There was no more pleasant surprise among the 2010 Red Sox than Darnell McDonald, the 31-year-old journeyman who made the most of his first extended big league audition when the Red Sox outfield was crushed by injuries and/or Adrian Beltre.
McDonald won fans with his friendly manner and dependable performance (nine homers, .270 batting average, 103 adjusted OPS in 117 games), particularly for someone who seemingly came out of nowhere. Everyone loves the underdog story, especially when the underdog appreciates the journey and the chance.
Except, of course, that he McDonald didn't really come out of nowhere. One of three first-round picks by the Baltimore Orioles in 1997 (Jayson Werth, another name you may have heard while huddled around the hot stove recently, was another), he bounced around the minors for 13 years, save for 64 games and 145 scattered plate appearances with the 2004 Orioles and 2007 Reds.
His name was fairly well-known to Baseball America devotees even if it scarcely had appeared in major league box scores. And it was very well known to Theo Epstein and the Red Sox' front office personnel. Signing McDonald, who came to the Red Sox last November not as a famous name on the tip of Scott Boras's silver tongue but as a minor-league free agent, was perhaps their best move last offseason after signing Beltre.
We bring this up now because, as PeteAbe pointed out the other day, Baseball America published a list of this year's minor-league free agents.
While we'll leave it to Epstein and the other personnel wizards to identify this year's version of McDonald, there are some compelling names on the list, and we don't mean Carlos Delgado.
Just for the fun of it, here are a few that jumped out here. Some might already be familiar, and some will never be. But the next D-Mac is out there, somewhere. He just needs to be found:
Andy Marte, Indians: He was with the Red Sox for barely a month and half, having been acquired from Atlanta for Edgar Renteria (whatever become of him?) in December 2005 and dealt away to the Indians in the Coco Crisp deal late in January 2006.
Yet he was around long enough -- and regarded well enough -- to rate as the Red Sox' No. 1 prospect in 2006 according to Baseball America, ahead of Jon Lester (2), Jonathan Papelbon (3), Dustin Pedroia (5), Jacoby Ellsbury (7), and Clay Buchholz (10), among others.
The previous year, Baseball Prospectus ranked him their No. 1 prospect in the game, writing:
Marte has that rare combination of high upside and low risk. No one else on our list has that. Which is why no one else is our #1 prospect.
It's not the most glowing review ever for a top prospect, I suppose, and suffice to say the career .218 hitter has been did not deliver on that upside.
For that matter, nor did other BP top-10 selections Casey Kotchman, Jeremy Reed, Dallas McPherson, and Joel Guzman, though a kid named Felix Hernandez (No. 3) has been decent.
I wouldn't mind seeing the Sox take a flier on Marte, though. At least he's still low risk.
Jeremy Reed, CF, White Sox: It doesn't seem that long ago that the Red Sox were rumored to be pining for him as the replacement for Johnny Damon in center field. And it was justified: an outstanding defensive center fielder, he batted .409 with a 1.065 OPS at Double A at age 22 -- and in a good-sized sample, 242 at-bats. The White Sox dealt him the next season as the centerpiece in a deal for then-ace righthander Freddy Garcia, and he proceeded to hit .397 for the Mariners in 58 at-bats later that season. Given the full-time job in 2005, he failed to hit with any authority (.352 slugging percentage), and the lack of power, complicated by injuries, has been the story of his career ever since.
Wladimir Balentien, OF, Reds: Former top Mariners power prospect who faltered in a couple of extended MLB trials (.655 OPS in 511 at-bats from 2007-09). Just 25, he hit 25 homers with an .873 OPS at Triple A Louisville last year. His most similar player through age 24 is Danny Bautista, who went on to have a serviceable career.
Ryan Harvey, RHP, Rockies: The sixth overall pick by the Cubs in 2003 as an outfielder, he hit his share of homers in the minors (117 homers in 2,312 at bats) but not much else (.244 average, .297 OBP, 711 strikeouts). The Rockies signed him last summer after the Cubs gave up on him, and according to BA's Matt Eddy, worked with him behind the scenes at Double A as he attempted to convert to pitching.
He does have mound bloodlines; his father is former All-Star reliever Bryan Harvey. Update: Um, no he does not. But Kris Harvey, a converted hitter in the Marlins' system, does. I'm a buffoon.
Brandon Jones, OF, Tigers: He was rated fourth-best prospect in the Braves organization and 70th overall in MLB in 2008, and was lauded by BA as a tireless worker with budding power and a quick line-drive swing. Two years later, at age 26, he's bounced from Atlanta to Pittsburgh to the Detroit organizations, for no reason more alarming than some struggles in Triple A. I wish I knew more about his circumstances, but at a casual glance he's one on this list who strikes me as worth a look.
Mike Wilson, OF, Mariners: Power-hitting 27-year-old outfielder who spent eight years in the Seattle system and has had two straight outstanding years. I'm not saying he will be someone's version of Darnell McDonald this year, but he deserves to take some hacks from a big league batter's box.
Drew Meyer, 2B, Angels: Chosen 10th overall by the Rangers in the 2002 Draft, he has five major league at-bats and a career .684 OPS in the minors. Others who went within the same range: Cole Hamels, Jeremy Hermida, Nick Swisher, Denard Span, and World Series star Matt Cain. Yep, that didn't quite work out.
Chad Cordero, RHP, Mets: The NL saves leader in 2005 has pitched just 14 major league innings since 2007 as he's struggled to come back from a labrum tear. Still just 28 years old.
Lou Montanez, OF, Orioles: The Cubs' No. 1 pick (third overall) in the atrocious 2000 draft, he had a .579 OPS in 95 games with Baltimore.
Edwar Ramirez, RHP A's: A Three True Outcomes specialist: In 109 career innings, former Yankee with the cartoon changeup and not much else has 126 strikeouts, 66 walks, and 20 homers allowed.
Dallas McPherson, 3B, A's: The Angels' No. 2 prospect in 2005, his career has been derailed by back problems and struggles to make contact, but he's mashed 172 homers in 2,519 minor-league at-bats.
Jonathan Van Every, OF, Pirates: His work is already familiar. Good defensive outfielder. He can pitch in a pinch. And he already knows his way around Pawtucket.
Wily Mo Pena, Enemy of the Terrifying Airborne Baseball, Padres: Owns five fewer Gold Gloves than Derek Jeter.
Dontrelle Willis, LHP, Giants: Which fall from grace is sadder? The derailed D-Train's . . .
Mark Prior, RHP, Rangers: . . . or his? I vote Dontrelle, but both were a joy to watch in their baseball youth.
Dirk Hayhurst, RHP, Blue Jays: Not sure about his pitching future as he comes back from a shoulder injury, but this we do know: He's a superior writer to many -- hell, maybe most -- in the press box.
Merkin Valdez, RHP, Blue Jays: Former top Giants prospect contributed to their championship indirectly -- he was DFA'd when they signed Aubrey Huff. We could use always a dude named Merkin around here.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.