FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For Shane Victorino and Joel Hanrahan, baseball life has come full circle now that they are playing together for the Red Sox this spring.
A long time ago, with a franchise far away, the two were minor league teammates in the Dodgers system. They'd known each other since 2000, when Hanrahan was taken by Los Angeles in the second round of the draft, one year after Victorino had been selected as a sixth-rounder.
Hanrahan's earliest memory of his once and future teammate?
"He was a terrible second baseman," cracked Hanrahan. "He started out as a second baseman. He was pretty raw. As soon as they moved him to the outfield, I said, 'This guy is going to be in the big leagues.' He had a great arm out there and he could run everything down. That was probably his problem at second base. He wanted to run everything down without the proper technique. He's a crazy athlete and a crazy person, too -- you can't get him to sit down in a chair and be quiet for 20 minutes."
In 2003 and 2004, they played together for Los Angeles' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in Jacksonville and Las Vegas, and they were even roommates in the 2004 season, where Victorino (Hanrahan recalls appreciatively) introduced the new Red Sox closer to sushi. That they would now have the chance to play together with a pair of All-Star games on the resumes of both players is little short of remarkable. Yet the development is even more striking given the path that both have taken to this point.
At times, both enjoyed considerable prospect status. And at times, both were forced to question their standing in professional baseball. Indeed, the two seasons when they were teammates represented that broad spectrum of career experiences.
THE FALL AND RISE OF JOEL HANRAHAN
In 2003, Hanrahan was a dominant starter in Double-A, leading the Southern League with a 2.43 ERA and striking out roughly a batter an inning. Given both his performance and his pedigree as a high-round draft pick, he seemed like an excellent bet for the big leagues.
"[His stuff was] definitely not where he is now. Starting back then, he was probably low-90s. More of a sinker, curveball, slider -- a four-pitch mix as a starter. He could probably get it up to 94, but probably pitched more in the low-90s -- nothing overpowering," recalled Red Sox advance scout Steve Langone, who was a teammate of both players at various stages of their time in the Dodgers system -- including a spell with both in 2003. "He always had good numbers, always an innings eater who made a steady progression. Nothing overwhelming -- he was just a horse."
The following year in Triple-A, however, Hanrahan developed some arm injuries. However, given his proximity to the majors and that, based on his 2003 performance, he was viewed as one of the organization's top pitching prospects, he kept quiet about them.
"I was dealing with a little shoulder bug. Never really told anybody because I wanted to get to the big leagues," Hanrahan recalled, taking stock of his age 22 season when he went 7-7 with a 5.05 ERA in Vegas. If I was going to get hurt, I wanted to get hurt in the big leagues -- but first you've got to get there. So it took me about four more years after that. If I had said something about my shoulder earlier, it probably wouldn't have taken me as long as that."
The shoulder issues diminished Hanrahan's velocity and stuff, and so while he continued to shuttle in the Dodgers system -- mostly between Double-A and Triple-A -- through the 2006 season, he never broke through to the majors. And after that '06 campaign as a 24-year-old, the Dodgers simply let him walk as a minor league free agent.
Hanrahan signed with the Nationals and spent a successful year as a starter in the Triple-A International League, finally earning his first big league summons in 2007, when he went 5-3 with a 6.00 ERA for the Nats. The following season, he was moved to the bullpen, where his stuff played up in a fashion that yielded huge strikeout stuff and that put him on the path, after a trade to the Pirates during the 2009 season, to closing.
"Being his roommate, watching him develop, watching him grow at that time, I thought he could be a starter. Once injuries came into play, he had those trying years where he lost his velocity. Moving to the bullpen, he found his velocity again," said Victorino. "When he got moved to the 'pen, that's where I thought he belonged. He kind of got bounced around as a starter to the bullpen, and once he settled in, he became a dominant closer."
"He kind of grew into himself when he moved into the bullpen and now, 96-98 is what he's been in the big leagues," added Langone. "Not that anyone could see that coming, but you could kind of see early on, he always had a little baby fat. He got rid of that, built into himself as a man and now you see the power pitcher he's grown into."
SHANE VICTORINO'S PENDULUM RIDE TO SUCCESS
Victorino had a lot thrown at him in his early professional years. There was the issue of deciding on position to which Hanrahan alluded, but once he moved to the outfield, it was clear he'd found a home. There was also the matter of having been introduced to switch-hitting early in his professional career -- years after most players have given it a go as amateurs.
Victorino's speed and the promise of solid outfield defense were already apparent early in his professional career, though through 2002, he'd done little to distinguish himself offensively while advancing as high as Double-A as a 21-year-old. Still, the Padres were willing to take a flyer on him in the Rule 5 draft, hoping his athleticism would allow him to be at least a useful Big League role player.
However, Victorino was overmatched in the big leagues. He hit .151 with a .232 OBP, .178 slugging mark and .410 OPS in 36 games before the Padres offered him back to the Dodgers.
"I don't even call it coffee -- coffee's the next level," said Victorino. "Playing one month or two months in the big leagues, that ain't coffee. That's tea. Herbal.
