Monday, February 12, 2007

Gang of 13: Jason Simontacchi

What a long, strange trip it's been for Jason Simontacchi. When he checks in with the team tomorrow, it'll have been his...well, I lost count. He's bounced around here and there and back again. The kid has to love the baseball life, cause I can't think of any other reason why he's hung around so much.

His journey starts way back in 1996, when the KC Royals drafted him in the 21st round out of Albertson College in Idaho. He pitched poorly in 1996, then got worse in 1997. After putting up an ugly 6.97 ERA as a reliever, they released him.

Undeterred, he pitched for a franchise that doesn't exist any more in the Independent Frontier League. There, he pitched exceptionally, winning 10 games with a 2.95 ERA, catching the eye of a different woeful MLB franchise, the Pirates. They signed him, gave him a year of so-so, but not exceptional pitching before coming to the same conclusion as the Royals; they released him.

So what does a 26-year old who's flamed out of two different franchises do? Why go to Italy, and pitch in the Italian league! The story goes that he went basically on the strength of his last name, but he seemed to have found some success overseas since he earned a spot pitching for the Italian Olympic team in 2000, and then had his contract purchased by the Twins in 2001.

Back across the Atlantic he came, pitching in Edmonton, of all places. 7 wins, 13 losses and a 5.34 ERA later, and the Twins released him. Sensing a pattern yet?

But for some Godforsaken reason, the St. Louis Cardinals picked him up in 2002, sending him to Triple-A Memphis. He pitched solidly for the Redbirds for about a month, and then amazingly he got a callup! It took four organizations, two continents and three nations, but he got his chance.

He had amazing early success. Through his first 13 starts, he went 7-1 with a 2.82 ERA. The league figured him out a bit towards the end of the year, but he finished with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts. Simontacchi had emerged as a passable major league pitcher, and when spring training rolled around the next year, he found himself with the same franchise for the first time since his professional debut in '96 and '97.

He started out as the team's fifth starter, but struggled a bit. By the time July rolled around, his ERA was over 6, and the Cardinals turned to rookie Dan Haren. He pitched effectively out of the pen, putting up an ERA under 4 and winning 4 in relief. That would be his role the next season, but after some early struggles, the Cards sent him down to Memphis. He would bounce up and down most of the year, filling in as the long man in the pen as injuries popped up in St. Louis, but he would get just 15 more innings in the majors, and the Cardinals would soon release him.

At the end of the year, Simontacchi would have surgery to repair a torn labrum, explaining, in part, some of the struggles he faced that season. The injury would force him to miss all of 2005, but when 2006 rolled around, he signed a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs. But after a few visits to Dr. James Andrews (whom a pitcher never really wants to meet), the Cubs voided his contract and released him.

But, of course, given where he's been, the story wasn't going to end there, was it? Where would he show up next? Why, Bridgeport! He pitched for the Bluefish, the pennant winners of the Atlantic League. There he played with other MLB luminaries like Matt Anderson, Nick Bierbrodt, Will Cunnane, Brian Boehringer and Donovan Osborne. (Check the roster, it's a 1990 who's who, and it features one ex-Nat!)

He got his 10 innings of dominant ball in, and the Nats must've liked what he was doing there and in the Dominican Winter League. Now he's here competing with 100 other guys for the four rotation slots not manned by John Patterson. And he, amazingly, has as good a chance as any.

To this point, I've just rambled about his international wanderings, but what kind of pitcher is he? The obvious answer is a mediocre one, but he does do some things well. In the minors especially, he had pinpoint control, walking fewer than 2 batters per game. He's not an overpowering guy -- he couldn't even K five batters per 9 IP in the majors -- and he did give up a bunch of taters while with the Cardinals. The projection systems don't know what to make of him. Only one of them even takes a stab, and MARCEL (which is really a crude system designed, basically, as a joke to show how stupid projection systems are) takes a guess, giving him a bizarrely low 4.68 ERA. That's based largely on a career high K rate and a low homer rate. Ummm... yeah.

Now 33, I can't see a lot of upside here, since his stuff is so marginal, but he's certainly capable of giving a Ramon Ortiz-like performance if the others flame out.

I'd be surprised if he got a chance in Washington this year, but he should team up with some of the other stiffs to give Columbus a pretty solid Triple-A rotation. Given his history, it'd only be appropriate for him to split time in two cities.


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