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The rise of Hanrahan and Clippard

7/12/2011

I spent my career as a general manager with small-market clubs (Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals), and the team payrolls that were usually in the bottom quadrant. In order to compete, the scouting department had to draft well, and as a GM you had to take chances on reclamation projects, minor league free agents or making minor league deals to acquire undervalued players.

Joel Hanrahan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tyler Clippard of the Washington Nationals both fit that description, and both are representing the National League in this year's All-Star Game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. We signed Hanrahan as a minor league free agent in November 2006. He was at the top of our minor league free-agent ranking list because of his size, delivery and raw stuff, not because of his command or control.

Hanrahan was the Los Angeles Dodgers' second-round selection in the June 2000 draft. At 6-4, 245 pounds, Hanrahan had a mid-90s fastball. (Now it's an upper-90s juicer.) The potential was always there, but he never figured out the real estate of the strike zone. We gave him his first chance in the major leagues, at 25 years old, in 2007. He rewarded us with a 6.02 ERA and a 1.905 WHIP in 11 starts. Horrible.

I had a conversation with him at the end of that year that he reminded me about on the field prior to Monday's Home Run Derby. While he was telling me how much he liked Taylor Swift's music, I had told him that his best role would be as a closer. He could let it fly and only have to worry about commanding and controlling the strike zone for one inning rather than seven. He saved nine games the next year for the Nationals, with an ERA of 3.95 and an improved WHIP of 1.364. After I left the Nationals, they traded him to the Pirates. Four years later, he’s figured it out, making his first All-Star appearance with a 1.34 ERA, 26 saves in as many opportunities and a 0.917 WHIP at the break. As he told me last night, "I finally figured out how to command the zone, locate my pitches and most importantly learned I don't have to strike everybody out and just let my incredible defense behind me make the plays."

When we see success stories in baseball like we have in the first half of this season with Hanrahan of the Pirates, Philip Humber of the White Sox and Charlie Morton of the Pirates -- pitchers who put it together late in their careers after many failures -- we're reminded that good scouting of players' physical abilities, talents and potential can often times be more important than the statistical analysis of their prior poor performances.

Tyler Clippard, 26, will also be making his first All-Star appearance. Like Hanrahan, Clippard had a 6-plus ERA in his first year in the majors, as a 22-year-old with the New York Yankees. Of course, his first opportunity in the majors included just six starts and 27 innings pitched in one of the most pressurized environments in baseball. We traded right-handed reliever Jonathan Albaladejo for him at the 2007 winter meetings, my final deal ever with future Hall of Fame GM Brian Cashman. Albaladejo had pitched great for us in his Starbucks (cup of coffee) that year, posting an impressive ERA of 1.88 in the major leagues after he had dominated the minor leagues that year. Ironically, one of the reasons we made the deal is that we felt Clippard would develop into a starting pitcher, while Albaladejo was more of a middle-of-the-bullpen type arm. The starting pitcher idea didn't work out. However, in 2009, two of baseball best coaching minds, Tim Foli and Steve McCatty, decided that Clippard would be better served in the bullpen because of his delivery and the effectiveness of his two above-average pitches. And because of Foli and McCatty and Clippard's hard work, Clippard -- with a 1.75 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 51.1 innings and an 0.875 WHIP at the break-- is now an All-Star. He's an example of what can happen when the right development minds put players in the best position to succeed.

Two deserving All-Stars, one a minor league free agent signed in 2006, the other acquired in a minor league deal during the winter meetings in 2007.

Congratulations to both players on their unique journeys and perseverance, and congrats to the scouts and player development personnel who were involved in their acquisitions and development.