Thrust from the Texas Rangers’ 40-man roster and into baseball’s purgatory, Renato Núñez dealt with his emotional roller coaster by taking on real ones.
After the Rangers designated him for assignment last May, Núñez spent a day at the Six Flags amusement park down the road from Globe Life Park in Arlington, trying to free himself of the weight of bad news at a place the natural ups and downs of baseball feel a little lighter.
“I was over there, having fun, trying to relax a little bit,” Núñez said. “It gave me some good vibes.”
Núñez is one of five players on the Orioles’ 25-man roster who in the past year have been designated for assignment, baseball parlance meaning immediately removed from a team’s 40-man roster, with the organization having seven days to trade the player or place him on irrevocable outright waivers. This uncomfortable space between leaves players unsure of their next step.
After posting 2018’s worst record, the Orioles spent the offseason and the season’s opening month as the team with first dibs on any player placed on waivers by American League clubs. Right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong and Núñez, an infielder, came to Baltimore via waiver claims after AL teams DFA’d them. Outfielder Dwight Smith Jr., designated by the Toronto Blue Jays, arrived through a trade, with international signing bonus slots heading to Toronto.
Utility man Stevie Wilkerson went unclaimed in his pass through waivers after the Orioles designated him before he remained in the organization. Infielder Hanser Alberto endured an offseason of four jumps between franchises, two coming after being designated and one of those by the Orioles.
These players see the positives of a negative experience — an opportunity to play in the Orioles’ rebuilding organization. An “it’s part of the business” mentality was common among them, and if nothing else, getting designated for assignment served as a motivator.
The process, though, is one that often begins with surprise and disappointment, the realization the organization you’ve come to know considers you expendable.
“I was kind of brokenhearted, like when you’re with a girl and she fails you or something,” Núñez said. “That happened to me one time. I kind of felt the same. I was like, ‘Damn.’ ”
Armstrong, whom the Seattle Mariners designated April 26, learned of his push off the 40-man roster in a meeting with Seattle bullpen coach Jim Brower, manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto after posting a 14.73 ERA in four outings. The Mariners had removed him from the 40-man roster a year earlier, but retained him. That didn’t make this transaction any easier, given another team didn’t claim him then.
“There's a lot of mixed emotions because you don't really know where your future stands,” Armstrong said. “You're just sitting there, hoping for a phone call.”
Another opportunity will come along, Armstrong and the others convinced themselves, figuring their track records of production in the minor leagues would prove enough to interest another team.
Enduring the wait, though, is difficult. Armstrong spent it with his wife, Sarah, and their golden retriever, Benson, preparing for a midseason move. Núñez got the Six Flags tickets through the Rangers’ clubhouse manager and spent a day there with friends, a reprieve amid training. With their designations coming with the season near, Smith and Alberto kept working out, as Smith visited a facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Alberto capitalized on hotel gyms.
“You don’t want to be doing nothing, sitting on your couch, watching TV,” Núñez said. “Watching other guys play.”
Wilkerson figured he was either getting traded or removed from the roster when he was called in for a meeting with Kent Qualls, the Orioles’ director of minor league operations. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias offered some words of encouragement on a conference call. Wilkerson spent some of his waiting game poolside, but Florida’s temperate climate couldn’t dull his nerves.
“I think the element of the unknown is … I guess the biggest feeling I got was anxiousness,” Wilkerson said. “Just wanting to know if I was gonna go anywhere or not.”
He didn’t, beginning the season with Triple-A Norfolk after no teams elected to spend a 40-man roster spot on him. With a hot start to the year, he returned April 22, added back to the 40-man roster and since settling into a regular role in the Orioles lineup.
“That was a really sweet one,” Wilkerson said. “It was rewarding. I think I left the process with the right attitude and played some pretty good baseball to get back on track.
“I feel like I’ve damn near been through it all now.”
Alberto’s offseason voyage to being a Baltimore contributor was not nearly as direct. He began the winter with the Rangers, the organization with which he had spent his entire eight-year professional career. But they placed him on outright waivers and the New York Yankees claimed him Nov. 2. Outright waivers differ from a DFA in that players often don’t know they are available until someone informs them another club made a claim. The aching days in the middle are removed, though the shock is perhaps stronger.
Alberto was a Yankee for two months before New York designated him Jan. 11, and the Orioles claimed him on waivers the same day. With an inexperienced team undergoing a redesign, Baltimore offered him a major league opportunity after he spent most of his career putting up solid numbers in the minors. Then, the Orioles designated him, too.
“When they picked me off waivers from the Yankees, they said I’ve got a lot of opportunity here because this is a rebuilding team, they’ve got a lot of young guys, so I’ve got more experience because I’ve been in the big leagues more than a lot of guys here,” Alberto said. “Then, when they put me on waivers, I kinda took a step back, said, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on right now?’ ”
The San Francisco Giants claimed Alberto and held onto him for only a week before placing him on waivers, when the Orioles again made a claim. With the transactions coming during spring training, Alberto racked up flight time with trips between Florida and Arizona.
Despite an offseason where four teams, including the one he’s on, ran out of room for him, Alberto has been productive for the Orioles, becoming a part-time starter. He maintained a positive attitude, one that has shone through in Baltimore’s clubhouse, thanks to support from family and friends, a theme among the designated Orioles.
“It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad my family was there to support me,” Alberto said. “I always got a good text from them, my friends. They always told me, everything’s gonna be all right.”
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Smith got similar messages and has also taken advantage of the playing time he’s earned in Baltimore. He hit in the Nos. 2 through 6 slots of manager Brandon Hyde’s lineup in appearing in 40 of the team’s first 43 games. With two career home runs coming into the year, he entered Friday among team leaders with eight to go with a team-best 27 RBIs.
“I came here and I got the opportunity to play, and I haven’t looked back since then,” Smith said. “I just thank God. God puts us in these situations for a reason. That’s the way I looked at it, and a lot of people were telling me it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Of the five, Núñez is the youngest at 25, while none are older than Armstrong’s 28, with that youth offering the potential for improvement. In all, the four position players entered the Orioles’ series this week at the Cleveland Indians with a combined slash line of .252/.285/.417 and 20 of the team’s 48 home runs, while Armstrong had a 1.50 ERA in five late-inning outings.
“That’s what we were hoping for going in, was a lot of these guys would take advantage of this opportunity, and I feel really good about of a lot of them doing that,” Hyde said. “It’s never easy to be designated, and it’s never easy to move around and get taken off the 40-man roster, so I was hoping that guys would come in with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder to prove everybody wrong, and some of our guys have taken advantage of it.”
The mindset of being designated could easily be one of failure, but each Oriole carried a bit of thankfulness from the experience, grateful for another chance to succeed.
“In life, you can’t always be the best because when you fail, you don’t know how you’re gonna handle it,” Núñez said. “You’ve gotta know some times are gonna be good times, some times are not that good, and you’ve gotta learn about those bad moments, and I think that’s what I did. I learned about that.
“When you’re not doing good, you’ve still gotta be happy or find a way to feel good because you still have work and you’re still playing baseball. Because that’s what you love.”