For the better part of a year now, the Mud Hens have been saying that they expect Fifth Third Field to attract top minor league free agents to Toledo.
Both the Hens and the parent Detroit Tigers have said the new ballpark, which opened to rave reviews in 2002, will lure top-notch baseball talent to the Glass City.
But so far this off season, Detroit has signed only at least six free agents to minor league contracts.
“At the beginning of the free-agent period we signed a few guys that we were interested in right away,” said Ricky Bennett, the Tigers' director of minor league operations. “But since that time it's been very slow. A lot of free agents are sitting and waiting to see how everything shakes out.”
Eight players from the 2002 Hens are guaranteed not to return, and others probably will be lost to free agency or promotions to the parent Tigers.
So where will next year's crop of Mud Hens come from? Unlike this season's IL West Division champs, a squad that included several players from a winning club in Double-A Erie, next year's team won't receive much help from the Seawolves.
In 2002 Erie posted a 52-89 record, worst in the Eastern League. What's more, the Seawolves already may have shipped their best prospect to Toledo: Starter Andy Van Hekken won five times in the Hens' pennant run last August before his promotion to Detroit before the IL playoffs.
One of the few Erie players certain to be promoted to Toledo is outfielder Cody Ross, who hit .280 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs. Another possibility is first baseman Charley Carter, who led the Seawolves with 21 homers and 92 RBIs.
The difference between the two is that Ross, 22, is considered one of the Tigers' top prospects while Carter, 27, is not.
Most of Erie's better pitchers - Van Hekken, Fernando Rodney and Homero Rivera - already have spent time with the Hens.
“Right now we have some players at the Double-A level that we feel are not quite ready to make that next step to Toledo,” Bennett said. “We will have to go after a few more free agents this year to fill that void a little bit.”
So far the biggest names among the Tigers' minor league free agent signees are infielder Warren Morris, outfielder Ernie Young and pitcher Rafael Roque.
Morris, who will turn 29 on Opening Day, April 3, spent two seasons as the starting second baseman in Pittsburgh. In 1999 he hit .288 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs; the following year he batted .259 with three home runs and 43 RBIs.
Last season Morris was hitless in seven at-bats with Minnesota and also spent time with three Triple-A teams - Edmonton, Memphis and Pawtucket.
Young is a 33-year-old outfielder who is best remembered for playing parts of four seasons (1994-97) with Oakland. In 1996, his best season with the Athletics, Young had 19 home runs and 64 RBIs.
Last season Young had 14 homers and 48 RBIs in only 48 games with Triple-A Tucson.
Roque was the Milwaukee Brewers' Opening Day starter in 1999 after posting a 4-2 record and a 4.88 ERA in nine starts the prior season. The southpaw was 8-0 with a 2.73 ERA as a starter for the Mexico City Tigers last season.
Among the other possible Mud Hens are minor league signees such as pitchers Brian Schmack, a righthander who was 0-4 with a 4.94 ERA for Triple-A Oklahoma; Mike Spiegel, a lefty who was 7-3 with a 3.08 ERA for Double-A Akron; and Chris Mears, a righty who was 6-9 with a 3.14 ERA for Double-A San Antonio.
Bennett said he doesn't expect to have trouble signing more free agents. “I've talked to a number of agents in the last month or so and they've told me that players want to come to Toledo,” he said. “They've been through this league once and they like the atmosphere and they like the ballpark. We've got a first-class ballpark in Toledo, and that helps in signing free agents.”
One is Adrian Burnside, the left-handed pitcher from Australia who already has become Tiger property. Burnside, who will compete for a spot in the Detroit bullpen in spring training, was 6-9 with a 4.55 ERA at Double-A Altoona.
Two other players in the Simon trade have yet to be determined because minor league rosters are frozen until the Rule5 draft Sunday.
Baseball sources indicate that the options Detroit is considering include four other players from Altoona: outfielder Shawn Garrett, first baseman Carlos Rivera, and pitchers Justin Reid and Ben Shaffar.
Garrett and Rivera were Altoona's two top hitters; Garrett finished with a .290 batting average, 11 homers and 73 RBIs, and Rivera hit .302 while leading the team with 22 homers and 84 RBIs.
Reid posted an 11-8 record with a 4.33 ERA, and Shaffar was 8-7 with a 3.15 mark. Before last season began Baseball American ranked Burnside as Pittsburgh's eighth-best prospect, while Reid was slotted 11th and Shaffar 28th.