BALTIMORE – The Toronto Blue Jays had gone nearly two weeks without a successful waiver claim before they landed Aaron Laffey on Tuesday, their fourth player plucked from the wire this month and 11th so far in 2013.
Go back to last October and the number reaches 20, making general manager Alex Anthopoulos the undisputed heavyweight champion of the baseball world in bottom-feeding.
“Alex claims everybody,” Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said with a hearty laugh.
Yeah, pretty much.
The move for Laffey comes with the Blue Jays looking for a bullpen long man capable of making a spot start if needed, with no obvious sixth man in the minors right now (Ricky Romero may debut his new mechanics in a game for single-A Dunedin this weekend, but there’s no timeline for his return).
Add in that Laffey, who made 16 starts for Toronto last year, is an upgrade over long man Ramon Ortiz, designated for assignment after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss with the 28-year-old set to join the team in Baltimore on Wednesday, and there’s some clear logic to this claim.
Explaining the others isn’t quite as simple since they didn’t necessarily arise out of an immediate organizational need, but rather a strategic approach to both improve the system’s depth and build competitive teams at triple-A Buffalo and double-A New Hampshire, affiliates the Blue Jays value.
Providing them with players that can win as well as prospects that need to develop helps maintain a strong relationship — something that didn’t happen with triple-A Syracuse years ago, costing the Blue Jays that deal and leaving them with undesirable Las Vegas for four years.
Why waivers then?
At $20,000 a pop, a claim can be a cheaper way of adding the talent of an equivalent minor-league free agent signing, and sometimes the players that pop up on the wire are certainly capable of contributing at the big-league level.
And while the Blue Jays haven’t managed to keep all the players they’ve claimed, nine of the 20 plucked since October remain in the organization, including Laffey.
The process, however, isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Players end up on waivers when teams decide to release them, or if they get designated for assignment when they’re out of options and a club decides to demote them or needs to clear space on its 40-man roster.
Once selected, a player must be added to the claiming team’s 40-man roster, and if the player is also out of options, he must join the 25-man roster.
What the Blue Jays often do is claim a player and then try to sneak him through waivers so he can be assigned to the minors, at which point he can play for an affiliate and later be added to the big-league club as needed.
“They’re not the only team that does that,” says Duquette, whose Orioles are also fairly active. “There are other teams that look at the waiver wire as a way to add depth to their organization.”
While clever from a management perspective, it can be trying for players caught in the cycle, like right-hander Alex Burnett.
Claimed by the Blue Jays from the Minnesota Twins on March 29 and immediately optioned to triple-A Buffalo, he was designated for assignment April 10 when Anthopoulos claimed Casper Wells from Seattle, was claimed by the Orioles on April 12 and immediately optioned to triple-A Norfolk, and recalled Monday by Baltimore.
Forget about things from a career perspective for a minute, and imagine all that personal upheaval in the span of three weeks.
“That’s the biggest part of the whole thing, I had my wife with me in spring training, she’s pregnant, so that made it even worse otherwise she’d be with me right now,” said Burnett. “We had to go to Dunedin and I said, ‘You know what, honey? Everything is crazy right now, go home.’ I didn’t want her flying all over the place with me and moving.
“I had to break a lease in Minnesota because I figured I was going to be there, I had to get out of a lease in Buffalo, I had to get my car shipped from Minnesota to Buffalo, now I have to get it from Buffalo to God knows where right now. Yeah, it’s been a very crazy few weeks.”
Yet Burnett considers him lucky when compared to Wells.
The 28-year-old outfielder was designated for assignment by Seattle on March 31, claimed by the Blue Jays on April 10, designated again April 15 and finally traded to Oakland for cash on Monday.
Although Wells dressed for three games with the Blue Jays, he hadn’t played a single inning through Monday’s action.
“It happened pretty quickly for me, guys like Casper Wells were in limbo forever, he hasn’t been able to do anything,” said Burnett. “I think it’s something that should maybe be brought up in the next players’ association meeting. It is a bad situation when it carries on as long as it has for some people.”
A silver lining for such players is that while stuck in such limbo they at least earn a major-league salary and accumulate service time.
Even still, Burnett isn’t sure what to make of his Blue Jays experience.
He joined them in Dunedin at the end of camp, spoke with Anthopoulos, was sent to Buffalo and believed he’d see regular work with the Bisons. Instead, after two appearances, the 25-year-old was on the move again.
“When I found out I got designated I was kind of shocked, I was like, ‘All right, what was the point of claiming me then if this is what you’re going to do.’ But is what it is, it’s baseball,'” he said. “The way it looks now is that they’re just claiming whoever they can, trying to add depth.
“I don’t know what their mindset is on that, but to each their own, I guess.”
No need to guess. Expect the Blue Jays to keep on seeking even incremental gains playing the waivers game.