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November 18, 2009

Prospectus Today

Minor League Free Agents

by Joe Sheehan

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One way to fill holes on a major league roster extremely cheaply is to find good values among minor league free agents. These aren't prospects, but players who are right around their career peaks, some even in their early thirties, who you pick up to fix an immediate problem for $400,000, and who if they work out can be an inexpensive three-year solution. The process of moving players from the minors to the majors is fairly efficient, but it isn't a perfect market, and mistakes and misevaluations are made. A strong front office is aggressive in tendering non-roster invitations to this pool of players; on the basis of a return on investment, the minor league free-agent pool is much more attractive than the major league one in general, and this winter's in particular.

One thing I have to say is that perusing the list of availables is mildly depressing. You just assume that players you haven't heard from in a while have moved on to better things, usually not defined as "getting 150 at-bats for a Double-A team at age 35." No one needs to explain to me the hold baseball can have on people, but at some point the lifestyle of a non-prospect should be enough to move you into a new career.

The following are some of the players who caught my eye on this year's list, guys who I think could either help a team next season or who are interesting for another reason. Kevin Goldstein helped out with his take on some of the players as well. This isn't a "best" list, so if someone you think is interesting isn't mentioned, throw him into the comments.

Ruben Gotay hit .295/.351/.421 as a 24 year old for the Mets in 2007, getting 36 starts and appearing primarily as an early-inning pinch-hitter. He got caught in a roster crunch the next spring, was let go and then claimed off waivers by the Braves, a move that killed any career momentum he had. Despite spending almost the entire season on the roster, Gotay started just nine times, and it's no surprise he hit just .235/.322/.343. Gotay had shown decent plate discipline through '08, walking in about seven percent of his MLB plate appearances, and about 10 percent of the time during his days in the minors. In '09, he landed in the Diamondbacks' system and made a startling change, drawing 101 unintentional walks in 479 PA without any uptick in his strikeout rate or loss of performance on contact. His .429 OBP was remarkable not just for its own sake, but for the fact that the D'backs, desperate for OBP, never called upon Gotay for even a bench role.

Gotay turns 27 on Christmas Day, and while his defense isn't anything special-he's below-average at second base and a nightmare at third-a player who draws 101 walks at Triple-A while sustaining the rest of his game at age 26 is a fascinating player. There's a comp here to Felipe Lopez, who wandered around the league for a while before becoming a credible leadoff hitter with some defensive issues. Gotay doesn't have that kind of speed, but when you look at how many teams get nothing from second base, Gotay looks like he should have many, many suitors. He'd be a better player than Freddy Sanchez, just to name one, given comparable playing time. Best fits: Astros, Cubs, Tigers.

Travis Denker is the youngest player in today's column-he won't turn 25 until August. He had a credible cup of coffee with the Giants in '08, hitting .243/.333/.486 in 42 plate appearances, and was lost to the Padres last spring in a roster shuffle before being dealt to the Red Sox. He has a career OBP in the minors of .367, but as Kevin notes, "He's never done anything at the upper levels." In a bit more than 800 PAs at Double-A and Triple-A, Denker has hit .246/.334/.377 with no speed. He's not a good defender, owing to what we'll say is not a second baseman's body (5'9", 205). His ability to work counts and a bit of doubles power makes him interesting to me, as does his relative youth. Best fits: the same teams as above, more or less, ones that need OBP, second-base help, and might be into trading defense for offense.

The Red Sox turned both Denker and Charlie Zink loose on the world. Zink was good enough in '08 to get a start in the majors, which went poorly, but you could project a career from his newfound command. That command was newlost in '09: 93 walks and 47 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings, with 30 hit batsmen, a couple of whom even felt it. Zink just turned 30, which still makes him something of a baby in knuckleballer years, and his 2008 was good enough that someone, somewhere-preferably in a place where fly balls go to die-should take a chance on him. Zink could throw 190 pretty good innings in Seattle or San Diego.

