- Multiple teams have approached Brandon Gomes with interview requests over his five years with the Dodgers, but Gomes consistently turned down those other opportunities to remain in Los Angeles. Speaking with Jack Harris of The L.A. Times and other reporters, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman noted that Gomes was being sought after for several different roles, and “there aren’t a lot of people that you can say that about, that really are qualified to do so many different things.” This versatility will continue to apply to Gomes’ new position as the Dodgers’ general manager, as Friedman said that Gomes’ specific day-to-day duties will evolve and “we’ll figure out what makes the most sense at any given time.”
The Dodgers announced this afternoon that they’ve promoted Brandon Gomes from assistant general manager to general manager. The move solidifies Gomes as a key member of a Los Angeles front office that also includes senior vice president Josh Byrnes and is helmed by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
The move doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Gomes was mentioned as a candidate in the Mets search for a new front office leader earlier in the offseason, but reports out of New York fairly quickly suggested it likelier he would be promoted to Dodgers GM instead. (The Mets eventually landed on Billy Eppler). With Friedman still running the front office in L.A., Gomes’ promotion doesn’t come with the same level of roster control that landing the Mets job would have provided. Yet it affords him a notable step up in title and likely contains some form of pay bump for the 37-year-old to remain in a setting in which he’s obviously comfortable.
Gomes has climbed the front office ranks rather quickly over the past few years. The Massachusetts native began his pro career as a player in 2007, making his big league debut by May 2011. He spent the next four seasons as a middle relief option with the Rays. Tampa Bay outrighted Gomes off their 40-man roster following the 2015 campaign. After a minor league deal with the Cubs didn’t result in another big league opportunity, Gomes hung up his spikes and joined the Los Angeles front office. He reunited with Friedman — formerly Tampa Bay’s general manager — in Southern California.
Within a year, Gomes had ascended to director of player development. After a season in that role, he was promoted to AGM. Three years later, Gomes gets the nod as general manager, a notable step for the organization. With Friedman leading the charge as president of baseball ops, the Dodgers’ GM position has sat vacant in the three-plus years since Farhan Zaidi departed to become president of baseball operations with the archrival Giants.
By promoting Gomes to GM, the Dodgers could ward off interest among other clubs in poaching him, as the Mets apparently expressed this winter. Teams typically only allow their employees to interview elsewhere if a rival club is willing to offer a step up in title. A president of baseball ops or chief baseball officer position would qualify, but it’s unlikely the Dodgers would allow Gomes to assume a GM role — which, for most organizations, is now second in the front office hierarchy — with a new team.
- The Dodgers have hired Damon Jones, previously general counsel for the Washington Football Team, for a multi-titled role that includes vice president, assistant GM, and baseball legal counsel. Prior to joining the Washington Football Team, Jones had worked in the Nationals front office for 13 years following the end of his college baseball career at UC Santa Barbara. The team also announced the promotions of Alex Slater (from director of baseball operations to vice president and assistant GM), Brandon McDaniel (from director of player performance to vice president of player performance), and Thomas Albert (from assistant athletic trainer to head athletic trainer).
The Los Angeles Dodgers have re-signed pitcher Yefry Ramirez to a minor league deal according to Chris Hilburn-Trenkle of Baseball America. The right-hander spent last year in the Dodgers organization, with the bulk of his time stemming from his stay at Triple-A.
Ramirez has typically worked as a starter throughout his career, though his lone big league action in 2021 came out of the Dodgers’ bullpen. The 28-year-old’s season ERA sits at 0.00 after pitching two innings of mop-up duty against the Diamondbacks on August 1. Ramirez was designated for assignment a few days later to make room for LA’s ill-fated summer signing of Cole Hamels.
The right-hander didn’t fare nearly as well in a hitter-friendly Triple-A environment, however. In 25 games (22 starts) and 113 innings sandwiched around that major league call-up, Ramirez sported a 5.02 ERA. His 22.9% strikeout rate at the level was respectable but a corresponding 10.2% walk rate speaks to a growing command problem, as Ramirez has seen his control numbers worsen after every promotion.
