Gems hidden in Minors free agency
Some players able to catch on in bigs, resurrect careers
Major League Baseball free agency is under way, and it takes on a life of its own, like the season after the season. MLB.com even has a game, "Free Agent Frenzy," so fans can get wrapped up in the excitement.
Hiding behind that shadow, a slot or two under the radar, is the world of Minor League free agency. Hundreds of Minor Leaguers have filed, a process allowed after six years of service, looking for greener pastures.
Most continue on as organizational players, basically shifting from one team's affiliate to another. But every year, there are those who strike paydirt, who take the change of scenery and make the most of it, reaching the big leagues and even excelling at times. It might be the exception rather than the rule, but every team will say they sign Minor League free agents not only to fill spots up and down the system, but in the hopes a true diamond in the rough will be found.
What follows is an All-Star team, of sorts. It wasn't an easy process, but here is a position-by-position look at some of the better Minor League free-agent success stories in recent years.
1B Garrett Jones, Pirates: Jones had always shown power in the Minors, but never got a chance to see if it would play at the big league level for any length of time. So, after nearly 10 seasons in the Minors, first with the Braves and then with the Twins, he moved on to the Pirates. Jones finally got his shot when he got called up at the end of June following the Eric Hinske trade, and he ran with it, hitting 21 homers in just 314 at-bats for a .567 SLG. Jones finished seventh in NL Rookie of the Year voting as a result, and he is expected to be a big part of the Pirates' offense in 2010.
2B Bobby Scales, Cubs: Scales' appearance on the six-year free agent list has become as regular an annual occurrence as the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. If ever there was a story of Minor League perseverance, Scales is it. Following the 2005 season, he went from the Padres to the Phillies. A year later, he was in the Red Sox organization. In 2008, he joined the Cubs and stayed there for the 2009 campaign. Each time, he was a six-year free agent, hoping for that elusive callup. Finally, this past year, at age 31 and with 11 Minor League seasons under his belt, he got that call. He played 51 games and collected 124 at-bats for the Cubs, hitting .242 while playing four different positions. He's on the six-year list yet again this year, making one wonder if he'll get another shot -- in Chicago or otherwise -- to show what he can do.
SS Nick Green, Red Sox: Green had once tasted what it was like to get regular playing time in the big leagues, playing in 95 games as a rookie with the Braves in 2004, then getting 318 at-bats in '05 with the Rays. He appeared in 63 games with the Rays and Yankees in 2006, but that was it, other than a very brief seven-at-bat stay with the Mariners in 2007. Then Boston picked up him as a Minor League free agent last January, and he ended up as the regular shortstop for a spell, filling a major void. Green did fade in the second half, dealing first with leg fatigue and then with a back injury that required surgery. The Sox outrighted him, and he's once again a free agent, hoping to get another chance in 2010.
3B Fernando Tatis, Mets: Back in 1999, it looked like Tatis was headed for stardom, hitting 34 homers, driving in 107 runs, stealing 21 bases and even getting on base to finish with a .957 OPS. He was 24 back then, but he never came close to replicating those numbers, and after the 2003 season, he vanished from baseball for two years (after being released by the Rays following 2004 Spring Training). He came back with the Orioles in 2006, making it up to Baltimore for 28 games. The Mets signed him after that, and he spent the entire 2007 season in Triple-A. The Mets brought him back as a six-year free agent in 2008, and he ended up playing a vital role as a utility man that year and again in 2009.
C Rod Barajas, Blue Jays: Barajas initially came up through the D-backs system and beat the odds by reaching the bigs as a non-drafted free agent. He topped out with Arizona in 2003, when he appeared in 80 games and collected 220 at-bats. He was a free agent that offseason, and the Rangers picked him up with a Minor League contract in January 2004. He caught 105 games for Texas in 2005, then 119 more in 2006, more or less establishing himself as the Rangers' top catcher. He's bounced around a bit since, but this time as a big league free agent, and he caught 120 games for the Blue Jays this past season.
OF Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals: He might be the best six-year free agent signing in recent memory. Ludwick joined the Cardinals organization in December 2006 after not being able to break though into the Texas Rangers or Cleveland Indians outfield. He spent all of the 2006 season with Triple-A Toledo in the Tigers system. St. Louis gave him a job in 2007, and he hit .267 with 14 homers and a .818 OPS in 339 at-bats. The breakthrough came in 2008, when Ludwick played every day, hit .299 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. He slugged .591, finished with a .966 OPS and made the National League All-Star team. He "slumped" in 2009, though he still hit 22 homers and drove in 97 runs. OF Scott Podsednik, White Sox: Podsednik has changed teams in just about every way possible: Minor League Rule 5 Draft pick, trade, and yes, Minor League free agency. He signed as a six-year free agent in November 2000, with the Mariners, got picked up off waivers by the Brewers in October 2002, and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting the following season in Milwaukee. In 2005, he was an All-Star and a vital cog of the 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series team. He was back to signing a minor league deal, albeit not as a six-year guy, in 2008, when he joined the Rockies. They let him go at the end of Spring Training this past year, so the White Sox brought him back with yet another Minor League deal. He ended up hitting .304 and stealing 30 bases, returning to everyday play for the first time since the 2006 season.
OF/DH Jack Cust, A's: For years, people heard about Cust's power -- and strikeouts -- in the Minors, but he could never break through, largely because of the general fear of the strikeout. The A's gave him a look when they signed him in November 2004, but after a year, Cust was back on the Minor League free agent market and was picked up by the Padres. The A's, remembering what they had, brought him back via trade in May 2007. Yes, he's continued to strike out quite a bit, but he's also hit 89 homers in three seasons as Oakland's designated hitter. He's also walked more than 100 times twice (93 this past year), giving him .378 OBP and .462 SLG numbers from 2007-09.
SP Chad Durbin, Phillies: Yes, he's a reliever now, but when the Tigers snagged him off the six-year free agent list in January 2006, he was primarily a starter. Back in 2001, in fact, he made 29 starts for the Royals at age 23. He did a little of both for two teams in 2004, but didn't spend a day in the big leagues in '05, pitching for Washington's Triple-A affiliate all year. Then the Tigers signed him, and he appeared in just three Major League games in '06. In 2007, however, he logged 127 2/3 innings for Detroit over 36 games, 19 of them starts. The Phillies saw enough to give him a deal in 2008 and make him a full-time reliever.
RP Dan Wheeler, Rays: Originally drafted by the Rays, he was signed by Atlanta when Tampa Bay released him following the 2001 season. A starter for his entire career to that point, the Mets gave him a Minor League deal in 2003 and turned him into a reliever. That may have saved his career, as he spent considerable time in 2003-04 in the Mets' bullpen before being dealt to the Astros in 2005. He came full circle by going to the Rays late in the 2007 season, and has now pitched in two World Series: in 2005 with Houston and 2008 with Tampa Bay.
RP Chan Ho Park, Phillies: Once upon a time, Park was a well-regarded starter, an All-Star who commanded a multi-million dollar free-agent contract. In 2007, he made just one big league appearance with the Mets. Most figured his career, at age 34, was just about over. But the Dodgers, his original team, gave him another shot, this time as a reliever. He appeared in 54 games, all but five out of the bullpen, and finished with a 3.40 ERA. That earned Park a big league contract from the Phillies, and he settled in as perhaps the steadiest arm in their bullpen in 2009, finishing with a 2.52 ERA in 38 relief appearances. He held hitters to a .231 average and struck out 9.36 batters per nine innings in that role before making four scoreless appearances in the World Series.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.