Watch any major league game these days, and you’ll probably see both managers make several trips out to the mound to make a pitching change. Heavy reliance on relief pitchers lends itself to roster churn, a near-constant replenishing of bullpen arms.
It’s created a class of relief pitchers increasingly familiar with frequent flyer miles, veterans of the up-and-down back-and-forth between the majors and minors.
“It is definitely a hard transition back and forth between the majors and minor leagues,” said pitcher Casey Sadler. “Lots of packing and unpacking, but it’s alright. It’s worth it.”
Sadler has been sent to the minors nine different times this season, but hasn’t let the constant upheaval affect his season, posting a 1.42 ERA in 31⅔ major league innings, plus a 3.26 ERA in 38⅔ innings in Triple-A.
The Rays designated Sadler for assignment on June 29, a process that removes a player from the 40-man roster. While in roster limbo, the player is essentially a man without a team, unable to work out at a team facility for up to a week while he is placed on waivers. Sadler’s wait lasted four days, until he was traded to the Dodgers. Sadler found the positive side of his time in limbo.
“I enjoyed the time with my family, to be honest with you,” he said.
Family is important to Sadler, whose wife and young daughter have followed him to various Triple-A ballparks the last few years, living in an RV in-season.
“It’s a real blessing. My wife is a saint for doing that. It makes things a whole lot easier. I know it’s hard on her, but it’s something she does because she wants our family to be together as much as we can, and I’m extremely appreciative of that,” Sadler said. “It makes the good games better, and the bad games not so bad.”
Players generally have three option years — in some rare cases, a player qualifies for a fourth — but within each of those years a player can be optioned an unlimited number of times. When a player is optioned to the minors he must spend at least 10 days there before he can return to the majors, unless replacing an injured player.
Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement calls for a minimum salary of $555,000 while in the majors. This is pro-rated over a 187-day season, so each day in the big show earns a player just shy of $3,000. For those on a 40-man roster, the minimum while in the minors is $90,400. The minor league season is 153 days long, so each day at the minimum salary is about $590, roughly one-fifth of major league money.
Another caveat is that a player must accrue at least 20 days on assignment to exhaust an option year. Sadler, who was optioned in both 2014 and 2015, was also sent to the minors in 2018, but only for a total of 16 days. So instead of being out of options this season, he had one more year remaining on the express back and forth between the majors and minors. He’s used it nine times.
He’s not alone.
Brock Stewart, now with the Blue Jays, spent 16 different stints in the majors with the Dodgers in a two-year span from 2016-18. In a seven-day stretch in May 2018 he was called up to the majors twice and sent back to the minors twice more, an odyssey that took him from Oklahoma City to Monterrey, Mexico to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Colorado Springs, all in one week.
Stewart was optioned seven different times in 2018. He saw a lot of fellow pitcher Pat Venditte, who was also optioned seven times last year.
“We’ve never spoken about it out loud,” Venditte said last year of his and Stewart’s constant travel. “There have been times when I’ve been passing him getting off the flight at the airport, and vice versa. Literally the only thing you can do is pitch well, that’s it.”
Silvino Bracho was optioned nine different times by the Diamondbacks in 2018 — believe it or not, that didn’t even lead baseball; Eduardo Paredes of the Angels did the up-and-down 11 times — but this year has been out with Tommy John surgery. The only saving grace to his 2019, if any, is that while on the 60-day injured list he’ll accrue a full year of major league service time, and major league pay.
That wasn’t always the case last year, with those nine trips back and forth to Triple-A.
“He handled it extremely well. It’s almost gotten to the point where he would come into the office without even saying a word he’d shake hands and say ‘I’ll see you again in 10 days’,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said last year. “He took it in stride when he was here. He pitched extremely well when he was here. But the important part of the equation is that he never let it affect him when he went down to Triple-A.”
The key for these players is to make themselves memorable, either while in the majors in brief spurts or when they return to the minors, and make sure that when the major league bullpen needs another arm, they’re the name that gets called first. Being in the show even in small doses beats not getting there at all.
“You have to tell yourself when you get sent down that the only way you’re going to get back is to do what you were doing before. In the moment it’s difficult for a little while after you get sent back down but after a while you just have to keep going,” Venditte said last year. “[In 2017] I started and finished in Lehigh Valley, and would have loved to have one time up. I’ll take it.”