The notion of "freely available talent" is something of a Sabermetric piety. Savvy waiver claims and judicious use of the Rule 5 draft are two sources, but it's mostly by trawling through the minor-league free agents each year that many organizations fill their holes at the highest level. Nominally, the idea is to find players above the replacement level who have a skill or two that, deployed properly, can help the team or at the very least flesh out the triple-A roster and provide some insurance. Only rarely do teams divine a long-term contributor, but useful players are out there nonetheless.
This year's collection of six-year minor-league free agents isn't particularly striking one way or the other. But as a laboratory for the freely-available theorem, it's worth asking: What kind of team can we put together using only minor-league FAs? Not a very good one, since the idea of using these players is to paper over isolated weaknesses and not field an entire team. But this will provide a glimpse of what's out there and who's making use of this source of talent. Here are the best of the 546 players that are or were at one time available this winter.
- Catcher – Adam Melhuse, Age: 30, Bats: B
Melhuse was recently snatched up by the A's. In 1000 career ABs at the triple-A level, the switch-hitting Melhuse has hit .290/.381/.451. A modest majority of those ABs came in a couple of the more hitter-friendly haunts of the PCL, but he also hit well in Iowa while toiling in the Cubs' system for part of last season. He absolutely torched Colorado Springs for 115 ABs in 2002 (.348/.424/.609), and no matter what the context, that's impressive production for a catcher. His defense is solid, and he could probably outproduce a third of the catchers starting in the majors right now. Ramon Hernandez, for instance.
Runner-Up: Chris Coste – The Red Sox signed the 29-year-old Coste, who's a .300 hitter with decent plate discipline. His walk rate took a modest dive last season at triple-A Buffalo, but he's hit at every level. Solid backup material at the very least, and you can make a case for his being ahead of Melhuse.
- First Base – Andy Abad, Age: 30, Bats: L
Abad at this writing is still out there. Billy McMillon gets more bandwidth as the Official Stathead Neglected Middle Child, but Abad has been knocking the crap out of the ball for about a decade now and has one major-league AB to show for it. He's not a young man anymore and he'll almost certainly never see significant playing time, but if some team would hand him a major-league job in 2003 it wouldn't surprise me to see him put up a .370 OBP with 35 doubles and 15 homers. Considering the dearth of quality first basemen in the National League, there's no reason he shouldn't be on someone's active roster.
Runner-up: Julio Zuleta – Zuleta could handle a platoon role at the major-league level. If he starts every day, he's probably not an asset, but confine him to facing lefties and he'll put runs on the board. He's not very patient, but he hits for power. Signed by the Red Sox.
- Second Base – Greg LaRocca, Age: 30, Bats: R
LaRocca, among minor-league free agents and Rule-5 eligibles, is the second baseman with the most immediate offensive potential. In 1,435 career ABs at the triple-A level, LaRocca has hit .299/.379/.469. He's 30 and doesn't have much value going forward, but he's a capable quick fix. His performance in the majors hasn't been strong, but, like so many of these players, it was hardly enough of a sample to properly gauge his skills. He's back with Cleveland next year.
Runner-up: Jason Maxwell – Maxwell, 30, has spent time in the Cubs', Twins' and Rangers' systems. He latched on with the Reds last spring and recently signed with them again for the 2003 season. His defensive chops have earned him praise, but he's also shown good on-base skills in the minors. In more than 1,100 triple-A ABs, he's posted solid numbers for a middle infielder (.277/.357/.439) and shown decent speed on the bases. Had the Twins held on to him, he could have provided a measurable upgrade over Luis Rivas, whose status as a prospect is based solely on 40 lightning-in-a-bottle games at the triple-A level.
- Third Base – Jarrod Patterson, Age: 29, Bats: L
One of the better hitters in this year's class of minor-league FAs, Patterson may be looking at a shot at a starting job in Kansas City should the Royals trade Joe Randa. In more than 1,200 career ABs at the triple-A level, Patterson has hit .300/.368/.481. His walk rate has been merely adequate, but on balance he's put together a strong offensive game the last two seasons. He's capable of playing second, which creates other intriguing possibilities for him.
Runner-up: Mickey Lopez – Lopez, 29, has defensive flexibility, on-base skills, minimal power, and good speed on the bases. He's capable of playing further to the right on the defensive spectrum, which would maximize his value, but a paucity of quality third-sackers lands him here.