That Ramirez has received as many promotions as he has however speaks to his talent level. A converted-infielder, Ramirez has now been a part of six organizations and seen major league time with three of them. Similarly encouraging is that Ramirez regularly carves up competition in the Dominican Winter League, even if his current 1.42 ERA there is accompanied by nearly a walk per inning.
All told, the right-hander is likely to occupy a similar depth role with the Dodgers next year, as further pitcher acquisitions should push him back to the minors. Still, he stands a good chance of receiving another call-up at some point given the team’s current roster construction.
As it has for all major league free agents, the lockout has frozen the signing process for Seiya Suzuki. The Japanese star was posted by his NPB club, the Hiroshima Carp, in late November. That opened a 30-day window for Suzuki to come to an agreement with a big league team, but MLB instituted a lockout just ten days into the posting process.
MLB and NPB agreed to freeze Suzuki’s posting window for the duration of the lockout. Now six weeks into the work stoppage with essentially no progress on key issues, questions had begun to emerge about Suzuki’s future. NPB preseason camps open February 1, and there’d been some thought that he may choose to return to the Carp if MLB and the Players Association don’t make rapid progress over the coming weeks.
Suzuki’s apparently not considering that course of action, however. In an interview with Andrew Baggarly of the Athletic, Suzuki suggested he’s content to wait out an extended work stoppage. “I’m just going to wait until both sides agree,” the outfielder told Baggarly via an interpreter. “There’s no date I set on myself. In Japan, you don’t experience a lockout so it’s a first for me. At first, I was a little worried about it. But when you think about it, it’s going to end sometime soon. Just having that positive mindset that it will end sometime has allowed me to keep my head up.”
With ten days of the posting process already elapsed, Suzuki and his representatives at Wasserman will have 20 days after the finalization of a new collective bargaining agreement to hammer out a deal with a big league club. There’ll be no shortage of interest. Baggarly writes that between ten and twelve teams had reached out to Suzuki prior to the lockout. The Giants, Mariners, Rangers, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees have all been linked to the right-handed hitter in past reports. Baggarly adds the Rays, Padres and Dodgers as teams expected to be in the mix.
Entering the offseason, MLBTR forecast Suzuki for a $55MM guarantee over five seasons. Evaluators with whom MLBTR spoke expressed varying opinions on his upside, but broad consensus was that he could be a well-rounded everyday right fielder in the big leagues. He’s coming off a monster showing at Japan’s top level, hitting .317/.433/.639 with 38 home runs across 533 plate appearances. That huge power production didn’t come with much swing-and-miss. He fanned in only 16.5% of his trips to the dish while walking at a robust 16.3% clip. (R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports provides some batted ball and plate discipline metrics from Suzuki’s last season in NPB).
Suzuki didn’t tip his hand regarding geographical or league preferences for his next destination. Yet he does offer some insight into his motivation for playing in the majors and on which players he models his game. Baggarly’s piece, which also includes tidbits from a few of Suzuki’s former teammates, is worth checking out in full.
- The Mets were considering Dodgers first base coach Clayton McCullough for bench coach after he impressed in his managerial interview with New York, but a hiring doesn’t seem likely to come to fruition. Jon Heyman of the MLB Network tweets that New York brass doesn’t believe McCullough would leave Los Angeles for a coaching position elsewhere. Instead, it seems he’s lined up to return for a second season on Dave Roberts’ staff. Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News reported yesterday that the Mets were looking into a potential “headline-grabbing hire” for bench coach.
- The Rangers announced two members of their 2022 big-league coaching staff, including the promotion of former journeyman catcher, advanced scout, and so-called “coordinator of run prevention” Brett Hayes to bullpen coach and the hiring of former Jays farmhand and Dodgers minor league hitting instructor Seth Conner as assistant hitting coach. Both will join Chris Woodward’s staff for a season the Rangers hope will represent a major step forward in the rebuilding process following the club’s recent big-ticket signings of Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray.
The Dodgers have signed infielder Eddy Alvarez, as announced by Alvarez himself on his Instagram page. Due to the lockout, Alvarez’s contract must be a minor league deal, and he was eligible to sign since was already a minor league free agent at the start of the offseason.
