You can save your prospects and touted wunderkinds. I want to see the rejects and the retreads — those who have taken a second chance and succeeded. This is why I love baseball. It offers the unique opportunity for players to keep trying after failing. Baseball stands as a wonderful game of second chances.
Failure is one of the common denominators in life. We all fail sometimes, and professional sports players are not immune. Fortunately, for most people, failure means having to change tack and try again. For most professional sport figures, failure can be a death knell for their ability to make a living as a player.
Think about this: How many football players are able to become valuable contributors after flaming out? There are certainly exceptions, but they are definitely not the rule. Even then, you pretty much have to be a high draft pick to have a decent chance of being snapped up by another team.
Baseball, though, is a different beast entirely. There are a lot of reasons why players can flop in this sport and still manage to transform into useful pieces on a team. One of the reasons could be that the minor leagues (including Indy ball) and international leagues give players the ability to continue practicing their skills. Another reason could be that the nature of the game allows players to thrive in reduced roles while not necessarily at the peak of human physical condition (I’m looking at you football). Either way, the only thing that matters is that we get to watch players make good on comebacks all of the time.
Just on the Yankees’ extended roster, they have three players who have flopped harder than an aggrieved soccer player, and yet have managed to keep playing. Matt Carpenter, Nestor Cortes, and Lucas Luetge have each had to scramble to get on a Major League roster in the past couple years. Today, they have turned into valuable players.
To be fair, Carpenter did have a long-established reputation from his many years with the Cardinals. He made three All-Star teams, played a key role on a pennant winner in 2013, and is still beloved in St. Louis. By 2019, though his hitting started to suffer. That year, his triple slash line stood at .226/.334/.392 with an OPS of .726, and his batting only deteriorated from there. In 2020, his OPS sat at .639, and in 2021 stood at .580.
As a consequence, the Cardinals let him walk in free agency, and he had to accept a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers, where he was eventually released. The Yankees were able to pick him up, and the rest is history. (Now, they just have to hope that his broken foot heals in a hurry.)
The legend of Nasty Nestor began with an unspectacular thud. Picked by New York in a draft round that no longer exists (Round 36), Cortes had to leave the organization to simply make it to The Show, and his first taste of it in 2018 did not go well — his ERA was an ugly 7.17, and the eventual 115-loss Orioles cut him after four games. Things did not improve for him much from there. He did return to the Yankees and played 33 games with them in the #NextManUp year of 2019, but he could only be described as a replacement-level player. As a result, he was traded for future considerations to the Seattle Mariners, where he struggled with a 15.26 ERA in limited action.
After coming back to the Yankees on a Minor League deal, Cortes managed to right the ship while working in Triple-A Scranton. He took advantage of an opening in the MLB rotation and kept throwing terrific outing after terrific outing in 2021, cementing his spot on the roster. Cortes has now managed to post an ERA below 3.00 in both 2021 and 2022, when he made his first All-Star team.
Lucas Luetge represents the most remarkable of second chances. Before becoming a member of the 2021 Yankees, he had not played in an MLB game since 2015 (and then he only pitched 2.1 innings). During that time, he bounced around a number of minor league clubs without ever managing to crack back into the Majors. In 2013 and 2014, his ERA sat right near 5.00.
However, the Yankees saw something during Luetge’s work at Triple-A for the D-backs in 2019. He signed with the A’s for 2020, but after being stuck at the alternate site for the entire COVID-shortened season, he decided to give New York a shot. Like Cortes, he took a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training. Luetge was the surprise story of spring training, as the southpaw made the Opening Day roster and has been a steady bullpen arm since then.
Each of these players has a different story, but each has one thing in common. They have been able to succeed thanks to the singular nature of baseball as the home of second chances. That’s why I love baseball: failure is not always the end with this wonderful game. It can just be the beginning of an even better story.