For players like Whiteside, Hot Stove is about finding a team (or four)
A bluegrass festival at a beach resort on the Yucatán Peninsula, the land mass separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, seemed like the perfect respite after a long season, where the tropical sun ought to melt one's worries away.
That's where Eli Whiteside, the 33-year-old catcher, had taken his family last week after a long but successful season. From spring training through the World Series -- he won his second ring with the Giants --- baseball was a nine-month grind, which is never more apparent than to those squatting behind the plate. But even in Tulum, Mexico, Whiteside couldn't leave his work behind. "Check your email," his agent, Joe Bick, instructed him before he left.
The address of his employer had, after all, been changing rapidly. Five days after Whiteside celebrated the World Series by parading with his teammates through the streets of San Francisco, the Yankees claimed him off waivers on Nov. 5. Four weeks later, the Blue Jays claimed him after New York had designated him for assignment to make room for Andy Pettitte on the 40-man roster.
Toronto, however, had a glut of catchers, so Bick had a feeling Whiteside's transaction-filled offseason would continue. Sure enough, before Whiteside had made time to check his electronic inbox -- hey, it was vacation, it was Mexico and there were four bluegrass bands playing in rotation -- he did make time to call his mother, who was house-sitting for her son in New Albany, Miss., allowing her the chance to break the news of her son's newest employer: the Rangers had claimed him off waivers.
"It's been kinda hectic, you know?" Whiteside said in a telephone interview.
Phileas Fogg needed 80 days to travel around the world, but Whiteside was employed by teams across most of North America in less than half that time. His offseason has been a 37-day odyssey in which he has been on the rosters of four major league teams, who could scarcely be much more geographically disparate: east to west from San Francisco to New York, and north to south from Toronto to Texas.
"Our attitude is," Bick said, "it's good to be popular."
Whiteside is not the sole member of the four-or-more-teams club this offseason -- pitcher Sandy Rosario and outfielder Scott Cousins also belong -- but he's the only one who has earned a World Series ring (two, even) and the only one rotating exclusively through the rosters of likely contenders this summer.
There could still be more change in Whiteside's future. Until Thursday, Whiteside was clearly projected as the Rangers' backup catcher behind Geovany Soto. But there were reports (initially by ESPN.com and FoxSports.com) that Texas had agreed to a one-year contract with free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski. How that affects Whiteside is unclear.
"Whatever happens is going to happen," Whiteside said on Wednesday about such a possibility. "I can't really control anything other than my performance."
Good defensive catchers are always in demand, but Whiteside hasn't hit enough in his big league career -- a .215 average and .608 OPS with 10 home runs in 537 plate appearances -- to stick in one spot. Whiteside burnished his defensive reputation with the Giants early in 2009, his first year with the club, catching Jonathan Sanchez's no-hitter in his 10th start.
"He was a pitchers' favorite," San Francisco vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans said. "He was relatively quiet and unassuming in the clubhouse, but he has a great reputation with our pitching staff. And I think that's probably true of places that he'll go in the future as well." Indeed, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels cited that defensive reputation as the primary reason for claiming Whiteside.
The Hot Stove typically conjures images of top free agents being wined and dined with team executives before choosing where to receive their vast riches. But that's not the reality for the majority of players, many of whom are just looking for a fair shake at a spring training tryout.
"I know I'm a big league player, and I feel like I can help a big league team out," Whiteside said. "That's all I want going into camp, is a chance to make the team out of spring."
And, mercifully, Whiteside only kept his baseball agent busy and not any travel or real estate agents. Over time, one becomes accustomed to regular team changes, even if it's usually up and down the ladder from various minor league levels to and from the majors, so it's not like Whiteside has gone apartment-hunting each time a new team claims him. He and his wife, Amy, have two sons -- Whit will be three in February; Wake is only seven months old -- and they've grown accustomed to the itinerant life.
"My wife's unbelievable," Whiteside said. "She knows what goes along with this career. She's been with me since the beginning, and she's awesome and done a great job and keeping the family stuff together. We try to keep it as normal as possible with all the hectic stuff that goes along with it."
Whiteside entered the offseason with a feeling his tenure in San Francisco was over. He had played 187 games in his first three seasons as a Giant, including 82 in 2011, the year Buster Posey suffered a broken leg. But last season Posey rebounded with an MVP year, and Hector Sanchez emerged as the club's primary backup.
"I didn't really think I'd be back with the Giants," Whiteside said. "Love that team and love that organization. They've got a good thing going there. Good group of guys and I've enjoyed the time I've spent there. . . . Knowing there's not really a need for me there at the big league level, they were nice enough to give me an opportunity somewhere else, and I appreciate that."
Like many players, Whiteside first returned home to Mississippi and tried not to even think about baseball, meaning he hadn't taken the time to chart out possible landing spots. "No, but my wife had checked out a few teams," he said. "She had gone online and checked some rosters out. She was trying to play GM there for a little while."
Amy knows the game. She and Eli were high school sweethearts in Mississippi, so she's been there every step of the way, attending countless high school, Legion, college, minor league and big league games.
Whiteside spoke with the Yankees front office and warmed to the idea of playing for them. They had lost Russell Martin in free agency, and their depth chart was full of unproven players. New York even gave him a contract to avoid arbitration, with a $200,000 in guaranteed compensation and up to $650,000 if he were to spend the whole year in the big leagues.
"The way they talked," Whiteside said of the Yankees, "they felt like I was going to be competing for a spot there. You know, that's all I can ask for."
But roster spots are a finite resource in high demand during the offseason. When New York re-signed Andy Pettitte, it designated Whiteside for assignment to make room, prompting Toronto to swoop in and claim him.
"I didn't really know what the catching situation was in Toronto," he said, "so I got online and checked out their roster, and saw they already had four catchers on the roster."
That revelation was disappointing, but Whiteside at least appreciated the candor from the Blue Jays' assistant general manager. "He was straight-up and honest with me," Whiteside recalled of the conversation in which he learned he'd be a longshot to make the Opening Day roster.
Whiteside has one remaining option year, so he could have started the year in Triple-A without passing through waivers again if he remained on the 40-man roster. But the Jays soon needed that roster spot, and the Rangers snatched him off waivers.
Priority for waiver claims are given to clubs within the same league -- once Whiteside signed his contract, he became appealing enough that he hasn't lasted long enough on waivers to reach the National League again.
"The demand for good catching is high," Evans said. "There are only so many guys that can give you the kind of game that Eli can."
For now Texas is an appealing option: Dallas is much closer to his Mississippi home, and the club's catching depth chart suggests Whiteside should have a chance to make the team.
"I'm just happy to be where I'm at now," he said, "and hopefully I stay there."
The latter part, Whiteside has learned, isn't always so easy.