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March 13, 2013

Sobsequy

Notable AL Minor-League Free Agent Signees

by Adam Sobsey

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In this second, American League installment of the two-part notable minor-league free agent signee series (the National League is here), the discoveries were less player-specific: for numerous teams, it was hard to make a strong case for a single candidate. Instead, two other revelations: First, you have to act fast on these marginal players, because they can be gone for good before the season even starts. One candidate from the National League article two weeks ago, injury comeback returnee Kelvim Escobar, has already been released by the Brewers, due to yet another injury. Many other players, especially former major-leaguers, have opt-out clauses that activate on March 26. As a result, some of the considerations below are more theoretical than actually predictive.

Secondly, this exercise has manufactured an opposition of sorts to a position I’ve been espousing for a while about replacement-level talent. Scanning the fringe ranks for overlooked gems, or comparing projected major-league rosters to projected Triple-A rosters, you discover that there really are very few players in the lower level who seem like they’d actually be better than the guys ahead of them on the depth chart (would you really rather have Brian Bixler than Justin Turner?). And the difference is often significant.

AL EAST
Baltimore Orioles: They get two, because the Orioles played games with their 40-man last year and would seem to need to do the same this season in order to give themselves another playoff shot. The 2013 nominees are Jason Pridie and Rob Delaney. Pridie is a good outfielder, runs well, and would probably really like to do something to make people forget about last year’s recreational drug suspension. Nate McLouth and Nolan Reimold have often been injured, so there’s a chance for Pridie to see action. Delaney has been a mostly good Triple-A reliever for four straight seasons, with a handful of big-league appearances. If the Orioles’ bullpen isn’t able to sustain the mastery it achieved last year, cards could get shuffled and Delaney could get another opportunity to prove himself. On the other hand, righty fastball-slider guys are like opinions: everybody’s got one (or more.)

The Orioles are an unusual case, of course, given Dan Duquette’s gin-rummy tendencies. Any of Russ Canzler, Chris Dickerson, Lew Ford, Travis Ishikawa, Conor Jackson and Steve Pearce could break through the Triple-A wall, especially if, along with injuries to McLouth or Reimold, projected DH Wilson Betemit makes the letters stand for Doesn’t Hit. Note how many 1B/OF/DH types the Orioles brought into Triple-A. That could be a clue to what they think is likely to happen in the majors for them in 2013.

Boston Red Sox: I’m going with Terry Doyle simply because he grew up in Massachusetts and went to Boston College. In fact, the Red Sox signed few minor-league free agents, and to my mind they shouldn’t need them: They’ve relatively quietly put together a pretty good-looking team for 2013. The Jays and Rays (and, for lamentable reasons, the Yankees) grabbed more press with splashier deals or worse problems, but I like the unassuming way in which Ben Cherington & Co. went about reconstructing the team. The David Ortiz injury is worrisome, but the starting pitching should improve and the bullpen looks sound. A lot would seem to be riding on Clay Buchholz.

New York Yankees: For obvious historical and sentimental reasons I wanted to select Dan Johnson, but I’m not as bullish on the Great Pumpkin as I once was, and the Yankees have grasped at so many platoon-type power-straws bats (Ben Francisco is the latest) that it’s perhaps better to look elsewhere. To wit: Matt Diaz isn’t the man he used to be, but he’s also a streaky hitter who, limited to facing lefties, could go on a run that might get him on the back page of the tabloids (in a good way) for a while, like an old Shane Spencer.

Tampa Bay Rays: Luke Scott has already suffered a hamstring injury during spring training, and even though he has recovered and is playing again, it’s hard to imagine him staying healthy all year, something he rarely does. The Rays signed Jack Cust as insurance, and he could at least do a Brandon Allen impersonation next year for a few games. Allen had a couple of nice moments during the Rays’ injury-plagued spring in 2012.

Toronto Blue Jays: If the Jays are reduced to trawling their own minor-league free agents for help this year, then they’ll have turned out to be the 2013 version of the 2012 team they raided for parts this past offseason: a Marlins-like disaster of Titanic proportions. They don’t have a new stadium like the Fish did, but they are relocating their Triple-A affiliate to Buffalo, and what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas: The Jays signed a whopping 25 minor-league free agents, enough to roster the entire Bisons franchise. Yet none of those 25 makes you sit up and beg. If Ryan Langerhans, Andy LaRoche, or Ramon Ortiz starts more than a game or two in the majors, it’ll be a sign of serious problems in Toronto, and headlines that borrow from Mark Twain won’t be far behind. I decided on Justin Germano anyway because he once threw a perfect game in Triple-A.

