If right-handed pitcher Nelson Figueroa were going to write up his own "Position Wanted" advertisement, it would read something like this:
"Nelson Figueroa is a guy who has spent parts of five years in the big leagues and, when given the opportunity, he's been successful in the Majors. He's a low-cost, middle-of-the-road reward who will go out and compete for you. He's ready to be plugged into a big-league job right now and, if he starts at Triple-A, he'll be a great insurance policy."
Right now, while the eyes of most baseball fans are focused on the Major League playoffs, hundreds of Minor League free agents are starting to cast around for jobs for the 2007 season.
October 22 marks the first day that teams can start signing six-year free agents. From the time a player signs his first pro contract, he starts a six-year clock at the end of which, if he's in the Minors, he can become a free agent and negotiate with any organization.
Each fall, organizations go over their rosters, figure out which holes they need to fill, and start making priority lists of players to sign. Players start making wish lists of their own of clubs where they think they may be good fits. And agents use up all of their free cellphone minutes by the second or third day of the signing period, trying to "matchmake" their clients with spots that could best benefit them.
Figueroa, 32, is hoping that his agent, former Major League pitcher Terry Bross with Gaylord Sports in Phoenix, will be able to find the perfect partner.
The Coney Island native was drafted by his hometown Mets in the 30th round of 1995 out of Brandeis University. After making his pro debut that summer at short-season Kingsport in the Appalachian League, he made his mark in his full-season debut in '96, leading the Minors with 200 strikeouts at Capital City (South Atlantic League), going 14-7 with a 2.04 ERA in 185 innings.
He skipped a level in 1997, jumping up to Double-A Binghamton and returned to the B-Mets to start 1998 before being traded to Arizona midseason. He spent the rest of that season as well as all of 1999 at Triple-A Tucson, and then shuttled between Triple-A and the Majors for each of the next five years, with the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Brewers and Pirates.
In those five seasons, he posted an overall 4.65 ERA in 74 games, 33 of them starts.
His first dance partner in his first six-year two-step was Pittsburgh, which signed him as a six-year free agent following his 2002 season with the Brewers. He spent two years with the Pirates before a shoulder injury shut him down for all of 2005 and put him in the position of looking for a new team in 2006 with a big red flag -- or make it a red cross -- on his record.
"I had pitched for so long, so many years, so many innings, without an injury that it was bound that something would happen," Figueroa said of the rotator-cuff surgery he underwent in October 2004.
The Pirates released Figueroa, leaving him to keep several interested teams apprised of his progress as he rehabbed that winter.
"I would send progress reports to teams every few months with my stage of recovery, the percent of my arm strength compared to before the surgery, etc," said Figueroa, who as an American studies major at an excellent academic college was more than familiar with putting together reports and charts. "But in early March I still couldn't lift my arm above my head without pain, and I had to go back [under the knife] to clean out scar tissue and shave down the bone, so that pushed back my planned return from June to August."
At that point, Figueroa knew, there was no way a team was going to assign him so he tweaked his plan.
"I decided to take the whole year off and get my body to full strength," he said. Living in the Phoenix area with his wife Alisa and their baby daughter Renee, Figueroa had been working out intensively during the offseason at a local sports facility that catered to baseball players. But when Spring Training rolled around, reality hit big time.
"I had been in the middle of all these guys working out and getting ready for Spring Training and getting excited," he said. "Then I was one of five guys left there and that's when it hit me, 'Wow, I'm not playing baseball right now.'"
Figueroa continued to work out and rehab and by the 2005-2006 offseason he was ready to head down to Mexico and pitch against live hitters for a few weeks. That January he set up some workouts where scouts could come to see him, and 13 organizations sent representatives to Tempe to watch him throw.
The general response was along the lines of, "You look good, but we have more than enough guys coming to Spring Training already."
