Big things can come from Minor League deals
Some six-year free agents make major impact with new teams
Recent headlines have been monopolized by Cliff Lee and Derek Jeter, with Adrian Beltre, Jayson Werth and Rafael Soriano getting plenty of attention, as well.
That's how it goes every offseason, of course. A handful of prominent names steal the spotlight, and often monopolize teams' available money, too. They get the multiyear deals, the steep contract figures and the most publicity from agents trying to cash in on their big-ticket names.
Sometimes those luscious deals pay off in big ways -- for the player and the team. Other times, well ... not so much.
And then there is everyone else. There are players who find themselves in decent demand once the top chips fall off the free-agent board. There are others who really aren't coveted at all and, in turn, are forced to take the only offer they receive.
It doesn't seem nearly as glitzy as following the Yankees' negotiations with Jeter or the bidding war certain to ensue over Lee. But when all is said and done, this group of "others" should warrant much more of our attention than it actually gets.
It's often from this part of the free-agent pool where gems are found -- and found at a bargain price. It's where key complementary pieces can be discovered and careers begin to be resurrected.
Each year there sits a crop of Minor League free agents. This year's bunch includes 533 players who became free to look for work with a new organization after accruing at least six years of Minor League service time. Dozens more became Minor League free agents when they were outrighted for a second time.
Yes, hundreds of these players will never make it. They are Minor League journeymen, trying to hang on to the dream for a bit longer. They are role players in Triple-A, or players whose careers have been derailed by injury.
But there can be gems. And that's why we should care.
Ask the Pirates, who, before the 2009 season, inked six-year Minor League free agent Garrett Jones. Jones, who had been blocked from establishing himself in the Majors with Minnesota, went on to lead all rookies in home runs and slugging percentage that season. It's a feat even more notable when you consider Jones didn't play his first game with Pittsburgh until July. He returned as an everyday player in '10 and is a potential middle-of-the-order bat for years to come.
Ask the Marlins, who signed Clay Hensley off the Minor League free-agent list last December by offering him a contract worth just a bit more than the Major League minimum. Hensley rewarded Florida's faith by becoming a critical piece in the Marlins' 2010 bullpen. He saved seven games and posted a 2.16 ERA in 68 relief appearances.
Or the Mets, who seem to have found a potential rotation fixture with R.A. Dickey. For a $600,000, Dickey became the Mets' most consistent starter last season. He had declared Minor League free agency only days after the 2009 season ended and signed with New York just before Christmas.
Last year, the Brewers found value in their Minor League deal with Chris Capuano. The Padres benefited from signing Chris Denorfia. Gustavo Chacin proved a worthwhile gamble for Houston.
Of course, there are the exceptions. There will be more misses than hits, and that's to be expected. But since the risk in plucking players off the Minor League free agent list is minimal, the reward can be magnified.
So who could the hidden steals be in this year's class? Teams have diligently been sifting through the group of available players, making internal evaluations to try to figure out just that.
This year's crop includes a number of players who haven't yet lived up to their lofty Draft expectations. Among those are Joe Borchard, Eric Duncan, Dallas McPherson (who signed in November with White Sox), Andy Marte and Chris Lubanski. These former top prospects don't necessarily seem poised to breakout next season, though clubs can still hope.
There are other familiar names who could be effective pieces on a Major League club again. Wily Mo Pena, Angel Salome, Carlos Delgado, Jason Jennings and Endy Chaves have all proven valuable -- to varying degrees --- in the past.
The Reds are hoping Dontrelle Willis can regain his form and his control pitching out of the bullpen. Someone will take a similar gamble with Mark Prior, who still has to prove that he can stay healthy. Drew Sutton (Red Sox) and Josh Barfield (Phillies) have already been inked to Minor League deals to provide depth, with the hope of extra value.
We'll have to wait until next fall to see which teams ended up finding this year's steals. But in the meantime, it's worth paying attention to each of your team's offseason transactions -- and not just the ones that include multiyear deals and mega millions -- because it's been proven that the impact addition can come from anywhere.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.