Eye on the targets! MLB clubs are eyeing final pieces to fill out their rosters
Long-time scout, Bob Johnson, who has four decades of scouting for big league clubs, offers his insights into how MLB teams scramble to finalize their Opening Day rosters
By Joe Frisaro @ManOn2nd
“Opt-out day” is one of those under-the-radar important dates on the MLB calendar.
It’s the day when many non-roster invitees, those who haven’t been given an indication they will make the club, can exercise an out to become a free agent. It’s usually about a week before Opening Day, which allows these players time to hook up with another club.
Spring Training is at that point right now, and all clubs have had scouts in the field, scouring clubs for potential targets. These player targets include NRIs, players out of options, trade candidates and anyone else who may not make the Opening Day roster.
“The last two weeks are really the key,” long-time scout Bob Johnson told Man On Second Baseball. “That’s when you start to bear down. You have a pretty good idea of who is making the club. Everybody can name 20-22 players on every team. Everybody. But what you’re doing, and this is getting down to what scouting does in Spring Training, there’s still four slots to fill.”
Johnson knows the drill all too well. His scouting resume spans nearly four full decades, from 1976-2015. During his respected career, Johnson worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Montreal Expos, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves.
Man On Second Baseball is thrilled that Johnson will be a regular contributor to our site.
MO2 sought his expertise into what the life of a scout is late in Spring Training, and what teams are doing to finalize their rosters.
With Opening Day on April 1, clubs have had their scouts in the field with their target lists of potential players who might become available.
“What are we looking for?” Johnson said. “Are we looking for an extra infielder? Are we looking for a backup catcher? Are we looking for an extra outfielder? Are we looking for another bullpen arm? We would be told what we are looking for, and this is a guy who might be available.
“GM’s have a list of targets. We would all have these six-year free agent lists. We would all have the end of options lists. A lot of teams have outs on contracts [for NRIs]. We’d know who those guys are. Those guys often were the targets of the scouts. Who is going to be released from this club, if they don’t make the club?”
After weeks of players in camp battling it out, these last few days of Spring Training are when the action will begin. This upcoming week should provide a late flurry of player movement before the regular season starts.
As fans follow along, playing GM at home or on social media, here’s an important tip to remember: The players currently in a big league camp aren’t the only candidates to make the Opening Day roster. There’s always surprises. There’s always players who appear to be “locks” to make the club who end up not being on the final 26. Often, a player cut elsewhere may be a better fit than what is on your roster.
The role of scouting plays an important part in all of this.
Analytics can register, for example, pitch velocity and exit velocity. But scouts can break down pitching mechanics and read swings, and obtain information on players that can’t be found on a spreadsheet.
Johnson became an advance scout for the A’s in 1997, and served in that role almost two decades. Advancing means he would primarily focus on the upcoming opponent for his club. Traditionally, in Spring Training, he’d break off from other scouting duties to begin advancing the Opening Day opponent with about a week remaining in camp.
In the evaluation process of players, Johnson cautions about getting too caught up in Spring Training statistics.
“We didn’t rely a great deal on Spring Training numbers or September numbers, because those were often very misleading on players,” Johnson said. “A lot of guys came up from the Minor Leagues that weren’t very good and had great Septembers. And there were a lot of guys who weren’t that good that had great Spring Trainings.”
There’s many reasons for the misleading figures. Perhaps a player competed in Winter League ball, and entered Spring Training having already had 40 or 50 at-bats, while other players had been working out at home. Players competing for roster spots take Spring Training performance more seriously than veterans who know they already have roster spots. They may be working on various aspects of their game, and not be concerned with game results.
Johnson relates a story on pitcher, Danny Darwin, who had a 21-year MLB career, and he logged 3,016 2/3 innings.
“Danny Darwin was pitching for the White Sox in 1997,” Johnson said. “I saw him give up 14 straight hits in Spring Training over in Sarasota. He got crushed. But he was getting his work in. I saw him two weeks later at Detroit, and he threw a two-hitter at the Tigers, because his arm was ready.”