"Getting sent back down, it was definitely trying times. Just learning how to switch-hit, in all actuality, I was half a season into learning how to switch-hit when I got to the big leagues. Then I got sent back down and learned how to switch-hit again. It was definitely trying times. At that time, I felt like I belonged, because I'd gotten there at a young age. On the other hand, I saw the struggles that I had to go through. I had to still work to get back to the big leagues."
Victorino spent most of the remainder of the year not just in the minors but in Double-A, with Hanrahan. The next year, both moved up to Triple-A, but only Hanrahan remained there. Victorino struggled early, and after hitting .235/.278/.335/.613 in 55 games in Las Vegas, he was sent back down to Jacksonville.
"It was like, 'Oh, geez -- where am I going?' I'm supposed to be going the opposite way," said Victorino. "I remember at one point calling home, calling my dad and saying, 'Hey, Dad -- I think I'm done. I can't do this anymore.' He said, 'Son, you're always welcome home with open arms, but just remember -- if you come home, you're not going back.' I went to bed that night, got up the next day, had a pretty decent game and stuck with it. But there were definitely trying times at that time."
To Langone, Victorino's tools were obvious. But especially given how new he was to switch-hitting, it remained an open question how those gifts might translate into production.
"You could always see that this was what he could turn into. You just didn't know if it was ever going to happen," said Langone. "He'd be facing more righties in his career, and he was still more comfortable and strong from the right side. He's developed a lot better as a lefty a lot better than I ever thought he could. It's pretty impressive to be able to switch-hit that late in life and then get to Philadelphia, spin on balls with power, play small ball from both sides of the plate. He's really developed his game."
It was after Victorino was sent back down to Double-A, after his time as Hanrahan's teammate, that his career took flight. To that point, he'd hit 18 homers in his professional career. Back in Double-A Jacksonville, he hit 16 in 75 games, posting a robust .327/.373/.582/.955 line in the Southern League, a performance he sustained into winter ball.
"I know just following him, he went from Triple-A to Double-A and put up some good power numbers. That kind of surprised me. I said, 'Didn't see that coming,' " acknowledged Langone. "Then he went to winter ball, kind of did the same thing, and that's where the Phillies Rule 5'd him. Seeing the numbers was pretty eye-popping."
The Phillies selected Victorino in the Rule 5 draft after that 2004 season, but in 2005, they didn't have a spot on the big league roster for him. But the Dodgers were open to working out a deal involving the outfielder, and so the two teams worked out a trade that permitted Victorino to spend 2005 in Philadelphia's minor league system. He excelled in the Triple-A International League, winning MVP honors, earning a late-season call-up that commenced a run of almost six years as a centerpiece of the Phillies lineup.
There was a lot of rejection to get to that point -- being exposed three times to the Rule 5 draft, taken twice and not retained once -- but ultimately, like Hanrahan, Victorino withstood the shuttling between organizations to establish himself as a star.
Hanrahan and Victorino had kept in touch ever since their minor league days, and so there was a sense of eagerness throughout December. Victorino reached his three-year, $39 million deal with the Sox in early December; later in the month, as reports of the Sox' interest in trading for Hanrahan surfaced, the two were able to share curiosity and excitement.
"The rumors and rumblings started, and I texted him. He said, 'Honestly, Shane, I haven't heard anything.' That was towards the beginning. As the ball started rolling down the hill, we kept in touch. I said, 'I hope we become teammates again,' " Victorino recounted. "Once it all went down, I was like, 'Let's live together in spring training.' "
They are doing just that. Just as was the case in Las Vegas nine years ago, the two are housemates this spring in Fort Myers, though at a very different -- and, in many ways, remarkable stage in their lives.
Victorino, a player who was selected twice in the Rule 5 draft -- and offered back to his original club both times -- has become a two-time All-Star, a key contributor on a World Series winner and, in the process, positioned himself for a considerable free agent payday. Hanrahan, meanwhile, had to bounce between three organizations (Dodgers, Nationals, Pirates) before he flourished into a two-time All-Star closer.
Many years ago, they shared their struggles. And so, even when they were opponents in recent years with the Pirates and Phillies, there was a mutual appreciation for what they'd become. Indeed, their shared baseball roots and the knowledge of their similarly winding paths to success almost made it difficult for Victorino to bat at times against his friend and former teammate.
"Watching him bounce back and do what he's doing now, that makes it even more gratifying. For me, being a roommate, a guy who was his teammate, it makes me smile even bigger," said Victorino. "It's kind of funny, because when we faced each other, I was thinking we both were on the right path, then we both had our trying times -- and look at us now, being successful at what we're doing.
"We were roommates in Triple-A before I got sent down. And now, we're living together in spring training. It's full circle," he added. "We both have had some good times at the big league level. Now, we get to talk about times we were in Triple-A together, and the success we've had in the big leagues. It's great to come back to that."
The two won't have to oppose each other anymore. Instead, they are both embracing the opportunity to help restore the stature of the Red Sox franchise.
"It's cool. We've both been through our struggles and it took us a while to get there," said Hanrahan. "He was [taken in the Rule 5 draft] and offered back and Rule 5'd again and offered back; the Dodgers turned it down. He's been through a lot, too.
"Now, he's got one thing I want and don't have, and that would be the ring. Hopefully we can work together on that. If he's got two of them at the end of this year, I could care less if I only have one."