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40 in 40: Justin De Fratus

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This new Mariner acquisition found himself tied to a strange situation last June

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever the Mariners acquire a player, fans are naturally curious about the new man in town. While they may have a range of questions about him, I would hazard a guess that most queries fall into two general categories: Will he help the Mariners? And will I like him?

With Justin De Fratus, the answer to the first is fairly easy to cover. He’s a right-handed reliever with a good slider and a modest track record of success. Working with a low armslot, a snappy two-plane slider, and a fastball that reaches the mid-90’s, De Fratus is a surprisingly tough matchup for lefties. Righties hit him a little better, although he’ll survive as long as his command holds up. He struck out nearly a batter per inning while posting a 157 ERA+ in 2014, and while his 2015 numbers look ugly, he was also working in an unfamiliar long relief role. It’s probably best not to expect big things from him, but he could be a serviceable middle reliever.

As is often the case, the second bucket is more complicated. To help illustrate why, let’s jump back to June 16th of last year.

At that point, De Fratus’s Philadelphia Phillies were finishing a miserable eight-game road trip on a sweltering night in Baltimore. Just 22-43 on the year, the last-place Phils had lost seven games in a row, including two heartbreakers. A season’s worth of frustration threatened to boil over. Players bickered with management. The bats were silent. The pitching was falling apart. Morale was low.

Alas, the worst was yet to come. Starter Jerome Williams departed with a hamstring injury in the first, but his night was about over anyways, as he’d already given up six runs. Dustin McGowan threw more gas on the fire, allowing five dingers and seven runs of his own in 3.1 innings of work. By the time De Fratus entered the game in the fifth, the Phils were down 13-1 and in desperate need of effective long relief.

They didn’t get it. De Fratus allowed a run in the fifth, and then a homer to Chris Parmelee to start the sixth. For whatever reason, the homer broke De Fratus. Whether the righty was upset with himself, upset with his team, or upset with the world, we can’t know. Either way, on the next pitch, catcher Carlos Ruiz set a target on the outside corner. De Fratus missed it by four feet to the right, nearly drilling J.J. Hardy in the ribs. He was immediately ejected.

Elvis Araujo pitched the Phillies out of the sixth, but he allowed two more runs to score. Down two touchdowns and not wanting to burn another reliever, manager Ryne Sandberg made the unconventional decision to entrust outfielder Jeff Franceour with the seventh and eighth innings. Frenchy did well enough—better than any of the Phillies actually employed to get people out—but he was clearly tiring in the eighth. Panicked about a potential injury, Sandberg tried to have Ken Giles warm up, only to learn that the bullpen phone had been disconnected. The remaining fans were then treated to the spectacle of watching pitching coach Bob McClure literally wave a white towel in an effort to signal the bullpen. The metaphor writes itself.

McClure took a mound visit to stall for time as Giles, who had finally been alerted, warmed up. McClure got an earful from second basemen Chase Utley, who was concerned about his teammate’s health and appalled by the circus surrounding him.

After the game, everyone was upset, and Sandberg was particularly irked with De Fratus. The pitcher was unapologetic about his role in the game, even when Sandberg lectured him about putting the team in a bad spot: "We need him to pitch (there)," Sandberg told assembled reporters afterwards. "We needed as much as we could get out of him… That’s not the time to get kicked out."

At first glance, this seems like an open-and-shut case of a player bailing on his team. As the long reliever, it was De Fratus’ job to eat innings. He couldn’t do his job because he snapped after the home run, and for little apparent reason. He certainly couldn’t say that Parmelee showed him up: the Oriole took off running immediately after making contact and never even cracked a smile as he circled the bases. With no score to settle, De Fratus deliberately threw at Hardy—an unpopular act on any occasion in many quarters these days—out of frustration. It was clearly intentional too: he missed Ruiz’s glove by a mile and he didn’t offer a token excuse to reporters after the game: "I got tossed. That’s all I can say about that."

By all appearances, De Fratus comes across as a relic from the game’s bygone era, a provocable vigilante, unsettled merely by a long fly ball and a lopsided scoreboard.

But what if there’s more? Perhaps the frustrations ran deeper than a bad slider to Chris Parmelee. Maybe De Fratus, a leader in the bullpen and a player who helped a number of younger pitchers acclimate to life in the big leagues, had more on his mind. Perhaps he wondered why he was stuck as the longman. He was nails in 2014, and to that point, he hadn’t pitched poorly in 2015 either. Why was he mopping up a blowout for the worst team in baseball? In any event, it was a bit disingenuous of Sandberg to blame De Fratus for the Franceour debacle. The bullpen wasn’t exactly overworked: neither Giles nor Jonathon Papelbon had thrown much in recent days, and both could have eaten an inning if necessary. Instead, Sandberg found himself orchestrating a carnival. And in the end, it wasn't De Fratus who resigned ten days later.

There’s a saying that you only have one chance to make a first impression. With De Fratus, you could have a range of reactions. Depending on your perspective, you could label him as a guy who throws baseballs at people (bad). Or you could say he’s a veteran who grew up fast and prioritized taking younger guys under his wing (good). He’s an old-school baseball type, a Roman Catholic, a man who has endured the digital consequences of breaking the "do not tweet" rule. He is a relief pitcher, a righty with a good slider. If he were a food, he’d be tasty in doses and spoil quickly if left out for long. Maybe he sounds like your cup of tea and maybe he doesn't. As the bullpen is currently constructed, it looks like you'll spend 2016 finding out one way or the other.