A Look at Some Compelling Minor League Free Agents

Every winter, hundreds of nondescript minor leaguers become minor league free agents. Minor league free agency is what happens to a player who’s not on a 40-man roster after spending at least six years in the minor leagues. In other words, these players weren’t good enough to merit a callup after several years in the minors, and their organizations didn’t think they had enough potential to be worthy of a 40-man spot.

Some of these players latch on with new organizations; some of them don’t. But regardless, the overwhelming majority never have much big league success. A couple of years ago, Carson Cistulli found that only about 1% of minor league free agents produce at least 0.5 WAR the following season. Minor league free agents are the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to player transactions.

But there’s an occasional gem at the bottom of that barrel. Its not at all unheard of for a minor league free agent to make a major league impact. In no particular order, Gregor Blanco, Jesus Guzman, Donovan Solano, Yangervis Solarte, Jake Smolinski, Jose Quintana and Al Alburquerque are some notable examples from the past few years. And there are certainly others that I neglected to mention. Each left his original organization via minor league free agency, but achieved some level of big league success with his new team.

Using my KATOH projection system, I identified a few players from this year’s minor league free agent class who showed glimmers of promise last season. Based on their minor league numbers, there’s reason to believe they might be able to help at the big league level sometime soon. Below, you’ll find the top three hitters and top three pitchers according to KATOH. For each player, I’ve also provided a projected win total through his age-28 season (denoted as WAR thru 28) based both on 2015 numbers and then also his 2014 season (denoted as 2014 KATOH).

*****

Hitters

Wilfredo Tovar, 2.0 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: 1.5 WAR

Former Team: New York Mets

Current Status: Unsigned

Tovar was an interesting prospect in the Mets system a few years back, but the infielder stalled out in the high minors after a couple of injury-plagued seasons. He spent 2015 with the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, where he hit .283/.327/.356 with 30 steals. Tovar isn’t sexy — if he were, he wouldn’t be a minor league free agent — but he makes contact, runs well and plays up-the-middle defense. And most importantly, at 24, he’s still young enough that he could conceivably get a good deal better.

*****

Rafael Ortega, 1.8 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: 0.4 WAR

Former Team: St. Louis Cardinals

Current Status: Unsigned

Originally a Rockies prospect, Ortega debuted in the majors as a 21-year-old in 2012, but hasn’t made it back since. He spent the past couple of years in the Cardinals system, but didn’t hit enough to get any big league consideration. Ortega has minimal power, but he gets on base by way of above-average strikeout and walk numbers. Still just 24, Ortega will latch on with his third organization this winter, and might make for a useful reserve outfielder in the near future.

*****

Tyler Pastornicky, 1.3 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: Insufficient Data

Former Team: Philadelphia Phillies

Current Status: Unsigned

Many moons ago, Pastornicky was an intriguing prospect in the Braves’ system. However, he turned into a pumpkin upon reaching the majors and was replaced by Andrelton Simmons. Pastornicky only managed a 68 wRC+ over 168 big league plate appearances with Atlanta before he was exiled to the minors for good in July 2014. He played in the Rangers and Phillies organizations last year and compiled a .282/.331/.367 batting line, which isn’t bad at all for an infielder. Maybe he can stick on a big league roster if given another chance. Maybe.

*****

Pitchers:

Cesar Vargas, 2.2 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: 0.3 WAR

Former Team: New York Yankees

Current Status: Signed with San Diego

Vargas has already latched on with the Padres, where he’ll likely open the year in Triple-A. Prior to his signing with San Diego, Vargas played in the Yankees organization from 2010 through 2015 with a decent amount of success. He pitched mostly at the Double-A level in 2015, and posted an impressive 2.55 FIP and 24% strikeout rate out of the bullpen. As a reliever, Vargas’s upside is obviously limited, but he’s already succeeded in the high minors at 23. He seems like a pretty good bet to wind up as a useful reliever.

*****

James Needy, 1.4 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: 0.7 WAR

Former Team: San Diego Padres

Current Status: Unsigned

Needy comes from the Padres organization, where he pitched to an unsightly 5.59 ERA over 130 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year. However, his 4.58 FIP suggests he got a bit unlucky. Now, a 4.58 FIP still isn’t good, but its not terrible when you consider that Needy’s a 24-year-old starting pitcher in the high minors. His height (6-foot-6) is also a point in his favor, as tall pitchers are generally better bets than shorter ones. Needy’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but there are reasons to think he could help a big league team as soon as next year.

*****

Carlos Pimentel, 1.1 WAR thru 28

2014 KATOH: 0.6 WAR

Former Team: Chicago Cubs

Current Status: Unsigned

Pimentel pitched to a 2.95 ERA in the Cubs’ Triple-A rotation last year. Going by that statement alone, Pimentel sounds extremely interesting. However, that sparkling ERA came from a 25-year-old with a 4.51 FIP, which makes him a fringy prospect at best. Even so, Pimentel’s non-terrible showing as a Triple-A starter makes him one of the more intriguing minor league free agents. Guys like this have a knack for turning into big league relievers.

We hoped you liked reading A Look at Some Compelling Minor League Free Agents by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Dooduh

yeesh, a pretty motley list…