Do you feel that? Spring Training is underway! No, not the part where they play actual games and it’s exciting for three innings. Rather, it’s the part where beat writers from all 30 teams bombard your Twitter feed with videos of pitchers throwing bullpen sessions and hitters taking batting practice and stories of how that one reliever got away from baseball by working on his truck all offseason or how that second baseman just eats a bunch of kale now.
You also get pictures of players with their new teams! Here’s Joba Chamberlain in an Indians jersey! Skip Schumaker with the Padres! Wow! Spoiler alert: Chamberlain gets chased out of Cleveland by a swarm of bugs before he ever pitches a regular season game. Schumaker has an embarrassing Spring Training moment where, while his team is taking the field between innings, he goes around to each position and looks into the dugout as if to say, “Here? Should I play here this inning?” and gets to every position before he realizes that his manager never actually told him to take the field. In fact, no one ever even invited him to camp. He just showed up and they gave him a jersey because they felt bad.
That’s the thing with veterans who sign minor league contracts in the offseason — it can be kinda sad. Like, Matt Joyce can only get a minor league deal now? Bummer. Brad Penny is still trying to make this happen? Yeesh. Ricky Romero? Ricky Romero.
But the other thing is this — sometimes, it’s going to work out! Sometimes, three years removed from professional baseball, the Indians sign Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal and he turns his life around and three years later he’s earned himself an extra $70 million. Sometimes, three years removed from pitching at all, really, the Royals sign Ryan Madson to a minor league deal and he helps win a World Series and gets a three-year contract the next offseason at 35.
A few of the guys who signed minor league contracts this offseason are going to make a real impact at the major league level this season. Most won’t. From a team-building perspective, it’s interesting to see how different organizations used their minor league spots and Spring Training invites. A few weeks back, I looked at how the teams were built, analyzing the makeup of each 40-man roster. In a similar vein, I thought I’d analyze which teams gave out the most minor league contracts this offseason, and to what kind of players.
What you want, ideally, is for the minor league contract guy to make an impact at the major league level. Probably the best indicator of a player’s potential to make a future major league impact is past major league impact, and so maybe you want to look at career WAR. Then you run into the guys like Bronson Arroyo inflating a team’s total. Maybe it’s better to look at WAR just over the last three years. But then you get guys like Brennan Boesch who’ve recorded a negative WAR. Even though Boesch hasn’t been good, the 31-year-old with a negative WAR likely has a higher ceiling than the 31-year-old who’s never cracked the bigs, so maybe WAR isn’t the best measure at all. Maybe you just want to look at MLB playing time — plate appearances for batters, totals batters faced for pitchers.
Clearly, I couldn’t decide, so I just threw all of it into a table and tacked on a couple more columns for good measure. Use this information how you please. Rather than dissect the actual numbers like they’re of any real significance, we’ll just discuss the five teams I found most interesting after the jump:
|Los Angeles AL||12||4558||13.8||1722||4.4||119||0.3|
|Los Angeles NL||12||3483||-1.0||1839||0.7||401||0.1|
|New York AL||10||5903||6.0||3405||0.1||463||0.0|
|New York NL||7||3767||0.4||1228||-3.0||113||0.2|
The first team that sticks out is the team at the very top of the table, the team who easily signed the most players to minor league contracts this season. As if the Braves didn’t have a busy enough offseason, they also inked 21 players to minor league deals. As a rebuilding club, there could be several ideas behind the strategy.
One is that the Braves seem likely to promote more minor leaguers to the bigs than the average team this season, so they made it a priority to flesh out their minor league depth. Another could be that they just needed more guys with major league ability, and rather than shell out several million for guaranteed contracts, they just loaded up on vets who would take minor league deals because the quality of the production doesn’t really matter anyway. A third is that they took a bunch of fliers on guys in hopes of finding a Kazmir or a Madson that they could turn around and deal at the trade deadline for a low-level prospect.
Whatever the case may be, the Braves seemed to place an emphasis on veteran pitching, signing five guys to minor league deals with more than 1,000 batters faced in the bigs: Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick, Alexi Ogando, Carlos Torres and Chris Volstad. Six more players they signed appeared in the majors last year, and 17 of the 21 have major league service time.
We ran through why it might make sense for a rebuilding club to load up on minor league lottery tickets. For a contending club, it’s more obvious. Just look at Madson and the Royals last year. You’ll sometimes hear about a team’s position on the win curve in a transaction analysis; the closer a team is to contention, the more they benefit from each extra win. For a team in contention, then, minor league contracts provide no risk, yet could benefit the team greatly if any of them hit.
Last year, the Indians signed Jeff Manship to a minor league deal, and, with a mechanical tweak, took a reliever with a career 6.46 ERA and turned him into a relief ace. This year, they loaded up on Manship Lottery Tickets, hoping to again strike gold through relievers like Chamberlain, Ross Detwiler, Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen and Joe Thatcher, all of whom have not only accrued significant major league service time in recent years, but have flashed the ability to be effective major league pitchers.
Kansas City Royals
Perhaps no team benefited more from a minor league signing last season than the Royals with Madson, and this year they’re back at it again. The Royals have more filler in their 15 signings than the Indians and Braves, but they’ve also got more star power, as far as star power in minor league contracts is concerned.
Travis Snider represents perhaps my favorite minor league contract of the winter, a solid fourth of fifth outfielder who still feels like he has untapped potential, and could serve as a nice complement off the bench to the light-hitting platoon of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in right field. I suspect Snider will crack the Opening Day roster as the team’s fifth outfielder/pinch hitter. Dillon Gee also strikes me as a sneaky deal for a guy with a pretty big name relative to his minor league free contract peers. On a lesser scale, Brian Duensing and Clint Barmes were both contributors last year, while Ross Ohlendorf and Peter Moylan have decent tracks records, though admittedly less to show for it in recent seasons.
The A’s were an outlier team when I looked at how the 40-man rosters were constructed a few weeks back. Only four of their players are “homegrown,” and instead nearly the entire team has been built through trades (mostly) or free agent signings (to a lesser extent).
Here, the A’s again appear as an outlier, perhaps in surprising fashion. Given their 40-man roster construction and lack of homegrown players, one might expect the A’s to be heavily involved in the minor league contract market. Instead, they’ve inked just five players to minor league deals with a major league low 537 combined MLB plate appearances. Bryan Anderson, Carson Blair, Matt McBride and Eric Surkamp have combined for just 281 plate appearances and -0.7 WAR since 2013. The fifth, Patrick Schuster, has never seen the bigs.
The Rangers are another contender who are primed to benefit if any of these no-risk deals end up with a player contributing at the big league level. Rather than stick to one obvious strategy like the Indians and relievers, the Rangers spread their chips around with a hodgepodge of signings.
Michael McKenry and Bobby Wilson provide catching depth at the upper levels, like Chris Gimenez who paid off so well last season. Ike Davis provides potential pop at first base. Jeremy Guthrie gives them veteran rotation depth, with Cesar Ramos doing the same in the bullpen. Pedro Ciriaco joined the fray as utility infielder, same with James Jones and Jordan Danks in the outfield. And then there’s A.J. Griffin, who hasn’t pitched in two years but is perhaps the most tantalizing of all.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.