Alabama baseball has had 70 Major League Players in its long, storied history. In 2017, seven former Tide players played on the big stage. Today we will look at how they did, and in a later piece we will look at the minor league guys that are working hard to join them.
Robertson (D Rob), a Tuscaloosa native, started his career with the Yankees, but left in 2016 signing a four year-$48 million dollar deal with the Chicago White Sox. The ChiSox traded him back to New York at the trade deadline this season and he picked up right were he left off in the Big Apple, helping the team to the AL Championship series, where they lost to the eventual World Champion, Houston Astros.
While in Chicago the righty pitched in 31 games with a 4-2 record and 13 saves with a 2.70 ERA in 33.1 innings. Once he returned to NY he was called on 30 times and posted a 5-0 record with 1 save in 35 innings, allowing only 14 hits with 51 strikeouts. Combined the Bryant High graduate posted a 9-2 record (his most wins of his career) with a 1.84 ERA over 68.1 innings, allowing only 35 hits with 23 walks and 98 strikeouts and a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.85.
Tommy Hunter P (2006-2007 at Bama) Tampa Bay Rays
The big right-hander had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017 after joining Tampa as a free agent signee. After starting the season on the disabled list with a groin injury, Hunter was called up on April 1st, and then strained a calf, placing on the DL again on April 23rd. The hard throwing reliever was finally back in the big leagues for good on May 25th, and became a mainstay in the 7th-8th inning role for the Rays.
In 61 appearances the Indianapolis native pitched 58.2 innings, allowing only 43 hits while walking 14, for a WHIP of 0.97, with a 3-5 record and a 2.61 ERA and one save. Hunter constantly lit the radar gun up with a 96-98 mph fast ball, hitting 100 on a few occasions, with a wicked cutter and curveball to compliment the heat.
As is the case with most non-closer relievers, Hunter signed his fourth straight one-year deal, and is once again a free agent for the upcoming season. After the success he had this past summer, look for him to possibly garner a multi-year deal in the three- to five-million dollar a year range.
The lefty catcher had a bounce-back year after suffering for a few years with injuries, mostly concussion-related. His mask had become a magnet for foul balls, as well as being hit in the back of the head with bats a couple of times. With a new, hockey helmet type mask, and a new stance behind the plate Avila was able to avoid the injury bug this season.
Avila started his career with the Tigers before signing with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent in 2016 on a one year deal. His dad, Al Avila, happens to be the General Manager of Detroit and the team resigned the backstop for the 2017 year as back up catcher and occasional first baseman and DH insurance. When starting catcher James McCann succumbed to the injury bug, Avila earned considerable early playing time and excelled, even earning some buzz as a possible all-star candidate. With the Tigers out of the pennant race by the trade deadline, papa Avila made the tough decision to trade his oldest to the Chicago Cubs, who needed a back up catcher.
Cubs starting catcher Wilson Contreras was injured shortly after the trade and Avila was pressed into action and acquitted himself quite well, delivering a couple of walk off hits for the eventual play off team. With Detroit, Avila had a .274 batting average with 11 home runs and 32 runs driven in. Combined, the Hialeah Florida native hit .264 with 14 home runs and 49 RBI. As is the norm for backup catchers, Avila has been operating on one-year deals, and his once again a free agent this season. As a left-handed hitter, and very good defensive catcher, with a high percentage of runners thrown out trying to steal, Avila will have his choice of suitors this off season. Combined with his great clubhouse presence he will be in high demand.
4- Jimmy Nelson P (2008-2010 Bama) Milwaukee Brewers
The big 6’6” right-hander had a breakout season in 2017, before it ended prematurely on September 8th after a base running injury. Nelson drove a ball off the left field wall in Chicago and had thoughts of a double. When the ball was fielded cleanly, Nelson scampered back to first and dove into the bag, jamming his shoulder (pitching side), tearing his rotator cuff, which ended his season and also puts the 2018 season in doubt.
Before the injury, Nelson was getting Cy Young talk. The native of Niceville, Florida fashioned a 12-6 record with a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts, covering 175 innings. Nelson allowed 171 hits with 48 walks and 199 strikeouts. In his age 28 season, Nelson was turning into the ace the Brewers had hoped for. The injury he suffered is a serious one and came at a time when Nelson was just reaching his prime. Hopefully recovery will go well and the Brewers will have their ace back at some point in 2018.
Adam Morgan P (2009-2011 at Bama) Philadelphia Phillies
The left-hander had been a yo-yo for the Phillies over the last three seasons, going up and down between AAA and the big club. Before a serious shoulder surgery in 2015 the Atlanta native was being groomed to be a front line starting pitcher for Philadelphia. However, with a loss of velocity and command Morgan struggled, going 5-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 2015 and 2-11 with a 6.04 ERA in 2016. The 2017 season started much the same way until he was moved to the bullpen in late July. Morgan had a career revitalization after that,regaining with velocity (up to 97mph) and became a mainstay in the Phillies bullpen for the remainder of the season. For the year the 27 year old pitched in 37 games with a 3-3 record and a 4.12 ERA over 54.2 innings, allowing 51 hits and striking out 63, earning himself a spot on the team for 2018, and possibly beyond.
Wade LeBlanc P (2004-2006 at Bama) Pittsburgh Pirates
For LeBlanc, the well-traveled southpaw, Pittsburgh was his seventh big league team (not counting one year in Japan) and he had a bounce back year. The second round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2006 pitched in 50 games for Pittsburgh with a 5-2 record and 4.50 ERA, and one save over 68 innings. LeBlanc is a free agent for 2018 and as a 33-year old left-handed pitcher, he should find a landing spot somewhere.
Josh Rutledge IF (2008-2010 at Bama) Boston Red Sox
Rutledge had an injury plagued year which ended early after hip surgery in early August. Prior to that, the former Bama All American short stop also suffered a concussion that landed him on the disabled list. The Cullman native was traded to the Red Sox in 2015 and elected for free agency in 2016, signing with his original team, the Colorado Rockies. Boston reclaimed the utility player with the Rule Five draft, and he started the 2017 in Bean Town.
Injuries took their toll and Rutledge was limited to 37 games and 107 at bats on the season, hitting .224, well below his career MLB average of .260. The hip injury that eventually lead to surgery had been bothering Rutledge for a couple of years, and finally had to be taken care of. Rutledge opted to file for free agency after the season as he recovers from his injury. A guy that can play every infield position, and can fill in as an outfielder should be in demand for the right team. With several years of big league experience he should land on his feet with a team that he can help.