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Do teams give up on useful players too quickly?

The Orioles have discovered a good amount of talent this year on other team’s trash heaps. Does this happen a lot?

Baltimore Orioles v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I promise I won’t tell that story again. The one where the Orioles trade away the struggling righty with the 5.46 career ERA and he went on to win the Cy Young for the Cubs two years later. Or the one where the 1991 O’s acquired 1B Glenn Davis from the Astros for Pete Harnisch, Curt Schilling, and Steve Finley, worth nine All-Star seasons and a possible trip to Cooperstown between them.

Most of the Orioles’ recent roster fails haven’t been as dramatic—Parker Bridwell, Andrew Triggs, Ariel Miranda. But some still hurt. Stefan Crichton, sent to Arizona last season, has turned into a competent reliever (a 4.24 ERA for the D-backs in 20 games out of the bullpen, which would be fourth-lowest on the current team). Christian Walker, cut so we could make room at first base for … oh, it’s slipping my mind—has 25 home runs for Arizona, good for a 2.1 WAR. And, lest you forgot him, Pedro Strop has a 2.89 ERA (and a World Series ring) with Chicago in seven seasons.

This 2019 season has me thinking about the ones that got away. I don’t mean just from the Orioles. For the rebuilding Orioles (I’ll be glad if I never hear that phrase again), it’s been the season of the bargain-bin steal. Not all the current waiver wire pickups are succeeding for the O’s. But there are enough that I wonder: do good teams give up too quickly on good players?

Hanser Alberto, with his plus-.300 batting average, was cut four times this season. When the Rangers DFA’d Renato Núñez in May 2018, they probably didn’t figure he would turn in a 30-homer season in the future. Pedro Severino was a last-minute waiver pickup from the Nats, but he’s putting to rest doubts about his ability to hack it at the plate. Anthony Santander, whom Cleveland allowed to be plucked in the Rule 5 draft in 2016, is now an everyday player and a producer in the three-spot.

So, I figured I’d check, how many players on the current roster were let go by other teams? (I won’t include guys who were traded as prospects by competitive teams, like Dillon Tate, coming from the Yankees for Zack Britton.) On the Orioles, that’d be the aforementioned guys, plus Richie Martin (Athletics), Rio Ruiz (Braves), Dwight Smith Jr. (Blue Jays), Mason Williams (Reds), Aaron Brooks (Athletics), Asher Wojciechowski (Indians), Richard Bleier (Yankees), Miguel Castro (Rockies), Ryan Eades (Twins), Ty Blach (Giants), Chandler Shepherd (Cubs), and Shawn Armstrong (Mariners).

So, like...everybody.

But the 2019 Orioles have, shall we say, unique needs. What about other AL East teams? These are the players on their roster who, at some point in their careers, were waived, cut, sold, or allowed to be taken in the Rule 5 draft, including some by their original team before they returned.

Yankees: Gio Urshela (Blue Jays), Edwin Encarnacion (Blue Jays), Cameron Maybin (Indians), Mike Ford (Yankees), Breyvic Valera (Giants), Jonathan Loaisiga (Giants), Adam Ottavino (Cardinals), Ryan Dull (Giants, Athletics), Tommy Kahnle (Yankees), Tyler Lyons (Pirates), Cory Gearrin (Mariners), Nestor Cortes Jr. (Yankees)

Rays: Ji-Man Choi (Angels), Travis d’Arnaud (Mets, Dodgers), Eric Sogard (Brewers), Jesus Aguilar (Indians), Johnny Davis (Brewers), Oliver Drake (Blue Jays), Chaz Roe (Braves)

Blue Jays: Justin Smoak (Mariners), Sam Gaviglio (Royals), Buddy Boshers (Reds), Jason Adam (Padres), Brock Stewart (Dodgers), Wilmer Font (Mets)

Red Sox: J.D. Martinez (Astros), Sandy Leon (Nationals), Chris Owings (Royals), Gorkys Hernandez (Giants), Juan Centeno (Rangers), Nathan Eovaldi (Yankees), Marcus Walden (Twins), Ryan Weber (Rays), Ryan Brasier (A’s), Josh Smith (Mariners), Colten Brewer (Yankees), Jhoulys Chacin (Brewers)

Kind of a lot.

Of course, I didn’t include players who teams signed off the waiver wire but who are since departed. So there’s a sampling bias, admittedly. Some things on sale are on sale, in other words, because they actually suck. But then again, many do not.

A few observations. First, I was surprised to see that the Yankees have so many players who were once considered valueless by other teams. They’ve had to acquire players on the cheap as a result of the injury bug that hit them this season. Of course, infuriatingly, everything they touch turns to gold: Maybin, Urshela, etc. But if the Yankees do it, all teams do it, too.

Second, a lot of players cut by teams, especially early in their career, went on to become roster contributors. Ji-Man Choi, a .261 hitter in 371 ABs this season, was cut three times (once by the O’s, no less). Oliver Drake, an Orioles draftee, has been cut eight times, but he’s stabilized this season with the Rays, with a decent 4-2 record and a 3.74 ERA. And J.D. Martinez, well, I imagined the Astros kicked themself at some point over waiving him. (That was in 2014—yes, the Mike Elias age, though he wasn’t Asst. GM yet.)

Third, it turns out that the Orioles are not so unusual. When it comes to the pitching staff, of course, they’re bargain-hunting way more than other teams (they lead the league in number of pitchers, and players, used). But in context, what the Orioles are doing this season looks less like dumpster-diving and more like scouting.

We can definitely debate whether the Orioles’ pickups have panned out. Many haven’t. But across the AL East, there are lots of deserving players who get cut and go on to find success. It seems like, even in the age of sabermetrics, scouting remains somewhat of a science, but to a large degree, still an art.