It’s that time of year: Grapefruit and Cactus. (I feel a margarita-like cocktail coming on.) It’s the one time of the season when ballplayers wear jersey numbers like 75. When millionaires of otherwise upright goodwill and equanimity secretly hope for other millionaires to get hurt. When major-league camp invitations go out to players like the legendary Craig Albernaz, who has played in parts of the last six seasons for the Rays’ Double-A affiliate and has a career OPS of .545—somebody has to catch all those pitchers. When former big-league regulars, now on minor-league deals and looking around at all the prospects who play the same position, start counting the days until the opt-out clauses in their contracts arrive.
In other words, it’s time to sift through those minor-league free agent signees and find the one in each organization likeliest to make an impact in the majors this season.
Here is how this very complex science works. First, minor-league free agents who were re-signed by the same clubs they played for in 2012 were ineligible, because what fun is a recidivist? Only fresh blood qualified, at least partially because there is something to be said for the change-of-scenery recharge that sometimes gives fringe players that extra, ineffable thing they need in order to stick in the bigs. Second, I looked at a list of minor-league free agents and sorted them by where they signed, thus creating a nice little pool for each team (or in the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, a large pool). Third, I studied Jason Martinez’s Depth Charts to see where each team looked like it might be thin. Fourth, I looked at MLB’s depth chart pages, too, in case I missed anything. Then I ran searches on Scott Podsednik, Darnell McDonald, and Steve Pearce.
Then I said to hell with it and chose either a Triple-A catcher or righty reliever.
Okay, not quite, but I did choose a lot of catchers and righty relievers, for the obvious reason that you need them more than you tend to need any other players. (As one Triple-A manager put it last year, “Catchers get hurt all the time.”) For two teams I chose two players, and that’s because for two teams I actually chose zero. And I chose Cody Ransom for sentimental reasons. See below.
National League today; American League next time.
Atlanta Braves: We’re off to a flying start with Matt Pagnozzi, because he fits two criteria: He’s a catcher, and he shores up a weakness on Atlanta’s depth chart. With Brian McCann under the knife, Gerald Laird is the starting catcher for the Braves. The backup catcher is, um… Matt Pagnozzi, who signed a minor-league deal with Atlanta after David Ross became Boston’s six-million-dollar man.
“He’s always been a catch-and-throw guy,” said Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno, who was with the Cardinals back when they drafted Pagnozzi in 2003. This is another way of saying that Pagnozzi can’t hit, but he is not the only catch-and-throw guy who can’t hit and owns a catcher’s mitt on this list. His major-league slash line looks good (.310/.364/.38), but that's in only 83 PA. Just don’t look at his minor-league totals. Okay, you looked: .220/.300/.312 in nearly 2,500 PA.
Florida Marlins: The 37-year-old Placido Polanco is coming off a poor, injury-riddled season with Philadelphia, so it’s not a huge surprise that the Marlins signed, by my count, six minor-league free agents who could play third base if they had to, including sloppy seconds like Chone Figgins and Kevin Kouzmanoff (who, I was surprised to discover, spent part of last year in Double-A). They also have former first-round pick (of the Cardinals) Zack Cox, acquired in the Edward Mujica deal last year. And of course there is Greg Dobbs, who has played 254 games at third for Florida/Miami over the last two years—which probably means that neither Audy Ciricao nor Tug Hulett nor Chris Valaika gets to have that breakout season you’ve long known they had in them.
But you know who’s lurking at a different position on a minor-league deal, a good glove man coming off a poor season and waiting for an April opportunity due to, say, a power-hitting lefty first baseman having an injury issue? And maybe that glove man patiently waiting will surprise everyone with a huge hitting year on the strength of, maybe, a strikingly high BABIP? Does this sound familiar? Mighty Casey Kotchman.
New York Mets: They get two of these, which isn’t, maybe, a good sign. Carlos Torres seemed like the best pitcher in the International League for a while when I first started covering the circuit back in the spring of 2009. He was then with the White Sox’ Triple-A affiliate as a starting pitcher. After some up-and-down between the minors and majors in the White Sox organization, he spent 2011 in Japan, signed with Colorado for 2012, and was called up and moved to the bullpen. He had decent peripherals (e.g. 3.74 FIP) vitiated by a Coorsian 5.26 ERA. A finesse, pitch-mixing righty, he could log some innings in long relief, especially when you look at the guys slated to do that in Flushing as of now. He could even, not unthinkably, make some starts in case of injuries to incumbents, especially if the Mets want to buy Zack Wheeler more time in Triple-A.
