Many kids dream of one day playing in the big leagues. Some are good enough to make a living as professional ballplayer, rising through the ranks of the minors, hoping to one day get to “The Show.” When they finally get that call up, many break down in tears, their years of hard work culminating with a promotion to the best baseball league in the world.
While many get the experience of donning a uniform and stepping on the field for a game, a few only wear the uniform and never get any game action. Last week, the Royals brought up catcher Tyler Cropley when Freddy Fermin injured his finger in Toronto. They Royals needed a backup catcher to Salvador Perez (and I guess MJ Melendez is not considered a catcher anymore?), and either Cropley was already with the team on the taxi squad or had a passport ready to go, but in any case, he was the first one available.
Tyler Cropley has been a good organizational soldier, an Iowa kid who signed with the Royals in 2020 after the Nationals let him go. He’s not a prospect, not a guy that will impress with his batting line, but he goes where the Royals tell him and does a good job behind the plate. They need a catcher in A-ball for a few games? Cropley is your man. My guess is he’ll be a coach in the organization in a year or two.
Unfortunately, Cropley did not get into a game for his two days on the roster, and was designated for assignment when the team traveled to Chicago this week. Unless he finds his way back to the big leagues and gets into a game, he will be known as a “phantom ballplayer”, a player who was on the roster, but never got into a game and is thus not in the Baseball Reference register. You can see a list of some of the players that suited up but never got at Wikipedia, it’s a list that includes Bill Merrifield, the father of former Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield. Here are some of the other Royals “phantom ballplayers” over the years.
Dewey was drafted twice by the White Sox while at Miami Dade College, but turned them down to transfer to LSU where he became a standout catcher, leading the Tigers in hits in 1979. MLB had a “secondary phase” draft at the time to separate players that had previously been selected, and the Royals took Dewey in the first round of that draft.
Dewey struggled to hit much at first, spending two full seasons at A-ball Fort Myers. But his bat took off in 1982 at Double-A Jacksonville, earning him a promotion to Triple-A, just a step away from the big leagues. In May of 1983 he was back at Jacksonville, when Royals catcher Don Slaught went down with a finger injury. First baseman Ron Johnson was the emergency catcher, but the Royals felt they needed a true backstop behind starter John Wathan, so Dewey got the call.
He was on the roster for two weeks, but never got in a game (neither did Johnson until he rejoined the team in September). Slaught returned and Dewey was back in Jacksonville. That winter, he would be traded with pitcher Mike Armstrong to the Yankees for pitcher Roger Erickson and first baseman Steve Balboni. He appeared in just one minor league game in the Yankees organization, and his career was over.
Like Dewey, Stephans was drafted twice out of junior college, but opted instead to transfer to a major college program, ending up at Arizona State where he played for legendary coach Jim Brock. He was also a catcher, selected by the Royals in the third round of the secondary phase of the 1980 draft.
He hit .301 in his first full season at A-ball Charleston, and even spent a few games with Triple-A Omaha at age 22. He hit well at Double-A the next year, but was stuck behind veterans Wathan and Jaime Quirk with rising prospect Don Slaught making his MLB debut that year. Quirk departed in 1983, and Stephans began at Omaha, just an injury away from being in the big leagues.
He got that chance on June 28 when Slaught was in a collision with Oakland’s Carney Lansford, giving the catcher a thigh bruise that would land him on the disabled list. Stephans was hitting just .214, but got the call this time over Dewey. He spent a week with the club, and was sent back down when Slaught recovered, never appearing in a game.
Stephans had his best pro season in 1984, hitting .290/.388/.452 for Omaha, earning league all-star honors, but he never got the call to the big leagues. He was bothered by a sore shoulder in spring training of 1985 which turned out to be a rotator cuff injury that cost him most of the season. He would play just 35 games the next year before calling it a career.
The Rangers signed Cesar King out of the Dominican Republic and by age 19 he was in Double-A, hitting .356 in 14 games. Baseball America ranked the catcher as the #31 prospect in the game before the 1988 season, but he had a poor year. He hit a bit better the next year, but was involved in a clubhouse scuffle. His career began to stall out in the upper minors, and the Phillies claimed him off waivers in 2000, only to let him go at the end of the year.
The Royals signed him to be the catcher at Omaha in 2001 and again he was involved in a scuffle, this time with the Colorado Sky Sox in a bench-clearing incident after some catcalls from their bench. He hit well as the backup, hitting .310 in nine games. In mid-May, Royals catcher A.J. Hinch was hit with a foul tip, bruising his hand. The Royals called up King, which miffed Omaha’s starting catcher, Melvin Rosario and caused him to temporarily leave the team.
King got a uniform, but never appeared in a game. Just a few days later, the Royals purchased catcher Sal Fasano from Oakland, and King was back in the minors. He battled injuries for much of the rest of the season and was released in September, and out of baseball a year later.
The Royals signed Guzmán out of the Dominican Republic for a $1.5 million bonus, and he drew praise for his defense at shortstop and his speed on the bases. In 2019, he hit .253/.296/.373 as a 19-year old in Low-A ball, one of the younger players in the league. The Royals chose to protect him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster.
“We protected him because we feel he is a special defender and will stay at shortstop,” assistant general manager of player development J.J. Picollo said. “He has excellent range and arm strength. Being that he plays a premium position, we did not want to risk the chance of losing him in the Rule 5 draft.”
Baseball America ranked him the #13 prospect in the Royals’ farm system before the 2020 season, and he trained at the alternate site in Kansas City during the pandemic. When Major League play resumed in August, the Royals optioned Erick Mejia out in the middle of the month, and needed another reserve shortstop, calling upon Guzmán. But they didn’t get him into a game, and three days later Bubba Starling was activated from the Injured List, sending Guzmán back to the alternate site.
Guzmán’s bat never developed in the upper minors and he left the Royals as a minor league free agent to play in the Diamondbacks organization in 2022. But when he was released in June, he signed back with the Royals, and has been in the organization ever since. This year, he hit .254/.359/.443 with eight home runs for Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Guzmán is just 24 years old, so perhaps the book is not closed on him appearing in a Major League game.