- Shortstop – Chris Sexton, Age: 31, Bats: R
Sexton hits for average and has adequate plate patience and defensive utility. His dedication and work ethic have earned him praise throughout his career. Hit .316/.378/.454 at triple-A Louisville last season. He hasn't produced in 159 major-league ABs, but the sample size is small. He's 31, so his window is closing, but he's fully capable of helping someone. Signed by the Padres.
Runner-up: Dave Post – Post, 29, is a line-drive hitter who shows good patience at the plate. He doesn't have much power to speak of, but he can play any position on the diamond except catcher. He'll never be mistaken for A-Rod with the stick, but he's not Rey Ordonez, either. He could probably post a .350 OBP in the majors and be a valuable utility man. He may have the glove to be someone's stopgap shortstop too.
- Left Field – Billy McMillon, Age: 30, Bats: L
The aforementioned neglected middle child, at least now that Roberto Petagine will be in Japan well into his decline phase. McMillon has excellent plate discipline and can hit for average. He does not, however, have a good glove or notable power for a corner outfielder. Nevertheless, his minor-league dossier suggests he can help a team at the highest level. He was in the Yankees' system last year, and he's a good example of how Steinbrenner's limitless coffers may have worked against him. While McMillon was on his way to a .388 OBP in a full season at Columbus, the Yankees were stumbling down the path of conspicuous consumption, which led them into the expensive and overrated arms of Raul Mondesi. If deployed in tandem with a lefty-smasher, McMillon can form one-half of an above-league-average corner outfield platoon. He's back with Oakland, and at the very least he should be able to do Terrence Long one better.
Runner-up: Cliff Brumbaugh – Brumbaugh, 28, will take a walk and can hit for power on occasion. He could make a useful backup outfielder and righthanded bat off the bench.
- Centerfield – Rontrez Johnson, Age: 26, Bats: R
Johnson plays all three outfield positions and has always had strong on-base skills. He's never had much of a power stroke, though he fared well in triple-A Omaha last year (.300/.397/.456 in 2002). He's fully ready to be a quality fourth outfielder on a major-league roster. Signed by Texas.
Runner-up: Tarrik Brock – Brock is a true athlete whose knock in the past has been his inability to control the strike zone. But 72 walks in 325 ABs at double-A Jacksonville this past season have quelled those worries. That's only one year, but it's not that often you see a hitter post a fluke season in the walks column.
- Right Field – Bobby Darula, Age: 28, Bats: L
Darula, 28, is arguably the best pure hitter of any minor-league FA. He spent most of last season at Chattanooga in the Southern League, where he hit .325/.413/.440. He's consistently posted OBPs in the .415 neighborhood, but Darula has yet to conquer triple-A. An organization willing to give him three months at that level may find themselves a productive lefty bat for the next few years.
Runner-up: Mario Encarnacion – Encarnacion was once a fairly highly regarded prospect. Although he's hardly been an unmitigated failure, he hasn't kept pace with his early press clippings, either. He has athleticism and some pop in his bat, but he's never really learned to control the strike zone. Encarnacion probably won't ever be anything more than a fourth or fifth outfielder, but he could be quite useful in that role if he continues to find himself as a hitter. Signed by the Padres.
- Designated Hitter – Jayson Bass, Age: 26, Bats: L
Bass wasn't much of a hitter prior to 2001, but in that season, splitting time between double- and triple-A, he began hitting for power and average. He strikes out a ton, but he's acquired some plate patience over the course of his career. This past season, he followed up with a strong .286/.365/.484 year at triple-A Iowa. Think Craig Paquette plus 20 walks per year and a slightly worse glove.
Runner-Up: Luis Jimenez – Jimenez is only 22, so he's more of a project than the other players listed here. He torched the Appy League last season to the tune of .375/.474/.597. Yes, it was only 176 ABs and, yes, he was old for the league, but that doesn't completely explain away those numbers.
- Starting Pitcher – 1: Steve Woodard, Age: 27, Throws: R
- Woodard has always been an interesting case. His command has been uniformly strong at all levels, yet his penchant for surrendering the gopher ball has been his undoing. In 650 big-league innings, he's logged a K/BB ratio of 3.1. He's also given up 87 homers over that same span. His command at double- and triple-A was even more impressive, but the fact that he's pitched fewer than 250 innings at those two levels suggests that he was perhaps rushed along. He's a pitcher who could genuinely thrive in a forgiving park like Pac Bell, Shea, Comerica or Safeco. The Red Sox have signed him, but that's probably not the ideal environment for a pitcher with his liabilities.
