The 2019 Minor League Baseball regular season is in its final week of action, and the MLB playoff roster deadline is approaching quickly (Sept. 1). While researching expected September call-ups and searching the list of current free agents, a handful of recognizable names caught our attention -- names even we didn't realize were still playing professional baseball.
The likelihood of any of the players on this list ever reaching the big leagues are slim-to-none. However, professional athletes, former or current, are smart; they understand how the business works. It is not rash to assume many of the players on this list are not playing to reach the big leagues at all.
That is the beauty of it all.
While there are a few on this list playing minor league ball who do, indeed have a shot at reaching the pros once again, nothing is certain for any of these players. There are no commercial deals, five-star restaurants, or sellout crowds, rather it is the love of the game keeping these players from hanging up the cleats for good.
These players have provided us with a breath of fresh air, and they deserve some recognition. Here are 15 former MLB players you likely didn't realize were still playing professional baseball.
1. Brandon Phillips - INF
While he is technically just a year removed from winning the World Series, "DatDude" hasn't played meaningful innings in the big leagues since 2017 after playing in just nine games last season with Boston. The 4-time Gold Glover has bounced around a couple different independent league teams over the past year with his last appearance coming with the Diablos Rojos del México of the Mexican Baseball League.
2. Matt Latos - RHP
The edgy right-hander last saw MLB action in 2017 with Toronto. After burning a few bridges with former coaches and front-office executives due to attitude concerns, Latos has found himself a home in the Atlantic Independent League with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. He even earned himself an ALPB All-Star spot this season.
3. Carlos Zambrano - RHP
Speaking of polarizing right-handed pitchers, "Big Z" is, believe it or not, still just 38 years old and pitching for the Chicago Dogs of the American Association. The high-tempered starter-turned-reliever was already tossed out of a game earlier this season, but his fastball is, reportedly, touching 97 mph.
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka - RHP
After placing top-four in Rookie of the Year voting his first season and top-four in Cy Young voting the following year, Matsuzaka and his esteemed eephus pitch were one of the more dominant combinations in baseball for a two-year stretch. Since returning to his native Japan in 2016, Matsuzaka has battled injuries, though his best season came last year when he turned in an 11-6 record with a 3.74 ERA for the Chunichi Dragons.
5. Emilio Bonifacio - UTIL
This one really threw us for a loop. Bonifacio, 34, has not played an inning in the MLB since 2017, but the speedy utility-man is one of the few players on this list who has a legitimate shot at cracking a big league roster again. He clearly still has some speed and pop as evident by his 15 steals and .284 batting average with the Durham Bulls, Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
6. Yuniesky Betancourt - INF
This one might be the most hard to believe considering the 37-year-old Betancourt has not played in the big leagues in more than five years. The once slick-fielding Mariners, Royals, and Brewers shortstop returned for yet another season with the Gusrreros de Oaxacaca in Mexico. Betancourt has seemingly become one of the fan favorites with his on-field personality and shenanigans.
7. Wilin Rosario - C/1B
Rosario was a guy who seemed to leave the bigs faster than he bursted onto the national scene, which is hard to do considering he hit 21-plus homers in each of his first two full seasons. Given his defensive struggles behind the dish, Rosario tried making a move to first base in his last hurrah with the Rockies in 2015. The surprising part about Rosario's rapid dismissal in Colorado is he still managed to slash a solid .265/.298/.416 in his final season with the club. Rosario is currently playing in the Minnesota Twins organization, looking to make his first major league appearance since 2015.
8. Kosuke Fukodome - OF
Fukodome put together an All-Star campaign his rookie season in Chicago and later helped the Cubbies reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season -- which is significant considering this marked the first time they reached the postseason in back-to-back years since 1908. He's 42 years young now and made the Japanese All-Star team last season with the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball.
9. Danny Espinoza - SS/2B
The former Nationals utility man has not played in the bigs since 2017, but he has managed to ink minor-league deals each of the past two seasons. Espinoza has played for five different minor league squads in less than two years. The always powerful but strikeout-prone bat has put together a .251 batting average with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs with the Tim Tebow-led Syracuse Mets this year.
10. Hector Sanchez - C
Most recognized as Buster Posey's backup in San Francisco, the two-time World Series champion is still in the squat, though now for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic Independent Baseball League. The Venezuela native is having another solid season, tallying eight home runs with a .257/.292/.412/ slash line.
11. Billy Burns - OF
It is still a mystery to me how fast Burns fell off the radar. One second, the A's were building their lineup behind the speedy leadoff hitter and the next, he was being sent back down to the minors. Burns hit for a .294 average and swiped 26 bags in just 125 games in 2015. It should be noted, Oakland has always had a knack for one-hit-wonder players (i.e. Jemile Weeks, Travis Buck). Burns is currently a member of the Yankees' Triple-A club in Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
12. Shelby Miller - RHP
Add another All-Star-turned-minor-leaguer to the list. In what will go down as one of the more disappointing trades in recent history, the Diamondbacks traded No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson to the Braves in exchange for Miller, who was coming off a 2015 All-Star campaign. Since then, Miller has turned in an abysmal 6-21 record with a 6.89 ERA. With the Brewers' starting rotation issues, Miller, 28, could get another crack at the big leagues as early as next year if he can find a way to turn his career around with Triple-A San Antonio.
13. Alejandro De Aza - OF
After impressing in the Atlantic Independent Baseball League early this season, De Aza recently earned himself a minor-league contract with the Minnesota Twins. Since then, the speedy outfielder has been swinging a hot bat, slashing .346/.413/.513 in 69 games. In all, De Aza has suited up for more than 20 different teams, including stints with both minor and international teams, in his 17-year career.
14. Dayan Viciedo - OF
After turning in 25 long balls and 78 RBI in his first full season in the majors, the 240-pound outfielder opened up opportunities for other fellow Cuban professional outfielders to sign on with MLB teams. Although his tenure with the White Sox ended on a sour note, Viciedo has been a force for the Chunichi Dragons, eclipsing 15 or more home runs every year since his Nippon League debut in 2016.
15. Trayce Thompson - OF
Otherwise known as "Klay's brother," Trayce was once a promising prospect for the Dodgers just a short time ago. After undergoing back surgery toward the latter end of his tenure in Los Angeles, his hitting was just never quite the same. Thompson has now found himself with the Columbus Clippers, Triple-A affiliate of the Indians. Unfortunately, his consistency has yet to regain form, though the power numbers have impressed (24 HR, 56 RBI).
Other Notables Still Playing
- Lucas Duda - 1B (Gwinnett Stripers; Triple-A affiliate of Atlanta Braves)
- Adam Rosales - INF (Columbus Clippers; Triple-A affiliate of Cleveland Indians)
- Pete Kozma - INF (Toledo Mud Hens; Triple-A affiliate of Detroit Tigers)
- Gift Ngoepe - INF (Lancaster Barnstormers; Atlantic Independent Baseball League)
- Randy Messenger - RHP (Hanshin Tigers; Nippon Professional League)
- Darin Ruf - 1B/OF (Samsung Lions; Korea Baseball Organization)
- Vin Mazzaro - RHP (Long Island Ducks; Atlantic Independent Baseball League)