Figueroa opted to take the independent-league route, signing with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. He has not regretted that move for a moment. He got to pitch for a few weeks close to his Brooklyn roots, and said the organization was "as close to Triple-A baseball as you can get in the indies. First class all the way. They couldn't pay us the big bucks, so they made it up to us in other ways, including a masseuse and a chiropractor on duty."
After two weeks and two starts for the Ducks, he signed with the Washington Nationals and headed down to New Orleans to pitch for the Zephyrs in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
A year and change removed from his shoulder surgery, Figueroa was pretty much back to his old self. Never a power pitcher to start with, he didn't worry about having lost much off his fastball.
"If you know anything about me, that's a moot point," he laughed. "My curveball had been my No. 1 pitch for a long time. I throw a curve, a slider, a changeup, a fastball and a splitter. The beauty of five pitches is that I have good days and bad days on all of them. My fastball is around 85-88 but even fully healthy it topped out around 91, so I'm not missing a lot."
Though Figueroa never made it up to Washington in 2006, his season in New Orleans was anything but wasted time. His experience pitching for the Zephyrs was priceless from a personal standpoint.
"It was so important to the city that we were the first pro team back in action and entertainment for the city," he said. "It was remarkable to be a part of something like that."
Figueroa was 3-5 for the Zephyrs, with a 4.38 in 16 appearances (11 of which were starts).
And now he heads into the 2006-2007 offseason having proven that he is healthy and ready to contribute to an organization. He harbors no illusions about the situation he's in.
"Being told you're going to be one of a handful of guys competing for a job in Spring Training and then get there and find you're one of 15 guys, that's sort of how it works," he said. "A lot of teams sign a lot of guys at the last minute, so even if you waited for the right situation and thought you found a good one, it can change."
Figueroa understands that, though.
"I'm a realist," he said. "If I go to camp and am one of 33 right-handed pitchers for two jobs and another guy throws 95, I know he's going to get the job."
Still, Figueroa believes he has a lot to offer and feels he showed teams who might have wanted to be convinced of his health what they needed to see. At least, he hopes so.
"Right now I think the 13 teams I threw for this spring got to see what they wanted to see," he said. "That I'm healthy and that I put up decent numbers in the Pacific Coast League."
For those who still need convincing, they can keep an eye on the Dominican League stats in the coming months, where Figueroa will be pitching for La Romana, his first stint in that competitive winter league. He signed with the team just days before finding out that he could have qualified to pitch in the Puerto Rican winter league as a native player, because his grandparents are from that country.
Though he looks forward to honoring his commitment in the Dominican Republic, he is hoping he may get a shot at pitching for Puerto Rico next summer when they compete in the last qualifying tournament for one of the final slots in the 2008 Olympics.
Along with the more obvious qualities -- a Major League arm, tenacity and smarts, Figueroa also believes he bring a few additional items to the six-year table: creativity, patriotism and good luck for his road roommates.
Evidence of the first: He proposed to Alisa, his college sweetheart at Brandeis, by dressing up as Winnie the Pooh to entertain at a fourth birthday party for the son of then-teammate Ken Huckaby in Tucson. He hid the engagement ring in the jar of "hunny" for Alisa, an avowed Winnie the Pooh fanatic, to find.
Evidence of the second: The Brooklyn native, who grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, designed and sold T-shirts bearing the image of a baseball and an American flag right after 9/11, with proceeds gong to the September 11 fund. They raised more than $400,000 for the cause.
Evidence of the third: This past season, Figueroa claims, he got more of his road roommates called up than any other player.
"I think I had eight road roommates called up," he said. "I had one guy, Saul Rivera, that they put with me out of the blue. His normal roommate was surprised they weren't put together. But he went to lunch that day, and by the time he got back he was on his way to the airport."
But Figueroa has no hard feelings about not being one of those called up in 2006. He achieved his own goal.
"My goal for the year was just to prove I was back and healthy," he said. "Hopefully I opened enough eyes to fight for a job at big-league camp next spring."
And with that thought in mind, Nelson Figueroa continues to prepare for the big dance.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com.