AL CENTRAL
Chicago White Sox: Stefan Gartrell and Zach Stewart have both been in the White Sox organization previously, although both spent time elsewhere in 2012 (Gartrell was a Gwinnett Brave, Stewart a Pawtucket Red Sox). It’s improbable that either player does much, if anything, with the big-league club, but Josh Bell (who slots behind Brent Morel, who slots behind Jeff Keppinger) and a clutch of so-so relievers don’t inspire more confidence than those two do. In fact, Stewart was a waiver claim, not a free-agent signing. Along with Gartrell, he’s a returnee after a wanderjahr, and that leads to some curiosity about whether the White Sox have a peculiarly long memory for their Triple-A guys and like to bring back the ones they happen to be fond of—which strikes me as somewhat unusual, if true. Most of these free agent types just move from organization to organization, hoping the new environment will be more conducive, so it’s interesting that Gartrell and Stewart have come back “home” and don’t see the Sox as stale for them. Also, the White Sox, one Charlotte Knight told me last year, don’t give opt-outs, so Gartrell and Stewart must have seen something they liked enough to commit for the season. Maybe it’s money.

Cleveland Indians: Scott Kazmir has become such a popular pick that the depth chart has recently swapped him in for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is now “outside looking in.” This compels me to make the case for Matsuzaka himself, perhaps even as a crafty long reliever. No, he rarely tops 90 mph anymore, and if he’s indeed toasted sesame it would be no surprise—he could follow Hideki Matsui into the Land of the Setting Sun—but let’s not give up on him just yet. He has a March 26 opt-out, which means we’ll know much more in two weeks about the Indians’ plans for him, and for Kazmir.

Detroit Tigers: Obviously, Prince Fielder would have to get hurt and all kinds of other misfortune would have to befall Detroit for Danny Dorn to play first base for them in 2013, and this one isn’t quite fair because Dorn was actually signed by the Tigers last summer, then resigned in January. The Tigers’ depth chart doesn’t list Dorn at all. He gets the nod here only because it points to an interesting article about minor-league park effects that appeared recently on the Minor League Baseball web site. Ashley Marshall importunes us to “spare a thought for Danny Dorn”:

Toledo's Daniel Dorn batted .252 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs in 116 IL games in 2012. With 50 walks and 41 extra-base hits, Dorn posted a .344 on-base percentage, .777 OPS and tied for a team-best 170 total bases. His offensive numbers were around 2012 league averages, but it's worth noting that Fifth Third Field has regularly been one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in one of the most pitcher-friendly leagues […]Before playing in Toledo, he spent three-and-a-half years in the Bats infield. Louisville Slugger Field has been another notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Much attention is paid to the skew of the hitter-friendly PCL, but less, it seems to me, to the pitcher-friendly International League. Do major-league front offices take that into account sufficiently?

Kansas City Royals: The fun here is in choosing between Endy Chavez and Xavier Nady. They’re outfielders who are about the same age and can both request their release if not added to the major-league roster by March 26. Probably it’s adios to both, unless the $100,000 retention bonus for agreeing to go to Omaha is attractive enough for one of them to hang around. So it then becomes fun to choose between Sugar Ray Marimon and Atahualpa Severino, a pair of Royals farmhands with absolutely wonderful names. You’re choosing between the names here—both warrior/fighter-related—not the players’ big-league chances, which are basically nil, although Jason Parks was at least mildly interested in Sugar Ray last season in A-ball. I would like to know whether Marimon’s given name is Sugar Ray; please advise if you know. I did just become his 255th Twitter follower and will try to work up the nerve to ask him myself. Severino had a café con leche with the Nationals in 2011, but the Royals have a good bullpen, so don’t get excited.

