the roster expansion. Martin’s stats at Round Rock? .263/0/17 in 40 games, about the same sample size as Majewski. In the interest of full disclosure, Martin did hit .348/4/24 in 29 games at Double-A Frisco, demonstrating how dramatic the jump from “dubs” to “trips” is, and obviously Martin is a legit MLB prospect just getting his feet wet at the higher levels, where Majewski may be nearing the end of his career. But certainly when you match-up the stats side by side, common sense would tell you Majewski would be the obvious choice right now for a call-up as the Rangers top-performing minor league outfielder. One night after a game in Andy Etchebarren’s office, I was complaining to him about this, before he asked if Martin was right-handed. Duh, on me. Certainly, his inferior numbers to Majewski could be explained if the Rangers wanted an extra right-handed bat on their bench in the bigs, with Val being a lefty. As I walked out of Etch’s office shamed and embarrassed for not thinking this through before I complained to him, I looked up Martin again. He’s indeed a lefty too, so I felt a little better and then continued on the campaign trail for Val Majewski to be called up to the Rangers. So why was Val snubbed? There are a few potential explanations, listed from least to most likely in my opinion:
- The Rangers are just too good: We’re talking about the two-time defending American League Champions here, a team with serious talent at the big league level, and a hard lineup to crack. The Rangers collection of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy doesn’t really make outfield help a priority for them until one of those guys gets to free agency. Therefore, Texas was probably more than content with just calling up their organizational guys in September to compliment a journeyman such as Endy Chavez as their fourth outfielder. In the Rangers’ eyes, it doesn’t make much sense to call a guy up and give him the requisite raise in pay to not play at all if he’s not in their long-term plans. Although I’m sure Val would’ve gladly taken his chances on the Rangers bench in September, waiting for a potential opportunity. But what it really comes down to is Texas being in the postseason race. At the time, the Rangers were still fighting off the Angels to simply make the playoffs as the AL West winner, and achieve the best record possible to draw as many home games as possible in the postseason. Having to play your top lineup until the end certainly hurts the individual aspirations of minor league call-ups and Atlantic League alums hoping for a shot, as there isn’t alot of wiggle room to experiment and evaluate for next season when you still have to win this season. Ultimately, that may have been the thickest glass ceiling on Majewski. It’s a Catch-22 to be certain; while it’s fun to play for a winning organization, I’m certain Val would’ve rather gotten onto a big league field this season for a team not in contention, to better his situation and break back into the bigs, and who could blame him one bit for that? (He did play in nine games for the Orioles in the Majors in 2004.) When you look back above at the six MLB teams who called up former Atlantic League stars this season, you’ll notice only two were in the postseason, Tampa Bay and Arizona. Wily Mo Pena was released by Arizona before signing with Seattle, and Dane De La Rosa was not on Tampa Bay’s postseason roster.
- Independent Baseball/Atlantic League/Age Stigma: It’s ridiculous after 14 seasons that we still have to deal with a group of haters around baseball who try to illegitimize not only our business, but the product on the field as well in indy ball, after we’ve proven our legitimacy over and over. Not only is this league expanding into a giant Houston market next year with the Sugar Land Skeeters, this list of Atlantic League Alums to reach the big leagues since the league’s inception should be proof enough we are “real” professional baseball. However, players in the league have told me that there still is a prevailing stigma attached to former Atlantic League players, even when they leave the league and start back up the ladder at Double or Triple-A. I’ve been told many organizations, when they sign a player out of our league for minor league depth, often only views that player as “one of our minor league guys, no matter his past experience.” Indeed, there are two types of minor league players when you get down to it; MLB prospects and guys who “are helping out an organization,” as they say. It seems the only way to un-shackle yourself from that stigma is to reach the Majors, but if the Rangers won’t give Majewski the chance he deserves, it will be impossible for him to shed that reputation of a “minor league guy.” (As it stands, just one player ever has gone straight from the Atlantic League to the Majors. It was Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson in 2004, who jumped from Newark right to the Dodgers upon signing.) Majewski does have the reputation for being one of the top bats in our league year after year, only to “help out an organization” mid-season year after year. The last four seasons Majewski has gone from Atlantic League slugger to Double or Triple A player. (2008 Newark to Astros AA & AAA, 2009 Camden to Angels AA, & 2009 York to Athletics AA.) But in those past stops, he never racked up the great numbers he did for Round Rock this season, and really never had a comprable stretch in his career dating back to his start in pro ball, coming up through the Orioles system starting in 2002 after leaving Rutgers. Is it so hard to admit, even at the age of 30, Majewski has improved as a player, and is even better now than he was during his cup of coffee with the O’s in ’04? It appears that is the case, but there lies another stigma. For some organizations, once you’re on the wrong side of 30, it matters little what numbers you put up. I fully understand it’s a game for the very young, but it seems pretty stupid to cast someone aside over an age that can be quite arbitary in many players’ cases. I’m not saying the Rangers are doing this, but it tends to be a previaling thought throughout baseball that if you’re not an established big leaguer, or at least “4-A” player by 30, all hope is lost, with a few exceptions. I don’t really agree with that. Just because a player didn’t accomplish something in a tight time-frame that was laid out for him, doesn’t mean he’s not capable of doing it.
