Every winter, hundreds of nondescript minor leaguers 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 players 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. 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. It’s not unheard of, at all, for a minor-league free agent to make a major-league impact. Here, in no particular order, are some notable examples from the past few years: Gregor Blanco, Jesus Guzman, Donovan Solano, Yangervis Solarte, Jake Smolinski, Jose Quintana and Al Alburquerque. 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 the pitchers from this year’s minor-league free-agent class who showed glimmers of promise in the minors. 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 only considers pitchers who faced at least 200 minor-league batters in 2016. For reference, here’s a similar article I wrote last year, and a post from yesterday looking at minor-league free-agent hitters.
1) Jacob Turner, RHP, 2.8 WAR
Turner was the ninth-overall pick back in 2009, and broke in with the Tigers as a 20-year-old in 2011. Six years and three new organizations later, his career is at a crossroads. Turner hasn’t had much success getting big-league hitters out, as evidenced by his 323 big-league innings of 5.00 ERA ball. It’s been a struggle for Turner, but he’s still just 25 and is coming off of a solid showing in Triple-A last year. Despite an unsightly ERA, the 6-foot-4 righty posted a 3.69 FIP at the highest level of the minors with the White Sox. The book isn’t closed on his career yet.
2) Andrew Barbosa, LHP, 1.8 WAR
As a 29-year-old who’s made just one appearance above Double-A, Barbosa looks to be completely irrelevant at first glance. But a closer look at his 2016 performance reveals utter dominance. In 72 innings as a starter in the Mets system, Barbosa pitched to a 1.51 ERA and 2.57 FIP with a 26% strikeout rate. It’s been a long and winding road for Barbosa, but the 6-foot-8 lefty could make a big-league impact sometime soon.
3) Osmel Morales, RHP, 1.4 WAR
Morales pitched excellently for the Mariners’ A-ball affiliates last year, finishing up with a 3.27 FIP and a remarkable 29% strikeout rate. He was similarly dominant in 2015, pitching exclusively at the Low-A level. Morales just turned 24, making him one of the youngest arms profiled in this post, though he’s also yet to throw a pitch above A-ball.
4) Kendry Flores, RHP, 1.2 WAR
Flores made a few appearances for the Marlins each of the past two seasons, but seemingly didn’t factor into Miami’s long-term plans. That’s understandable given Flores’ 4.72 FIP at Triple-A last year. But there is still a glimmer of promise in the Dominican hurler. For one, he played all of last season as a 24-year-old. Furthermore, he performed much better in 2015 at the Double- and Triple-A levels. At the very least, he looks like useful Triple-A depth.
5) Wilmer Font, RHP, 1.2 WAR
A Rangers prospect from years ago, Font tossed three innings for Texas in 2012 and 2013, but hasn’t seen the big leagues since. He split last season with the Blue Jays Double- and Triple-A affiliates, where he pitched to a 3.94 FIP, struck out 21% of opposing batters and walked just 5%. Font is already 26, but might still have a big-league career ahead of him.
6) Lisalverto Bonilla, RHP, 1.2 WAR
Bonilla is another Rangers castoff who’s been kicking around for ages. Now 26, he’s coming off of a season where he posted a 3.52 ERA and 26% strikeout rate between Double-A and Triple-A with the Dodgers. Bonilla’s shown he can miss bats in the upper levels, so perhaps he’ll be able to do the same in the big leagues.
7) Adam Wilk, LHP, 1.2 WAR
Wilk’s been with several organizations and has racked up 26 big-league innings over the years. He spent all of last season with the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate, where he spun a 3.31 FIP and struck out 21% of opposing hitters in 15 starts. Wilk’s about to turn 29, so time’s running out for him, but his 2016 campaign hints at a future in the show.
8) Evan Grills, LHP, 1.1 WAR
The Astros drafted Grills in the 10th round back in 2010, but it took him until last year to advance past A-ball. The 6-foot-4 lefty cruised through three levels last season — High-A, Double-A and Triple-A — but wasn’t particularly dominant at any stop. Still, a 4.36 FIP from a 24-year-old starter in the upper levels is somewhat promising.
9) Edgar Olmos, LHP, 1.1 WAR
The Marlins took Olmos in the third round way back in 2008, and he looked like an interesting relief prospect at one point. After 19 unremarkable innings with the Marlins and Mariners, however, Olmos found himself with the Orioles’ Triple-A squad last year, just trying to stay in affiliated ball. The 26-year-old lefty wound up tossing 69 innings of 3.02 ball in relief while striking out 27% of batters.
10) Deck McGuire, RHP, 1.0 WAR
The Blue Jays made McGuire was the 11th overall pick in 2010, but after years of command issues, he’s still yet to throw his first big league pitch. In no way does McGuire’s 5.29 FIP from last year suggest he’s ready for the show, but KATOH likes what he did in 2015, along with his 6-foot-6 frame. Given his prolonged struggles, next season may be the 27-year-old’s last crack at affiliated ball.
Wild Card: James Needy, RHP
Needy appeared on last year’s version of this list, but seemingly remains a free agent after undergoing Tommy John surgery late in 2015. Needy spent 2015 in the San Diego organization, where he pitched to an unsightly 5.59 ERA over 130 innings. While his ERA was terrible, however, his 4.58 FIP suggests he got a bit unlucky. KATOH also likes his 6-foot-6 frame, as taller pitchers are generally better bets than shorter ones. Needy’s still just 25, so if healthy, he might pick up where he left off as a near-ready high-minors arm.
|Rank||Name||Former Team||Position||KATOH+ WAR|
|16||Ben Rowen||Blue Jays||RHP||0.9|
|17||Scott Copeland||Blue Jays||RHP||0.8|