Speaking of knuckleballers, I want to throw out an idea. We are at close to an all-time low in terms of knuckleball pitchers, with just Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey relying primarily on the pitch. The reasons why have been discussed, but one idea I don't remember seeing is this: knuckleball pitchers are generally fly-ball pitchers, and there's never been a worse time to be a fly-ball pitcher than right now. It's hard to develop fly-ball pitchers because so many players can hit the ball over the fence now, due to any number of reasons, and developing hurlers whose primary pitch will, by design, hang sometimes seems less a good use of time than finding ways to get pitchers to throw ground balls. It will always be difficult to develop knuckleball pitchers, but in an environment hostile to fly balls, it's harder than ever. The local maximum for knuckleball pitchers came in the 1980s, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the pitch has faded from the game as power as come to the fore.

Anyway, Zink is worth a gamble for a team in the right spot. If he signs with the Astros or Rays or something, his agent should be fired. Best fits: Mariners, Padres, Athletics.

I was surprised to see the Reds turn Alexander Smit loose. The Dutch lefty hasn't advanced past Double-A in seven professional seasons, but his performance in that time has been fine, a career 3.43 ERA with 621 strikeouts in 559 2/3 innings. Command has been his bugaboo at the upper levels, but a big lefty who can miss bats and is just 23 seems like he should warrant a roster spot for a team like the Reds, which is wasting so many of them. Kevin agrees, saying, "I'd pick him up in a second and see if I could get some kind of bullpen arm out of him." Best fits: Padres, Braves… teams with a history of turning random guys into contributors.

I feel sheepish writing about Scott Strickland, since it's been five years since he pitched in the majors and seven since he pitched well. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003 and was on his way back to the majors in '07 when he was shut down after 20 innings at Triple-A Portland. He's bounced back with two effective seasons: 129 strikeouts and 46 unintentional walks in 114 2/3 innings between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Albuquerque. He was always effective in the majors and has re-established that level of performance in the minors. If Chad Fox can keep getting non-roster invites to big-league camps, there should be a place in a bullpen for Strickland. Best fits: Pirates, Nationals, Royals. Teams needing bullpen help on the cheap.

Maybe the Nationals wouldn't be on that last list if they'd retained Steven Shell. Shell was their most effective reliever in 2008, but when the entire bullpen collapsed two weeks into the '09 season, he was one of the victims, demoted for no good reason-he'd made four appearances, just one of which was ineffective-as part of a roster purge. He rightly rejected the demotion, and signed with the Mariners as a free agent, he didn't pitch well for Tacoma as a utility pitcher, but I think you can throw that out. Shell had a 2.16 ERA with good peripherals in '08 and never should have been out of the majors. Kevin points out that he's pitching well in Venezuela this winter, and he was coming off back-to-back outings with no runs allowed before getting hammered Sunday. He's being used as a starter, just as he was in the Angels system coming up, and could help any number of teams as a swingman. Best fits: Tigers, Astros… teams that just need pitchers of any stripe.

Here are some other names to keep an eye on: I think Chris Burke was cheated out of a career by the Astros' unwillingness to put wins ahead of Craig Biggio's pursuit of hits. He's lost three seasons since his good 2006, and is now a 30-year-old free agent with a career .315 OBP, but he could become Jerry Hairston Jr. … Jerry Owens soaked up a lot of fantasy dollars in March, then spent the year in Triple-A. As Kevin puts it, "As long as you don't delude yourself into thinking he's an everyday player, he could be a nice bench guy."… I'm half-hoping Mark Kiger doesn't find a home, as I'm pretty sure he'd be the only player in history to appear in a postseason game (two appearances on defense in the 2006 playoffs for the A's) but never a regular-season one. … Ryan Shealy raked at the end of '08 for the Royals and was hitting .345 at Omaha in '09 when a knee injury ended his year. His career line of .300/.380/.540 at Triple-A would seem to warrant some interest. … I like Scott Munter's ground-ball rate, but Kevin argues that his inability to miss bats outweighs it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  The Who,  Triple-A,  Kevin Goldstein

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