The second nominee is Marlon Byrd, because A) that Mets outfield? B) People are already complaining that the Mets signed Marlon Byrd. C) The Mets and their adherents are already nominating him themselves. Manager Terry Collins is on the record with “we might have found ourselves a right fielder.” And Howard Megdal, who wrote the story in which Collins said that, adds: “Look, if Byrd regains his 2010 form, he'll probably be a better right fielder than anyone else the Mets would put out there in his place. That's also true in left field. Or center field.” By the way, even though Boston released Byrd not long after his suspension for PEDs, it appears that MLB considers the suspension served.
Philadelphia Phillies: Josh Fields (the infielder, not the Astro). Really a hypothetical. (I guess every guy in Triple-A is a hypothetical major leaguer, isn’t he?) The Phillies have that really handsome pitching but then, gosh, that lineup? And a bench that currently includes two 1B/LF guys (John Mayberry, Jr. and Darin Ruf) who are recommended for use only against left-handed pitching? And Carlos Ruiz has to serve a suspension? And Jonathan Papelbon, rather than be a clubhouse leader, decided to retroactively indict the Phillies’ lack of a clubhouse leader right before getting thwacked by Miguel Cabrera in his first spring training appearance? And their Double-A affiliate in Reading junked its nickname (“Phillies”) and now has a mascot which is an ostrich? (Head-in-sand joke.) And in the offseason, the Phils went and got not only Yuniesky Betancourt but also Delmon Young and Michael Young? (Ben Lindbergh’s line on Monday: “The Phillies’ trade for Michael Young probably produced more internet snark than any offseason transaction except the team’s subsequent deals for Delmon Young and Yuniesky Betancourt.”)
In the case of the latter, here is the attractive operant hypothetical. There seems to be general consensus, even a perverse sort of hope, that Young will totally collapse this season and confirm everyone’s predictive disapproval. (PECOTA actually forecasts a rebound for him, for what that’s worth.) So let’s say the haters get their wish—Young grows old, wears his trousers rolled—and that the magic (and .366 BABIP) that allowed Kevin Frandsen to put up a .338 batting average and .303 TAv in 2012 wears off. Josh Fields was the White Sox’ top pick in the 2004 draft. He had trouble breaking through and then was laid low by hip labrum surgery in 2010. He didn’t play a full season again until 2012, when he called attention to himself with .322/.392/.488 and 13 homers in Triple-A. But you know better than that, because he compiled those numbers for the Albuquerque Isotopes, who play in a top-secret lunar-landing testing facility with zero gravity and uranium bats (and, as of this season, a humidor). So, no. But then, on the other hand, Michael Young.
Washington Nationals: Bill Bray has already drawn much love from adepts, and in fact our own Depth Charts project him for 35 major-league relief innings. Bray is left-handed, and a left-handed reliever in Triple-A with a decent major-league track record, three serviceable pitches, and the ability to strike people out (about one per inning for his career over all levels) is almost sure to see action—especially on a team with limited lefty options out of the bullpen (only Zach Duke makes the depth chart list). I was going to add “first baseman” Micah Owings here, but Cody Ransom already occupies the sentimental-choice slot and Adam LaRoche isn’t going anywhere.
