Men on wire: For some MLB players, off-season means changing teams over and over

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Wednesday February 1st, 2017

On Dec. 21, the day he turned 27 years old, lefthanded reliever David Rollins was driving from his home in the Dallas suburb of Frisco to visit his family in east Texas and celebrate both his birthday and the holiday season when his cell phone rang. It was the Texas Rangers, calling to tell him that, for the second time in a month, he was part of the team; the Rangers had claimed Rollins off waivers from the Phillies, who had claimed him off waivers from Texas just three weeks prior but had designated him for assignment on Dec. 14.

“I called my dad and told him, ‘I got the best birthday present ever: I’m back with the Rangers,’” says Rollins.

Two days later, the Rangers called him back. They had picked up another pitcher off waivers, and to make room on the 40-man roster, Rollins had to go. Luckily, they told him, another team had already claimed him. And so, for the second time this off-season, Texas dumped Rollins, and for the second time this off-season, he became a member of the Chicago Cubs, who had waived him in the middle of November after claiming him from the Mariners.

“I just laugh at it now,” Rollins says of his sixth transaction and fourth team of the winter—all of which came in a five-week span. “It’s happened so many times that it feels like a bad joke.”

Every winter, hundreds of major league and minor league players change organizations. Some get the luxury of being able to choose their team through free agency; others are uprooted unexpectedly via trade or waivers. But for the great majority of those players, no matter how they find a new team, they can rest easy knowing that it’s the only one they’ll join.

That’s not the case for Rollins or a handful of other players who have been subjected to a transactional roulette that has kicked them from team to team all winter long. For them, the off-season has been a kind of purgatory in which they’re dropped and claimed at a moment’s notice—and with no advance warning.

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“Every call I get from a number I don’t know, I’m always like ‘What is this,’” third baseman Richie Shaffer said recently. “My wife panics every time I’m talking on the phone.”

Shaffer was just DFA'd by Cleveland on Monday, the latest twist in an off-season in which he has gone from the Rays to the Mariners to the Phillies to the Reds to the Indians. He and Rollins are two of the seven men this winter who have changed teams at least three times. The others are righthander Brady Dragmire (Pirates to Rangers to Pirates to Rangers); catcher Juan Graterol (Angels to Reds to Diamondbacks to Angels to Blue Jays); pitcher Tyrell Jenkins (Braves to Rangers to Reds to Padres); righthander Blake Parker (Yankees to Angels to Brewers to Angels); and outfielder Adam Walker (Twins to Brewers to Orioles to Braves). As might be expected, sometimes those players cross paths: When the Rangers ditched Rollins in late December, it was to claim Dragmire for a second time.

“Everyone wants you, and no one wants you that much,” says catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who spent three weeks during the winter of 2014–15 going from the Red Sox to the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Orioles; he’s now with the Athletics after spending the 2016 season in the minor league systems of the Braves and the Blue Jays, respectively.

A number of factors go into making these players simultaneously desirable and fungible. As minor leaguers with not enough service time to elect free agency, they’re the easiest to remove from a roster, with the hope that they’ll pass through waivers unclaimed and stay with the organization. Each player is also a fringe major leaguer, though he usually has at least one attribute that makes him attractive to a big league club. Despite his 7.60 ERA in 31 career games—all with the Mariners the past two seasons—Rollins is a lefthanded reliever, something that’s always in demand. Shaffer hit only .213 in parts of five seasons for Tampa Bay, but he will be just 26 on Opening Day and was a first-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2012. Despite that pedigree, though, when it came time for the Rays to clear roster space in November, it was Shaffer on the chopping block.

“I knew they were going to make moves because they had to,” Shaffer says of the Rays. “I didn’t necessarily anticipate me being one of them, but I wasn’t overly surprised when a Tampa number popped up on my phone.”

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As Rollins and Shaffer know, the process by which a player changes teams is relatively simple: A member of your team’s front office will call you to tell you that that you’ve been placed on waivers. In some cases, you’ll be told that another team has already claimed you. Your old team will wish you the best of luck, and soon after—sometimes within an hour—your new team will call to welcome you aboard and tell you how excited they are to have you. For these players, that process has repeated itself so many times—the apologetic and sympathetic call followed by the celebratory one—that it’s lost meaning.

“They try to spin it in a positive way. I can appreciate that, but it doesn’t do much to soften the blow,” Shaffer says. “I was sort of numb to it by the end of it. You’re kind of protecting yourself from getting let down again.”

Those calls can take on a ridiculous air when they’re coming from a team you’ve already been on. “After I got picked back up by the Rangers, I just laughed,” Rollins says. “They were like, ‘Welcome back,’ and I was like, ‘I appreciate it.’ When the Cubs picked me up [the second time] and called me, they said the same thing. I was like, ‘It’s good to talk to you again.’”

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Because it’s the off-season, players don’t have to relocate physically, but the constant paper movement does create complications. Shaffer recalls attending an office Christmas party with his wife, Danielle, on the day Philadelphia claimed him off waivers from Seattle. Most of her coworkers, though, thought he was still with the Mariners, so she told him simply to pretend that he hadn’t left. “I spent the whole night telling people how excited I was to be with Seattle when I got DFA’d five hours before that,” he says. There was also the $600 worth of Mariners gear Danielle had bought as holiday gifts for family and friends that had to be returned—except for the personalized jersey she had bought her husband, which they couldn’t exchange.

“She was like, ‘Can I get Phillies stuff?’ I was like, ‘Do not get that,’” Shaffer says. That proved prescient: Nine days after the holiday party, the Phillies let him go.

In December 2014, Lavarnway put a deposit down on a spring training home in Arizona when the Dodgers claimed him off waivers from the Red Sox early that month. But the Burbank, Calif. native's time with his hometown team didn’t last long; two weeks later, he was on the Cubs, and four days after that, he was an Oriole, heading to camp in Florida. As for his place in Arizona? “I didn’t get my money back,” he says with a laugh.

Players must also grapple with the psychological toll of being let go over and over again. The act of being released can sometimes feel decidedly personal, particularly coming so quickly after being claimed, and the feeling of knowing that a new team could be just a phone call away can be exhausting. Adopting the in-season mantra of taking things one game at a time—or, as it were, one team at a time—helps bring some stability to a winter full of turmoil.

“When this happens, I just try to think of the positive,” Rollins says. “This is going to be the team I stick with, or this isn’t going to happen again. I try not to let the stuff I can’t control get to me.”

“You look at the other successful big league guys who have been DFA’d or outright released and go, 'It’s not the end of the world,'" Shaffer says. “People will DFA or trade me or whatever, but people are always willing to pick me up.”

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Nonetheless, changing teams can have some upside. Rollins, for example, is now on the best team in baseball (albeit for a second time this off-season), and one that needs lefthanded depth in the bullpen. Claimed players remain on a 40-man roster instead of being outrighted to the minors (or released outright) and losing out on increased pay and benefits. There’s also the opportunity to prove front offices wrong about their waiver-wire decisions. “I’ll play the season with a pretty sizable chip on my shoulder,” Shaffer says. “[Four] teams decided they didn’t mind giving me away for nothing. If that’s not motivation to someone, I don’t know what is.”

With spring training rapidly approaching, these peripatetic players will continue their winter workouts to get ready for the season. They all know that there is no guarantee that the team they’re currently on is the one with which they’ll be reporting to camp. For now, all they can do is wait and hope that, the next time the phone rings, it won’t be a call from a number they’ve never seen telling them to change their plans—again.

“My mom will call me and ask, ‘Are we still with the Cubs?’” Rollins says. “I’ll tell her, ‘Yeah, we’re still with this one for now.’”

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