Alvarez has already carved out a unique niche for himself in sports history as one of just six athletes to win medals in different sports at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Alvarez won a silver medal as part of the Team USA baseball team this past summer in Tokyo, and he previously won a silver medal as part of the U.S. 5000m relay speed-skating team at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
The Miami native returned to baseball following the end of his speed-skating career, and he spent five seasons in the White Sox farm system before joining his hometown Marlins prior to the 2019 season. Alvarez made it to the Show in each of the last two seasons, and he has a .188/.287/.287 slash line over 115 big league plate appearances with the Marlins.
Alvarez turns 32 later this month, and while he has had some hitting success at the Triple-A level, the age gap compared to other minor leaguers (not to mention the livelier ball used across Triple-A baseball in 2019) might explain his strong numbers. That said, a .279/.377/.447 slash line in 929 Triple-A plate appearances is no small feat, so it tracks that the Dodgers would want to take a look at Alvarez in Spring Training. He fits the Dodgers’ preferred model of versatile players, as Alvarez has quite a bit of experience as a second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop during his pro career.
Now that the new year is upon us, it could also conceivably be the last year for several managers or lead front office executives (i.e. president of baseball operations, general manager, chief baseball officer, or whatever title a club bestows upon its top baseball decision-maker) in their current jobs if their teams don’t enjoy some success in 2022. With this in mind, here is the list of team personnel facing particular pressure — the managers and top execs who are entering the last guaranteed year of their contracts.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Firstly, some clubs don’t publicly disclose specifics of management contracts, or even whether or not an employee has signed an extension until weeks or months after the fact. It could be that some of the names mentioned are already locked up beyond 2022, or perhaps have already signed extensions in the last few weeks that won’t be made official until after the lockout. While transactions involving Major League players are prohibited during the lockout, teams are free to proceed with normal business involving team personnel, so some club might look to handle other internal matters in advance of the transactional avalanche that will come when the lockout finally ends.
Second of all, any number of factors beyond just contract status can influence an employee’s job status, and sometimes on-field success isn’t enough (just ask former Cardinals skipper Mike Shildt). However, extra years on a contract is usually the simplest way to gauge just how much leeway a manager or front office boss has, barring something unforeseen. It’s probably safe to assume that most or all of the names listed wouldn’t mind a little extra job security, if for no other reason than to avoid a season of media questions about their future, or the perception of any “lame duck” status from their own players or staff.
Thanks to Cot’s Baseball Contracts for reference information on some of these contracts. Onto the list…
Angels: Owner Arte Moreno is a huge Joe Maddon fan, but since bringing Maddon back to the organization on a three-year, $12MM contract, the Halos have recorded two losing seasons. In fairness to Maddon, he has rarely gotten to deploy an Angels roster at the peak of its potential, as Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Shohei Ohtani (who barely pitched in 2020) have been injured or limited for large chunks of Maddon’s tenure. Since the veteran skipper turns 68 in February, there might also be some question about just how much longer Maddon himself wants to keep up with the grind of a regular-season schedule, especially after the challenges of managing a team through the pandemic. With the clock ticking on Ohtani’s team control and Trout’s prime, another losing season might inspire some changes in Anaheim.
Astros: Back in November, Dusty Baker received a one-year contract extension that takes the veteran skipper through the 2022 campaign. It isn’t the type of job security you’d expect for a manager who just took his team to a World Series appearance, but Houston appears content to go year-to-year with Baker, perhaps owing to his age (Baker turns 73 in June).
Athletics: Billy Beane has been running Oakland’s front office since 1997, and while the exact length of his current contract isn’t known, it is probably safe to assume Beane will have his job as long as he wishes. Beane withdrew his name from consideration from the Mets’ search when New York showed interest in Beane’s services this past fall, and for now, it seems as though he and GM David Forst are preparing to lead the A’s through yet another spin of the payroll-cutting “cycle” so familiar to Oakland fans. Since Beane also owns a minority share of the team, there would be an added layer of complication for the A’s in removing Beane if they did decide to make a change.
