Chris Shelton should be toiling away as a bench player for the Pirates right now, blocked behind some overpriced, veteran mediocrity. Instead, he’s leading the majors in home runs with nine. How did this happen?
Shelton was a 33rd round selection out of the University of Utah where he won the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year award his junior season. He handled a brief stint in the New York-Penn League after signing, then destroyed the South Atlantic League in 2002 by hitting .340/.425/.587. Shelton was old for the league, so he still had to show he could hit more similar age players, but it was encouraging.
He started 2003 at High-A Lynchburg and batted .359/.478/.641 in 95 games with a 67/68 K/BB ratio before being promoted to Double-A. His 122 at-bat trial with Altoona proved difficult as Shelton had more trouble lying off pitches outside the zone and failed to hit a homer. While old for his level, Shelton wasn’t ancient at 23 and 2004 figured to be a pivotal year for him after his struggles at Double-A.
The Pirates were required to add him to the 40-man roster that winter as he had been drafted out of college 2 ½ years earlier. Instead, the team decided they could put the roster spot to better use and left Shelton unprotected for December’s Rule 5 draft. This move shocked prospect hounds, and the Tigers promptly took Shelton first in the 2003 Rule 5 draft. Following Shelton, four other Pirates were selected in the draft, although none have panned out for the clubs that selected them.
I’m not sure what else Chris Shelton could have done to earn a 40-man roster spot. The Pirates had to know he wasn’t a good defender two years earlier when they drafted him, and what he did with the bat certainly warranted a spot. But the Bucs did what poorly run organizations do, allowing his productivity at the plate to be overshadowed by the negatives
, in this case Shelton’s poor defense and some scouts doubting his ability to hit advanced pitching. This line of thinking was enough to get a diehard Pirate fan’s blood pumping, but the circumstances around Shelton’s departure added even more despair.
At the time of the Rule 5 draft, the Pirates had three open spots on the 40-man roster, seemingly leaving room for Shelton and a few more of the other four players who the Pirates lost in the draft. Instead, Littlefield offered after the draft that the Pirates needed the space for adding a closer, third basemen, and starting pitcher later in the off-season. Pirates’ minor-league director Brian Graham added, “If we thought they would have played in the big leagues for us next year , of course they would have been on our 40-man roster.''
The Pirates were 75-87 the year before and finished a distant 4th in the NL Central. They hadn’t had a winning record since 1992 and no objective analyst in their right mind thought the Pirates were going to compete in 2004. Indeed, the small market Pirates should have been focusing on developing and holding onto minor league talent, not on a 2004 campaign that promised another run at 80 wins with a below average team. Instead, they later used the roster spots on retreads with no long-term value, like Randall Simon and Raul Mondesi.
Five days after the Rule 5 draft, the Pirates non-tendered reliever Mike Lincoln, freeing up yet another spot on the 40-man roster. The club had been trying to deal Lincoln, who was arbitration eligible and expected to earn more than the team was willing to pay. With no other organizations interested in paying the arbitration price tag, the Pirates simply cut him loose. Should they have come to that realization a month earlier, the Pirates would have had yet another roster spot at their disposal.
Rolling this all together, how did Chris Shelton end up on the Tigers? A combination of poor player evaluation, focusing on a player’s negatives, an inappropriate emphasis on winning now, and flat-out bad roster management
. Every team makes mistakes in hindsight, but this was one that looked regrettable at the time and was certainly easily avoidable. What does this mean to the fantasy player? You don’t have to give up on a player just because his MLB team did. Other than Shelton, recent examples of prospects that were given away include Bobby Jenks, Andy Sisco, Johan Santana, and Chris Young. In short, continue monitoring prospects even if they get waived, unprotected, or traded for very little.
-By Nate Stephens