Every offseason, while everybody is focusing on the top free agents on the board, predicting where they will land their nine figure contracts, I always spend most of my time looking into the top 25 minor league free agents. My fascination with the premier minor league free agents comes from the idea that while signing big names is certainly productive, a front office’s true level of genius comes from their ability to find talent where nobody else thinks to look.
This week has seen a number of my top minor league free agents come off the board, along with some guys not ranked, who certainly have some potential to make an impact at the major league level.
My list for this season:
- LHP Ryan Merritt
- RHP Tony Zych
- LHP Angel Perdomo
- 1B Sandber Pimentel
- 3B Pedro Alvarez
- LHP Livan Moinelo
- RHP A.J. Schugel
- LHP Tommy Layne
- RHP Williams Perez
- INF Peter Mooney
- 1B Tommy Joseph
- RHP Felix Jorge
- OF L.J. Kalawaia
- C Jin-De Jang
- 2B Brad Miller
- OF Harold Ramirez
- LHP Kevin Canelon
- OF Gabriel Guerrero
- RHP Joan Gregorio
- RHP Marcos Molina
- RHP Louis Coleman
- OF Cesar Diaz
- RHP Anthony Bass
- RHP Scott Copeland
- RHP Taso Stathopoulos
This week, four of the aforementioned players went off of the board. The first ranked lefty Ryan Merritt will join the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor league deal that reportedly includes an invitation to major league spring training. Merritt is best known for his excellent showing in the ALCS back in 2016, but has long been a rather stellar performer both in Triple-A and in the majors. My projections have Merritt posting a 3.16 ERA over 65.1 innings pitched this season, based primarily on his excellent results at the major league level including a career 1.71 ERA over 31.1 innings. He has long been a groundball artist and has exhibited borderline elite control routinely walking less than two batters per nine innings. In Tampa’s “opener” model, Merritt seems likely to get a considerable amount of innings in long relief and could be the most important minor league signing this offseason. As I mentioned in my last minor moves round-up, I have been very fond of what the Rays have been doing in the early going and this only improves upon my already sterling opinion of their winter.
The third player on the list, Angel Perdomo earned a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training with the Brewers. While I didn’t run a projection on the 24-year old lefty, seeing as how his highest level reached is Class-A Advanced in the Blue Jays’ system, I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see him pitch in the major leagues at some point in 2019. Perdomo carries obvious value as a high-octane lefty, and while his control may not be great (4.0 BB/9 in 2018), his strikeout numbers make up for it, as he recorded over 11 strikeouts per nine innings last season. While he seems likely to begin the season starting games in Double-A Biloxi, I see his future in relief. The big lefty has the ceiling of a high octane set-up man, and he could become a huge addition to an already sturdy Brewers’ bullpen. While I would bet against him breaking camp with the Brewers, don’t be shocked to see him earn a call-up toward the end of the season.While fans zero in on MLB free agents with multi-million dollar deals, BBE analyst Joe Orsatti has you covered with minor league transactions since free agency kicked off.Click To Tweet
Another member of the NL-Central, the St. Louis Cardinals, locked in a pair of ranked players as well in the eighth ranked lefty Tommy Layne and the ninth ranked righty Williams Perez. Layne was actually re-signed about a week or so ago after posting excellent numbers for the Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League. A noted groundball artist, Layne has gone entire seasons without allowing a single home run, including last year, a season in which he posted an obscene 1.35 ERA with a 2.10 FIP. Now 34-years old, Layne will look to make his hometown team’s roster as a left-handed relief option. My projections have him posting a 3.60 ERA over 32.2 innings. As for Perez, he joined the Mariners in an in-season signing after pitching very well in the independent leagues. The 27-year old was involved in a mishap with a firearm last offseason, but was able to overcome it en route to a 2.45 ERA over 128.1 innings pitched between the Mariners’ Double and Triple-A affiliates. He goes into the 2019 season with a 4.31 ERA projection over 80.2 innings supported by a 2.82 BB/9 and a 52.93% groundball rate.
While unranked, Joe Hudson will be joining the Cardinals on a minor league deal as well. The 27-year old catcher became a free agent after being removed from the Angels’ 40-man roster following the acquisition of Kevan Smith. Hudson hit very well between Double and Triple-A this season en route to a .293/.369/.437 batting line, earning him his first major league call-up. He joins a catching staff that boasts endless talent, but is not without its uncertainties, as Yadier Molina‘s health remains a question mark based on recent injury history and age, while highly-touted youngster Carson Kelly is still a relative unknown thanks to struggles during 2018. It’s certainly fair to assume that we will see Hudson doning the Cardinal red during the 2019 season, and I have him projected at a .245/.310/.360 batting line over 37 games.