Blue Jays: Manager Charlie Montoyo was initially signed to a three-year deal with a club option for 2022, and the Jays exercised that option last March. The club might have been taking a bit of a wait-and-see approach by not negotiating any more additional years with Montoyo, but since Toronto won 91 games last season, Montoyo would now seem like a prime candidate for a longer-term deal. Montoyo has won praise both for the Blue Jays’ success over the last two seasons, and his steady leadership over a difficult period, with the pandemic forcing the Jays to play “home” games in Buffalo and Dunedin before finally returning to Toronto last July.
Brewers: David Stearns’ contract has been the subject of great speculation in recent months, as the Mets were focused on poaching the president of baseball operations away from Milwaukee. With Billy Eppler now inked to a four-year contract as the Mets’ new GM, it could be that Amazins could be moving away from Stearns, but several other teams might have interest if Stearns is indeed available anytime soon. The exact length or nature of Stearns’ contract isn’t known, as 2022 might be his last guaranteed year, but there may be a vesting option of some type in place that would keep Stearns with the Brew Crew through the 2023 season. For his own part, Stearns has said that he is happy with the Brewers, and owner Mark Attanasio obviously covets his PBO, as Attanasio has rejected all overtures from the Mets and other teams to interview Stearns. There seems to be plenty of leverage on Stearns’ part to either work out another extension with the Brewers, or perhaps wait out the remainder of his deal in Milwaukee and then test the market for a new challenge.
Cubs: 2022 is the last guaranteed year of David Ross’ contract, though the Cubs have a club option for 2023. It has been a tumultuous two years to begin Ross’ managerial career, between the pandemic, a first-place NL Central finish in 2020, and then a 91-loss season in 2021 after the Cubs went all-in on a rebuild. However, the acquisitions of Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley are signs that Chicago is looking to compete next season, leaving Ross with the twin challenges of mentoring young talent and also winning some ballgames. Given the long relationship between Ross and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, it doesn’t seem like Ross’ job is in much jeopardy, and an extension (even if just an early call on that 2023 option) wouldn’t be a shock.
Diamondbacks: Manager Torey Lovullo spent much of the 2021 season as a lame duck before signing an extension in September that covers 2022 and also provides the D’Backs with a club option for 2023. Given how poorly the Diamondbacks have played over the last two seasons, this new deal gives the Snakes some flexibility to move on from Lovullo next fall, but obviously Lovullo wasn’t considered the reason for the team’s struggles. There is also some uncertainty about Mike Hazen’s contract status, as the GM signed new multi-year contract of undisclosed length back in 2019, extending Hazen beyond 2020 (the endpoint of his original deal). If Hazen’s contract is only guaranteed through 2022 and Arizona has another rough season next year, ownership might opt to replace both Hazen and Lovullo and start fresh.
Dodgers: 2022 is Dave Roberts’ last year under contract, as his current deal doesn’t contain any team options. While Roberts’ postseason decision-making has sometimes been called into question by Los Angeles fans, he hardly bears sole responsibility, and it is also hard to argue with Roberts’ track record — a 542-329 record and a World Series title since taking the managerial job in November 2015. There hasn’t been any indication that the Dodgers are dissatisfied with Roberts’ work, so another extension could be in the pipeline.
Guardians: While Terry Francona isn’t under contract beyond 2022, but team owner Paul Dolan has said that “I feel like we’re now in a situation where he’s going to be here until he decides not to manage.” This puts the ball squarely in Francona’s court, as the veteran manager plans to return at least through next season after health problems limited his participation in both 2020 and 2021. Also, the contract details of president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti aren’t publicly known, but there hasn’t been any indication that Dolan is looking move on from the longtime executive.
Marlins: Don Mattingly’s 2022 club option was picked up over the summer, putting “Donnie Baseball” in line for what will be his seventh season managing the Fish. Much of that time has been spent overseeing a rebuilding team, but with Miami reaching the postseason in 2020 and now making some aggressive offseason moves, Mattingly and his staff will be facing some higher expectations. The Marlins could opt to let at least some of the season play out before deciding on Mattingly’s future, or if they’re confident that Mattingly is the one to lead the Fish into an era of winning baseball, they could have some talks about a longer-term deal this spring.
