The Productive Minor-League Free Agent: A Composite Sketch

As Miami infielder Ed Lucas himself has reminded the author, Miami infielder Ed Lucas ought to be included among the minor-league free agents who recorded a 0.5 WAR or better in 2013. Lucas had previously been employed by the Angels.

Such authorities on the matter as Paul the Apostle and late American singer Whitney Houston have suggested — sometimes in more, sometimes in fewer words — that love is the greatest gift of all. It’s quite possibly the case, that. Actually testing the hypothesis presents difficulties, of course. That said, one hears few arguments to the contrary.

In any case, if one takes for granted that love occupies the top of the charts so far as greatest gifts are concerned, then it’s probably fair to say that not very far behind it is Baseball America’s annual list of minor-league free agents. There are some dissenting voices from this opinion, of course. “Winning the World Series is a bigger gift,” says one. “I prefer travel to exotic world destinations,” says another, taking a different tack. The discerning reader will recognize these as the thoughts and views of criminals. The law will tend to them, or already has.

For those of us who utilize Right Thinking, however, the release of the minor-league FA list is like Christmas one month before the month in which Christmas actually happens — with the advantage being that one needn’t visit family or part with dollars that could otherwise be apportioned to fine, fine dining.

Baseball America’s Matt Eddy published the complete list of baseball’s minor-league free agents — 550 of them, it would appear — on Tuesday. What the present author assumed he would do in response is compose a breezy post titled something like Five Minor-League Free Agents Not Without Merit, publish it to the internet, and then partake in some fine, fine dining.

Unfortunately what happened is, is that same author was seduced at some point by the siren song of Curiosity. “What are the chances of these five minor-league free agents actually producing anything at the major-league level in 2014?” I asked myself. “What have minor-league FAs over the past three years, for example, done at the major-league level?” I continued to ask myself. “What is that odor that smells like a combination of burnt toast and overdue alimony payments?” I ended up by saying.

While the last of those questions proved impenetrable, a mostly thorough inspection of the minor-league free agents between 2010 and -12 went some way to answering the first two.

More than anything, perhaps, what one finds is this: the probability of becoming a productive major leaguer just a season after having become a minor-league free agent is quite low. It’s probably fair to say that front offices — some more than others, perhaps — receive a fair amount in the way of criticism from their respective fanbases/media personnel regarding their offseason signings. Perhaps in some cases such reactions are warranted.

What appears to be the case, however, is that major-league clubs are rather adept at sorting out the figurative wheat from its equally figurative chaff, in terms of talent. Consider: of the 1600-plus players to enter free agency as a minor leaguer between 2010 and -12, only 18* of them (about 1%) produced a WAR of 0.5 or better the following season at the major-league level. That’s a lot more difficult than getting into Brown — or even a different school that requires grades, for example.

*Because I sorted through the players manually, it’s entirely possible that I missed a relief pitcher here and/or backup catcher there. Whatever the actual figure, it’s likely not much greater than 18. Furthermore, I should note: there are players being considered here who have become minor-league FAs in multiple seasons. It might please some readers to imagine this study as accounting not for 1600-plus different players, but player-seasons.

This isn’t entirely surprising, of course: if a player is signed as a minor-league free agent, he’s 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 record even a major-league average WAR — if he were capable of doing such a thing in the first place. What else it probably suggests, however — nor ought this to be a shock — is that there’s little in the way of impact talent among the pool of freely available players.

Below are two tables, split into hitters and pitchers, of the 18 players from the last three seasons both (a) to be signed as a minor-league free agent and then (b) to produce a 0.5 WAR or greater* the following season. Team 1 denotes the team from which the player parted ways. Team 2 represents the new club, with which the player recorded the line presented here.

*What we’ll consider a “productive” season for the minor-league free agent, insofar as he helped his team with something less than regular playing time.

First, the hitters:

Name Year Team 1 Team 2 Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Gregor Blanco 2012 Nationals Giants 28 453 .244 .333 .344 93 -0.3 7.2 2.3
Jesus Guzman 2011 Giants Padres 27 271 .312 .369 .478 140 14.3 -2.6 2.1
Endy Chavez 2011 Rangers Rangers 33 274 .301 .323 .426 98 1.5 3.1 1.4
Donovan Solano 2012 Cardinals Marlins 24 316 .295 .342 .375 95 1.1 -0.7 1.1
Brian Bogusevic 2013 Astros Cubs 29 155 .273 .323 .462 112 2.0 2.4 1.0
Matt Tuiasosopo 2013 Mets Tigers 27 191 .244 .351 .415 114 0.8 0.2 0.8
Quintin Berry 2012 Reds Tigers 27 330 .258 .330 .354 89 1.5 -4.4 0.8
Jose Constanza 2011 Indians Braves 27 119 .303 .339 .385 103 2.7 0.6 0.7
Humberto Quintero 2013 Brewers – – – 33 140 .237 .275 .366 74 -4.5 6.0 0.6
Ramiro Pena 2013 Dodgers Braves 27 107 .278 .330 .443 115 -0.1 1.1 0.5

Next, the pitchers:

Name Year Team 1 Team 2 Age G GS IP K% BB% GB% xFIP- FIP- WAR
Ryan Vogelsong 2011 Angels Giants 33 30 28 179.2 18.5% 8.1% 45.6% 100 101 1.8
Jose Quintana 2012 Yankees White Sox 23 25 22 136.1 14.3% 7.4% 47.2% 105 99 1.6
Al Alburquerque 2011 Rockies Tigers 25 41 0 43.1 36.8% 15.9% 56.8% 69 51 1.3
Eric Stults 2012 Rockies – – – 32 20 15 99.0 13.3% 6.5% 40.4% 114 104 1.1
Dontrelle Willis 2011 Giants Reds 29 13 13 75.2 17.1% 11.1% 54.5% 106 105 0.6
Donnie Veal 2012 Pirates White Sox 27 24 0 13.0 38.8% 8.2% 38.5% 50 25 0.5
Oliver Perez 2012 Nationals Mariners 30 33 0 29.2 19.5% 8.1% 33.3% 106 75 0.5
Dana Eveland 2011 Pirates Dodgers 27 5 5 29.2 13.6% 5.1% 55.4% 93 87 0.5

And, here, an unordered list featuring observations of varying insight:

  • Among productive minor-league free agents over the last three seasons, the average age for hitters is 28. For pitchers: 28, as well. Because he’s generally had his contract renewed six times by the relevant parent club, the minor-league free agent is rarely under 24 or 25 — and likely a bit older if he signed out of college.
  • The batters on this list averaged just four home runs in 236 plate appearances. None of the batters here hit more than 10 home runs. In general, if a minor-league free agent has provided something in the way of value, it likely hasn’t been by means of power.
  • Those same batters have typically been above-average runners and defenders, producing collectively a +1.4 BsR and +1.3 Def (which accounts for positional adjustment and UZR) in just 236 plate appearances
  • The pitchers on this list made a combined 191 appearances in their respective years following minor-league free agency, 83 of which appearances were starts. A roughly equal distribution between starting and relief work, then.
  • Six of those eight pitchers were left-handed, even though only about a third of major-league pitchers are.

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

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Carson, I love your prose, so I don’t mean to quibble, but it’s right there blemishing an otherwise exquisite piece of writing: I believe the expression is to take a different “tack,” not “tact.” Some kind of nautical term, that.

Keep up the great work! Fine pieces such as this enable my baseball-related procrastinatory habits to extend well into the off-season, thank God.