Since 1998, MLB has had almost an identical composition as it does today. The Expos moved to D.C. and became the Nationals in 2005 and the Astros moved to the American League in 2013, but the greatest structural change since ‘98 has been the Marlins rebranding from “Florida” to “Miami”.
The lack of expansion has been attributable to any of a number of factors. Owners split the pie on many of MLB’s revenue streams, so slicing that more thinly isn’t popular, and would not necessarily be immediately mitigated by additional revenue from the new club(s). There may be some reticence to remove the league’s leverage over other cities when threatening to relocate some of its cheapest or most troubled teams like Tampa and Oakland. The global financial crisis was also a factor in the late 00s, as are simple things like the wording of current TV deals, not to mention that securing land, funding, and sufficient interest in an under-served region is a series of logistical challenges to add teams.
Still, we’re in the midst of the longest expansion draught since World War II. With MLB pulling players from deeper, better trained, and more diverse pools of talent than ever, there are more great baseball players than ever before. The truly exceptional still stand out, but where this depth is more noticeable is on the edges of rosters, as teams treat the upper levels of their minors like a near-inexhaustible repository of cheap replacements. It’s distasteful, but it’s understandable: teams have reasonable confidence they can get near-equivalent production from a player on a non-guaranteed league-minimum salary to that of a veteran in arbitration, or looking for a guaranteed deal in free agency. It’s a workforce teeming with reasonably qualified candidates for just 780 (up this year after 20 years at 750) jobs. Sam Haggerty finds himself in that 780-1,000 range.
Haggerty doesn’t quite have a track record that suggests he should be a big leaguer on Opening Day. He spent 2019 at 25 (he’ll turn 26 in May), and comes to Seattle fresh off consecutive above-average seasons at the dish in AA, but the way he got there is why stats like wRC+ don’t tend to tell the whole story in the minors. The slight utility man has a profile similar to Donnie Walton, which FanGraphs summarized prior to 2019:
A switch-hitter with a simple swing and conservative approach to contact, Haggarty’s best offensive skill is his eye for the strike zone, which has enabled him to walk at a 13% career clip. He is limited from both a power and bat-to-ball standpoint, so it’s possible his patience will be irrelevant if big league pitching decides he’s not a threat to do damage on his own and make it a point to let him put the ball in play.
The profile of a slender speedster with an advanced approach and good feel for the strike zone is a fairly common one in the low-minors, particularly from college guys drafted late to help fill out rosters. It’s why, say, Patrick Frick isn’t getting much prospect hype despite walking more than he struck out and hitting .302 in Everett. Sometimes this profile pans out, and you get a guy like Mallex Smith, Greg Garcia, or Neil Walker, but if a guy with this toolkit makes the bigs the most common outcome is Andrew Romine. Haggerty has been an impressive base-stealer in the minors, much like Romine was, and has the glove and arm to handle every spot on the diamond to boot. We’ve seen the Mariners take a shot with literal Andrew Romine, so a younger, cheaper version isn’t an outlandish use of a roster spot, but looking at Haggerty compared to his competition for infield and outfield playing time muddles his role moving forward.
Unlike Romine (or Tim Lopes, or Dee Gordon, or Donnie Walton, or Braden Bishop), Haggerty has struck out at a high rate all through the minors. Striking out at a 25-26% clip isn’t the disqualifying rate it once was in the modern game, but with a .097 ISO and just two home runs in AA-Binghamton in 292 PAs last year, Haggerty hardly dispelled the concerns from the scouting block quote above.
Unlike Dylan Moore (or Jake Fraley, or Kyle Lewis, or Shed Long), Haggerty hasn’t hit for power, or at least impressive exit velocities that suggest hidden power. Moore struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances, but absolutely clobbered the ball on contact. A similar profile can be placed on Lewis, and both Fraley and Long have reasonable power-contact combos that track back.
Unlike J.P. Crawford, (or Lewis, or Jose Siri), Haggerty was never a highly rated prospect or top draft pick. He attended a smaller, private high school in Colorado, played for the University of New Mexico, and was a 24th round pick by Cleveland in 2015. This is not an innate demerit of Haggerty, but a simple statement that none of MLB’s decision makers deemed him a top level talent. What Haggerty has done even thus far has been, essentially, a surprise, and he is not necessarily liable to receive the benefit of the doubt often granted to underachieving former top picks or prospects.
And yet, Haggerty made the big leagues last year. He spent his 11 games as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, failing to reach base of his own volition in all four plate appearances he received, less meaningful than even a full spring training of work. Just because Haggerty doesn’t quite fit in Seattle doesn’t make him unqualified for MLB, it simply makes his current 40-man situation curious. That there are dozens of players with profiles similar to Sam Haggerty makes life easier for GMs, but adding, say, two more clubs can begin to make sure MLB has as many MLB-quality players as possible in the bigs at once. Is Haggerty one of the top 832 players in MLB? Perhaps. Would there be a loosening at the chokehold of players of his mold with more spaces to fill? Undeniably.
Stick around, Sam. Your time may come.