Orioles: Executive VP/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde are each entering their fourth season with the team. Hyde signed an extension last year that covers at least the 2022 season, while the initial length of Elias’ contract wasn’t known. Even if 2022 is the last season of Elias’ deal, it doesn’t seem like Orioles ownership would cut him loose before the results of the club’s extensive rebuild have been at all realized. The same could be said for Hyde, though it wouldn’t be the first time a rebuilding team has employed one manager to shepherd it through the tough years, and then hired another skipper when the club began to turn the corner towards contention.
Phillies: Joe Girardi is now entering the last guaranteed season of his initial three-year contract, and the Phillies hold a club option on the former World Series-winning manager for 2023. An 82-80 record represented Philadelphia’s first winning season since 2011, though it was still an underwhelming result for a team heavy in high-priced stars. Girardi himself hasn’t received much too much blame (at least by Philadelphia standards) for the Phils’ lack of success, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is on record as saying that Girardi “did a good job for us” last year. There are some parallels to Maddon’s situation, as both he and Girardi are veteran skippers under win-now pressure for big-market teams, except Girardi doesn’t have the longstanding ties to Phillies ownership as Maddon does in Anaheim. With the club option in mind, the Phils might see what 2022 entails before deciding on an extension for Girardi.
Pirates: This is a speculative entry, since the terms of Derek Shelton’s deal weren’t released when he was hired as Pittsburgh’s manager in November 2019. If Shelton was given a three-year contract (a pretty standard pact for a first-time manager), he’d now be entering his last guaranteed year. Since the Pirates are still rebuilding, Shelton isn’t under much pressure to start winning games immediately, so it doesn’t seem at this point like his job is in any danger.
Rangers: Another speculative case, as president of baseball operations Jon Daniels signed a contract extension back in June 2018, lengthening a deal that was set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign. If that extension happened to be a four-year pact, then, Daniels has only one year remaining. While Daniels has spent much of his most recent contract rebuilding the roster, this winter’s massive spending splurge is a clear sign that Texas is ready to start winning. One would guess that ownership wouldn’t sign off on hundreds of millions in player contracts if they had any misgivings about keeping Daniels around, so another extension wouldn’t be a surprise. Daniels is quietly one of baseball’s longest-tenured front office bosses, as he has been running the Rangers’ baseball ops department since October 2005, when he was only 28 years old.
Rockies: Bud Black is entering his sixth and what might be his final year as Rockies manager, as his three-year contract expires at season’s end. New GM Bill Schmidt has indicated that the team might explore a new deal with Black, and since Schmidt is a longtime member of Colorado’s front office, the Rockies might not have the disconnect that sometimes exists between an incumbent skipper and a new front office boss who wants their own hire running the dugout. Even though owner Dick Monfort is known for his loyalty to familiar employees, managers don’t have quite as much slack — both Walt Weiss and Jim Tracy (Black’s predecessors) resigned from the Rockies’ managerial post after four seasons apiece.
Royals: Like Shelton, Mike Matheny was also hired following the 2019 season, so this would be the final guaranteed year of Matheny’s deal if he signed a three-year term. That said, Matheny might have gotten a longer deal, owing to his past experience as manager of the Cardinals, and due to his standing as something of a manager-in-waiting in Kansas City with Ned Yost on the verge of retirement. The Royals were aggressive last winter but managed only a 74-88 record in 2021, and if the team again doesn’t take a step forward, there could be some whispers about whether or not Matheny is the right choice for the manager’s job. Then again, president of baseball operations Dayton Moore has traditionally been big on institutional loyalty, so Matheny’s job isn’t necessarily on the line if the Royals don’t at least crack the .500 mark.