Hudson was one of many catchers who found new homes on the minor league free agent market. Brett Nicholas joined the Colorado Rockies in what looks to be an excellent match. The Rockies certainly have a considerable amount of offensive uncertainty behind the plate with Chris Iannetta guaranteed money through the 2019 season with Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy in line to receive the remainder of the playing time. Nicholas is a bat first catcher who hits from the left-side of the plate and offers rather strong power that will play up without a doubt at Coors Field. Last season, over 456 plate appearances in the Pacific Coast League, Nicholas hit .291/.353/.485 with 16 home runs and while his BABip of .332 suggests some regression, it’s not an incredibly substantial amount. Nicholas seems like a strong candidate to see some legitimate time in the major leagues this season, and could be interesting to watch. Personally, I wouldn’t have been as optimistic about Nicholas had he signed elsewhere, but this is an absolutely perfect pairing that seems very likely to be mutually beneficial.
Juan Centeno joined the Red Sox on a minor league deal with a camp invitation early this week. While the Sox have Christian Vazquez behind the plate, Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart each suffered through a pair of rough seasons offensively, and Dan Butler departed in free agency. I would imagine the defense oriented Centeno will begin the season at Triple-A and will earn a call-up once injury strikes or poor performance becomes too much to ignore. The 29-year old doesn’t bring much value with the bat, as he slashed just .234/.291/.307 in the Pacific Coast League with a ghastly .162/.184/.270 line in the majors. While he will probably see some time in the major leagues next season based on his defensive prowess, I wouldn’t get carried away with my expectations offensively.
Beau Taylor is the fourth minor league free agent catcher whose stay on the free agent market wasn’t very long, as he re-signed with the Oakland A’s. As it stands, Taylor is currently slated to serve as the back-up for Josh Phegley, thanks to Jonathan Lucroy and Bruce Maxwell declaring free agency at the end of the 2018 season. While I would imagine that he slides on the depth chart following a bit of offseason maneuvering, Taylor brings great plate discipline and has always shown an above average glove. While he will never hit for much in terms of average or power, the plate discipline is excellent, as he walked 14% of the time in Triple-A last season en route to a .360 OBP and a .112 isolated on-base percentage.
Joining Taylor in Oakland is right-handed reliever Jake Buchanan. The 29-year old is coming off of a rough showing with the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, in which he posted a rough 5.17 ERA with a 4.47 FIP. None of his peripherals were terribly encouraging, as he posted an unsustainably low HR/FB rate, and a very poor 4.94 K/9. I would imagine that Buchanan spends the majority of the season serving as bullpen depth in Triple-A Las Vegas.
While Buchanan departs from the Diamondbacks’ organization, outfielder Abraham Almonte will join the Snakes on a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training. The 30-year old really scuffled in 2018 with the Kansas City Royals slashing a rather unsightly .179/.260/.284 without showing much in terms of tools. With the possible departure of Jon Jay and A.J. Pollock, Almonte seems likely to be competing with Socrates Brito for the reserve outfielder role. While I would anticipate Brito earning the role out of camp, Almonte seems likely to be among the first guys recalled from the minor leagues in case of injury, and if the Diamondbacks decide to sell a bit this offseason, he could be in a much better position to see quality at bats. Nevertheless, he’s a known commodity, and while I wouldn’t expect to see much offensively, his glove has been excellent at times and he is very fast.
The Dodgers brought in the nearly 30-year old righty Kevin Quackenbush on a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training. The veteran righty is a familiar face in the NL-West as he spent the 2014 through 2017 seasons as a fixture in the Padres’ bullpen. He enjoyed an excellent rookie season in 2014, followed by a pedestrian 2015. While 2016 saw him post nice bottom line results, his peripherals suggested that he had gotten exceptionally lucky, which proved to be correct as the bottom fell out in 2017. He spent last season with the Reds’ organization, and while he managed to crack the opening day roster in Cincinnati, he allowed 11 earned runs over his first nine innings pitched to go along with six walks to just seven strikeouts resulting in his demotion to Triple-A. While in the minors, Quackenbush posted a considerably more encouraging 2.68 ERA with a 2.33 FIP, but keep in mind the fact that his HR/FB rate was an unsustainably low 3.4%. I have my doubts with a fly ball pitcher entering an organization that seems likely to have him slated to begin the season in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. While I will acknowledge the fact that the Dodgers have proven to be mavens on the minor league free agent market, I’m not entirely enthusiastic about this particular signing and believe that it will ultimately be depth. That being said, if any organization is going to prove me wrong and make me eat my words, it’s going to be the Dodgers.
The Padres brought in 27-year old third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean on a minor league deal. The former Mariners’ farmhand likely represents depth for either Double or Triple-A for the Padres, as he slashed a combined .258/.336/.376 between Double and Triple-A for the Mariners with ten home runs and strong defensive marks at both infield corners. While he does a nice job managing strikeouts, his hit tool, as a whole isn’t great, and could prevent him from serving as anything other than a bench guy in the major leagues.
Former bonus baby Michael Ynoa will join the Royals on a minor league deal after sitting out for the 2018 season. The 27-year old right-handed reliever spent 2017 with the White Sox posting a 5.90 ERA over 29 innings at the major league level while struggling mightily with his control (6.8 BB/9), an issue that has plagued him throughout his career. While it has not yet been made clear as to whether or not Ynoa will be invited to spring training, I would anticipate that he spends the majority of the season serving as relief depth between Double and Triple-A.
