A Rite of Spring

Eight (!) players have been assigned number 69 for spring training. Nice.

A beach in Nice, France

A promise of spring comes with every lo-fi picture posted by a beat writer. These vague stills impart sounds. The <thwack> of bat meeting ball. The <pop> of ball in mitt.

Right now, hundreds of jerseys hang in lockers, awaiting a player to don them. Some of these are iconic. Clayton Kershaw’s #22. Mike Trout’s #27. We’ll get used to Chris Sale’s #41, and I’ll use this platform to promote Ryon Healy’s new #25. Welcome back, old friends.

Many are not as iconic. Come April, we’ll forget J.P. Crawford’s #67 and Austin Green’s #71. These players don’t have the numerical choice their lower-numbered comrades have; the fact that they have a jersey is enough. Every team fills their locker room to the brim this part of year, leaving an equipment manager to pass out every number they can. Most teams skip #69 in this ordeal, but some do not.

Here are the EIGHT (!) lucky souls assigned jersey number sixty-nine this spring.

Juan Graterol (C, TOR)

Every offseason, a few players resemble ping-pong balls more than they do people. By virtue of being a fringe Major Leaguer, Juan Graterol hit this particular lottery.

The 28-year-old backstop began his offseason as an Angel. On November 2nd, the Angels designated Graterol for assignment. Cincinnati claimed him six days later. Christmas Eve Eve came around, and Graterol was on the move again. This time Cincinnati tried to outright him off the 40-man roster, but Arizona jumped at the chance to claim him.

By January 13th Arizona decided to cut ties, designating Graterol for assignment. Graterol was claimed by his original club, the Angels. Four days passed, then the Angels designated Gratetol for assignment again. This time, Toronto claimed him.

Graterol might actually fit in Toronto. They need a backup catcher, and he’s the only catcher besides Russell Martin on the 40-man roster. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the frontrunner for that backup spot, however. A 40-man spot would need to be cleared for Saltalamacchia, so Graterol might want to keep a bag packed.

Reliever Peter Munro is the only Toronto player to wear 69 in-season, though Dwight Smith Jr. was assigned the number last spring.

Jake Hager (SS, TB)

Jake Hager reached Triple-A for the first time last year, and Tampa Bay rewarded him with an non-roster invite to spring training. The 23-year-old’s a solid defender, primarily manning shortstop but also logging time at third and second.

The bat still needs work. Hager hit only .233 across Double-A and Triple-A last year and is a career .262 hitter. But at 23, Hager has time.

Hager’s brother is an actor and producer based out of Manhattan. He even has an IMDB page and everything! Just like Jake, Wes Hager is chomping at the bit, waiting for a big break.

Hager’s path to the Majors is clogged by other utility infielders (Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham) and top shortstop prospects (Daniel Robertson, Willy Adames). However, Hager could still carve out a career as a utilityman given bat improvements and continued defensive proficiency.

Nobody has ever worn 69 in the regular season for the Rays. Taylor Motter was assigned the number in 2016 spring training, but changed to #38 in the regular season.

Ariel Hernandez (RP, CIN)

Nobody would’ve blamed Ariel Hernandez for giving up after the second straight year in rookie ball. Or the third. Or the fourth. Or the fifth. Or after the shoulder injury that caused the Giants to release him.

After his release, Hernandez briefly pitched in independent ball, then struggled through 22 short-season innings with Arizona. As with every stop prior, Hernandez couldn’t channel his plus stuff into results. He was left unprotected by Arizona in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft, and was selected by Cincinnati.

Hernandez, 24, tore up A-ball for the Reds last year, posting a 2.18 ERA and 10.7 K/9. The Reds decided to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this offseason. Within a calendar year, Hernandez went from unprotected in the Triple-A portion to protected in the Major League portion. He touches 100, and some scouts give his curveball a 70 on the 20–80 scale. If he can harness those tools, he’s a future closer.

Baseball America has a great article about Hernandez from when he was added to Cincinnati’s 40-man roster in November. Read that, if you would. The fireballing righty will get some Major League camp time this spring, but he’s a longshot for Opening Day. Given he performs in Double-A, we could see him later this year.

No Reds have worn 69 in-season. Outfielder Juan Duran was assigned the number last year, but he didn’t see any Major League time.

Danny Ortiz (CF, PIT)

2017 marks Danny Ortiz’s third straight Major League spring training, but his first as number 69. Ortiz, 27, spent the first eight years of his pro career in the Twins organization, reaching Triple-A in 2014 and 2015. Ortiz’s first Spring invite came from Minnesota in 2015. Ortiz latched on with Pittsburgh in 2016, and re-upped with the Pirates for 2017.

Ortiz is capable of playing all three outfield spots, with most of his reps coming in centerfield. His bat hasn’t seen the breakthrough needed to jump from spring training invite to the Major Leagues, though. Over three Triple-A seasons, Ortiz has accumulated a .285 on-base percentage.

