On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed Chad Cordero to a minor league deal, and Cordero tweeted, “comeback has officially begun.” The 30-year old right-hander — amazingly he’s still just 30 years old — hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 9 2/3 innings in 2010, and hasn’t pitched a full season in the majors since 2007, which is when he recorded his last save. He announced his retirement in 2011, which came after 128 saves in Montreal and Washington, then shoulder surgery in 2008, three subsequent years of rehab, and the death of his daughter, Tehya, in 2010 due to SIDS. Now he’s trying to make it back to the majors.
SIDS is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is still frustratingly little-understood. In fact, the National Library of Medicine defines it as “the unexpected, sudden death of a child under age 1 in which an autopsy does not show an explainable cause of death.” SIDS is not a cause of death so much as it is an acknowledgement that doctors really don’t know what happened. Cordero has continued to mount comeback attempts as a tribute to his daughter. “I want to do it for her,” he told The Washington Post in 2011. “I’m just using her as motivation, trying to find strength.”
Chad Cordero was of the players who followed the Expos to Washington. Drafted in the first round out of Cal State Fullerton in 2003, he accepted a smaller bonus from the Expos than some later first-rounders because the Expos promised he’d have a chance to reach the big leagues quickly. And that’s just what happened, as he pitched 26 innings in High-A before an August callup to the big leagues. That was his last minor league game before his torn labrum destroyed his pitching career.
Cordero was 22 on the 2004 Expos, the team’s last year in Quebec and the second of two seasons that the Expos split their home games between Stade Olympique in Montreal and Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cordero was by far the youngest regular on the team: he was literally the only player under the age of 23 to play a single game on the roster. The next-youngest regulars were 25-year old outfielder Juan Rivera and 25-year old reliever T.J. Tucker.
The young closer was one of the stars of the team, along with dependable second baseman Jose Vidro and the redoubtable Livan Hernandez. He saved 14 games in 2004, pitching 82 2/3 innings, and then led the major leagues with 47 saves and a sparkling 1.82 ERA in 2005, the Nationals’ inaugural year in Washington. He was an All-Star and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. All told, from 2003 to 2007, he threw 316 1/3 innings with a 2.79 ERA (65 ERA-), recording 128 saves, eighth in baseball over that timespan. At the end of 2007, he was 25 years old. That offseason, he got married. Then his body gave out on him.
Since then, he’s spent more time in the minors than in the majors, though precious little of either. From 2008 to 2011, he pitched 14 innings in the majors and 75 2/3 in the minors, allowing 64 runs overall. He left the game in 2011, and didn’t pitch in professional baseball at all in 2012. But he couldn’t stay away. He had always struggled with his weight — the Post ran a “best shape of his career” story in 2008 before his labrum tear — and he in 2012 he announced that he’d lost 25 pounds on Weight Watchers. Last July, he threw out the first pitch of a Nationals-Braves game.
Cordero was not an “elite” pitcher. From 2003 to 2007, his FIP was just 4.04, more than a run higher than his 2.79 ERA over the period. He was pretty homer-prone, with 1.11 homers per nine innings, and his 8.6 percent walk rate was a bit higher than you’d like, and his stuff was never overpowering, as his heater sat around 90. He blew 24 saves over that period, for a save percentage of 84 percent. The Nationals constantly dangled him, but never traded him, as Jim Bowden was perceived around the league to have too high an asking price for a good but not great closer.
When Cordero made his first major league comeback, with the Mariners in 2010, he did the same thing he did in 2003: he took less money for a better shot at closing. To his credit, he returned to pitch in nine games in June and July; to the Mariners’ credit, they pitched him out of the back of the bullpen and let him finish four games. He didn’t have anything. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself, as the Seattle Times wrote that April:
I don’t think it’s rotten. I had 4 ½ really, really good years in the big leagues, and I enjoyed myself a whole lot… Baseball’s still a game and I’m still young. It’s really not like “poor me.” I’m still only 28, and hopefully I still have a long way to go in the game.
In early 2012, he decided to try to come back again. He told an interviewer that he wished he hadn’t tried to play in 2011, immediately after his daughter’s death:
Looking back, I should have taken all of last year off to be with my family but I wanted to try to make Tehya proud of me so I tried playing. I had thought about staying home but my and wife thought I should give it a try…
I’m not ready to give up on baseball yet. I just needed time away from it. I love the game. As much as I hated the game last year, I would still never walk away from the game I’ve loved since I was 5. I don’t want to end my career on what happened last year. I will do everything I can to make Tehya proud of me and hopefully one day I can make it back to the big leagues.
Finally, a year later, he has a minor league contract. There’s no doubting Cordero’s determination, even if it’s a stretch to imagine him holding down a steady job in the majors at this stage. At his absolute peak, Cordero did not have a lot of margin for error. Even if it hadn’t been for his past five years of injuries, he probably would not have been a particularly effective 30 year old closer, considering his nine blown saves in 2007, his last healthy season.
But it’s spring. Hope springs eternal, and every team is undefeated. And for a homer-prone pitcher like Cordero, there is no better sight than to stand on the mound, look behind you, and see Mike Trout.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.