SYDNEY, 24 April - Just two days after acquiring their second Australian player, Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics have added another with Monday's news from the States that the A's claimed Perth's Luke Hughes off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. The historic move unites Hughes and relief pitchers and Sydney natives Grant Balfour and Rich Thompson as the first trio of Australians to ever be teammates on an MLB side.
Hughes, 27, was designated for assignment last week by the Twins in a move to create roster space. With no minor league options remaining, Hughes had to clear waivers in order to stay in the Twins' organisation. The waiver process in Major League Baseball allows all of the other 29 teams in the big leagues an opportunity to claim a waived player away from the side that designated him before that player can be sent to the minor leagues, a chance the A's seized after doing the same with Thompson from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Friday.
The versatile infielder Hughes has played in 102 career games at the major league level over the last three seasons for Minnesota, seeing action at first base, second base, third base, and as a designated hitter. A year ago, the Perth Heat performer played in 96 contests, batting .223 with seven home runs and 30 runs batted in.
Like Thompson, Hughes was the odd man out on a team looking for a roster spot when the Twins designated him for assignment Wednesday. This year, he appeared in four games for Minnesota, registering two hits from 10 at bats with two runs batted in.
Balfour, Hughes, and Thompson share a myriad connections dating back to their childhoods Down Under. Hughes and Thompson, born just 31 days apart in 1984, are products of recent Australian baseball youth development initiatives. The two began their hardball lives playing t-ball, faced each other in the National Youth Championships as kids, attended the inaugural year of the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program (MLBAAP) in 2001, and made their debuts for the Australian national team together that same year.
Oakland hitting coach Chili Davis worked with Hughes and Thompson while coaching at the MLBAAP in its maiden season.
Three years later, Balfour and Thompson were teammates on the Australian side that took home the silver medal from the 2004 Games of the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens, Greece. That year, in Australia's best finish in a major international tournament at the highest level, the national team knocked off powerhouse Japan before falling to international juggernaut Cuba in the gold medal game.
In Oakland, Thompson, who made three appearances for his hometown Sydney Blue Sox during the Australian Baseball League's inaugural 2010/11 season, joins Balfour, son of Blue Sox general manager David, who is in his ninth year and fourth organisation in the bigs. Balfour was tabbed Oakland's closer prior to the 2012 season, coming in to finish off games in the late innings with his team leading. So far, that decision has proven to be a smart one for the A's who have seen Balfour convert all four of his save opportunities in nine appearances, clinching victories for his side. Balfour has allowed just one run on three hits in ten innings this season, striking out six against two walks. The 34-year-old originally signed with the Minnesota Twins as a 19-year-old in 1997. He made his major league debut with Minnesota in 2001 at 23 and has pitched for the Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays, and now Oakland.
Thompson, who has made all of his big league appearances in a relief role, is expected to be a bridge to Balfour in the latter innings of games. In fact, 65% of Thompson's innings pitched for the Angels last year came in the seventh, eighth, and ninth. That number jumps to 88% when factoring in all of the righty's innings pitched from the sixth dig and beyond.
The lone position player of the three, Hughes could be pressed into service for the A's almost immediately at third base. The infielder, expected to join the team Monday in the States, has extensive experience at the hot corner where current Oakland starter Josh Donaldson has struggled to start the year with just a .094 average through nine games.
The three Australian Athletics, a full 10% of all Aussies to make the big leagues in history, now make up the first trio of teammates from Down Under on a major league club. The closest Australia came to accomplishing such a feat prior to this week was 2003 when Micheal Nakamura, Brad Thomas, and Balfour were all members of the Twins but never concurrently as a group during the season.Balfour, Hughes, and Thompson, along with Victorian Josh Spence of the San Diego Padres and Perth's Liam Hendriks of the Twins comprise the Australian contingent currently in the American major leagues. Dozens more Australian players and ABL imports are currently playing in the Japanese and Korean big leagues as well as in Minor League Baseball in the United States. Information on those players can be found in the ABL's Australian and Import player databases.