SALT LAKE CITY — At any given moment, from April through September, countless professional baseball players are on the move. Most simply travel from one series to the next, occupying a roster spot, and hopefully a prominent role, on a major league club or one of the hundreds of minor league affiliates around the country. For a select few ballplayers, however, in-season travel is filled with uncertainty.
These are the players on the fringe, the utility-men or pitchers, who, thanks to roster-building devices such as options, assignments and waivers, find themselves making repeated journeys from major league sides to minor league affiliates and back again. Whether for depth purposes, injury replacement or to furnish greater opportunity for younger prospects, these players exist to provide whatever support the big-league club needs, all in the hope of a permanent return to The Show.
No player exemplifies this baseball existence more than the 25th man. The final ballplayer chosen for the big-league roster, the 25th man is in essence the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Often too good to be left in Triple-A, but not quite good enough to deserve a permanent big-league role, the 25th man seemingly spends as much time in the window seat as he does in the clubhouse.
In 2016, Angels/Bees reliever A.J. Achter held the role of 25th man, and did so superbly. Achter, who prior to the 2016 season was designated-for-assignment by both the Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies before being claimed by the Angels, appeared in 27 and 29 games with L.A. and Salt Lake, respectively. The right-hander made the trip from Salt Lake to L.A. and back again 15 times, and was none the worse off for it.
In fact, considering his dismal 2017 campaign (Achter began the year with the Detroit Tigers' Double-A affiliate, the Erie SeaWolves, before being released and subsequently finding employment with the Somerset Patriots of the Independent League), it can be argued that the role of 25th man suited him perfectly.
Achter posted a 3.11 ERA with the Angels, along with a 1-0 record, while holding a 3.69 ERA and a 2-2 record with the Bees.
“What A.J. did last year was an anomaly,” said Bees manager Keith Johnson. “For a guy to be as effective as he was at both levels, and to be able to continue to have success for as many times as he went up (to the majors), that just doesn’t happen.”
Achter benefitted from having the same role with both Los Angeles and Salt Lake — relief pitcher. Conversely, current Bees starting pitcher Daniel Wright, this season’s 25th man, has not been afforded the same luxury.
“It’s different for a starting pitcher than it is for a reliever,” said Johnson. “Daniel is a starter (in Salt Lake), but when he gets called up he becomes whatever (the Angels) need him to be. He’ll sit in the bullpen, in case they need him, and not pitch. Then he’ll come down here and maybe pitch one game, only to go back up and be asked to start. Obviously that is going to wear on you. More so though, it doesn’t allow him to get into any kind of flow or rhythm.”
The result for Wright has been an up-and-down campaign. The Tennessee native has made a team-high 11 round trips between L.A. and Salt Lake, and it has been his play in Triple-A that has suffered the most.
Wright has appeared in 12 games for the Bees this season, all starts. The hurler has gone just 4-7 in those contests while sporting a less-than-stellar 7.26 ERA. He has been better wearing an Angels jersey, if not significantly so. Wright has appeared in five games, two starts, with L.A., where he now holds a 0-1 record and a 4.58 ERA.
Wright, for his part, is keenly aware of his struggles.
“(This season) hasn’t gone how I’ve wanted it to. I’ve struggled, especially in Triple-A. When I’ve gone up I’ve thrown the ball well though. I’m just trying to get back to that.”
The role of 25th man has been a new one for Wright, who spent significant parts of the 2016 campaign in the majors, both with the Cincinnati Reds and the Angels.
“It's taken a little getting used to,” said Wright. “Going up and down, changing from a starter to going to the pen. It’s hard to get into a rhythm. I’ve had to find my own way to get into a rhythm without benefiting from consistent starts.”Comment on this story
Through it all, Wright has remained optimistic, noting that pitching is all about one thing, getting outs.
“You always want to go out there and get outs,” said Wright. “That is the key. I had the chance last season to get five straight starts with L.A., and that really helped me a lot. I learned how to get guys out at (the major league) level.”
Both the Angels and Bees assuredly hope that is the case as Wright figures to play a role in both clubs' playoff pushes down the stretch. And, as 25th man, Wright is certain to catch a few more flights to L.A. and back again to Salt Lake City.