Starting pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff and passable control. Middle infielders with power. These commodities are in short supply on the minor league free agent market because teams tend to hoard them on 40-man rosters.
The outlook for teams trying to add minor league system depth in other areas—such as speed, corner power, dependable middle-infield defense, effective bullpen help—is considerably more favorable.
For many fans, even hardcore Baseball America prospect watchers, those players who hit the minor league free agent market are simply names on a computer screen. So in this piece I will attempt to add context to those names, with a focus on younger free agents. To do this I determined league percentile ranks for major component statistics—where higher is always better—for all 534 minor league free agents in this year’s pool and ranked them accordingly.
In particular, I examined batting average, isolated slugging, speed score, walk rate and strikeout rate for position players. A similar process is carried out for pitchers except that home run rate per nine innings replaces ISO and groundout-to-airout ratio replaces speed score. Position players are split into two groups: catchers, second basemen and shortstops (middle) in one corner and then first basemen, third basemen and outfielders (corner) in the other. Starting pitchers and relievers also are separated into two groups—15 batters faced per game is the dividing line—though I did not compute percentile ranks for relievers.
If nothing else, I hope this piece helps answer the question: Why did my team sign that guy?
While batting average fails to capture overall player value as well as other statistics, it has currency because of its transparency and simplicity. A .300 average on the 20-80 scouting scale translates to a 70 grade, while those who hit .320 on a consistent basis are 80 hitters.
The overall minor league average is about .255, with some leagues falling well south of that (Gulf Coast, .241; New York-Penn, .243) and others running much hotter (Pioneer, .286; Pacific Coast, .269).
|BATTING AVERAGE (C, 2B, SS)
|4||Butler, Dan||Red Sox||c||30||IL||169||.308||92%|
In Focus: Orlando Calixte spent the 2015 season on the Royals’ 40-man roster before being non-tendered that December. He re-signed with Kansas City on a minor league deal for 2016 but looked elsewhere this fall, quickly agreeing to a deal with the Giants. Calixte has shown an intriguing blend of raw ability in the minors: plus bat speed, average wheels, fringe power at times and the versatility to play shortstop, second base, third base and center field.
The Giants subsequently added Calixte to the 40-man roster on Nov. 18 to shield him from selection in the Rule 5 draft.
|BATTING AVERAGE (1B, 3B, OF)
|1||Montero, Jesus||Blue Jays||1b||26||IL||518||.317||95%|
|5||LaMarre, Ryan||Red Sox||of||27||IL||358||.303||89%|
|6||Shuck, J.B.||White Sox||of||29||IL||170||.299||88%|
In Focus: Jesus Montero finished fifth in the International League batting race this season and owns a career Triple-A batting line of .305/.357/.491 in 2,406 plate appearances. He also owns a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant in September, and he must serve that suspension before he can play for a new organization. Still, Montero has an intriguing blend of hitting ability and power to all fields (spray chart).
Isolated slugging percentage measures a batter’s extra bases per at-bat and is highly dependent on league context. For example, the spread of ISO values ranges from about .140 (Pioneer, Pacific Coast, California) down to about .100 (Gulf Coast, New York-Penn, Florida Sate). While ISO is not the best judge of raw power because batters are penalized for outs made, it is a simple means of determining usable power.
|ISOLATED SLUGGING (C, 2B, SS)|
|7||Thon, Dickie Joe||Blue Jays||2b||25||FSL||429||.142||78%|
In Focus: The Dodgers quickly signed San Diego high school product Wynston Sawyer when he hit the minor league free agent market this fall. An Orioles eighth-round pick in 2010, he experienced a breakthrough offensive season at high Class A Frederick in 2016, hitting .281 with good power and excellent strikeout (81st percentile) and walk rates (96th) in the Carolina League. Sawyer played first base and DH as much as catcher this season, but he hovered near average in terms of throwing out basestealers and preventing passed balls when behind the plate.
|ISOLATED SLUGGING (1B, 3B, OF)|
|3||Decker, Cody||Red Sox||1b||29||EL||257||.249||98%|
In Focus: A number of young-but-flawed power hitters are available in the corner-bat bin of the free agent market, many for the first time. Junior Arias and Kelly Dugan were previously available in the class of 2015, so focus instead on Todd Glaesman, a power-speed outfielder who lacks plate discipline; David Washington, a 6-foot-5, lefthanded hitter with power (46 homers the past two seasons) and patience; Gabriel Quintana, a third baseman who hit 20 homers (but not much else) in a severe pitcher’s park; and Michael Choice, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft whose career has stalled at Triple-A.