Chicago Cubs: Brian Bogusevic. It’s because they traded Tony Campana, that’s why. Actually, no, why is it? They already have Dave Sappelt for the bench outfielder role, and all kinds of other options: the Hairston/Schierholtz platoon leaves an outfielder on the bench every day; Brent Lillibridge is hanging around, too. But look at Bogusevic’s 2008 in Double-A: .275 AVG, 15 homers, 1:1 K:BB ratio. Oh, wait, that was as a pitcher. Well, anyway, I would have chosen Micah Owings, as I said, for the converted-arm candidate. So why? Maybe because Bogusevic is left-handed, can throw from the outfield, has plus speed, and is not entirely out of his prospect window (29 years old). The former-first-rounder pedigree gives him that little red star on Triple-A, too. Ignore the “Bogus” thing.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds signed 23 minor-league free agents this past off-season, second in baseball only to the Blue Jays (25). Remarkably, none really stands out (to me, anyway) as an obvious sleeper pick for major-league success—it was tempting, speaking of standing out, to tab Loek Van Mil, but only for his height. Yet 7’1” often describes his walk rate, too. So I’m calling Clay Hensley. Know why? I already did. Last October, BP did a Bargain/Bust Lineup Card. I ended my thing about Hensley thus:
[W]alks, it seems, were a big culprit, and have been throughout his career (4.16/9). But the guy is a ground-ball specialist at his best, and he’s been good before—as recently as 2010, in fact, when he put up a 2.87 FIP in 68 games for the Marlins. If he gets a cheapie deal from a team looking to plug a hole in its bullpen, and if he can throw a few more strikes and make his sinker sit and stay, there’s no reason Hensley can’t pull a Burke Badenhop and handsomely repay another $750,000 contract.
Instead, the Reds got him for much less, and I’m not convinced that Jonathan Broxton is going to succeed as the new closer (neither is Russell Carleton) following Aroldis Chapman’s ascension to the starting rotation. If Broxton breax, a domino effect could reach Hensley in Louisville.
Milwaukee Brewers: They have two comeback players lurking down there in the NRI tube: Bobby Crosby and Kelvim Escobar. These two have combined to not play in seven of 10 total player-seasons since 2008 (if you throw in Escobar’s 2009, when he made four total appearances between the majors and minors). It is illuminating to read through the evolving player comments of the BP Annual over time, which become tiny novels as they add yearly chapters. What appears to be Crosby’s inaugural comment (2005), the year after he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award (no minor-league love?), goes:
There was some concern that, at 6'3", Crosby might be too tall to comfortably handle short, but he turned out to be one of the best in the league in his Rookie of the Year campaign. He has quick hands and feet, positions himself well, and sports a strong arm that allows him to set up deeper than most. The .239 batting average was an outlier, and Crosby should continue to improve his power and plate judgment as he progresses. A championship-caliber player about to happen.
Then he was beset by injuries. By 2008, when Crosby and Eric Chavez were fighting it out for longest injury-history list on the Oakland A’s, the Annual had done a total about-face: “Let's face it, his rookie year was a bit overrated in the first place.” (By 2010, the verdict had grown even stonier, into a full condemnation: “Even in his Rookie of the Year campaign, Crosby wasn't that good, with his 22 home runs masking myriad offensive holes.”)
But in hindsight, Crosby was probably less overrated than he was undermined: all those injuries. Crosby had always played in the (RIP) Ryan Freel-Aaron Rowand mode—that is, full-bore—and his body suffered terribly for it. For evidence of Crosby’s sapped athleticism, look at his plunging FRAA, from a 13.9 high in his ROY season all the way into the negative by the time he retired after 2010. Yet he recently said that his problems were “more mental than anything”: that classic, and necessary, athlete’s denial and blindness—classic because it enables the belief that he can still compete, against all odds. He’ll probably never hit consistently for average again, but if he’s healthy, Crosby is the kind of been-through-it veteran who isn’t really all that old (33) and could still find a little second-act magic if given a chance. And he might get that chance: the depth chart projects greenhorn Jean Segura as the Brewers’ starting shortstop, backed up by even greener horn Jeff Bianchi and 36-year-old torn-ACL survivor Alex Gonzalez.
As for Escobar, try his first player comment, from the year before his big-league debut: “Escobar is a young Venezuelan pitcher who exemplifies the Blue Jays’ approach to pushing some of their pitchers hard.” That turned out to be a sad augury. The 1998 comment begins, “Escobar started the year by having his right elbow ‘scoped’”; the ’99 update concludes, “If [Toronto manager] Tim Johnson continues to push him to eight innings and 120 pitches every night out, I agree that we'll never get to know Escobar very well”; and the decade of comments that follow are riddled with references to injuries. Yet the 36-year-old pitched without incident in Venezuela over the winter and is vying for a spot in the Brewers’ bullpen, whose main setup guys are currently projected as Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler. Those two pitched well in 2012, but 2012 was basically the only year they ever pitched in the major leagues. (Kintzler got into 16 total games for Milwaukee in 2010-11.)
