Minor League Free Agents Can Make or Break a Season
Craig Gifford | On 07, Feb 2014
In the NFL and NBA, a general manager can be made or broken by the first-year player draft. Newly selected players, especially those taken early on tend to make some sort of an impact within a year or two. Within three years of one of those drafts, it can usually be determined if the draft was a success or failure.
It is a lot different in the world of Major League Baseball. In that world a drafted player may not see a Major League field for three or more years. Unlike the NBA, where a teenager may be drafted and expected to contribute right away, a teenager selected by an MLB squad will normally be in the minor leagues until he is 21 or older.
While the draft is important in Major League Baseball, a GM is made more in offseason signings – especially those signings that unexpectedly worked. Unearthing a hidden gem or two can make more impact a team’s success than hitting correctly on the No. 1 overall draft choice.
The Sporting New Executive of the Year Award almost always goes to a GM whose team exceeded expectations because of moves that were made under the radar. No one will win an award for throwing tens of millions of dollars at the best free agents on the market.
Finding players under the radar has proven to be a strong suit for Indians GM Chris Antonetti and his scouting staff. Last year provided quite a large haul of unheralded free agent finds that helped the Indians reach the postseason for the first time in six years.
A year ago, Cleveland management brought the likes of Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi and Scott Kazmir to training camp on nonguaranteed, minor league deals. All three had had previous Major League success, though none had done much of anything in 2012. That is why they were so easily available. Kazmir and Raburn looked like the players who had success several seasons ago, while Giambi played a big role as a pinch hitter and veteran leader.
Without those free agent finds, the Indians likely would not have earned a Wild Card spot. Similarly, players like Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes were brought in via trade. Neither was seen as a major addition, though both had a profound impact on Cleveland’s successful 2013. Those types of moves make a front office look brilliant. Antonetti was heralded more for that than the money he spent on known players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Ownership received the credit for those moves, simply by opening up the pocket book a little wider.
The high-money additions are the glamor side of an offseason. Fans love to read and hear that their favorite team just signed an Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton. Fans tend to gnash their teeth and groan when they hear about the latest minor league pickup. Those adds are usually unknown players or guys who have not been heard from in a significant way for a year or more.
Antonetti and his staff have been at it again this offseason. They have again invited a good number of players to spring training on minor league deals. There are the little-known players who will be there like reliever J.C. Ramirez. There are also a slew of guys who will be in camp who have had success in the big leagues. They are looking to resurrect careers that have faltered due to injury or a down season or two. Management will hope to strike gold with these types of guys in the hopes they will again reach a level or get close to a level they were once at.
The best known of the nonroster invitees are one-time, Gold Glove outfielder Jeff Francoeur, starting pitcher Shaun Marcum and speedy outfielder Nyjer Morgan. Lesser-known, but a one-time all-star is first baseman Bryan LaHair, who had a huge first half of the 2012 season with the Cubs. He then fizzled in the second half of that year, was cut and spent 2013 in Japan.
Morgan, like LaHair has been out of MLB since a forgettable 2012 campaign. As recently as 2011, however, he was .304 hitter.
Francoeur and Marcum came cheaply as veterans who have done a lot over their careers, but struggled in 2013. Marcum is only a few years removed from a 2011 campaign in which he was 13-7 with a 3.54 ERA. The Indians are hoping he will be this year’s Kazmir. Francoeur is a solid veteran who has put up decent numbers most of his nine-year career. In 2011 he belted 20 home runs and hit .285. In 2012, he regressed but still posted a solid 16 bombs and .255 average. Last season was a tough one for Francoeur who was hurt and played just 81 games, hitting a mere .204. He could be this year’s Raburn, who resurrected his career a season ago after an abysmal 2012 made it seem as though he was washed up.
Along with the minor league signings, Antonetti is hoping his guaranteed contracts to outfielder David Murphy and closer John Axford will come up aces. Both have the potential to be solid adds after somewhat disappointing 2013 seasons. They had to be given guaranteed deals as the wheels did not completely fall off for them as it they have the group who are not guaranteed roster spots.
Certainly, there are no sure things that any of these guys will perform will in Goodyear, Az. or make the team. They could continue to struggle or make it evident they were away from the big leagues for a season. However, this is where a GM and the scouting department make their money. If they find a seemingly washed up player who comes out blazing, they will look smart and the GM will be in the discussion for Executive of the Year.
The hope is Antonetti has an eye for talent and can see when a player had a down year only because of injury or a guy seems primed for a comeback. While fans do not necessarily long to hear about the latest minor league deal being doled out, these are the players who can make or break a season. They can put a decent team over the top and into true contention. The Tribe already has a base of core players from a playoff squad. Just as last year’s unearthings helped take the Indians from somewhat below average to playoff contenders, additional pieces can have a chance to take this year’s group from one-and-done in the postseason to more October baseball.\
Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images