Among the moves made by the Pittsburgh Pirates yesterday, the team made two waiver claims, selecting right handed pitcher Jeremy Hefner off of waivers from the San Diego Padres, and taking catcher Brian Jeroloman off of waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays. In almost every case of a waiver claim, the reception from the Pirates fan base is apathetic, although that apathy can also lead to anger over the move being made.
Let’s be honest about two things. First, waiver claims aren’t very exciting. The players who were claimed were only made available for one reason: they were the 39th or 40th best options on another team’s 40-man roster, and the team needed a spot, presumably for a better player. When you make a waiver claim, you’re not exactly adding an instant impact player to the team. But while we’re being honest, let’s face the reality: every team makes waiver claims. They’re part of the game, and while the players being claimed aren’t strong options right now, there’s a chance that a team could make an adjustment and turn that meaningless waiver claim in to a shrewd move.
The majority of the time this isn’t the case. More often than not the player was designated for assignment from his former team for a reason. Take Jeremy Hefner as an example. Hefner was one of the top prospects in the San Diego system prior to the 2011 season. He was then passed up by several other pitchers in the system, and struggled in his time in AAA, which led to the Padres removing him from the 40-man roster. But there are exceptions to every rule, and you can’t find the exception if you avoid waiver claims all together.
When teams make a waiver claim, there is usually a strategy involved. Usually the strategy revolves around the team seeing something with the player that they feel they can adjust, allowing the player to go from a waiver wire wonder to a major league player. It’s normally something that we can’t see, because in most cases we first hear of the player when he is claimed. That leads to thoughts like “If I had to pick a catcher, I’d rather have Eric Fryer than Brian Jeroloman”. That was my thought after seeing Jeroloman claimed and Fryer designated for assignment later in the day. But I’ll admit that I’m basing this opinion off of seeing Fryer, and having no knowledge of Jeroloman, other than the scouting reports that were written about him when he was a top prospect in Toronto’s system two years ago.
It’s not totally out of the question that a team can find a player, see a potential adjustment, and make a successful change to transform the player to a major leaguer. That’s what happened with the Pirates and Chris Leroux last year. The Pirates claimed Leroux in September 2010. They kept him on the 40-man roster all off-season, despite his 7.67 ERA in 29.1 innings in the majors at the age of 26. They held on to him after some early season struggles in AAA, and after a demotion to AA to work on his issues. But the patience paid off.
The Pirates adjusted Leroux’s arm slot to a three quarters angle. After some initial struggles, they sent him down to AA to make the transition easier. After his return to AAA, Leroux was a totally different pitcher. That showed in the majors when he put up a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings, along with an 8.6 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9 ratio. Leroux is currently pitching in the Dominican Winter League as a starter, working on using all three of his pitches to allow him to continue his improvement.
For every Leroux, there are probably ten Hayden Penn or Justin Thomas type waiver claims that don’t work out. But all of those waiver claims are worth it if the end result is getting a reliever like Leroux for nothing. This still doesn’t make waiver claims very exciting, but that’s no reason to avoid an avenue to potentially get free major league talent.