On the Considerable Charm of the Minor-League Free Agent

Yesterday in these pages, the author — standing on the shoulders of the giant that is the Steamer projection system — attempted to identify the player most likely to serve as 2015’s edition of Yangervis Solarte. Surely, that post has already made household names of Buck Britton and Jose Martinez and Deibinson Romero.

For some people, identifying the next Yangervis Solarte is probably a less compelling endeavor than finding 2015’s edition of Mike Trout (which is to say, the best player in all of baseball), for example, or even 2015’s edition of Michael Brantley (which is to say, a player who unexpectedly produced among the league’s highest WAR figures).

The problem in each of those cases, however, is that 2015’s edition of Mike Trout is most likely just Mike Trout. And, while Michael Brantley was a more ordinary player before the 2014 season, he also wasn’t a freely available one.

No, the pleasure of contemplating Yangervis Solarte is that he began the 2014 season as little more than a $500 thousand investment by the Yankees and transformed into approximately a $10 million profit.

Nor was this merely a victory for the club. From Solarte’s perspective, that series of events was also excellent. After recording more than 2800 plate appearances over eight years in the Twins’ and then, for a shorter time, Rangers’ minor-league systems — over which long interval he recorded zero major-league appearances — he’s parlayed his opportunity with the Yankees into (probably, at least) a role as an opening-day starter for San Diego. That’s a nearly ideal scenario for a player granted minor-league free agency.

As some haphazard research by the author indicates, it’s also an unlikely scenario. Less than 1% of the players granted minor-league free agency at the end of one season produce 0.5 WAR or more at the major-league level in the next. That speaks, in part, to the ability of front offices to evaluate talent. They’re pretty good at recognizing who will and who won’t have success at the highest level. It also speaks, of course, to opportunity. As noted within that haphazard research, if a player has been granted minor-league free agency one season, he’s also unlikely to begin the following season as part of his new club’s 25-man roster. He’s even less likely to earn such playing time as would allow him to contribute significantly to that new club.

Carson Cistulli, known to those familiar with him as an “idiot,” has no bearing on which of the current stock of 500 or so minor-league free agents will receive that Solarte-like opportunity. Indeed, the clubs themselves only barely do. For, while they’re responsible, of course, for stocking their minor-league systems and creating an organizational depth chart, the opportunity for a career minor leaguer like Solarte is generally only a product of injury or ineffectiveness at the major-league level. Solarte, for his part, received a chance largely because of a suspension to Alex Rodriguez that created a vacancy at third base, and then an injury to Mark Teixeira early in the season which forced third baseman Kelly Johnson to move across the diamond — this, only after Solarte had played his way into consideration already during spring training and continued to hit in the majors.

So the odds either of becoming or identifying the next Solarte aren’t particularly high. And yet the probability that at least one player who entered minor-league free agency earlier this month — the probability that one of them will add a win-plus to his team is about 100%*. He’s out there somewhere — indeed, Baseball America recently published a list on which his name, by definition, appears — but his precise identity remains unknown.

*An average of three such players do this every year.

At some level, the productive minor-league free agent isn’t unlike that actor whose work you enjoy but who, one day, you discover is actually Canadian — even after you’d assumed he was an American all these years. He’s looked and sounded American this whole time, and yet he’s from a whole different country with its own currency and television channels and, in certain cases, entirely different official languages. Looking back, you see that perhaps there were signs. Like maybe he was alarming polite during a particular interview or just perceptibly raised a diphthong before a voiceless consonant. But this is only in hindsight.

Indeed, in hindsight, Gregor Blanco looks like a real major-league player. He’s recorded three consecutive seasons now of two or more wins. He was acquired by the Giants, though, only after the Nationals had granted him minor-league free agency following the 2011 season. Indeed, in hindsight, Jose Quintana looks even more like a major-league player. He’s produced over 10 wins in three years for the White Sox — this, though, only after having been granted minor-league free agency by the Yankees following the 2011 season. And, indeed, it would appear as though Yangervis Solarte has the makings of a major leaguer. As noted, though, he was compelled to spread out eight seasons of his minor-league career over two organizations before having the opportunity to make a case for himself. A legitimate future major leaguer — one who’s spent more than six years in the minors and has maybe already had his 25th birthday — is currently a free agent who will be signed for nearly nothing in the context of the current market. We all get to find out together.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

On The Fact That This Is The Third FanGraphs Article Whose Headline Starts With “On” In The Last 36 Hours Alone