Minnesota Twins: Utility infielder Ray Olmedo made his triumphant, long-time-coming return to the majors last year for the White Sox, as this BP Unfiltered post by Ben Lindbergh commemorates. In the offseason, he signed on with the Twins, because who wouldn’t? The depth charts proposes that their shortstops are Pedro Florimon, Jr., and Eduardo Escobar. That is nice for the following reason: Olmedo got called up last year because the White Sox needed a bench infielder after they traded to the Twins… Eduardo Escobar, in the Francisco Liriano deal. So perhaps Olmedo’s signing indicates that the Twins are planning to follow the White Sox’ trade plan and call up Olmedo after they deal Escobar midseason. Or that they just want to keep an older Venezuelan mentor around for the younger Venezuelan. Tough times in Minneapolis, in any case.

AL WEST
Houston Astros: It’s fun, first of all, to locate the Astros in the AL West, weirder somehow than the Brewers’ interleague transfer before the 1998 season. The Brewers always seemed like a National League club, as has often been observed. What jumps out about the Astros’ minor-league offseason is that they did not go to town on the free-agent market, signing fewer than 10 players to such deals, although they were active in waiver and Rule 5 claims. The obvious choice here is Erik Bedard—so obvious that the depth chart already has him slotted in as the Astros’ no. 5 starter. Otherwise, it’s Brad Peacock or more Edgar Gonzalez, who made six starts for the Astros last year and whom Houston resigned to another minor-league free agent contract for 2013. Actually, I might take Edgar over Erik. Really. Just like I might take Edgar over Edmund, too. Edgar’s the legitimate son, after all. And he’s the uninjured one, too—Bedard has already been hurt in spring training. Sometimes it’s the guy who happens to be still standing.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: It’s Bill Hall, of course! In 2006, Hall and Vernon Wells combined for 67 home runs and 8.4 WARP for Milwaukee and Toronto, respectively. Seven years later, the depth chart projects them to share bench space near Mike Scioscia. Hall struck out in 38 percent of his Triple-A at-bats last year, but if people forget to throw him only breaking balls, he could hit a bunch of home runs, play six positions, and keep Matt Young in Salt Lake City. Athleticism like his is always seductive.

Oakland A’s: Maybe Japanese comeback pitchers are just too tempting, but Hideki Okajima is lurking among Oakland’s free-agent ranks. The A’s have already expressed optimism about Mike Ekstrom, seeing him as a replacement for Jim Miller for, say, 30 innings (PECOTA thinks 34 2/3), but Okajima (projected for exactly one inning more, as it happens) had excellent numbers in Japan last year (e.g. 0.94 ERA, almost 7:1 K/BB rate). And like any 37-year-old player, he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t think the A’s (or anyone else) would bother with unless they planned either to use him in the majors fairly quickly or jettison him into the slipstream. Surely they’re aware that Okajima isn’t much interested in hanging around an organization’s Triple-A affiliate for long.

Seattle Mariners: Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland have thrown 3,259 major-league innings. Now they share spring training uniforms and duke it out for a job with the Mariners. One of them is likely to get one. John Perrotto thinks it might be Bonderman, who has the home advantage, as he is from Kennewick/Pasco, Wash. But Garland, when he is not lamenting the ban of the third-to-first pickoff deception move, is having the better spring. Here is more on him from an optimistic recent Rumor Roundup, plus Garland’s own optimism following his latest March outing. And if both pitchers flame out, there is always another NRI candidate to make it to the Rain City: Mike Jacobs, who lies in wait with his 100 career major-league home runs should the Mariners finally relieve the underachieving Justin Smoak of his duties.

Texas Rangers: They’re looking good and probably going to win the division. Blasphemy! But they will, and when they do, it won’t have been because of their minor-league free agents, who don’t inspire much excitement and are, overwhelmingly, right-handed pitchers. (And you thought Nolan Ryan was losing his influence in Arlington.) One of them is Collin Balester, whose web site we don’t have permission to visit. In no way is this to suggest that Balester is likely to help Texas this season. On the contrary, it’s to see Balester in the stark and definitive context of the Rangers’ very recent signing of another minor-league free-agent righty, Derek Lowe. The depth chart projects Lowe as the team’s long reliever, a role for which, in some other, kinder, wider universe, Balester might be suited. But in this one, the Rangers’ late inking of Lowe—part afterthought, part zero-hour patch—is a reminder to us and to all the Rangers’ aspiring right-handed hopefuls that there can be, at times, an enormous distance and  forbidding difference between the replacements and those who hold the places.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

Related Content:  Spring Training,  Minor Leagues,  Free Agents

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