When we talk abut a player’s value above replacement level, such as referring to stats like WAR, one of the questions that commonly arises is who these mythical replacement level players are. The best example of freely available talent – guys who can be had for nothing and still produce at an acceptable level in some role on a major league team – are minor league free agents. These players receive non-guaranteed contracts, are not placed on the 40 man roster, and teams have no requirement to keep them beyond spring training.
Their acquisition cost, for all intents and purposes, is zero. They represent the group of players that you really can get for nothing. The list of players eligible for minor league free agency has been made available, so with that, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting guys available for free this winter.
Ruben Gotay, 2B/3B
A second baseman for most of his career, Gotay spent more time playing third base in Reno this year, and that position may be a better fit for his particular skill set. He’ll never win a Gold Glove, but his bat is interesting enough to get him back to the big leagues.
While playing for the Diamondbacks affiliate in the PCL, Gotay racked up a .272/.429/.450 line that shows off a strong ability to control the strike zone. He drew 102 walks and struck out just 69 times, and unlike some minor league walk aficionados, he actually flashed some power – 42 of his 101 hits went for extra bases.
As a switch-hitter with plate discipline and power, Gotay has a good enough bat to play in the majors. His defense is the question mark, but teams with an opening at 3B or a willingness to sacrifice some range at 2B should be willing to give him a shot. Heading into his age 27 season, his best days may still be ahead of him.
Ben Davis, RHP
You may remember Davis as a busted catching prospect. These days, he’s working on a late career comeback as a knuckleball-throwing pitcher. While he’s new to the craft, his first impression on the mound was a strong one. He pitched well enough in independent ball in 2008 to catch on with the Reds last year, and he pitched well in nine games for Sarasota out of the bullpen. He even racked up 14 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings, which is not something you usually see from knucklers.
Knuckleball pitchers are lottery tickets – for every Tim Wakefield, there are a bunch of Charlie Zinks. But there’s always a chance that Davis’ knuckler is better than the guys who wash out in the minors throwing the pitch, and if it is, he could be a pretty decent innings eater for a major league club. Plus, he could always serve as an emergency catcher.
Bobby Brownlie, RHP
At one point back in 2002, Brownlie was considered the best college prospect in the country. He was getting buzz for the top overall selection in the draft, but questions about his health pushed him down to the 21st pick, where the Cubs snatched him up. His career has been a frustrating series of injuries since then. However, through persistence, he’s managed to work himself up to the doorstep of the majors.
He split time between the rotation and the bullpen with the Braves Triple-A affiliate this year and pitched fairly well. His stuff is no longer what it used to be, but he can throw strikes and miss bats occasionally. His command of the strike zone makes him an interesting option as a middle reliever with some long term upside if he can stay on the field for an entire season.
Jerry Owens, CF
Owens has been the focus of scorn and derision from White Sox fans who had to endure Ozzie Guillen’s attempts to make him an everyday player, which he simply isn’t cut out for. However, as a fourth outfielder, Owens is actually a useful player. His defense is a real positive at all three spots and he’s a very good base stealer. He doesn’t have any power, but he’s an excellent contact hitter who is willing to draw a walk from time to time, so he won’t kill you at the plate.
For a team with a lumbering corner outfielder who could use a pinch runner/defensive caddy, Owens is a good use of a roster spot.
These aren’t the only four interesting players on the list – they’re just the four I wanted to talk about today. Teams looking for value will be perusing this list very carefully, looking for guys who offer a bit of potential and come at no real cost.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.