During last year’s camp, Ortiz caught the attention of England’s Daily Mail. His bat slipped during a swing, and was on a direct path to an eight-year-old’s head. Then, the boy’s father knocked the bat out of the air, saving his son from harm.

Ortiz faces an uphill climb to the Pirates roster. Austin Meadows would take the place of an injured starting outfielder; to boot, all three outfielders are centerfield-capable. Utilitymen Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier can play the corners as well. However, if Ortiz can improve with the stick, he could position himself as a left-handed bench option.

If Ortiz can make it up to the Majors, he’d have a chance to wear number 69. Pittsburgh’s the one team that shows no hesitation towards the nice number, assigning it four times (and three times since 2011). The most recent wearer was reliever Wilfredo Boscan.

Dylan Unsworth (SP, SEA)

Dylan Unsworth has a chance to be the first South African to play in the Majors. The 24-year-old righty has already represented his country in the World Baseball Classic, and would’ve represented them at the 2016 Futures Game if not for a hamstring injury.

Unsworth’s calling card is his control. The aforementioned hamstring injury limited Unsworth to only nine starts (46 IP) last year. He walked seven batters in those nine starts. That’s five more walks than 2013, when he walked two batters all season. Two batters! Granted, it was in only 14 starts, but two batters! His BB/9 was 0.2 that year.

Unless something drastic happens this spring, Unsworth won’t make the Mariners roster. He simply doesn’t have enough upper level minor league experience. Unsworth’s spring training invite will still get him in front of Major League coaches, though. He’ll likely pick back up at Double-A, hoping to get a full season in before a potential late 2017/early 2018 debut.

As far as this researcher can tell, no Mariner has worn 69 in-game, nor has anyone been assigned the number in spring training. Unsworth himself was #10 for the South African national team.

Update I

2/15: Kevin Chapman added.

Kevin Chapman (RP, HOU)

I’ve been told Kevin Chapman will wear #69 for Houston this spring, and can confirm it. Chapman, who turns 29 later this week, wore numbers 66 and 50 during his previous stints with the Astros. Free agent acquisition Charlie Morton took 50 away from Chapman earlier this offseason, leaving the lefty no choice but to take 69. Such is life.

Chapman’s cousin is Marlins outfielder Matt den Dekker (#50). The two grew up together, attended the same high school, and played together at University of Florida. They’ve faced off once in the Majors, with den Dekker working a walk. On the plus side, Chapman got his second career win that day.

With a strong spring, Chapman could serve as Houston’s second left-hander. Other competitors include Ashur Tolliver and Reymin Guduan. Tolliver and Guduan face two disadvantages: Chapman is out of options, and neither wear number 69. However, Houston could decide that one lefty (Tony Sipp) is enough, leaving Chapman out in the cold.

Nobody’s worn 69 for Houston during the regular season, and further research hasn’t turned up a 69 being assigned in the spring.

Update II

2/16: Armando Rivero and Eric Skoglund added.

Armando Rivero (RP, ATL)

Before Armando Rivero defected from Cuba, he had never been on a boat before. Yet there he was, with his wife and brother, on a boat with five other people adrift in the Caribbean. A tumultuous journey followed, and now a Major League career is on the horizon.

The Des Moines Register outlines his journey here. It is worth the time to read and understand.

Six years have passed since Rivero defected. After defection, he signed with the Cubs, for whom he gave four years of quality Minors relief work. Occasionally, Rivero would close like he did in Cuba. Mostly, he’s pitched in middle relief.

Across those four years, the 29-year-old posted a 2.70 ERA. His efforts with the Cubs were rewarded with an invite to 2016 Major League spring camp, where he wore number 81.

Rivero was plucked by Atlanta in the 2017 Rule 5 draft. The right-hander has a decent chance to make the Braves Opening Day roster; his status as a Rule 5 pick and Atlanta’s general dearth of talent play a role.

If Rivero makes the Braves roster, he’ll likely trade in 69 for something lower. No Braves have worn 69 during the regular season or in the spring, as far as I can tell.

Eric Skoglund (SP, KC)

At 6'7", Eric Skoglund has the long levers scouts dream of. A 2014 draft pick out of Central Florida, Skoglund has already made his mark in Kansas City’s minors. The scary part is, the left-hander hasn’t even scraped his ceiling.

Skoglund, 24, made his Double-A debut last year. In 27 starts for Nortnwest Arkansas, he recorded a 3.45 ERA; that mark was 7th best in the Texas League. Skoglund’s quality season earned him a place on the Texas League All-Star team, his second All-Star team in three pro seasons.

Even with Kansas City considering a rebuild, Skoglund likely won’t make the Opening Day roster. He’s a non-roster invite, and Kansas City already has three left-handers in their rotation. Skoglund seems likely for Triple-A this year, with a midseason call-up possible.

Skoglund could be the first Royal to wear #69 in-season (and in spring), though this writer wishes Brooks Pounders would’ve been the first.

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