For former Rays pitcher Shawn Armstrong, being ‘covered’ is no help

Complicated lockout rules have resulted in some minor-league free agents being left out of jobs.
Shawn Armstrong showed enough in pitching 20 games for the Orioles and 11 for the Rays last season that, at age 31, he is worthy of another chance to help a team.
Shawn Armstrong showed enough in pitching 20 games for the Orioles and 11 for the Rays last season that, at age 31, he is worthy of another chance to help a team. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 4, 2022|Updated March 4, 2022

Shawn Armstrong could have had a job by now.

He showed enough in pitching 20 games for the Orioles and 11 for the Rays last season that, at age 31, he is worthy of another chance to help a team.

Interest in November was strong, Armstrong said, with more than 20 teams engaged. About a dozen, including the Rays, were willing to sign him right then to a minor-league or split-salary deal.

But Armstrong wanted to wait.

He’d been around enough, pitching parts of seven seasons in the majors in four organizations, and having been out of options since 2019, to be well aware of the benefits and additional security that comes with signing a major-league contract.

Plus, he figured, there would be plenty of time — with baseball headed toward a lockout of players on 40-man rosters — to revisit the minor-league deals and suss out the best opportunity.

“We just didn’t want to do it super early, regardless,” Armstrong said. “Because all the little things that happen (with rosters) early in the offseason, like Rule 5 (draft) protection, we were just going to wait.”

But once the lockout went into effect on Dec. 2, Armstrong learned from agent Mark Pieper that, even though he wasn’t on a major-league roster, he wouldn’t be able sign a minor-league deal.

Under baseball’s Byzantine rules, some players who were outrighted to the minors at the end of last season, such as Rays reliever Chris Mazza, were eligible to sign minor-league deals during the lockout. But others, such as Armstrong, were considered “covered” players and were not.

So Mazza was able to re-up with the Rays.

As a result, he has been in minor-league camp at the Port Charlotte facility, throwing in front of team executives and coaches, including the big-league staff at times, working out with the strength and conditioning staff and getting treatment from the athletic trainers. Come April 5, he most likely will be pitching for Triple-A Durham, as the first week of the big-league season was canceled.

But Armstrong remains in limbo.

He has been working out at a facility near his Raleigh, N.C., area home with a group of players, contributing to the $250 daily fee to rent a field (Ting Park in Holly Springs) to throw live batting practice and, because their regular catchers got hurt, posting an open invitation on Twitter for help behind the plate.

Armstrong isn’t allowed to talk to teams or even participate in workouts in front of scouts, much less make a life decision and take a minor-league deal to know where — at least between Triple-A and the majors — he, his wife and their newborn child will be once the season gets underway.

“I mean, it sucks,” Armstrong said. “Because, like, I literally can’t do anything.”

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There are other issues, as well, if the lockout runs into April.

Armstrong won’t be getting paid any salary, minor or major (though the union will be offering $15,000 stipends for the month). His insurance obtained through baseball will lapse March 31, forcing him, a union official told him, to assume the payments through a COBRA program until he gets signed.

“I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t sign for a job, I can’t do anything, but yet I still lose my insurance?’ So that’s kind of the biggest downside of this,” Armstrong said. “Yeah, there are some unfair things for the covered player. But we’re all in it together. That’s why we have one of the best unions in all of sports. But things happen, and guys have got to figure things out.”

Worse, given that the lockout has lasted this long, there is going to be little time and few options, after all, for a player such as Armstrong once it ends.

Teams will be racing to address higher priorities via free agency and trades, sorting through arbitration cases and evaluating rehabbing players rather than negotiating with 30-something relievers to provide bullpen depth on minor-league deals.

Depending on the date, Triple-A teams may already be playing and, even if big-league teams get to carry a couple extra players at the start of the season, they may prefer those already playing in the minors.

“I know, it’s going to be very, very quick when the lockout ends versus being able to talk and communicate and counteroffer and those types of things,” Armstrong said. “But it is what it is. Nothing I can do about it. Just got to stay ready.”

Through it all, Armstrong remains optimistic something will work out — whether with the Rays (for whom he greatly enjoyed playing and learned a lot) and Bulls (with the chance to live at home) — or elsewhere, confident he has improved his repertoire and ability to get hitters out.

“Whenever the time is ready, whenever this all ends,” Armstrong said, “I’ll have a job somewhere.”

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