The minor leagues are filled with players that share the common goal of making it to Major League Baseball. There are many paths to the majors, from top prospects who are always expected to make it to longtime farmhands who wait for their call. Brandon Magee takes a look at a unique portion of minor leagues that switch roles to stay in baseball.
Williams Jerez was drafted by the Red Sox, in the 2nd round in 2011, as a 19-year-old outfield prospect out of New York City. However, Jerez was unable to transition from the aluminum bats of high school to the wood bats of single A. His failures at hitting led to the decision to change positions. Jerez now plies his trade 60’6’’ away from the batter’s box he once called home.
Jerez grew up in the Dominican Republic where he was widely scouted as a pitcher. However, he continued to focus on hitting. After moving to New York City in 2009, Jerez showed potential plus ability as an everyday player, batting .692 with 5 HRs and 26 stolen bases in his senior season. The Red Sox drafted the young talent 81st overall in the 2011 amateur draft. He played in 32 games for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, the entry level league for U.S. based players, batting .248/.285/.310. In 2012, Jerez was promoted to the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League, hitting .241/.276/.277 in 23 games. As a 21-year old in 2013, Jerez spent his third season in short-season ball and his second for the Spinners, turning in a woeful .176/.203/.235 in 38 games. His power never materialized, as 59 of his 73 hits were singles and he failed to launch even one home run:
With three failed seasons in rookie ball and Low A, Jerez had very little chance of moving forward as a hitter. Jerez and the Red Sox decided a return to the pitching mound was in order. In his first season back on the mound, Jerez pitched in 14 games for the GCL Red Sox and the Spinners, putting up a 2.88 ERA while striking out 40 in 34 ⅓ innings out of the bullpen. He was finally bumped to a full-season league this season, pitching for the A ball Greenville Drive of the South Atlantic League. Thus far this season, Jerez has made 12 relief appearances for the Drive, putting up an ERA of 2.16 and striking out 37 in 33 ⅓ innings of work:
The last major transition in the Red Sox system was former catcher Edgar Martinez. Martinez’s first five and a half seasons in the Sox organization was as a catcher. However, with the exception of a magical 2001 for the Lowell Spinners, he never showed any real offensive abilities. After spending the first half of 2004 as a catcher for the Portland Sea Dogs, batting .163/.207/.206, Martinez transitioned to pitcher.
Martinez immediately thrived as a pitcher, recording an ERA of 1.89 between Wilmington and Portland in his first full season in 2005. Used strictly as a reliever, Edgar struck out 59 and had a WHIP of 0.99 in 52 ⅓ innings. The Red Sox saw enough promise and added him on the team’s 40-man roster following the season. Martinez pitched well for Portland in 2006 before struggling in his first taste of AAA for Pawtucket in 2007. He was removed from the 40-man roster at the end of spring training in 2008, but pitched well for the PawSox as both a starter and a reliever that season. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Martinez as a free agent in January of 2009 but he was released at the end of spring training. Martinez has not gotten another chance in organized ball in the U.S., but continues to pitch in Mexico.
The conversion of Ron Mahay could be considered one of the most successful ever. Mahay spent 14 major league seasons as a reliever in the majors, pitching for eight different teams. Debuting for the Red Sox in 1997, the left-handed relief specialist pitched to an ERA+ of 187 and 138 in his two seasons with the Red Sox. His career ERA+ finished at 120:
Just like Jerez, Mahay was drafted by the Red Sox (18th Round in 1991) as a centerfield prospect. Although his minor league offensive stats were uninspiring, Mahay was one of the replacement players that began the 1995 season on a Major League roster. Mahay started five games in centerfield at the end of the month, hitting his only major league home run on May 26th in Anaheim against the California Angels. It was known by all, including Mahay, that he would be sent down to the minors after that game as the Red Sox had just acquired Tuffy Rhodes off waivers from the Cubs. Mahay, who had also pitched in high school, converted back to pitching after the 1995 season.
Sometimes conversions aren’t actually conversions, but decisions. Frankie Rodriguez was a second round pick of the Red Sox in the 1990 June amateur draft as a SS/RHP. Rodriguez played shortstop in the 1991 season for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox and the Elmira Pioneers of the New York Penn League, batting .283/.315/.398 with five doubles, four triples and six home runs. But, the pitching mound was his future.
Rodriguez started 25 games for the Carolina League Lynchburg Red Sox in 1992, recording a 3.09 ERA over 148 ⅔ innings at 19-years old. He was promoted to AA New Britain in 1993, starting 26 games and pitching 170 ⅔ innings. He again jumped up a level to AAA Pawtucket for the 1994 season, pitching 8 complete games and 186 innings as a 21 year old. Frankie would start the 1995 season on the Boston Red Sox roster, pitching an inning of scoreless relief in his major league debut on opening day. Rodriguez would have a seven year major league career, mostly with the Minnesota Twins, but was out of organized baseball after the 2001 season at only 28-years-old.
Sometimes, conversions swing the other way. Rick Ankiel debuted for the St. Louis Cardinals at 19-years old after blitzing through four minor league teams in two seasons, while recording a 2.35 ERA in AA and AAA in only his second professional season. Ankiel was Baseball America’s #1 prospect entering the 2000 season, and Ankiel pitched the entire season for the Cardinals, putting up a 3.50 ERA and placing second in Rookie of the Year balloting. The postseason, however, was another story. Ankiel pitched in three games in the NLDS and NLCS, allowing seven runs, nine wild pitches and 11 walks in only four innings of work. Ankiel’s problems continued in 2001 as he was eventually demoted to the Appalachian League Johnson City Cardinals to work on his pitching issues. Ankiel sat out 2002 with an elbow strain which would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery in 2003. He successfully made it back to the majors in 2004, but decided during spring training of 2005 to convert to the outfield.
After hitting an impressive .259/.339/.514 in the minors during 2005, Ankiel missed another year of ball in 2006 due to knee surgery. However, Ankiel was impressive in 2007 with the Memphis Cardinals, hitting 32 home runs before being called up by St. Louis, where he would hit an additional 11 homers in 47 games. Ankiel’s batting prowess quickly deteriorated after his 2008 season (.264/.337/.506), and he would become a journeyman outfielder playing for six teams in his seven seasons in the major league outfield. His arm always impressed as Ankiel garnered 32 outfield assists in those seven seasons:
Then, of course, there is Babe Ruth, who went 89-46 for the Boston Red Sox during his six year pitching career. Ruth led the league in ERA, ERA+, games started and shutouts during the 1916 season. Ruth also pitched all 14 innings in the Red Sox 2-1 victory over the Brooklyn Robins in the second game of the 1916 World Series. But Ruth is not known for his pitching. I suppose 714 career home runs and a career OPS+ of 206 does make his pitching career merely a remarkable footnote.
Whether or not Williams Jerez can become the next successful major league conversion remains to be seen. However, like the other notable Red Sox conversions of Edgar Martinez and Ron Mahay, Jerez has already shown more promise on the pitching mound than he did at the plate.