After a long winter of upheaval, pitcher David Rollins finally felt comfortable enough to load some belongings in his truck last weekend and make the 1,500-mile drive from his home in Texas to the Chicago Cubs' Cactus League home in Arizona. He spent his first three days in camp lifting weights, playing catch, throwing his first bullpen session of the spring, and getting acquainted with his new coaches and teammates in the organization.
At 5:45 p.m. on his third day in Arizona, Rollins received the phone call that's become the soundtrack of his life this winter. He was pulling into the hotel parking lot when a Cubs official reached out to tell him he had just been designated for assignment.
Since Nov. 18, Rollins has been with the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers (twice), Philadelphia Phillies and Cubs (also twice). But this latest appearance on the transaction wire was different from the rest. He was close enough to smell the grass and glimpse the first round of pitchers' fielding practice on the horizon when baseball victimized him with yet another buzzer-in-the-handshake trick.
"To me, it sucks," Rollins said by phone. "At the end of the day, it's a business. I get it. But I'm still a human. I keep thinking, 'Teams like me enough to pick me up, but nobody wants to take a chance on me.' It'll play games with your head, that's for sure."
The winter months can be unpredictable for fringe big leaguers, but Rollins has taken the "journeyman" designation to new heights. Over a 36-day span in November and December, he was designated for assignment and claimed on waivers five times. Now he's been DFA'd by the Cubs and is in limbo yet again. After Wednesday's move, he'll either be claimed by an undetermined team or clear waivers and be outrighted off Chicago's 40-man roster. Under the second scenario, Rollins will be in major league camp as a non-roster invitee. But his chances of sticking with the defending champ until Opening Day appear slim.
Rollins isn't alone in wondering what cap he'll be wearing on a given day. Infielder Richie Shaffer made his way from Tampa Bay to Cleveland via a trade and three waiver claims this winter, and pitcher Brady Dragmire has spent the offseason shuttling back and forth between the Pittsburgh and Texas organizations. They're part of a fraternity that already includes the likes of Gonzalez Germen, Ryan Lavarnway and the peripatetic Russ Canzler.
Those 40-man roster spots are precious commodities, and fringe players are always vulnerable to the numbers game at the back end. Rollins' latest foray to purgatory came when the Cubs acquired pitcher Alec Mills from Kansas City and needed to create a roster spot.
"On the surface, it's not ideal," said Texas general manager Jon Daniels, who has placed two waiver claims on Rollins this winter. "You feel for the person. Guys have families and kids, and this is definitely an area of the system that doesn't really contemplate the real-life effects. It's not just a paper game. People's homes and lives and families are affected.
"We've discussed putting restrictions on it at the GM meetings. It's been brought up before. But when we've tried to put a rule in place, we've never found one that makes sense. Waivers are designed in part to benefit the player. It gives them an opportunity to stay on a 40-man roster and stay in big league camp. I'm sure it's been a crazy couple of months for David, but I'm not really sure what the solution is."
Rollins, a 27-year-old left-hander, throws a fastball in the 92-95 mph range and has enough talent and stuff to qualify as intriguing. He amassed 383 strikeouts over 413⅓ minor league innings with the Toronto, Houston and Seattle organizations, but logged a 7.60 ERA in 31 relief appearances with the Mariners in 2015 and 2016.
The biggest blot on Rollins' resume came in March 2015, when he received an 80-game suspension for PED use as a Rule 5 pick in Seattle's camp. Rollins apologized to the Mariners organization and is contrite about his transgression to this day.
"My arm was hurting and I had an opportunity to make the big leagues and make a childhood dream come true," Rollins said. "I just did it the wrong way. Instead of rolling with it and being true to myself, I made a mistake and got caught for it. But I've come a long way since then. It made me a better person."
Rollins is single, so he doesn't have to worry about making travel arrangements for a wife and kids. But there are still financial ramifications to all these roster machinations. If Rollins gets claimed by a team that holds spring training in Florida, he might have to pay the estimated $700-800 it will cost to ship his truck across the country. And his agent, Jonathan Maurer of MSM Sports, recently spent several hundred dollars buying him spikes and other gear in Cubbies blue. If Rollins is claimed by a team with a similar color scheme, he's good to go. Otherwise, spray paint might be an option.
Long term, Maurer hopes that baseball's power brokers can eventually get together and devise a more humane system.
"It's great to have a fresh start, but David has had a fresh start six times," Maurer said. "I wonder if they can consider putting a limit on it. Maybe you're designated two times and that's it, or you have to go back to your original team. I'd like to see Major League Baseball and the players' association have a conversation about it."
Once Rollins gets over the shock of being dumped again, he'll keep plugging away with a mix of competitiveness and homespun colloquialisms. He plans to fly home this weekend for a function at his old school, San Jacinto College in Texas. At some point soon, he'll learn where he and his truck are headed next.
"I was raised to stay positive," Rollins said. "My first coach, Roane Smith, had a saying: 'Some days chicken, some days feathers. If you get feathers, spit them out and go get some chicken.' When I think about that, it makes me laugh. Tomorrow's a new day."