I created a simple weighted speed metric, inspired by Bill James’ speed score, that places batters on a similar scale as isolated slugging. It factors stolen-base attempts, triples and runs scored (minus home runs) as a percentage of times a batter becomes a baserunner, i.e. hits (minus homers), walks and hit-by-pitches. The resulting speed metric has little absolute value because low levels of the minors feature higher rates of triples, stolen-base attempts and miscues, but it has relative value as I apply it here.
|WEIGHTED SPEED (C, 2B, SS)|
|7||Vinicio, Jose||Red Sox||ss||23||IL||178||.180||92%|
|8||Thon, Dickie Joe||Blue Jays||2b||25||FSL||429||.199||89%|
In Focus: The Twins signed Wilfredo Tovar as a minor league free agent for the 2016 season and he met expectations at Triple-A Rochester. He made a ton of contact and showed speed with 29 stolen bases but made little impact with the bat. It’s on defense where Tovar shines. The five-time best defensive infielder in the Mets system recorded more assists (+48) and turned more double plays (+8) than the average International League shortstop would have in the same number of games.
|WEIGHTED SPEED (1B, 3B, OF)|
|5||Campana, Tony||White Sox||of||30||IL||232||.189||94%|
|9||den Dekker, Matt||Nationals||of||29||IL||421||.174||90%|
In Focus: Many of these players have 40-steal seasons on their minor league résumés, and they will continue to receive looks for as long as they keep showing plus wheels. Lane Adams stole a career-high 44 bags this year to rank eighth in the minors, while Eury Perez (40-plus steals three times, high of 64), Wynton Bernard (twice, 45), Kenny Wilson (three times, 55), Tony Campana (twice, 66) and Darren Ford (three times, 69) are some of the most reliable speed-based players in the game.
Campana has the most big league experience—and even stole 30 bases for the 2012 Cubs—while Ford has amassed 449 steals in the minors to easily lead all active players.
Best Patience • Batters
A batter’s minor league walk rate (as a ratio of plate appearances) can be deceptive, but the following players stand far above the field for their plate patience. And a patient batter is more likely to see a pitch he can drive.
|WALK RATE (C, 2B, SS)|
|9||Adams, David||Blue Jays||2b||29||IL||236||12.3||92%|
|10||Lavarnway, Ryan||Blue Jays||c||29||EL||272||12.5||90%|
In Focus: Wynston Sawyer makes another appearance here, and he’s really the only under-30 player on this board who has any other offensive attribute going for him this season.
|WALK RATE (1B, 3B, OF)|
|3||Fernandez Jr., Alex||Tigers||of||23||GCL||105||16.2||97%|
|8||Heathcott, Slade||White Sox||of||26||IL||216||12.5||93%|
In Focus: As one-time Top 10 Prospects who have yet to receive extended trials in the majors, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are probably the most interesting names here. Myriad injuries (Heathcott) and a Biogensis suspension (Puello) have held them back, but both demonstrated patience and speed in the International League in 2016. Puello, who is from the same Mets international signing class that produced Wilmer Flores and Jefry Marte, even hit .283 with a 142 OPS+.
