Not all imported minor league free agents are created equal. Most are subject to the whim of the parent organization, meaning they can be assigned to Triple-A for the duration of 2014 to serve as depth for the big league club.
However, those who qualified for Article XX(B) major league free agency last fall receive automatic contract provisions in their minor league contracts that protect them from such a fate. This spring, 34 players participate in big league camp with safeguards in place that are specified by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
For one thing, those Article XX(B) free agents on minor league deals will know by March 25—which is five days before Opening Day—whether they’re going to make the 25-man roster. If they don’t make the cut, the team must either release them or pay them a $100,000 retention bonus to send them to Triple-A. Any player who accepts the assignment also receives an opt-out date of June 1, which he can exercise to seek a big league opportunity elsewhere.
As one would expect, the demographic for this type of free agent skews older. They’re tenured big leaguers who are good enough to perhaps help a club in a complementary role, but not attractive enough to guarantee a 40-man roster spot. Their average age is north of 33 years old, and only Orioles signees Alexi Casilla and Delmon Young are younger than 30.
Some historical perspective: About one-third of affected Article XX(B) free agents in 2013 (12 of 34) wound up making the 25-man roster. That was down from about half (16 of 31) who made the cut in 2012.
The teams with the most Article XX(B) free agents in camp on minor league contracts this spring are the Angels (four), Brewers (three), Mariners (three), Nationals (three) and Orioles (three).
RHP Freddy Garcia (37)
With second-year big leaguers Alex Wood and David Hale plus post-operative Brandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd rounding out the projected rotation, the Braves may find a role for Garcia either as Plan B for the rotation or as a bullpen-saving long reliever. A team could do much worse with its 12th man on the staff.
The signing of Nelson Cruz puts a damper on Young’s chances because many of the Orioles’ projected corner outfield and DH options—Cruz, Nolan Reimold and Steve Pearce—also bat righthanded. So at this point, Young probably is an insurance policy on Reimold, who had a second spinal operation last year and hasn’t taken more than 267 plate appearances since his rookie year of 2009. Santana didn’t appear in the majors in 2011 or 2013, but the two-time Cy Young Award winner obviously has a lot of value to reclaim.
Boston Red Sox
LHP Rich Hill (33)
A Massachusetts native who played for the Red Sox from 2010-12, Hill could give the club a hard lefty option to complement Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller in the bullpen. He’s held lefty batters to a .207 average and .290 slugging percentage since 2010, which are much better rates than Breslow or Miller.
LHP Tsuyoshi Wada (33)
With a starter’s background in Japan and at Triple-A Norfolk in the Orioles system last year, Wada could soak up innings in the rotation or bullpen, as needed. He’ll be one of four lefties vying for a rotation spot in camp, along with Travis Wood, Chris Rusin and Jonathan Sanchez.
Santiago has hit just .241/.310/.320 in 1,154 trips to to the plate since 2010, but his competition to be Reds utility infielder consists of fellow non-roster players Argenis Diaz, Rey Navarro, Kris Negron and Chris Nelson (all of whom can be sent to the minors). Francis continues to attract suitors who play in hitter-friendly parks (well, OK, only the Rockies) due to his control and groundball tendency, which check in at 2.0 BB/9 and 48 percent, respectively, since 2010. Plus, he can start or relieve.
The Indians featured one of the youngest pitching staffs in the American League last year (only the rebuilding White Sox and Astros were younger), so bringing in journeymen like Aardsma and Harang makes sense in that context. They both finished with the Mets last year and will be on standby if injuries decimate the Cleveland pitching staff this spring.
RHP Nick Masset (31)
A true wild card, Masset hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011 as he’s had surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his shoulder and to correct thoracic outlet syndrome.
SS/2B Cesar Izturis (34)
Izturis might be worth keeping around in the event that sophomore Jonathan Villar needs more Triple-A time and/or backup Marwin Gonzalez (61 OPS+ for his career) continues to not hit.
Tracy fits better with a National League club that can use him regularly as a pinch-hitter—the role he filled with the 2012-13 Nationals—but he might have the best chance to make the team among this quartet. The lefty hitter could spot for righty hitters Albert Pujols or David Freese on the infield corners as necessary, while taking the occasional pinch-hitting at-bat. Torrealba would have to outplay 40-man roster catchers Chris Iannetta, Hank Conger and John Hester to make the team, while Pena would probably need an injury to first baseman Pujols or DH Raul Ibanez to have a defined role. The slick-fielding McDonald vies with Andrew Romine, Tommy Field and minor league free agent import Shawn O’Malley for the utility infield job.
