NEW YORK, NY - Hideki Matsui #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays flies out to end the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The AL East is packed with contending teams. If you're looking for one to pull for, here's a few veteran minor leaguers to sway you.
Each team in the American League East is .500 or better. The entire division is separated by three games or fewer. And you, as someone who doesn't especially care about the AL East, are wondering for whom to root. Understandable. So here is a power ranking of sorts -- a list of the veterans in the minor leagues who make you want to root for each team in the AL East. These are names you know, and they're playing in the minors right now (with one exception).
Roughly in order of rootability, though I could be swayed by a well-reasoned argument.
He doesn't really count because he's already in the majors now. But you could be reading about Ryan Garko. Would you rather be reading about Ryan Garko right now? A Ryan Garko anecdote or limerick to break the ice? No. No, you don't. So shut up and read about Hideki Matsui.
Hideki Matsui is … a guy you know. He's kind of cool. But he's hitting like fleh in the majors (over a ludicrously small sample) after hitting like flurp in the minors (over a ludicrously small sample) after hitting like Juan Rivera for the A's last year (over a reasonable sample). He might be an improvement over Luke Scott, but considering that Matsui is 37 and Scott is 33, I'd err on the side of Scott. Besides, you have to wonder if the poor stats are due to degenerative wrist problems.
Vladimir Guerrero -
Baseball is better with Vladimir Guerrero. It always will be. He's an urban legend that coaches tell pitchers to trick them into making curfew. The Guy Who Could Hit Anything. Slider in the dirt. Fastball at the eyes. Guerrero didn't care.
But that was the old Guerrero. The 36-year-old Vlad who was on the Orioles was pretty underwhelming. He didn't frighten a whole lot of pitchers. He had a .317 OBP and a . 416 SLG, which is middle-infielder territory.
He's still Vladimir Guerrero, of course. Two seasons ago, he finished 11th in the MVP voting, hitting 29 homers. Maybe he's just 36 and decaying, or maybe his 2011 was just a down year. We excuse down years all the time when 20-somethings have them. The odds are against it, but if he could help the Blue Jays to their first playoff appearance since 1993, it'd be a fantastic marriage of things you'd want to see. Vlad, hackin' at fastballs at his shoe-tops, and the Blue Jays, representing a country that hasn't seen nearly enough playoff baseball over the past 20 years.
Internet 1.0 made a cult hero out of Rob Deer. There was a thing called the Rob Deer Fan Club, and the members championed the Three True Outcomes -- walks, home runs, and strikeouts. If this is the first you've heard of any of this, you are young and annoying and go back to listening to … aw, hell, I don't even know what you listen to. That band I'd hate.
But Branyan is the modern Rob Deer. And he's sojourned across our fair land, riding more than a few buses. One of my favorite Sam Miller columns -- a rough competition -- is this one about Branyan:
Finally, Branyan emerged, wearing either a towel or a suit, this being my awful memory we’re relying on here. He answered questions for perhaps two minutes, then motioned to the door and said the bus was leaving and he had to leave. It was probably the most veteran move I ever saw in a clubhouse, and the most Russell Branyan answer possible, the subtext of which was basically: You think my arrival is a story. You are going to write my arrival as though it’s a story. My arrival is not a story. I’ll be gone soon. And he was.
He's hitting .333/.512/.800 in 41 AAA plate appearances. Of course he is. He's Russell Branyan. And we're all pulling for him down at the station.
I've been sitting here for an hour, trying to think of how a person could root against Mark Prior. Insanely myopic Yankees fan? Yeah, okay. Cardinals fan without any sense of perspective? Don't think any Cardinals fans that awful exist. If Prior were to come back as a shutdown reliever for a playoff team, it's a Disney movie. Throw in a love interest or a talking dog if you need to sell the spec script, but it's 70-percent done without you needing to touch it.
You hate pitcher injuries. Yes, you. A pitcher you rooted for -- a pitcher you wanted to succeed so damned bad -- succumbed to injuries and never came back the same way. My two: Noah Lowry and Jesse Foppert. Still light a candle for them every Opening Day. You have yours.
So you root for Mark Prior. You know you do. You might not root for him to beat your specific team in the heat of the moment, but you root for him in a general sense. All you have to do is not think about a bunch of drunk people singing Sweet Caroline during the … dammit.
In 2⅔ innings, he's struck out six and walked one. It's okay to ignore the small sample and get a little what-if on the baseball world.
If you root against pitching injuries, you root against concussions. They're such a vague, nebulous thing. One minute a talented young franchise cornerstone is sliding into second base, and the next thing you know, his career is in jeopardy.
So I root for Brian Roberts. He was the kind of not-that-good-but-still-good-enough player that the Orioles had no choice but to extend. If you were going to let Roberts go, who was safe? And so the two sides worked out an extension, only to have it futzed up by a concussion.
As always, I don't know the guy personally. Never had to transcribe post-game quotes as he spit sunflower seeds at me, grinning like Val Kilmer in Top Gun. But he's a player coming back from a freak injury and trying to come back for the surprise team in baseball.
I don't care if you're a Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, or Blue Jays fan: Picture a Brian Roberts walk-off hit to put the Orioles into the playoffs. Chills. You have chills. Well, you might be detoxing. But it's a good thought. You follow baseball for that brand of magic, the unexpectedly triumphant. Brian Roberts and the Orioles. Come on.
Your mileage may vary. But there's a quintet of interesting veteran reclamation projects toiling in the minor leagues of the AL East. Here's hoping that at least one of them can make a substantial difference.