Best Contact • Batters
Strikeout rates tend to run higher in short-season leagues, but the overall full-season minor league rate hovers near 20 percent.
|STRIKEOUT RATE (C, 2B, SS)|
|3||Castillo, Wilkin||Blue Jays||c||32||EL||152||9.9||97%|
In Focus: The Venezuela-born Willians Astudillo never walks, has bottom-of-the-scale speed and hits for very little power. Yet the 5-foot-9 righthanded batter has by far the best contact ability in the minors, and he caught 75 games at Double-A Mississippi while holding his own defensively. Astudillo had more extra-base hits (13) than strikeouts (11) in the Southern League, and the same was true in the Florida State and South Atlantic leagues before that.
|STRIKEOUT RATE (1B, 3B, OF)|
|1||Shuck, J.B.||White Sox||of||29||IL||170||7.6||100%|
|2||Kotchman, Casey||Blue Jays||1b||33||IL||376||8.5||100%|
|3||Bourgeois, Jason||White Sox||of||34||IL||374||8.6||99%|
|4||Rosario, Rainel||Red Sox||of||27||EL||354||12.1||93%|
|7||Campana, Tony||White Sox||of||30||IL||232||12.5||92%|
In Focus: The most notable player here is probably corner outfielder-first baseman Luis Tejada, whom the Angels quickly signed this fall. The 24-year-old, righthanded-hitting Dominican exercised plate discipline while showing power (31 doubles-plus-triples, 11 homers) at three levels of the Padres system.
Hardest To Hit • Pitchers
The same caveats apply to pitchers as they do batters with regard to batting average. However, flyball pitchers tend to allow lower opponent averages than groundball pitchers because balls hit in the air fall for hits less frequently than ground balls.
|OPPONENT AVERAGE (Starters)|
|9||Copeland, Scott||Blue Jays||rhp||28||IL||50||.241||69%|
In Focus: As expected, we see a sea of flyball pitchers on this leaderboard. One notable exception is Scott Copeland, a groundball pitcher (59 percent of batted balls, according to MLBfarm.com) who allowed a .241 average to Triple-A batters this year. Originally drafted by the Orioles, Copeland has kicked around the Toronto system since 2012, receiving a brief big league callup in 2015 and then pitching in the Korean major league for half of 2016. He needs luck on balls in play (.279 BABIP this year) because he doesn’t record great rates for strikeouts (34th percentile) or walks (33rd).
|OPPONENT AVERAGE (Relievers)|
|4||Lollis, Matt||White Sox||rhp||26||SL||34||.169||6.2|
In Focus: The Indians signed Luis Ramirez as an outfielder in 2010 but released him prior to the 2011 season. The Diamondbacks signed him as a pitcher in 2012 and started him as a reliever in the Dominican Summer League that season. Ramirez reached Double-A in the second half of 2016 and recorded overall numbers (.214 average, 68 strikeouts in 53 innings with just four home runs allowed) that should get him a look with either the D-backs or a new organization in 2017.
Hardest To Take Deep • Pitchers
Because a pitcher’s rate of home runs per fly ball can fluctuate wildly, a larger sample of innings is much more reliable.
|HOME RUN RATE (Starters)|
|6||Lawrence, Casey||Blue Jays||rhp||29||IL||87||0.52||82%|
|8||Copeland, Scott||Blue Jays||rhp||28||IL||50||0.54||80%|
In Focus: A 17th-round pick out of junior college in 2010, David Richardson spent much of his first four years in short-season ball. Then he spent much of 2014 and 2015 on the disabled list. Richardson returned in 2016 to log a career-high 93 innings and 15 starts, and he showed encouraging signs despite a 4.82 ERA. He struck out 8.2 per nine innings and allowed just six home runs. That last part is impressive in light of the conditions at high Class A Frederick, which features a home run rate akin to launching pads such as Albuquerque, El Paso or Las Vegas.
|HOME RUN RATE (Relievers)|
In Focus: The Mariners drafted Forrest Snow out of his Seattle high school (2007) and then again out of Washington (2010), and he experienced success with the organization almost immediately by reaching Triple-A and pitching in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. Seattle has shifted Snow back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen multiple times, and he settled in as a Double-A reliever for most of 2016—until he moved to the rotation at Triple-A late in the year. He continues to work as a starter in the Dominican League this winter, with encouraging results.