OF Reed Johnson (37)
The budget-conscious Marlins kept all three “provisional” Article XX(B) free agents—Austin Kearns, Casey Kotchman and Chad Qualls—they brought to camp in 2013. Qualls even pitched well enough (62 innings, 1.23 WHIP, 7.1 SO/9) to land a big league deal with the Astros this season. Johnson, this year’s lone representative, could make the club as an extra outfielder, especially if fellow righty hitters Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick, both 23, aren’t ready for prime time. He also could serve as a platoon partner with lefty-hitting left fielder Christian Yelich as he enters his second major league season.
The Brewers could capture value with this group based on its comparative youth, particularly Reynolds, whose power would play in homer-friendly Miller Park. He’ll be competing with first-base hopefuls Juan Francisco, Sean Halton, Hunter Morris and Overbay. Those are favorable odds in light of Reynolds’ fielding prowess at first base and ability to handle third in small doses. Milwaukee has just three lefthanders on its 40-man roster—Tom Gorzelanny, offseason trade acquisition Will Smith and Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang, who has no experience above the Gulf Coast League—so that would explain Duke’s attractiveness as a potential bullpen piece.
Guerrier and Kubel return to the organization for which they made their major league debuts back in 2004. Swings and misses have led to diminished roles for both players—too many of them for Kubel and not enough of them for Guerrier. Kubel, though, has a path to playing time as part of a left field/DH rotation, where Josh Willingham and Chris Herrmann are the projected regulars.
Rookie Zack Wheeler and 40-year-old Bartolo Colon were the only starters in the projected rotation to not suffer some sort of injury setback in 2013, so Matsuzaka might ride again despite logging a 5.33 ERA over 51 big league appearances since 2010. Farnsworth (or fellow non-roster invitee and former closer Jose Valverde) could add veteran presence to a bullpen that might also feature green relievers such as Jeurys Familia, Josh Edgin, Gonzalez Germen and Vic Black.
SS Ronny Cedeno (31)
Projected utility infielders Freddy Galvis (not enough bat) and Kevin Frandsen (not enough glove for shortstop) have their warts, so the Phillies might opt to split the difference with Cedeno. Or maybe they’ll go to non-roster players Andres Blanco or Reid Brignac.
The lefty-hitting Chavez faces long odds of making the Opening Day roster for an organization in which six of seven outfielders on the 40-man roster either bat lefty or switch-hit. Quintero might be in play if John Buck suffers an injury or sophomore Mike Zunino continues to struggle with the bat. Baker would appear destined to make a rotation anchored by Felix Hernandez because No. 2 Hisashi Iwakuma is injured and the rest of the projected rotation—Erasmo Ramirez, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer and James Paxton—is light on experience.
San Francisco Giants
RHP Kameron Loe (32)
Article XX(B) free agent Chad Gaudin made the Giants’ Opening Day roster in 2013 and logged 97 generally-effective innings. Loe could follow suit in 2014, serving as a groundball-inducing reliever. Over the past four seasons, just five righty relievers (min. 100 innings) have a higher groundball rate than Loe’s 59 percent. They are: Brad Ziegler, Ronald Belisario, Jamey Wright, Jim Johnson and Jared Hughes. (Source: FanGraphs.com)
Tampa Bay Rays
LHP Erik Bedard (35)
Bedard went 4-12, 4.59 in 32 games (26 starts) for the woeful Astros last year, but he did log 151 innings, the third-highest total for any season in a 10-year career. He might fit on a Tampa Bay pitching staff that projects to feature rookie Jake Odorizzi, 2013 rookie Chris Archer and 2012 rookie Matt Moore in the rotation and fellow lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos in the bullpen.
Toronto Blue Jays
SS Munenori Kawasaki (32)
Kawasaki signed a minor league deal with the Mariners prior to the 2012 season so that he could play alongside his idol Ichiro Suzuki. Despite hitting .218/.306/.276 over the course of 2012-13, he’s spent the bulk of his time in the big league with the Mariners and Blue Jays. His .582 OPS in that time frame outdistances only Robert Andino and Ramon Santiago among middle infielders with at least 400 plate appearances.
Ayala’s sinker and rubber arm have kept him gainfully employed in the big leagues since 2003. This is the second straight spring that Snyder comes to camp with the Nationals, though this time he’s behind four catchers on the 40-man roster: Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon.