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Szuminski Returned to Chicago After Brief Stint in the Majors

By Brian Loux

STAFF REPORTER

After a disappointing run with the San Diego Padres, pitcher Jason E. Szuminski ’01 was taken off the starting roster on May 11 and replaced by infielder Jeff Cirillo. Szuminski made national media headlines earlier in the year for being the first MIT graduate to play on a major league baseball team.

Padres manager Bruce Bochy said that the Padres needed extra infielders at the time, and experienced pitchers Rob Beck and Sterling Hamilton will soon be ready to play, making Szuminski expendable. “We could just see that it was tough to keep Szuminski,” Bochy said in an interview with MLB.com. “We tried to work out something now, but we couldn’t.”

In accordance with the Rule 5 draft regulations, Szuminski returned to the Iowa Cubs, the triple-A farm team for the Chicago Cubs. Szuminski trained prior to this season. According to Iowa Cubs’ Director of Media Relations Jeff Lantz, Szuminski has been used as one of the team’s primary closers in the last week. To date, Szuminski has earned three saves in eight games for the Cubs and has allowed only five hits and no runs.

Szuminski plans to play, improve

Shortly after the May 11 announcement, Szuminski sent a letter to the Yahoo Groups site “TeamJasonSzuminski,” a discussion group that has followed his major league career. In the letter, he expressed his gratitude for the fan support along with a mixture of disappointment and optimism. The note was forwarded to the MIT alumni blog that kept tabs on Szuminski’s progress, which is at http://alum.mit.edu/ne/noteworthy/szuminski-blog.html.

“With Cirillo, Hitchcock, and Beck all returning soon, I knew it was very unlikely I’d remain in San Diego,” Szuminski wrote. Szuminski went on to say that he was hoping that the Padres would either trade him or find a way to keep him, but that the Cubs were eager to have him return. Lantz confirmed that the Cubs organization did indeed look to have him return. “He’s a good guy that’s big, strong, and can throw in the mid-nineties,” he said. “If you can get him back, you can certainly take him.”

While frustrated with leaving, Szuminski said that he was hopeful that he would improve as he played more. “It’s disappointing to be leaving. Hopefully it will be better for me in the long run. Staying here and not pitching much was only making me worse,” Szuminski wrote.

“There weren’t as many opportunities for him to pitch [on the Padres],” Lantz said. “He got himself into shape for spring training, then sat on the bench for the first month.” Lantz said that during his last month with the Cubs, Szuminski has returned to the shape he was in before the season began.

Lackluster run with Padres

Szuminski’s major league debut run was far from stellar. In just seven relief attempts and ten innings pitched, Szuminski’s earned run average climbed to 7.20; the current average E.R.A. for active San Diego Padres pitchers is 3.51. Additionally, Szuminski gave up three home runs and walked 11 batters.

On top of Szuminski’s struggles came the superb performance of the team as a whole. The Padres are currently 29-24, battling the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the National League West division. With the team in no position to risk games on an unproven reliever, Szuminski would only get into games where the Padres had already lost the lead, and only for an inning or two at a time.

“If I had been outstanding, maybe it would have been hard to get rid of me,” Szuminski told MLB.com, “But it’s hard to be part of a winning team when you’re the new guy and you’re struggling.” Nevertheless, Szuminski is confident that he will once again return to the majors. He closed his letter by telling his fans, “I know what it tastes like now and will be back soon enough. You can count on it.”

Rule 5 sends Szuminski to Cubs

Szuminski was acquired by the Padres in a trade with the Kansas City Royals, who originally acquired him from the Chicago Cubs farm team in the Rule 5 draft.

Along with the trade went the technicalities surrounding Rule 5 draft picks. While most major league teams field a 40-person roster by the deadline of Nov. 20 with returning players and farm club standouts, those who do not are able to acquire additional players from the minors during the winter with the draft.

The rule originated as a method for deterring teams from hoarding talented players in their minor league clubs. Thus, if a star player is not brought up from a club’s minor leagues, any major league team that is not at the 40-player cap may purchase a player from any minor league club for the price of $50,000. However, in order to prevent the purchasing teams from simply hoarding players for themselves, the team must keep the player on the major league roster for the entire following season or offer the player back to his original farm club for $25,000, half the original price.

As a result, the draft is something of a gamble. Most teams spend a comparatively small amount of money in the hope that their Rule 5 draft picks will succeed in the big leagues. However, major league teams have not been as risk-averse as one might think. In 2002, the Milwaukee Brewers took 28 players in that season’s Rule 5 draft.

The likelihood of Szuminski making the Chicago Cubs roster are decent. The Cubs are currently in fourth place in the National League Central Division, and Szuminski’s 7.20 ERA with the Padres would place him 10th of 12 among the active Cub pitchers.

“He’s got as good a shot as anybody,” said Lantz on Szuminski’s chances on moving up from the farm team later this year. “It’s all based on [the Chicago Cubs’] need.”

Szuminski did not return repeated requests for comment.