Every winter, hundreds of nondescript ballplayers become minor-league free agents. Players are granted minor-league free agency when they’re omitted from a club’s 40-man roster and have also spent at least six years in the minor leagues. In other words, they’re the ones who weren’t good enough to merit a call-up after several years in the minors, and their organizations suspect they lack the 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. 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. It’s not unheard of, at all, for a minor-league free agent to make a major-league impact. A few successful examples of players I highlighted in this space last year:
- Wilmer Font dominated the PCL by striking out a jaw-dropping 32% of batters as a starter, earning him a role on the deepest pitching staff in baseball. My money’s on him opening 2018 on someone’s big-league squad.
- Lane Adams recorded 122 plate appearances of above-average production with the Braves, much of that coming as a pinch-hitter.
- Jacob Turner was a serviceable swingman for the 97-win Nationals in the season’s first half (33.2 innings, 4.28 ERA through June 18th).
Using my KATOH projection system, I identified the hitters from this year’s minor-league free-agent class who showed glimmers of promise in the minors. Since none of these players have any sort of prospect pedigree anyway, I utilized the stats-only version of KATOH. Based on their minor-league numbers, there’s reason to believe they might be able to help at the big-league level sometime soon. This analysis considers only players who logged at least 200 minor-league plate appearances in either 2016 or 2017. Tomorrow, I’ll repeat this exercise for pitchers.
A seventh-round pick way back in 2011, Lopes has slowly but steadily worked his way through the Blue Jays organization, finally reaching Triple-A this past season. He hit a respectable .261/.349/.402 at the highest rung of the minor leagues while also showing speed on the bases. A 25-year-old infielder who can hit a little bit and run a little bit is about as compelling as minor-league free agents come.
Andreoli caught KATOH’s eye last winter, and after more-or-less repeating his 2016 season at Triple-A, he remains on its radar. Andreoli’s biggest asset is his plus speed, which has manifested itself in high stolen-base totals and non-terrible defense in center field. However, he also draws plenty of walks and has a touch of power. The Cubs seemingly couldn’t find a place for him on their crowded roster, but some team might.
Ortega appeared on this list two winters ago but sputtered in his first extended shot in the big leagues in Anaheim. He rebounded in 2017, though, putting together a nifty .317/.383/.468 campaign with the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate. Somehow still only 26, Ortega’s pairing of speed and plate discipline is compelling.
The man whose physique Carson Cistulli accurately characterized as “amorphous” hit .342 with power at the highest level of the minor leagues, all while playing primarily catcher. Astudillo showcased his typical outrageous contact skills, striking out in a mere 3.9% of plate appearances. Most who’ve seen Astudillo in person doubt those skills will translate into big-league production. Whether some team will test that assumption in 2018 remains to be seen — this is his third consecutive year filing for minor-league free-agency. The saga of Willians Astudillo continues.
Like Astudillo, Castro also appeared in this space last year. And also like Astudillo, Castro turned in another solid season at the highest level of the minor leagues. The 24-year-old hit .306/.344/.397 with Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate while playing very good shortstop defense. Castro has struggled mightily in his limited big-league opportunities but has seemingly earned another shot with his contact and defense.
A longtime Reds minor leaguer, Perez has been on KATOH’s radar for a couple of years now and appeared to be breaking out at Triple-A before going down with injury in May. Perez can play all over the diamond, can steal a base, and has always made lots of contact. If healthy, he could make for a fine utility infielder right now.
Bernard is another repeat offender who appears in this space for the second consecutive year. He spent last season in the Giants organization, where he hit a disappointing .254/.303/.347 at Triple-A. Still, Bernard was characteristically active on the basepaths and graded out above average in center field per Clay Davenport’s numbers. Bernard has had very little offensive success above the Double-A level, but his speed and past hitting keep him on KATOH’s radar.
Goeddel spent the entire 2016 season on the Phillies’ big-league roster after they plucked him from the Rays in the Rule 5 draft. However, he hit just .192/.258/.291 in Philadelphia and was subsequently claimed off waivers by the Reds. He hit .259/.360/.378 last season, split between Cincinnati’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliate. Goeddel’s profile doesn’t pop in any one area, but he does a little bit of everything: controls the plate well, runs a little bit, and plays all three outfield spots.
Ceciliani is another seemingly unremarkable player who has remained on KATOH’s radar due to his well-rounded performances in the high minors. Ceciliani missed most of 2017 with injury but hit a solid .266/.323/.441 at Triple-A in 2016. Ceciliani’s similar to Goeddel in that he pairs decent hitting with decent speed and can play all three outfield spots.
Reed is yet another well-rounded outfielder who’s been on KATOH’s radar for over a year. The former Brewer underwhelmed in Triple-A last year, hitting just .208/.336/.351. Reed strikes out a bit much for someone with such little power. But his speed, defense, and penchant for drawing walks make him a compelling 25-year-old.
|Rank||Name||Former Team||Position||KATOH WAR|
|1||Christian Lopes||Blue Jays||2B/3B||2.8|
|9||Darrell Ceciliani||Blue Jays||OF||1.5|
|20||Roberto Pena||White Sox||C||1.0|
|24||Jon Berti||Blue Jays||2B||1.0|