When teams break for spring training every season there are inevitably a few transactions or announcements that raise eyebrows. Sometimes a high-priced veteran is placed on the bench in favor of a surging minor leaguer, and sometimes a few injuries and a hot streak opens up the door for a player who seemed to have no more options left. Brandon Magee explains why the MLB debut of Jeremy Hazelbaker is one that we should remember.
Eleven months ago, Jeremy Hazelbaker was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization after failing to impress in his year and a bit with the team. Yesterday, the 28-year-old outfielder became a major leaguer, making his first appearance on a 25-man roster with the St. Louis Cardinals. While a long-term minor leaguer getting the call to the show is grist for the feel-good story mill, is there a chance Hazelbaker can be more than just a short-term bench warmer?
Hazelbaker was the 4th pick by the Boston Red Sox in the 2009 Draft as a centerfielder out of Ball State University – where he hit .429/.550/.724 and earned second-team All-American honors from ABCA/Rawlings. While Hazelbaker struggled with the change to wooden bats in debut season with the Red Sox (a .517 OPS in 48 games in 2009), his first full professional season showed his potential. In 116 games for the Greenville Drive, he batted .267/.360/.455 with 50 extra-base hits and 63 stolen bases while playing all three outfield positions. Hazelbaker continued his ascension in 2011, putting up a line of .269/.360/.445 over 124 games – 34 in High-A Salem and 90 in AA Portland. Hazelbaker put in a full season at Portland in 2012, with another .800+ OPS performance and putting himself on the radar as a potential major league player.
Then the bottom fell out. Hazelbaker was given a full season in AAA Pawtucket in 2013 and hit .257/.313/.374. While Jeremy was always a free swinger, averaging more than a strikeout per game since joining the Sox organization, his ability to take a free pass had been on a steady decline as he rose up the system. With a plethora of outfield options at their disposal in the upper minors – Jackie Bradley Jr., Bryce Brentz, and Alex Hassan among them – Hazelbaker was traded to the Dodgers for Alex Castellanos – who is looking to extend his brief 24 game career in the majors with the Colorado Rockies this season.
Assigned to AAA Albuquerque to begin the 2014 season, it took only a month for the Dodgers to demote him to AA. In 22 games for the Isotopes, Hazelbaker wilted to a line of .222/.239/.433 with 27 strikeouts and only a pair of walks. Sent across country to the AA Chattanooga Lookouts, Jeremy improved to a still mediocre line of .251/.326/.387. When his 2015 season started with a line of .245/.286/.358 in 14 games in the Dodgers new AA home in Tulsa, the plug was pulled. For the first time as a professional, Hazelbaker was out of a job.
Jeremy’s homelessness only lasted two weeks. The St. Louis Cardinals, who were coming to an end point of their own with Starlin Rodriguez, signed him and placed him in AA Springfield. And something amazing happened… he hit. Whether it was being closer to his Indiana home or, more likely, a subtle suggestion from a new batting coach, Hazelbaker put up numbers that he had not produced since his 34-game stay in High-A Salem – .308/.394/.503 in 40 games. Perhaps more important, he once again showed he was able to accept a walk, taking a free base 18 times. His impressive stint earned him one more shot at AAA, where he did even better, hitting .333/.403/.594 in 54 games with the Memphis Redbirds. In his 94 games in the Cardinal organization, Hazelbaker hit 23 doubles, 13 home runs, 10 triples and stole 18 bases – an impressive collection.
While spring training stats are notoriously unreliable as predictors for the regular season, Hazelbaker continued his impressive run by batting .300/.364/.500 in 44 plate appearances this spring. It was enough to give the 28-year-old a place on the 25-man roster when Ruben Tejada injured his quad on Thursday. The question is, for how long?
The Cardinals opening day roster is bizarre. With Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty likely holding down the majority of the outfield duties and Tommy Pham filling in wherever and whenever needed, the addition of a 5th outfielder is questionable. This is especially true with Brandon Moss being able to adequately handle the corner outfield positions in addition to first base. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will only have one utility infielder – Greg Garcia – to cover for Kolten Wong, Jedd Gyorko, and Matt Carpenter.
While Hazelbaker can patrol all the outfield positions – having played over 170 games at each in his minor league career – and has a potentially potent bat based on his last 100 games, it may be his disruptive baserunning that gave him the final push onto the roster. Among last season’s Cardinals, only Jason Heyward – now with the rival Chicago Cubs – and Kolten Wong broke into double digits in steals. In 2015, Hazelbaker stole 24 bases in 26 attempts – and an additional 11 in 12 attempts in the Venezuelan Winter League – and has never failed to break the 20-steal mark in a full season. Whether that alone is enough for Jeremy to keep a roster spot, only time will tell.
What does the future hold for Jeremy Hazelbaker? A look at another outfielder who debuted in the majors in his late 20s may give us a clue. Daniel Nava made his debut for the Red Sox at the age of 27, playing in 60 games for the 2010 Red Sox. The next season, he was back in AAA Pawtucket, not even receiving a September callup for the 2011 squad. Nava was able to climb his way back to the majors in 2012, and had his best major-league season as a 30-year-old – .303/.385/.445 with 41 extra-base hits – for the 2013 World Champion Red Sox. However, Nava quickly regressed in the following two seasons, although an explosive spring training for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this season earned him a spot in the big leagues.
On the other hand, he could be Bucky Jacobsen, who played in 42 games for the Seattle Mariners in 2004 at the age of 28, cracking nine doubles and nine home runs. It was his only big-league experience. Two years later, he was playing for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League. Four years later, he was out of baseball completely.
However the journey ends, Hazelbaker has taken the biggest step. After seven seasons of toiling in ballparks from Lowell, Massachusetts to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from Ciudad Obregon in Mexico to Puerto la Cruz in Venezuela, Jeremy Hazelbaker got to race out of the dugout at PNC Park in Pittsburgh as his name was called on MLB Opening Day. Whether his major-league career lasts for one more day or ten more seasons, no one can take that away.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.