- Starting Pitcher – 2: Heath Bost, Age: 28, Throws: R
- Bost, despite great K rates and a career K/BB ratio of better than 4.0, has toiled in the minors for eight years. Plenty of worse pitchers have jobs in the majors. In 2002, Bost worked as a reliever for Sacramento in the PCL. In 78 innings, he put up a 3.35 ERA and notched 69 Ks against only 19 walks. He hasn't logged many starts in his minor-league career, but he has a deep repertoire and could probably handle back-of-the-rotation duty for someone. At the very least, he's ready for a long-relief role in the majors. He'll be back with Oakland in 2003.
- Starting Pitcher – 3: Kiko Calero, Age: 27, Throws: R
- Calero is ready to help a major-league team, and, at 27, he has some currency going forward. Prior to last season, he'd shown adequate command and put up good K rates. In 2002, he had a modest breakout at triple-A Omaha. In 125.2 innings, he posted a 3.44 ERA, struck out 109, walked 35 and gave up 11 homers. He's certainly not a rotation anchor, but Calero's peripherals suggest he could make a quality fifth man or long reliever. He's signed with St. Louis.
- Starting Pitcher – 4: Eric Knott, Age: 28, Throws: L
- Knott won't overpower anyone, but his control is excellent. In 263 career innings at triple-A Tucson (not an easy place to pitch), Knott has struck out 160 and walked 39. That relatively low K rate means a lot of balls-in-play. So for Knott to succeed, he'll need a strong team defense behind him. He apparently didn't have that in Tucson last season (4.86 ERA, 188 hits in 150 innings). Like Woodward, he needs just the right environment to take advantage of his skill set.
- Starting Pitcher – 5: Tim Harikkala, Age: 31, Throws: R
- Harikkala is basically a righthanded version of Knott-low strikeout rates, superlative control. Like Knott, he gives up a lot of balls-in-play and relies on his defense to make outs far him. He does a better job than Knott of keeping the ball in the park, but he's three years older and has toiled in the generally accommodating International League since 1999. With the right set of gloves behind him, he could succeed. He's shown decent command throughout his career and had one of his strongest seasons in 2002 with triple-A Indianapolis. In 162 innings, he struck out a middling 90 batters, but he walked only 23 and gave up only eight homers.
- Right-handed Reliever: Justin Kaye, Age: 26
Kaye is one of the more intriguing minor-league FAs out there. He needs to refine his control, but he has overpowering stuff. In 62.1 innings at triple-A Tacoma last season he walked 42, but struck out 67 and coughed up only a pair of dingers. He's still a bit of a project, but he can help a major-league bully right now and has value beyond 2003.
Runner-up: Leslie Brea – Brea, a Dominican, is listed at age 24, but he's not selling that one terribly well. Whatever his true age, he seemed to find himself at the triple-A level. Two straight seasons of strong K rates and good command at Rochester suggest he's ready for a big-league job.
- Left-handed Setup: Dave Maurer, Age: 27
This year is a particularly bad one to overpay for lefty relievers, as the Yankees and Cubs have done, because quite a few quality freely-availables are looking for work. The greatest of these is Dave Maurer. In 166 relief innings at the triple-A level, Maurer struck out more than a batter per inning and posted a 2.9 K/BB ratio. He could do a better job of keeping the ball in the park, and he tends to struggle with his control against the opposite side. He could ascend to Steve Kline-ian usefulness and is coming off the best season of his career. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery in October puts Maurer out of action in 2003.
Runner-up: Kevin Tolar – Tolar, 31, will compete for a spot in the Boston bullpen this spring. He could stand to cut down on his walks, but he posts outstanding K rates and does a fair job of preventing homers. Troy Brohawn and John Bale are other good options.
On balance, this year's harvest of minor-league FAs has some depth among utility infielders, long relievers and lefty specialists. It's slimmer pickings at the catcher, third base and shortstop positions. Resourceful organizations, however, can find what they need to round out a strong roster and maybe even unearth a truly hidden talent.