Phillip Evans and an Ode to “Old” Rookies

Not all rookies are top prospects who debut with an abundance of hype.

Not all MLB rookies are former top prospects with loud tools and an abundance of hype.

Oftentimes, a player’s path to the big leagues is a bit more circuitous than simply rocketing through the minors and taking the big leagues by storm.

For every Ronald Acuña Jr. who debuts before he’s old enough to order himself a beer, there are guys who grind it out for years in the minors just to get their chance at the MLB level.

Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Phillip Evans fits squarely into that second category.

The 28-year-old saw a smattering of MLB action over the past four years, playing in 45 total games in parts of three seasons, but he entered the 2021 season with his rookie eligibility still intact having tallied just 93 at-bats in the majors.

The Pirates signed him to a minor league deal prior to the 2020 season, and he made some noise in a brief 11-game stint on the MLB roster last year, hitting .359/.444/.487 with two doubles and one home run. As a career minor leaguer playing for a non-contender, his performance was easily dismissed, but he’s picked up right where he left off this year.

Through 14 games, he’s hitting .275/.373/.490 for a 137 OPS+ with two doubles and three home runs in 59 plate appearances. An injury to Ke’Bryan Hayes has opened the door for him to see regular action at third base, and Evans’ defensive versatility should allow him to stick in the starting lineup even after Hayes returns.

While it’s certainly a surprise to see an unheralded player pushing 30 years old make an impact, it’s far from uncharted territory.

Ahead we’ve highlighted 10 “old” rookies who turned non-existent expectations into a strong rookie season. The focus was on players who have debuted since 2000 and who were 28 years old or older in their rookie season. This is simply meant to be a walk down memory lane, so players are listed chronologically in order of their debut.


IF Melvin Mora, NYM/BAL (2000) – 28 years old

When shortstop Mike Bordick put together a career year at the age of 34, the Orioles decided to sell high at the trade deadline in 2000 and Mora was part of a four-prospect return package.

He hit .275/.337/.411 with 35 extra-base hits and 12 steals while tallying 1.4 WAR during his first full season in the majors in 2000, and he eventually developed into a two-time All-Star and an on-base machine for the O’s despite his late start in the majors.


RP Brendan Donnelly, ANA (2003) – 31 years old

Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez stole the headlines during the Anaheim Angels run to a World Series title in 2002, but Donnelly was an equally important cog in the bullpen during the second half of that season. The 30-year-old posted a 2.17 ERA and 9.8 K/9 with 13 holds in 46 appearances.

However, since he finished the season with 49.2 innings pitched, he was technically still a rookie the following year since 50 innings is the threshold for rookie status. The right-hander was even better in 2003, logging a 1.58 ERA in 63 appearances to earn an All-Star nod, and he had a nice five-year run in the Angels bullpen.


SP Jeremy Guthrie, BAL (2007) – 28 years old

Listed among Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects in 2003 and 2004, Guthrie’s prospect star had faded considerably by the time he joined the Orioles as a waiver claim from Cleveland prior to the 2007 season.

He ended up starting 26 games that year for a 93-loss O’s team that was desperate for pitching help. He finished 7-5 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 175.1 innings and wound up making three Opening Day starts in Baltimore before moving on to Kansas City, Colorado, and Washington during a successful 13-year career.


RP Brad Ziegler, OAK (2008) – 28 years old

Considering he did not throw his first MLB pitch until he was 28 years, 234 days old, it’s nothing short of amazing that Ziegler ranks 82nd on the all-time list with 739 appearances.

His submarine delivery befuddled hitters for years, and he filled a high-leverage spot at the back of MLB bullpens for the better part of a decade. During his debut season in 2008, he posted a 1.06 ERA with 11 saves in 13 chances for the Oakland Athletics, and he finished his career with 105 saves and a 2.75 ERA in 717.1 innings. Not bad for a 20th-round pick.


1B Garrett Jones, PIT (2009) – 28 years old

Very little was expected of Jones when the Pirates signed him as a minor league free agent prior to the 2009 season with 31 games of MLB action and a 61 OPS+ in 84 plate appearances under his belt. He began the season in Triple-A before he was promoted to the majors at the beginning of July.

The 28-year-old went on to hit .293/.372/.567 with 21 doubles and 21 home runs in 82 games, finishing seventh in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He averaged 19 homers and 63 RBI in his six full MLB seasons with the Pirates and Marlins.


IF Ryan Schimpf, SD (2016) – 28 years old

Schimpf debuted with a bang in 2016 when he slugged 20 home runs in 330 plate appearances as San Diego’s primary second baseman. Those gaudy power numbers made it easy to overlook a .217 batting average and a 31.8 percent strikeout rate.

When his K-rate spiked to 35.5 percent and his average fell to .158 the following year, he found himself on the bench. All told, his time in the big leagues amounted to 147 games over three seasons, during which time he hit 35 home runs and batted .195/.318/.496 for a 116 OPS+. An interesting career, to say the least.


SP Junior Guerra, MIL (2016) – 31 years old

Guerra’s long and winding road to the majors included a six-year hiatus from affiliated ball from 2009-2014 before he caught back on with the Chicago White Sox. After making three relief appearances with the South Siders, he was claimed off waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers during the subsequent offseason.

In his first year in Milwaukee, he went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 121.2 innings over 20 starts at the age of 31. He failed to build off that success as a starter but resurrected his career as a reliever and he’s currently pitching in a setup role for the Los Angeles Angels.


2B Joey Wendle, TB (2018) – 28 years old

It took two years and a trade to the Tampa Bay Rays before Wendle finally saw enough playing time to exhaust his rookie status, despite making his MLB debut in 2016 with the Athletics.

After joining the Rays during the 2017-18 offseason, he broke camp with a roster spot and quickly earned the lion’s share of the playing time at second base. He hit .300/.354/.435 with 46 extra-base hits, 16 steals, and stellar defense en route to a 4.9-WAR season. He has since shifted to third base, and he was a starter on last year’s AL pennant winner.


1B Christian Walker, ARI (2019) – 28 years old

Despite hitting .309/.382/.597 with 34 doubles, 32 home runs, and 114 RBI at Triple-A in 2017, Walker only saw 11 games of MLB action with Paul Goldschmidt firmly blocking his path.

In serious danger of fading into Quad-A obscurity, he finally got an opportunity in 2019 when the D-Backs dealt Goldschmidt to St. Louis Cardinals. More than four years after he made his MLB debut, Walker posted a 111 OPS+ with 29 home runs and 73 RBI as a 28-year-old who still maintained rookie status despite four separate seasons of brief MLB action.


OF Mike Yastrzemski, SF (2019) – 29 years old

Yastrzemski was little more than a famous last name when Farhan Zaidi acquired him from the Orioles in exchange for right-hander Tyler Herb in one of his first moves after taking over as general manager of the San Francisco Giants.

Given a chance on a rebuilding team, he hit .272/.334/.518 with 21 home runs in 107 games during a 2.6-WAR rookie season, and he was even better last year when a 166 OPS+ and 28 extra-base hits in 224 plate appearances was enough to secure him a top-10 finish in NL MVP voting.


Is this list a who’s who of MLB superstars? No, but it is clear proof that you can never write a player off simply because of his age. Phillip Evans is just the most recent example of a player finally breaking through after years of grinding in the minors. He won’t be the last.

Photo by Icon Sportswire, Assets by upklyak/Freepik | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Joel Reuter

Aside from his work at Pitcher List, Joel is also in his 10th year as a National MLB columnist at Bleacher Report and the author of a weekly column for Beckett Media.

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