Pittsburgh Pirates: Not long ago, Felix Pie was going to be someone’s next starting center fielder, and now he’s with his fourth organization since 2011. He’s a player who may have benefited earlier in his career from more patient coaching, and more patience from coaching (although you could rebut that he refused to take what coaching he received). That is, his first manager was Lou Piniella, who was notoriously impatient with youngsters and quick to hurl them back down to Triple-A. Later, Pie’s Baltimore hitting coach was Terry Crowley, and the 2011 BP Annual has this to say in Pie’s player comment: “One of the biggest indictments of deposed instructor Terry Crowley is that he had so many young hitters […] who not only refused to draw ball four, but went backward from 2009.” Pie is still just 28, and if, heaven forfend, Andrew McCutchen has to miss time this year, Pie stands in his center field shadow, waiting for another chance. The Pierates (heh heh) have plenty of extra outfield depth—Darren Ford, Alex Presley, Jose Tabata—but Pie’s glove and wheels could attract notice in the event of an injury to the team’s franchise player.
Honorable Mention: I must have watched 75 of the 134 1/3 innings Ryan Reid threw for the Durham Bulls over the last two years, mostly in middle relief with a handful of emergency spot starts. His fastball runs out at about 93 mph most of the time, not bad, and when he has his complementary slider working he can be pretty unpleasant to face. Probably he’s just another classic Triple-A righty fastball-slider reliever when it’s all said and done, but now that he has completed his indentured service with the Rays and latched on with Pittsburgh, maybe he’ll be a beneficiary of the change-of-scenery effect. Nice guy. Mainer, too.
St. Louis Cardinals: None! The Cards signed only five minor leaguers to free-agent contracts, which appears to be the fewest in baseball. Why? Because they’re “loaded,” Jason Parks says, concluding his top 10 prospects list with, “Damn, this system is good.” Two of the five minor-league FAs are catchers, Rob Johnson and J. R. Towles. “Johnson is a dreadful hitter,” his 2012 Annual comment begins. (Sneak preview of crashing inconsequence for the 2013 Annual: he rates only a Lineout.) Towles had a .220 TAv in Rochester last year. The backup catcher job is—has to be—Tony Cruz’s. One of the remaining three minor-league FAs the Cards signed is Justin Christian, which they did only in order to have fun calling him Sister.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They just signed Rod Barajas to a big-league deal so he can squat it out in spring training with Wil Nieves for the right to back up Miguel Montero. But note that Barajas’ contract contains a pair of escape clauses: one on March 26 if he doesn’t make the big-league squad, another on June 1 if he agrees to start the season in the minors and hasn’t been called up yet. Personally, I’m hoping he’s gone by one of those dates, because I’m kind of tired of Rod Barajas. It’s not really his fault, but he just never goes away. Barajas was terrible at throwing out baserunners last year, and although Ben Lindbergh showed that much of the blame went to his batterymates, he’s getting old and I don’t see how he’s suddenly going to return to his previous, more acceptable numbers again.
I’d like to nominate Tuffy Gosewisch for the role of Rod Barajas, and here’s why: 1) Tuffy’s good at throwing out runners, and it’s more fun to watch runners get thrown out than it is to watch them steal successfully; 2) He’s from Arizona, and it’s cheering to think that hometown happiness and comfort might help his game some. (Yes, it’s also a homecoming of sorts for Barajas, who began his career with the Diamondbacks, but that isn’t the same.) Gosewisch isn’t much of a hitter, but when your main competition is Wil Nieves (lifetime .229/.274/.301), it’s a reminder that hitting is no requirement for the job. Plus, his name is Tuffy, as in Rhodes. And also Gosewisch.
Colorado Rockies: In passing, i.e. not because he’s the anointed one, the Rockies signed minor-league free agent Greg Golson in blatant disregard of his BP 2012 player comment: “When a team takes a tools player in the first round, it gambles that his obvious physical abilities will mature into advanced baseball skills. It never happened for Greg Golson.” Golson had the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the International league in 2012. He was probably signed for his speed, which could play well in Coors’ spacious outfield. But if so, then that’s all he was signed for.