Twins: Manager Rocco Baldelli received a four-year contract with multiple club options when he was hired following the 2018 season, so Baldelli is now entering his final guaranteed year. The existence of those club options puts Baldelli under team control through at least 2024, yet while Baldelli isn’t a true lame duck, he does face some pressure in getting the Twins on track following a very disappointing season. If the Twins underachieve again, Baldelli might be on the hot seat, though he did lead Minnesota to the postseason in his first two years as skipper.
White Sox: Another team that doesn’t publicize management contracts, both executive VP Kenny Williams and GM Rick Hahn signed extensions in 2017 of unspecified length. Since that time, the duo has overseen a rebuild and a payroll increase that has thus far resulted in playoff appearances in both 2020 and 2021, though the White Sox have yet to win a series. Though owner Jerry Reinsdorf is definitely aiming to capture another championship, it seems like it would take a major collapse for him to think about replacing Williams or Hahn, who have each been with the franchise for decades. Depending on their contractual status, Williams and Hahn could even be in line for extensions, if such deals haven’t already quieted been inked.
Yankees: As any Bronx fan can tell you, the Yankees have gone 12 seasons without as much as an AL pennant, though the club has reached the playoffs nine times in that span and always posted winning records. Despite this relative title drought by Yankees standards, owner Hal Steinbrenner appears satisfied with the work done by longtime GM Brian Cashman, and there doesn’t appear to be much chance of a front office change. It may be quite a while before we hear whether or not Cashman is officially staying, as several of his contracts have been settled either around the end of the season, or sometimes well into the offseason. Cashman’s last deal (a five-year, $25MM contract covering the 2018-22 campaigns) wasn’t fully put into place until December 2017.
A dead arm kept Max Scherzer from pitching in Game Six of the NLDS, which Scherzer believes was due to pitching fewer innings in the lead-up to the postseason. However, as the ace right-hander told Jorge Castillo of The Los Angeles Times, Scherzer doesn’t hold the Dodgers at fault for the situation, nor was the postseason a factor in his decision to sign with the Mets rather than return to Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers tried to limit their starters’ innings in order to keep them fresh for October, and Scherzer went into the playoffs assuming (and he told the club as much) that he was able to keep up the same workload as in 2019, when he helped lead the Nationals to the World Series. But, he and the Dodgers “never took that variable into consideration” of how pitching less heading into 2021 postseason would impact his arm.
Though the lockout prevented the Rule 5 Draft from taking place in its usual December timeslot, the R5 will happen at some point once the transactions freeze is over, thus continuing one of baseball’s oldest traditions. At a time when competitive balance is at the forefront of labor talks between the league and the MLBPA, the Rule 5 Draft has long served as a vehicle for players to gain opportunities on new teams, and to prevent clubs from hoarding young talent. While the specifics and procedures of the event changed greatly over the years, the Rule 5 Draft has existed in one form or another since 1892, becoming a staple of the offseason even if often overshadowed by bigger winter transactions featuring proven MLB stars.
And yet, the Rule 5 Draft tends to jump into the headlines whenever one of the picks ends up becoming a notable contributor to his new team. Last year’s draft, for example, was a particularly strong class that saw Garrett Whitlock (Red Sox), Akil Baddoo (Tigers), and Tyler Wells (Orioles) all deliver strong rookie seasons. Both the modern rules of the draft and the increased focus on prospect value make it less likely that a true superstar minor leaguer will slip through the cracks of the Rule 5, though that doesn’t stop teams from dreaming that just maybe, their next Rule 5 pick will end up being the next Roberto Clemente.
Like clockwork, Clemente’s name is inevitably mentioned every year around Rule 5 time, as the Pirates legend is certainly the most prominent player to ever be selected in the relative modern era of the R5. (Hall-of-Famers Christy Mathewson and Hack Wilson were also Rule 5 picks, though both players had already debuted in the majors prior to their selection.) Even in Clemente’s day, the Rule 5 Draft’s procedures were different than they are now, as Clemente was eligible to be selected due to his status as a “bonus baby.”
From 1947 to 1965, MLB had a rule in place stipulating that if any amateur player signed a contract with a bonus greater than $4K, that player had to remain on his team’s big league roster for two full seasons. If that player wasn’t on his new team’s active roster, he was eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft.