A well-timed ground ball with a runner on first base can extricate a pitcher from a jam, but the ground ball can be a double-edged sword. Ground balls never become home runs, but they do become safe hits more frequently than fly balls. The major league average is about .240 on ground balls, but with only rare extra-base hits, while the average on fly balls is closer to .200, but with frequent extra-base hits.
|GROUNDOUT-TO-AIROUT RATIO (Starters)|
|2||Copeland, Scott||Blue Jays||rhp||28||IL||50||1.87||99%|
|3||Carroll, Scott||White Sox||rhp||32||IL||60||1.70||96%|
|5||Volstad, Chris||White Sox||rhp||30||IL||177||1.60||92%|
|7||Loe, Kameron||White Sox||rhp||35||IL||68||1.54||91%|
|8||Lawrence, Casey||Blue Jays||rhp||29||EL||75||1.66||90%|
In Focus: A two-way player at Mississippi drafted by the Yankees in 2011, lefthander Matt Tracy reached New York for one game in 2015 and continued as a groundball-oriented starter in the Marlins organization in 2016.
The Blue Jays quickly re-signed Casey Lawrence after he became a free agent this fall. A nondrafted free agent from Albright College in Reading, Pa., signed in 2010, he combines groundball tendencies with above-average control.
|GROUNDOUT-TO-AIROUT RATIO (Relievers)|
|1||Rowen, Ben||Blue Jays||rhp||28||IL||47||3.25||5.2|
In Focus: Ben Rowen and Chase Huchingson, the top two pitchers on this list with the 3-to-1 ground-to-fly ratios, are low-slot relievers. Rowen retired same-side batters about 70 percent of the time in 2016, while Huchingson managed only about 60 percent.
Best Control • Pitchers
|WALK RATE (Starters)|
|4||Lawrence, Casey||Blue Jays||rhp||29||EL||75||4.1||98%|
In Focus: Prior to signing with the Astros in January, Cesar Valdez had not pitched in affiliated ball since 2011. That time away certainly didn’t inhibit him from ranking among the Pacific Coast League leaders with a 3.12 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 2016. Valdez pitched in the Mexican League in 2013 and 2015 and in winter ball every year to stay sharp. He appears on the free-agent leaderboards for walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate and groundball rate, which suggests he will make a nice depth option for the Athletics, who signed him last week.
|WALK RATE (Relievers)|
In Focus: The Giants quickly signed 28-year-old lefthander Kraig Sitton this fall when he hit the market. The 6-foot-5 Oregon State product sharpened his control markedly in 2016 and has past 40-man roster time (but no big league experience) with the Rockies, his drafting organization. Sitton has a track record for retiring same-side batters in the minors, and in 2016 he allowed lefties to hit just .211/.253/.300 in nearly 100 plate appearances.
|STRIKEOUT RATE (Starters)|
|2||Atkins, Mitch||Red Sox||rhp||31||EL||127||26.4||97%|
In Focus: The Angels quickly signed Osmer Morales when he became a free agent, and he should begin 2017 in the Double-A rotation. He pitches at 88 mph but generates tremendous spin on the pitch, which makes it appear faster to opposing batters, and he also generates swings and misses with a low-70s curveball and low-80s changeup. While Morales throws no pitch that would grade better than average, he hides the ball well and locates all his pitches for strikes. He is one of the most promising starting pitchers on the minor league free agent market.
|STRIKEOUT RATE (Relievers)|
In Focus: Jeff Malm has one of the more interesting backstories among the pool of minor league free agents. The Rays went over-slot to sign him as a fifth-round pick in 2009—back when he played first base at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. Malm, who bats lefthanded, reached Double-A as a position player in 2014 but didn’t hit for a ton of power, so Tampa Bay released him that offseason.
The Angels signed Malm as a pitcher in February 2015 but didn’t retain him after 15 games (including six starts) at Rookie-level Orem. The Dodgers signed him for 2016, and he went to spring training expecting to be a position player once again. Ultimately, he wound up back on the mound and made his first appearance in the California League on April 28. He made it back to Double-A in July, this time as a pitcher. While he got lit up in his first and last outings in the Texas League, he recorded a 0.56 ERA with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 16 innings in between. Malm will focus on preparing to pitch this offseason and could be a sleeper.