Jai Miller, who remains unsigned, would have been a better choice—but it turns out that he’s unsigned because he’s going to play football for Alabama (as the Rays’ Desmond Jennings considered doing, as well), a decision that took him only 10 years of minor-league toil to reach. (Root for him!) And the Rays beat the Rockies to Jason Bourgeois by a month and a half, and to Rich Thompson by more than that.
So the Rockies nominee this year is… no one. Colorado signed 15 minor-league free agents over the offseason, a number which is around average, but it is hard to get excited about a single one of them. That’s impressive, in its own way. They have two castaway first basemen from last year’s Rays farm system (Ryan Garko and Henry Wrigley, plus they recently acquired ex-Rays shortstop Reid Brignac in a DFA trade). They inked low-strikeout guys like Justin Berg, Tim Gustafson, and Jeff Manship, a curious choice for a franchise whose ballpark would seem to recommend itself for pitchers who can keep the ball out of play. They took the catching Molina, Gustavo, who isn’t related to the catching Molinas. The Rockies are kind of an interesting, even baffling, organization. I may have to revisit them later; for now I just deleted 200 speculative words that probably don’t belong here.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Juan Abreu is the classic flame-throwing strikeout artist (the Rockies should have signed him!) who isn’t sure where the ball is going. His 10.8/9 K rate suffers from a concomitant 5.6/9 BB rate. Yet hope springs eternal with pitchers who have 96-plus mph fastballs and curve balls to go along with them, and even though the Dodgers later went out and got Mark Lowe and Peter Moylan, both with serious big-league track records (Abreu has on his major-league record only a seven-game cup of coffee in Houston from 2011), Abreu has the wonder stuff. If he harnesses it Albuquerque—no easy task, that—he could be that late-season, late-inning mystery man suddenly making a huge difference down the stretch.
San Diego Padres: Cody Ransom. This is only so he can extend the fleeting-journeyman record he already holds, and also so that the famous YouTube clip of his 60-inch box jump will continue to get hits. (I swear there used to be one of him jumping out of a pool of water, too, but I can’t find it.) [Ed. Note: That was Kurt Suzuki.] Ransom could get a few more hits of his own with the Padres, who are projected by the Depth Charts to back up Everth Cabrera and Logan Forsythe with lefty-swinging Alexi Amarista. Prospect Jedd Gyorko gyorked PCL pitching in Triple-A (and is reportedly doing terrible things to spring training pitchers), but someone is going to whisper to someone else that Ransom fielded the very last out ever recorded at the old Yankee Stadium, and that will be enough to create mystical and aural awe around Ransom and occasion his callup from Tucson. Plus his name is cool. And he’s got that record to extend. Do it for the people, Padres.
San Francisco Giants: Every year we all scan the winter ball numbers to see which fringe guys were climbing back up the Tower of David down in Venezuela, and this year one of those guys was Jon Meloan. Meloan put up a 1.31 ERA over 19 appearances for the Caribes de Anzoategui, with 23 strikeouts and five walks in 20+ innings. (A more gung-ho number-cruncher than I will someday investigate whether Venezuelan performance has any correlation with subsequent major-league results.) Of course, the depth chart lists plenty of other righty options out of the bullpen for San Francisco, but ultimately the perceived potential of these minor-league free agents persists as much in the memory as it does in the numbers.
In my first year covering the Durham Bulls, the Rays traded Winston Abreu to Cleveland for Meloan. It took some time to figure out why the Rays made this move, as Abreu was having a great year in Triple-A but got just two appearances in Tampa Bay before he was flipped to Cleveland (where he quickly earned a suspension for throwing at a batter, and was then released). It turned out that Abreu had had an opt-out clause in his contract and the Rays were under a use-me-or-lose-me gun with him. Meloan had pretty good raw stuff, as I recall, was much younger, and would have been under team control for years. So the deal suddenly made sense. But then, just weeks later, the Rays DFA’d Meloan and reclaimed Abreu, who meanwhile had been DFA’d himself by the Indians—with a result that looked something very like a player being traded for himself. Meloan lived on in that quasi-trade as a sort of ghost presence. He became a guy I followed from there on out because of his penumbral association with Abreu, who is something close to a legend in Durham. Sometimes it’s not projection but retrospection that makes a player seem like he’s just on the verge of big-league success.
American League next time.