- Politics: Often you hear players grumble about the “politics of baseball.” And often enough, it’s just sour grapes over a career that may not be going the way a player envisioned it. But I don’t think there is any doubt politics played a major, and the most significant role in the Leonys Martin over Val Majewski debate when it came time to call up an outfielder from Round Rock. Martin is a feel-good story to be sure, a defector from Cuba who shows a ton of talent as his Double-A numbers indicate, and is certainly in the Rangers long term plans, and rightfully so. It was certainly a good PR move by the Rangers to call him up for September, validating their choice of signing him after his defection, and giving themselves a chance to evaluate him, albeit very briefly as they move forward. Couple that with the fact that the stacked Rangers outfield is set, and it’s easy to see why Val didn’t get the call he deserved. Despite his teriffic numbers in Triple-A, calling Majewski up wouldn’t have made too much of a splash, whereas calling up Leonys Martin was a newsworthy event despite his .263 average in Triple-A. When Martin did get an opportunity, to his credit he made the most of it and shook off his struggles at Triple-A, hitting safely with a double in three of his eight at-bats in eight games in spot duty with the Rangers in September. But certainly Val Majewski could’ve done the same had he been given the same opportunity.
My final rant on the subject: Val Majewski deserved this MLB call-up at this point and time over Leonys Martin. (Martin was left off the postseason roster.) I understand that Martin is a young prospect and part of the Rangers future plans, and may save the team from spending beyond their means to re-sign a Hamilton, Cruz or Murphy when the time comes and they wanted to take a look at him. But he is also 23 to Majewski’s 30, with so much more time to make an impact, and it looks like he is a lock to be a full-time big leaguer in the near future. So considering whoever that outfield call-up was going to be was only getting eight at-bats on a playoff-bound team in September, why not give those at-bats to Majewski, for one more shot at the big-league spotlight, over a guy who will get plenty of shots to prove himself anyway? Yes, eight at bats is a tiny amount, but if Val’s jump from York to Triple-A proved anything, he’s a guy who is capable of moving to a new level and excelling. Eight Major League at bats really don’t mean much to Leonys Martin other than the thrill of making his MLB debut, as I’m sure he’s being told he’s destined for Major League stardom. I’m guessing eight big league at bats would’ve meant the world to Val Majewski and his family at the age of 30. Then again, getting baseball personnel to see something with their hearts is something that seldom happens.
This story is not over for Majewski though, as the Rangers apparently want him back in the fold for Spring Training next year, putting a return to York in serious doubt. (Bad for us, good for him and we’ll take it.) Should Texas bring Val back, there is a very good shot he’d play in Major League spring training games in March, based on his fine performance in Round Rock and his wealth of Triple-A experience. He would be what is termed a “non-roster invitee” to the Major League camp, meaning he is a player on a minor league contract that is not on the 40-man, but still with the bloated big league team at the time, fighting for a spot either on the 25-man MLB roster, or on the 40-man. While we hope it all works out for him with the Rangers, as long as Majewski wants to keep playing, I’m guessing he’ll always have a place to play in York.