On Today’s Risk-Free Fliers

SCOTTSDALE, AZ: Zach Duke #19 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona.. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Zach Duke. Tim Redding. Luke French. Matt Tuiasosopo. Juan Pierre. Brent Clevlen. You probably know these names. They all have something in common. I guess they all have two things in common.

This is a post about guys who signed minor league contracts. Truth be told, this same post could be written pretty much every day of the offseason. On another day, this post would be about different players, but then, when you really get down to it, it would be about the same players.

Players sign minor league contracts all the time. A lot of them come with invitations to spring training. Players who sign minor league contracts with invitations to spring training aren't on the 40-man roster, but they're trying to crack the 40-man roster, or more specifically the 25-man roster. They're guys with hopes, guys who'll have to bust their asses. And they're usually guys who used to have the promise of being so much more.

Players who sign minor league contracts with invitations to spring training frequently have interesting, if vaguely or acutely discouraging, stories to tell. Following is a handful of players who just signed, and their stories. A brief overview of their stories. Their stories in full would run on for pages, and deserve more attention than I will be giving. Oh well!

Zach Duke
Since 2000 - which is an arbitrary but appealingly roundish endpoint - there have been 1,790 individual starting pitcher seasons of at least 80 innings. The lowest ERA out of all of them belongs to 2000 Pedro Martinez, at 1.74. The second-lowest ERA out of all of them belongs to 2005 Zach Duke, at 1.81. In 2005, Zach Duke was a 22-year-old rookie southpaw for the Pirates. That team also featured a 23-year-old Oliver Perez, a 23-year-old Ian Snell, a 23-year-old Paul Maholm, and a 22-year-old Tom Gorzelanny. Starting pitching was going to lead the Pirates back to prominence.

It didn't. And Duke kind of busted. In fairness to Duke, he was never close to as good as that rookie ERA, but since 2006 he's put up an ERA+ of 88. His strikeout rate and fastball velocity have declined. Last year with the Diamondbacks he made a dozen appearances out of the bullpen. Now he's signed with the Astros on a non-guarantee. Zach Duke turns 29 in April. He is younger than J.A. Happ.

Brent Clevlen
Clevlen hung around. The outfielder made his debut on Baseball America's list of the top ten Detroit Tigers prospects in 2003. He shot up in 2004. He missed in 2005, but he returned in 2006, and sat at No. 3 in 2007. Clevlen was young, and Clevlen had tools. Did you ever notice how "tool" rhymes with "drool"? I bet you did not! There is significance here. You drool over something appealing. Drool is gross.

Clevlen got his first cup of coffee in 2006 and smacked a pair of homers in his second-ever game. He'd homer again later off David Wells. He put up a .958 OPS over 42 trips to the plate. He's made 42 major league trips to the plate ever since.

Turns out it's good for hitters to command the strike zone. Clevlen's never really been able to command the strike zone. So often, the only thing keeping a promising player in the minors is his ability to distinguish balls from strikes. It sounds so easy. It might be the tallest of hurdles.

Juan Pierre
Pierre isn't a toolsy guy who's never made the necessary adjustments. Pierre isn't a guy who's lived forever on the fringe. Pierre made it. He has more major league hits to his name than Johnny Mize and Earl Averill. He's been an everyday player since 2001.

He's not going to be an everyday player anymore, and he's 34 years old. It's funny - Ichiro just had a down year in 2011, and because of his advanced age, many a fan wonders if Ichiro's hit the end of the road. In 2011, Ichiro posted an OPS+ of 84. Over Juan Pierre's career, he's posted an OPS+ of 84. And there's no evidence that he's been worth much of anything in the field.

Pierre's a weird guy to include, because he's accomplished so much. I probably shouldn't have included him. I'm not sure what his discouraging story is - he even won a World Series with the Marlins in 2003. Maybe his discouraging story is that he turned into an Internet punch line. I wonder if he knows that. I wonder if Juan Pierre is aware of the perception of Juan Pierre.

Tim Redding
The Tim Redding story, condensed, is as follows. Redding had a live fastball. He was known for his live, mid-90s fastball. He was drafted in 1997. Now some numbers.

Through 2002: 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings
Since 2003:
6.2 strikeouts per nine innings

Redding climbed the ladder, breaking into the majors in 2001. He was, understandably, one of Houston's top prospects. Then the strikeouts went away, and the velocity started to go away, and Tim Redding lost his sheen. He hasn't recovered. His highest major league strikeout rate since 2003 is 5.9. His highest minor league strikeout rate since 2003 is 8.3, over five games, eight years ago. He's 33. He's almost 34.

Luke French
French wasn't a top prospect. Almost from the moment he joined the Tigers organization, he was thought of as being system filler. He didn't have a big fastball, he didn't throw enough strikes, and he didn't miss nearly enough bats. Then a funny thing happened in 2009 - French picked up a good slider, and started getting strikeouts in triple-A. He got some strikeouts in Detroit. He got moved in a trade for Jarrod Washburn and joined the Mariners' starting rotation.

For whatever reason, the slider went away. French all but stopped throwing it. The strikeouts went away. He returned to being thought of as system filler. In Tacoma last year he posted a 6.27 ERA. French now is more or less what people thought he would be ages ago, but in between there was this glimmer of promise that might make French more satisfied with his career, or much much less satisfied with his career.

Matt Tuiasosopo
You recognize the name. You couldn't not recognize the name. Tui was the Mariners' first draft pick in 2004. He was athletic. So athletic. Toolsy. Littered with tools. Oozing tools. Sopping wet with tools, making a mess of tools on the floor. Tools left a trail wherever he went, and as such Tui never got lost in the woods.

Surprise! He didn't develop. You want to know what he did in his first exposure to double-A? He hit .185. And he slugged .218. In fairness though, he improved and even went on to find success in triple-A. 2008 was a solid season. 2009 was a solid season. Then things got worse in 2010. Then things got worse in 2011. In triple-A between 2010-2011, Tui slugged .395. In the majors, he's slugged .306.

Tui's 25. Last year, Mark Trumbo was 25. Tui has it in him to be a new kind of Mike Morse. But like Mike Morse, he doesn't play defense, and unlike Mike Morse, his bat seems to have stagnated. Those tools are getting worn down.

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