JUPITER, Fla. — At 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds with a mustache that was part Fu Manchu and part facial-hair experimentation, Austin Brice’s appearance turned quite a few heads over the past two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.
His on-field performance was a different story. As a middle reliever splitting time between the majors and minor leagues across 2017 and 2018, Brice posted unspectacular numbers: a 2-3 record and a 5.40 E.R.A. But he had reason to be optimistic entering what he thought would be his third season with the Reds: He appeared to have mastered his control problems and had shown an ability to induce ground balls.
But right around Halloween, when he was at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., doing little more than repeatedly watching “Finding Nemo” with his 3-year-old son and his wife, he received a phone call from Nick Krall, the Reds’ general manager.
“There’s not a long, drawn-out conversation or storytelling,” Brice said. “He said, ‘We decided to make some moves, so we have to let you go. We’ve got to put you out.’”
In this case, “put you out” meant removing Brice from the Reds’ 40-man roster, a list that includes players available for regular-season games, those on short-term injured lists, and a selection of minor leaguers who can be called up to the majors at any time.
So began M.L.B.’s version of hot potato, with Brice as the potato. When a player is removed from the 40-man roster, he is placed on waivers, at which point any M.L.B. team can claim him. For Brice, it started a paradoxically itinerant three months, as he bounced around from team to team without moving much himself: By the time the Miami Marlins signed him on Feb. 4, the club was his fourth of the off-season.
A week earlier, when he was dropped by the Baltimore Orioles after they had claimed infielder Jack Reinheimer (who was himself joining his fourth team of the off-season), Brice tweeted: “I think I found out why I’m hitting waivers!! I think teams are just wanting to put out my mustache picture b4 it changes in the 2019 season. It’s a conspiracy!! But for real waivers suck lol.”
Brice had become a resident in M.L.B.’s no man’s land, an exasperating limbo for players who find themselves on the bubble of the 40-man roster — good enough to get added, but not necessarily good enough to stay there. It’s a situation a handful of players find themselves in every off-season, one that can be bewildering and endlessly frustrating, testing players’ resolve to fight their way into (or back into) the major leagues.
Hanser Alberto, a 26-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic, experienced it this winter as he bounced around four teams, including two stints with Baltimore, where he is now. The Angels’ two-way player Kaleb Cowart has been on three teams, including twice joining the Angels. For players, the frustration is compounded by their powerlessness to prove themselves.
“It’s confusing,” Brice said, “because you can’t defend yourself with play in the off-season.”
Alex Hassan, the assistant director of player development for the Minnesota Twins, went through a similar experience during the 2014-15 off-season, making the rounds with three teams before ultimately landing with the Oakland Athletics that spring.
Each time you’re added to a roster, Hassan said, “you’re trying to create this narrative in your head of how things are going to work in your favor, because as the player you have to do that. If you don’t, the odds are just so stacked against you that you’d go crazy.”
For a club’s front office, each new signing can set off a domino effect that becomes hard to stop. When one position gets filled, it often opens up a need at another, and the team intensifies its search there. Additionally, a player who fills a need one day can become redundant the next.
At the end of the 2015 season, Andy Wilkins, now 30 and a minor leaguer with the Atlanta Braves, was a power-hitting corner infielder who had yet to translate his minor-league success to the majors. One week after the Seattle Mariners signed him that December, the team traded for the veteran first baseman Adam Lind, whom Wilkins referred to as “the major-league version of me.” Wilkins was dropped days later.
“It’s about evaluating the player who becomes available,” Brian Chattin, the Marlins’ assistant general manager, said of the constant roster shuffling.
After ending up on four different teams in a three-week span that off-season, Wilkins said, “I was numb to the whole thing.”
When he received a call that the Milwaukee Brewers had signed him, he was at the hospital with his wife, who had just given birth to their first child. “I didn’t talk to them for too long,” he said. “I was, like, ‘Whatever, we’ll see if I get to spring training or not with you guys.’”
Wilkins did, and though he didn’t make the team to start the season, he was called up in July. He had 27 plate appearances that summer, nearly all as a pinch-hitter or late-inning replacement.
It wasn’t the role he’d envisioned, but it was the role he got. “Good pinch-hitters are hard to find,” Wilkins said. “It’s difficult to succeed in that role. You have to understand that your rate of failure is going to be extremely high.”
These players usually need to find a specific role on a team in order to stay there. “I had clear reasons why teams were claiming me,” Hassan, 30, said in a telephone interview from the Twins camp in Fort Myers, Fla. “I got on base a lot, and I was good against left-handed pitching. It was a niche skill set.”
But it wasn’t enough to keep him with the A’s. Oakland designated Hassan for assignment at the end of spring training, and he was picked up by four more teams before the end of the season but never made it back to the majors.
Brice, who had control issues early in his career, amusingly appealed to the Marlins because of his ability to throw strikes. The club also liked that his size suggests potential durability.
But in order to make the team on opening day, he will need to improve his numbers against left-handed hitters. In 2018, lefties hit .316 against him and had an on-base average of .400 (compared to .241 and .302 against righties).
During a recent bullpen session, Marlins Manager Don Mattingly, the former left-handed great for the Yankees, stood at the plate against Brice and gave him feedback on what a left-handed batter sees when facing him.
“You never know when a discussion like that is going to resonate with a player,” said Mel Stottlemyre Jr., the Marlins pitching coach. “It doesn’t mean their stuff gets nastier. It just means they change their thinking, and that can make a big difference.”
In eight appearances this spring, Brice’s E.R.A. is a stellar 1.13, and his strikeout rate is as high as it’s ever been. Stottlemyre has noticed an urgency about him that he’s seen before in players who have gotten stuck in baseball’s virtual team-exchange program. “Sometimes you can give those guys things a little earlier than you would another player and hope that lightning strikes in a bottle,” he said.
Undoubtedly, Brice is hoping for the same thing.