The Top Minor-League Free Agents by the Projections

Last offseason, the Yankees signed infielder Yangervis Solarte — who’d left the Rangers by way of minor-league free agency — to a decidedly more robust minor-league deal than is the standard in the industry. The result for New York was ultimately a positive one: not only did Solarte record the highest major-league WAR figure in 2014 of any player who’d departed his club the previous offseason by way of minor-league free agency, but the Yankees were able to parlay him (along with right-handed prospect Rafael De Paula) into a trade for Chase Headley.

As noted by Kiley McDaniel earlier this month, the Solarte signing wasn’t an anomalous one for the Yankees: they’d completed similar deals with reliever Jim Miller and catcher Bobby Wilson, as well. And while neither of those players did much of anything at the major-league level, the strategy was ultimately a very profitable one for New York based on Solarte’s production alone — profitable enough, as McDaniel notes, to fund 10 seasons of such an experiment.

“Who might be the next Solarte?” one wonders. It’s a question I began answering last week, only to drift accidentally into an extended meditation on Mark Minicozzi and the hazards inherent to formulating defensive projections for career minor leaguers. What follows, however, represents a more concise response.

Below are the top-five WAR projections assessed by Steamer to the 500-plus players to have been granted minor-league free agency earlier this month. Note that, pursuant to that extended meditation on Mark Minicozzi from last week, the author has made changes to defensive projections in such cases where logic dictated. So, for example, with regard to Luke Montz — whose published Steamer projection includes the catcher’s positional adjustment, but whose most recent defensive record includes just as many starts at first base — I’ve manually edited his overall projections to reflect his likely future defensive usage. The same is the case for Minicozzi himself, who has played much more first base and left field of late than second or third base.

Organizations listed are those to which the player most recently belonged. Hitter projections are prorated to 550 plate appearances — i.e. the amount over which an exactly average player would produce a 2.0 WAR. Note, finally, that Dean Anna would have appeared among the top-five here were he not now a member of the Cardinals’ major-league roster.

5. Jared Goedert, 3B, Toronto (Profile)

550 .237 .298 .382 89 -6.7 2.0 1.5

Originally a ninth-round selection by Cleveland out of K-State in 2006, Goedert has recorded more than 3800 plate appearances as a minor leaguer, roughly half of them at Triple-A alone. So far as major-league plate appearances are concerned, however, he’s recorded a number a lot closer — and one might say precisely equivalent — to zero. It’s not shocking, probably, that he’s never found a role. He’s a below-average hitter and — it would appear from his profile — just a fringe-average third baseman. That said, there are players who aren’t demonstrably better — Danny Valencia is one name chosen nearly at random — and yet have received hundreds of plate appearances.

4. Charlie Cutler, C, Chicago NL (Profile)

415 .256 .329 .349 91 -4.5 7.7 1.7

Cutler presents some difficulties in terms of his projection because he (a) receives a catcher’s positional adjustment but (b) might not be a league-average catcher defensively. What that means practically is that, given a full complement of playing time, he probably wouldn’t actually produce the full 7.7 runs under the Def heading. That neither the Cardinals nor Cubs nor Pirates have been compelled to give him even one inning of major-league experience suggests the concerns about his defense are legitimate. That said, Cutler has recorded a positive walk-strikeout differential at Double-A each of the past three years. En route to his age-28 season, he’s not a prospect, but has two qualities (ability to catcher, contact skill) that ought to be attractive to even just one team.

3. Jose Martinez, 2B/3B, Oakland (Profile)

550 .256 .305 .349 88 -7.8 6.1 1.7

Like Goedert above, Martinez has recorded over 3000 minor-league plate appearances and zero major-league ones. Through even this last year, however, he’s been relied upon to play both second and third base while also making 11 starts at shortstop. While he lacks power, Martinez has exhibited considerably above-average contact skills. Consider: the 10.7% strikeout rate for which he’s projected would have been the 12th-best such figure among the league’s 146 qualified batters in 2014. Of all the players here, his profile probably most resembles Yangervis Solarte’s.

2. Buck Britton, 2B/3B, Baltimore (Profile)

550 .261 .307 .388 94 -4.1 2.0 1.7

Danny Valencia really was invoked nearly at random in the discussion of Jared Goedert above. The invocation of Danny Valencia here is less random, however, Selected out of Lubbock Christian University by Baltimore in the 35th round of the 2008 draft, Britton has played in the Orioles system ever since — or, until now, at least. In 2013, he actually played alongside Valencia at Triple-A Norfolk. While the latter was eventually promoted to the majors, Brittion remained at Triple-A. Entering the 2015 season, Britton — just a year younger than Valencia — is actually projected to outhit his former teammate. Steamer calls for a 94 wRC+ from Britton; just an 89 wRC+ from Valencia.

1. Deibinson Romero, 3B, Minnesota (Profile)

550 .245 .318 .372 96 -2.4 2.0 1.9

A weblog post by Cody Christie at NoDak Twins Fans suggests that Triple-A third baseman Deibinson Romero is “knocking on the door” of a major-league roster spot. What’s perhaps revealing about that post, however — in particular, for how it pertains to Romero’s career prospects — is that it’s dated June 9th, 2013. In the season and a half played since the publication of that post, Romero has made zero appearances at the major-league level. That’s not to say that he hasn’t merited consideration. In 862 plate appearances, Romero has recorded a batting line 20% better than the International League average while also making 90% of his defensive starts at third base. Enough, that, for Steamer to consider the 28-year-old a roughly league-average player.

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

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9 years ago

Do these projections take into account splits? The twice-mentioned Danny Valencia is a far better versus one handedness of pitcher than the other, meaning that as long as the team understands this and plays to his strengths, he will (in theory) be more valuable.

Since this is over the course of 550 plate appearances that none of these players will get, is it fair to say Buck Britton will outperform a well managed Valencia?

If these players are indeed better, proper management of their skills needs to be taken into account in my mind.