THE WISER MAN
This is an article from the March 25, 2013 issue
The onetime first-round pick had a veteran's résumé by 2007: four seasons of double-digit wins, one of 19 losses, and a World Series start. He was only 24, having reached the majors at 20, not because he was precocious but because the '03 Tigers were miserable and needed anybody who could start.
Still, the righthander developed into a credible and sometimes brilliant starter before the injury bug bit in 2008. Thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve and circulatory condition, necessitated the removal of a rib and limited him to 20 games between '08 and '09. He still wasn't healthy in '10, his last season in Detroit, when he had a 5.53 ERA. Then, last April, he had Tommy John surgery.
Now Bonderman is in the running for a spot in the Mariners' rotation. He no longer throws in the mid-90s, but he believes his wealth of experience has made him wily. "I've had a good career," he says. "I'd just like to have a better one."
THE LATE BLOOMER
In 2003, Evan Gattis was a star high school catcher in Dallas with a scholarship to play at Texas A&M the following year. Instead he entered rehab to seek treatment for alcohol and marijuana abuse and depression. He later played at Seminole State junior college, but he quit school and baseball in '06. "I didn't want to play," he says.
Over the next few years Gattis worked as a pizza maker, janitor, valet, hostel worker, golf-cart attendant and ski-lift operator while traveling the western U.S., rarely staying in one place for more than a few months and sometimes sleeping on a mattress in the back of his truck.
In 2009, Gattis decided to give baseball another try. He enrolled at Texas--Permian Basin, and the following year the Braves drafted him in the 23rd round. He hit 40 homers in 610 minor league at bats in '11 and '12, and this off-season Gattis tied for the Venezuelan Winter League lead with 16 homers and earned the nickname El Oso Blanco (the White Bear). This spring he leads the Braves with a 1.076 OPS and could make the team as a backup catcher.
On Feb. 4, 2006, Juan Sandoval, a righthander with a heavy sinker who was rising through the Mariners' farm system, went to dinner with family in his hometown of Bonao, D.R. A drunken man began arguing with the restaurant's security guard. When the guard fired a shotgun into the ground to scare the man, three pellets ricocheted into Sandoval's right eye.
A seven-hour operation saved Sandoval's eyeball, but he was blind on that side. With 20--15 vision in his left eye, he learned to field ground balls despite diminished depth perception and returned to baseball nearly a year later. He got as far as Triple A in 2007, but by '11 he was pitching in the Mexican League.
Over the winter Rays reliever Joel Peralta saw Sandoval, now 32, pitch in the Dominican Winter League; after Peralta's rave report, Tampa Bay signed Sandoval to a minor league deal. Last Saturday he was reassigned to minor league camp, but G.M. Andrew Friedman says Sandoval has "the ingredients to be a really good major league pitcher."
THE MOUND CONVERT
By 2006, Gordon had been a minor league outfielder for 10 years, without a sniff of the big leagues. "I was 28, had spent four years at Triple A and had a feeling the phone wasn't going to ring again after the season," says Gordon. So he approached his manager with the Astros' Triple A affiliate with an idea: He wanted to try pitching. With help from team owner Nolan Ryan, Gordon, who had pitched in high school, reinvented himself and logged a total of 141/3 major league innings in '08 and '11, including two starts for the Yankees. Before the '12 season he signed with a team in Korea.
Now 34, Gordon is trying to win a job with the A's, an organization that welcomes reclamation projects. (Last year another hitter turned pitcher, Sean Doolittle, was a key reliever for the AL West champs.) "I get the question all the time: Why do you stick around after all these years?" he says. "I feel like I have something left to offer. My dream is to be a part of something great in the major leagues."
THE PLATE CONVERT
Owings always could hit: A star pitcher and first baseman in high school, he set the Georgia state record for home runs with 20 in his junior year. Drafted by the Diamondbacks as a pitcher in 2005, Owings had a .283 career average and an .813 OPS in 219 plate appearances (48 of them as a pinch hitter) between '07 and '12. His pitching career never took off, though (he was 32--33 with a 4.86 ERA as both a starter and a reliever), and when the Padres released him last fall, he decided to morph from hurler to first baseman.
Over the winter Owings and his younger brother Jon Mark, a former Braves farmhand, worked on Micah's hitting. He's a long shot to make the deep Nationals roster, but he's turning heads in camp: Last Thursday he hit a grand slam, his second home run of the spring. "He worked harder this off-season than I've ever seen him work before," says Jon Mark. "And I can tell he's having more fun than ever."