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 hitters 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 players who logged at least 200 minor-league plate appearances in 2016. For reference, here’s a similar article I wrote last year. Tomorrow, I’ll repeat this exercise for pitchers.
1) Todd Glaesmann, OF, 2.2 WAR
For the second year in a row, Glaesmann hit respectably in the upper levels of the minor leagues. He spent 2016 at the Diamondbacks’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, where he turned in a .272/.312/.462 performance. Glaesmann’s numbers aren’t flashy, but he’s hit for a healthy amount of power while simultaneously not striking out terribly often.
The 26-year-old was no slouch on defense, either, where he was 10 runs better than the average center-fielder Clay Davenport’s fielding numbers. Though he’s only swiped 10 bags over the last two years, he seemingly runs well enough to make for a competent defensive outfielder. By the numbers, Glaesmann looks like a viable fourth outfielder in need of a chance.
2) Willians Astudillo, C, 2.2 WAR
Astudillo doesn’t look the part of a baseball player. To borrow from Carson Cistulli:
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 180-something pounds — but also probably less and more than that, respectively — Astudillo has a body type that might best be described as “amorphous.”
Yet, despite his physique, Astudillo makes a borderline-unrealistic amount of contact. He struck out in a laughable 3% of his plate appearances last year, and has basically been doing that since 2010. Astudillo slashed .314/.348/.384 in High-A in 2015, but could only muster a .267/.293/.332 showing at Double-A with the Braves last year. Aside from his low BABIP, however, he more or less replicated his 2015 campaign, so he may be due for a rebound. Astudio’s defense also grades out surprisingly well. Davenport had him at 9 runs above average behind the plate last year, while Baseball Prospectus’ framing numbers liked him even more. Good defensive catchers don’t have to hit much, and Astudillo’s contact skills alone might be enough to make him a backup.
3) Wynton Bernard, OF, 2.0 WAR
Bernard hit a fine .301/.352/.408 in Double-A in 2015, but stumbled after starting last year at the Triple-A level. The Tigers demoted him to Double-A in June, and he went right back to raking. All told, he finished up with a respectable .279/.344/.396 slash line with 23 steals. Bernard was seemingly overmatched by Triple-A pitching last year, which was obviously a concern. Nonetheless, his overall offensive track record is encouraging, especially for a guy who runs well and has played predominantly center field.
4) Wilfredo Tovar, IF, 2.0 WAR
A former Mets prospect, Tovar appeared on last year’s iteration of this list, and after more or less replicating his 2015 campaign in Minnesota’s system, he’s back again. He hit just .249/.301/.327 at the Triple-A level, but made a lot of contact and did damage on the bases. More importantly, though, he played a solid shortstop, as Davenport had him at 8 runs above average at shortstop in each of the last two years. His defense seems to be big-league quality, and given his contact skills, he probably wouldn’t embarrass himself at the plate.
5) Daniel Castro, IF, 1.8 WAR
Castro is a tiny, slap-hitting infielder who never really hit in the minors and didn’t hit at all in limited stints with the Braves. In 80 big-league games, he’s hit a pitcher-esque .217/.250/.265, earning him a WAR in the negatives. Castro can’t hit, but his low strikeout rates suggest his bat isn’t quite as empty as it looked in Atlanta. He’s also still just 23, so perhaps his bat will eventually come around. Regardless, he’s a decent defensive shortstop who should make for some nice minor-league depth.
6) Orlando Calixte, UTIL, 1.7 WAR
The parade of light-hitting middle infielders continues. Calixte debuted in 2015 for the World Series champion Royals, but spent all of last year in the minors. The 24-year-old slashed .274/.324/.420 between Double-A and Triple-A, while playing all over the diamond: second, third, shortstop, center and right. As a 24-year-old who can play premium positions and can hit a little, Calixte has a glimmer of potential.
7) Tony Sanchez, C, 1.6 WAR
Once a No. 4 overall pick with the Pirates, Sanchez’s bat never developed enough for him to be a viable big leaguer. Although he scuffled in Triple-A last year with the Blue Jays and Giants, he’s only a year removed from a 102 wRC+ season in 2015. Davenport isn’t crazy about the 28-year-old’s defense, but it’s worth noting that Baseball Prospectus likes his framing.
8) Rob Brantly, C, 1.5 WAR
Not terribly long ago, Brantly was an interesting prospect with the Tigers and Marlins. But after posting a 65 wRC+ in 392 big-league plate appearances, he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Brantly didn’t hit much last year with the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate, but did hit .310/.335/.483 in the minors in 2015. KATOH has a longer memory than most of us, and Brantly’s 2015 numbers suggest he might make for a useful big-league catcher.
9) L.J. Hoes, OF, 1.5 WAR
After spending a couple of years in the Astros’ system, Hoes returned to the organization that drafted him: the Orioles. He hit a non-terrible .242/.318/.331 at the Triple-A level, striking out in just 13% of plate appearances. In 2015, however, he hit a more impressive .295/.383/.400 with 26 steals. Hoes can play all three outfield positions and can hit a little bit. His new area code may find those skills useful.
10) Tim Federowicz, C, 1.4 WAR
A long-time up-and-down catcher with the Dodgers, Federowicz latched on with the Cubs last year. He slashed a stellar .293/.352/.450 in Triple-A, and also got into a few games with the big club. Federowicz is already 29, and has a career 46 wRC+, but his strong 2016 suggests he has something left in the tank.
Wild Card: Ramon Flores, OF
Heading into the year, KATOH adored Flores after his stellar .308/.401/.454 showing as a 23-year-old in Triple-A. Seemingly swayed by Flores’ numbers, the Brewers traded for the undersized outfielder. Flores was out of options, and therefore wound up spending most of 2016 in Milwaukee, but finished up with a paltry 47 wRC+.
Flores was coming off of a broken ankle last year, so it’s conceivable he wasn’t at 100% come Opening Day. His struggles may have been partly due to his coming off of injury. Flores has never been fast enough to play center regularly and lacks the power of a prototypical corner outfielder. But he has a long history of controlling the strike zone in the minors, and perhaps he’ll re-find his groove in 2017.
|Rank||Name||Former Team||Position||KATOH+ WAR|
|13||Ryan LaMarre||Red Sox||OF||1.3|
|14||Henry Ramos||Red Sox||OF||1.3|
|15||Slade Heathcott||White Sox||OF||1.2|