The Phillies announced on Wednesday that first baseman Justin Bour was placed on waivers. Personally, I didn’t quite understand the trade when it happened in the first place, as McKenzie Mills is a rather solid prospect, and the Phillies already had two first basemen in the starting line-up with Carlos Santana and Rhys Hoskins. Bour would have likely been non-tendered next month, as there was simply no place to play him, and he would have been due for a pay raise over his $3.4 million salary. As a fun fact (or not so fun fact if you’re from Philadelphia), Bour was the last link to Phillies legend Chase Utley who was traded to the Dodgers during the 2015 season for John Richy and Darnell Sweeney. While Richy was released from the organization, Sweeney was traded alongside Darin Ruf back to the Dodgers in exchange for Howie Kendrick, who was subsequently traded to the Nationals for Mills, who was later traded to acquire Bour. The market for first basemen has been very tough over the past few offseasons, which could limit Bour’s market, but I do believe that he will be on a major league roster come Opening Day.
Finally, the Indians and Pirates completed a five player swap that sent utility player Max Moroff and outfielder Jordan Luplow to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for utility man Erik Gonzalez and right-handed pitching prospects Tahnaj Thomas and Dante Mendoza.
The Indians acquired two major league role players who were both controllable and had options remaining for the 2019 season. Moroff, 25-years old, has struggled offensively over the past three seasons posting a .193/.293/.331 batting line with six home runs and hasn’t been much better in Triple-A. That being said, Moroff has shown an outstanding glove at second base, shortstop and third base over his career with range factor numbers typically coming in well-above average at each position. He has also seen time in the outfield, although the result hasn’t been quite as strong. While I would expect him to begin the season in Triple-A, he is almost certain to see major league time this season.
The 25-year old outfielder, Jordan Luplow, hasn’t shown much offensively in the majors just yet, but carries a considerably higher ceiling. While his major league line sits at a paltry .194/.274/.371, he slashed .287/.367/.462 in Triple-A. He has also been known for very strong glove in the outfield, and has the ability to handle all three outfield spots rather well. Luplow exceeded his rookie limits in the 2018 season, but was considered to be a C+ prospect in most pre-season rankings citing decent power and plate discipline as well as strong potential in his glove, but concerns in his contact ability. At the very least, Luplow will provide the Tribe with a very solid fourth outfielder type who could very well turn out to be something more.
The Indians did well to sell the 27-year old utility infielder Erik Gonzalez, who had been coming off of his career-best .265/.301/.375 batting line while playing all four infield positions. Unfortunately, his peripheral statistics didn’t necessarily suggest that these relatively solid offensive numbers were sustainable, as he walked just 3.5% of the time compared to a 23.8% strikeout rate, while he rode a .347 BABip. At this point in time, it seems as though Gonzalez is currently slated to start at shortstop for the Pirates, but seeing as how it is still early in the offseason, I would expect to see him replaced and relegated to a utility infield position. He is out of minor league options, and therefore will need to remain on the 25-man roster or be exposed to waivers.
The other two guys joining the Pirates organization, Mendoza and Thomas, are rookie league depth pieces. Dante Mendoza, a 19-year old who was drafted in the 12th round of the 2017 draft, has posted a cumulative 4.69 ERA over 40.1 innings pitched in rookie ball, mainly pitching in relief. He has good stuff, and should improve as he fills out. At 6’5″, he still weighs just 186 pounds and could stand to add a few ticks on a fastball that sits in the high-80’s. He has two above average pitches in his arsenal, but his control has a lot of work that needs to be done, and he is exceptionally far away from being a candidate to earn major league playing time. He looks like a taxi guy to me.
Thomas has much more upside here, as the 19-year old from the Bahamas can already hit 95 on his fastball with an above average curve. Furthermore, at 6’4″ weighing 190 pounds, he seems likely to add some velocity with time. While he has struggled to a 5.28 ERA in the low minor leagues, he has been working primarily as a starter, when he should be working in the pen. He’s far from a guarantee, but has been given a ceiling of a very solid high leverage reliever three to five years down the line. Personally, I am very concerned about his control, as he has walked 6.7 batter per nine innings throughout his career, reaching stateside rookie leagues. While many prospect analysts are bullish on him, I believe he is a lottery ticket with an outside shot to be a nice reliever.
I would give the edge to the Indians on this deal. First of all, I am rather high on Luplow as a possible sneaky contributor for next season. He seems likely to receive a shot at regular playing time seeing as how the Indians are slated to lose Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera and Rajai Davis in free agency, and brings nice power potential and intriguing plate discipline. Furthermore, I believe the Indians did a nice job cashing in on a solid season by Erik Gonzalez, who doesn’t seem all that likely to repeat, and limited flexibility on their roster, as he was out of minor league options. Both Moroff and Luplow can be sent to the minor leagues in 2019 giving the Indians more flexibility in building their roster for 2019. I don’t have a ton of faith in either of the rookie ball pitchers headed to Pittsburgh in the deal either.
As a final note, a pair of former Tigers’ relievers, Warwick Saupold and Chad Bell are headed to the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO, as both received one year contracts. Saupold will earn $1 million, with $300k coming in the form of a signing bonus, while Bell will earn $600k, with $200k coming in the form of a signing bonus.