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 pitchers 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 batters faced in either 2016 or 2017.
For reference, here is my piece from yesterday on minor-league free-agent hitters.
Barlow split time between the Dodgers’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates this past year, pitching to a stellar 3.29 ERA as a starter. He struck out 28% of opposing batters while walking a reasonable 10%. Barlow’s numbers were decidedly worse in his seven Triple-A appearances, but on the whole, his 2017 campaign was excellent for a 24-year-old starter.
Carpenter spent all of 2017 with Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate, where he pitched to a respectable 4.15 ERA across 156 innings. Although he’s a bit fly-ball prone, his strikeout and walk numbers — 25% and 6%, respectively — were rock solid last year. As a 6-foot-5 lefty who has succeeded as a starter in Triple-A, Carpenter is one of the most compelling minor-league free agents on the market.
Kelly opened the year with the Padres’ Double-A team but earned a promotion to a Triple-A after spinning 15 starts of 2.98 ERA ball. Although he struggled mightily following his promotion, Kelly is still a 6-foot-4 25-year-old who has succeeded as a starter in the upper levels of the minors.
Rodriguez was lights out for Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate this year, recording a 2.42 ERA and 28% strikeout rate out of the bullpen. He got lit up in his five big-league appearances, however, and was outrighted to the minors midway through his September call-up. At 27, Rodriguez is rather old for a prospect, but he was an excellent Triple-A pitcher, and pitching in the majors isn’t that much different than pitching in Triple-A.
Another obscure but successful high-minors reliever! Therrien pitched to a 1.41 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A on the strength of a 30% strikeout rate and 4% walk rate. This earned him a promotion to the majors, where he struggled in 15 appearances before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Unlike most of the names here, Comer was actually a prospect once upon a time. The Blue Jays took him 57th overall back in 2012 before trading him to Houston a year later. Comer slowly worked his way through Houston’s system and spent most of 2017 pitching in relief at the Triple-A level. Surely, someone will scoop up this 25-year-old who struck out 27% of batters in the upper levels in 2017.
I covered Diaz in this space last year after he pitched reasonably well as a 24-year-old starter at Double-A. He ultimately signed with the Angels and rattled off 17 scoreless innings to start 2017. Diaz didn’t fare quite as well following a promotion to Triple-A, though, where his ERA, FIP and xFIP all crested 5.00. Nonetheless, Diaz is a 6-foot-4 25-year-old who posted solid strikeout and walk rates as a starter in the high minors.
A longtime Royals farmhand, Binford posted respectable strikeout and walk numbers as a 6-foot-6, 24-year-old starter in the high minors last year. Granted, things got incredibly ugly when batters put the ball in play. But Binford has many of the elements that make a good pitching prospect and still has age on his side.
Jaye earned a September call-up by spinning a 3.96 ERA as a starter between Double-A and Triple-A. Detroit seemingly did not see him as part of their long-term future, however, and waived him after the season. Jaye will be 26 next year, but competent high-minors starters often develop into useful big leaguers.
A former Yankees relief prospect, Montgomery was very effective out of the bullpen in Triple-A this year. In 67 innings with St. Louis’ Triple-A affiliate, he pitched to a stellar 2.43 ERA and struck out 27% of opposing batters. This Montgomery’s his first time appearing in a post in nearly four years, when Bradley Woodrum analyzed his 80-grade snot rocket.
|Rank||Name||Former Team||Position||KATOH WAR|
|18||Matt Purke||White Sox||LHP||0.8|