Thursday, April 26, 2012

Big Country Back In The Show

Bucco fans should remember Brad "Big Country" Eldred, the monstrous (6'6", 270 lb) first baseman who could launch a baseball as far as Cape Canaveral launched rockets. Hey, it's only fitting since he was born in Fort Lauderdale.

Eldred was selected by the Pirates out of Florida International University in the 6th round of the 2002 draft. He signed quickly and reported to short-season Williamsport, moving on to to Class A Hickory the following season, where he bombed 28 homers.

In 2004, the big guy really broke out. Playing for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats and AA Altoona Curve, he hit .301 with 38 home runs and 137 RBIs. The Pirates named him their minor-league player of the year, which unfortunately even then was likelier to be a kiss of death than a fast track to stardom.

He started 2005 at Altoona and was promoted to AAA Indy, and Eldred hit a combined .297 with 28 home runs and 75 RBIs into late July. The big team called him up on July 21st. Big Country hit .221 with 12 home runs and 77 strikeouts in 55 games, and was a star on the rise. The FO sent him to the Arizona Fall League in the off season, hoping he could tighten his strike zone.

He needed the extra swings because Eldred had one small problem. Although he whacked 104 home runs in the minors to this point, he also whiffed 446 times, a 31% K rate. But hey, gotta take the good with the bad, right? A few whiffs scattered around 30 homers is a deal most teams would take.

He missed virtually all of the 2006 season after thumb surgery, but came back strong (.303/6/13 in spring training) and made the roster in 2007, adding outfield to his repertoire. First base was a logjam that season, with Adam LaRouche, Ryan Doumit, Steve Pearce, and Josh Phelps all getting shots at the position.

With LaRouche locked in at first and all that competition for the back-up spot, Eldred couldn't afford to stumble out of the blocks. But he did, hitting only .109, and was demoted to Indy on May 20th. That would pretty well end his Pittsburgh era; Pearce had passed him on the depth chart. It didn't help that he had a terrible year at Indy at 2007, and so he became a travelin' man, making a new AAA stop every year.

In 2008, he signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox. Playing for the Charlotte Knights, Eldred hit 38 home runs with 100 RBIs to lead the International League in both categories. He also hit just .244 and K'ed 144 times, and the Sox allowed him to walk at the end of the season.

Next was a stop with the Washington Nationals and their top affiliate, the Syracuse Chiefs. Big Country had a mediocre year, hitting .269 with 17 home runs and 59 RBIs, and then it was off to the Rox in 2010 and what seemed to be a perpetual minor league hamster wheel.

Colorado Springs helped rejuvenate his bat. He hit .269, but he had 27 HRs and drove in 104 for the Sky Sox. On July 7th, he got the call when Todd Helton went on the DL. Eldred played off the bench, and in 24 AB hit .250 with a homer and 3 RBI to go with his 10 strikeouts.

The performance didn't impress the Rockies' management, so in 2011 he found himself a Giant. They gave him an invite to spring training before sending him down to the Fresno Grizzlies during camp, where he hit .278 with 23 bombs and 57 RBI.

At 31, the flame was still dancing in his heart if flickering a bit, and the Detroit Tigers signed him to a minor league contract. It helped that Jimmy Leyland knew and liked him from back in his days as a Cardinal scout based in Pittsburgh. And hey - Big Country tore up the IL for Toledo, batting .388 with 13 homers and 38 RBI in 20 games.

Sometimes patience pays. The Tigers released veteran utility guy Brandon Inge today, and Brad Eldred is back in the show.

It'll be interesting to see how Leyland uses him. The offensively-challenged Tigers have already penciled in seven players at DH, where Eldred mostly saw his Mud Hen action. He also sipped a coffee at first base and right field, not that there's much chance of him knocking Prince Fielder out of a job. But he can still move a little. He stole nine bases last season, so he's not entirely one dimensional.

Jimmy Leyland has always been an instinctive coach, and may be up for playing the en fuego Big Country just to roll the dice while they're hot. After all, Eldred never had an everyday gig in the majors; it could be scary if he got regular at-bats and carried his mojo to Motown.

But no matter what happens, it's always nice to see a guy get rewarded. Nothing is as thankless as being a club-to-club AAAA player, especially when you have a wife and a couple of kiddies in tow. Garrett Jones was in the same sort of rut at age 28, and he rode a hot bat into a major league paycheck that he's still collecting. So here's to ya', Big Country. Go for it.

Cory Giger of The Altoona Mirror also has an excellent piece on the Curve legend.

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