This is exactly what happened to Clemente, signed by the then-Brooklyn Dodgers in February 1954 at age 19. Signed for a $10K bonus and a $5K salary, that type of money in 1954 alone put Clemente on the radar of other teams, and international scouts were already well aware of Clemente’s potential. The Braves reportedly offered Clemente a much larger bonus, but he opted to stick with the Dodgers since he had already verbally agreed to their deal.
However, even with all of this known interest in Clemente, the Dodgers didn’t put him on their 25-man roster. Brooklyn had won the last two National League pennants, and with the team aiming to finally break through and win the World Series, the Dodgers felt they couldn’t afford to have an untested rookie filling a roster spot. Clemente was instead assigned to the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Montreal, as the Dodgers seemingly just crossed their fingers that they could sneak him through the Rule 5 field.
In a 2019 piece for The Athletic, Stephen J. Nesbitt unraveled some of the mythology surrounding Clemente’s brief Dodgers tenure. The popular version of the story is that Montreal tried to shield Clemente from rival scouts by limiting his playing time and benching him whenever he had a good game, or removing him from the lineup if he had a big hit early in a game. However, SABR researcher Stew Thornley noted that the right-handed hitting Clemente was almost never deployed against right-handed pitching, so a strict platoon could have been more to blame for Clemente’s lack of playing time than any attempt from the Dodgers to try and “hide” him.
Besides, while Clemente hit only .257/.286/.372 in his 155 plate appearances with Montreal, his raw ability was hard to miss. (Clemente was also on fire while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico around the time of the R5.) The Pirates took clear notice, and since they had the first pick of the 1954 Rule 5 Draft, Clemente was quickly Pittsburgh-bound that offseason. If the Dodgers’ strategy was indeed to just hope that other teams would ignore such a prominent prospect, the bet didn’t pay off.
As Nesbitt notes, longtime Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi has told a few different stories in regard to why or how Brooklyn lost Clemente, such as Pirates GM Branch Rickey backing out of a gentleman’s agreement to not take Clemente in the Rule 5 Draft. In another version, Bavasi claimed the Dodgers signed Clemente solely to keep him away from the arch-rival Giants, and eventually direct him via the R5 to an also-ran team. Bavasi also said in an e-mail to Thornley in 2005 that Jackie Robinson personally told the front office that adding Clemente to the team and removing a white player from the roster “would be setting our program back five years.”
All of Bavasi’s claims seem to only generate more questions than answers, and yet the end result was still Clemente in a Pirates uniform. In the short term, losing Clemente didn’t hurt the Dodgers, as the team continued being a perennial contender and won four World Series titles between 1955-65. As well, Clemente took some time to fully adjust to the majors, hitting a modest .289/.311/.395 with 26 home runs over his first five seasons and 2560 plate appearances with Pittsburgh.
Needless to say, however, Clemente is an awfully big “one that got away.” One can only imagine how much more successful the Dodgers would have been with Clemente in their lineup, especially after he broke out into true stardom. From 1960-72, Clemente hit .329/.375/.503 with 214 home runs while playing peerless right field defense and unleashing arguably the best outfield throwing arm in baseball history on many a hapless baserunner. If Bavasi did count on Clemente being suppressed on a losing team, that plan backfired — the Pirates ended becoming much more competitive during Clemente’s tenure, highlighted by World Series championships in both 1960 and 1971.
It could be that losing Clemente inspired the Dodgers to take a bit more care with their next “bonus baby” player. The next season, Brooklyn signed another promising youngster to a hefty $14K bonus and stuck with him on the MLB roster for the next two seasons. Like Clemente, it also took this player some time to become a star, yet the Dodgers’ patience more than paid off as Sandy Koufax started dominating batters.
Clemente’s legend perhaps looms largest on December 31, as it was on this day in 1972 that Clemente and three other passengers died during a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. The flight was a relief mission intended to bring aid to Nicaragua following an earthquake, and Clemente wanted to personally supervise the delivery to ensure that the goods would reach their intended destination. Clemente was only 38 years old at the time of his tragic passing.