Once upon a time, Matt Antonelli, a former three-sport athlete and Wake Forest University baseball standout, was an acclaimed infield prospect on the fast track to becoming an everyday major-league player. In 2006, he was selected by the San Diego Padres with the 17th overall pick in the June amateur draft mostly due to his outstanding plate approach and on-base ability.
His success in his first two years as a professional in the Padres’ organization earned him a ranking by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball America as the 50th best prospect in baseball before the 2008 season. For perspective, Jair Jurrjens was ranked one spot ahead of him on the same list. At that point, Antonelli had already ascended all the way to Double-A San Antonio. His career numbers included a sensational on-base percentage of .406 along with 37 stolen bases and as many walks as he had strikeouts.
Today, we’re four summers removed from the publishing of that prospect list. Why, then, is he currently in the midst of his second term as a minor league free agent with only 21 big league games under his belt?
In 2008, after being assigned to the Triple-A Portland Beavers out of spring training, his production saw a sharp decline. He hit just .215 for the year with the Beavers and his season was a huge step backwards offensively despite putting up his usual plate disciple numbers; later, Antonelli would say that the 2008 season was his first real taste of failure. His abhorrent performance in ‘08 essentially sent his career into a free fall.
He came into the next season still clinging to his status as one of the best second base prospects in the game, but with much to prove. He never really got the chance. Injuries, which he initially attempted to play through, led him to post even worse numbers, including a .196 batting average, in the 59 games he managed to play in 2009.
Finally, his hand would require two surgeries that caused him to miss basically the entire 2010 season.
After those three years stalled in batting cages and rehab facilities, the Padres finally gave up on him. Last winter, he was non-tendered, granted free agency, and signed last with the Washington Nationals. He came into spring training excited to have a new start, an opportunity to prove himself to a new organization.
Unfortunately, being away from competitive baseball for an extended period of time did not lead to a great spring training for Antonelli. He would later write, “You never get two shots at a first impression and the first one they had of me was looking like a Little Leaguer up there.”
Rather than include him on their major league roster, Washington assigned him to Double-A Harrisburg, where he played four games before being promoted to Triple-A Syracuse. There, he had to fight for playing time, but he made the most of it. In his 86 games this year with Syracuse, he finally looked once again like the player who was once in the upper echelon of baseball prospects rather than the one who was unceremoniously cut and made a minor league free agent; he posted a triple slash line of .297/.393/.460 with eight homers and six stolen bases. His OBP ranked seventh among players with at least 200 plate appearances in the International League, and his walk to strikeout ratio of 0.80 ranked tenth.
With Danny Espinosa and Stephen Lombardozzi under team control for a long time, the Nationals no longer present an opportunity to Antonelli. For that reason, he will once again have to look to his agent to help him find somewhere he can stick.
Now 26 years old and a free agent again, it’s make or break for Antonelli next year. If he finds the right situation, he could stand a very good chance to make a major league roster out of spring training for the first time, at least as an option off the bench or as part of a platoon. If he fails to do so, he may be destined to spend the rest of his career with the dreaded “Four-A” label–a career minor leaguer. Either way, he would cost virtually nothing but a spring training invite.
For the Tigers, who should be looking to find a long-term solution at second base and also have a hole at third base, where Antonelli has spent significant time, he may be a risk worth taking. He plays good defense at two positions of need and has the tools to lead off.
He may have been set back a few years by injury, but his ceiling, it seems, remains high. If, by chance, he were to sign and make Detroit’s roster, he could gain traction and become a solid starter in the majors for years. If you’re the Tigers, why not give Antonelli a look?