We hear the term "freely available talent" or "replacement level talent" tossed around a lot, but are there really freely available players who contribute?
Who were the best minor league free agents signed this past winter? Here are a few of the top performers I identified.
Relievers on the Cheap
Pittsburgh management can be blamed for many stupid blunders, but I can't fault them too much for letting Belisario escape their clutches. Last year, Belisario looked like an unimpressive AA reliever. He signed with the Dodgers last winter, and blew everyone away in spring training. The 26 year old Venezuelan has continued that into the regular season, posting a 2.17 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning.
Kiko Calero 2.15 ERA 1.109 WHIP in 46 IP for Florida
Brian Sanches 0.90 ERA 1.225 WHIP in 40 IP for Florida
Calero has been a pretty good reliever in the past, but injuries prevented him from landing a MLB contract this past winter. He took his services to Florida, who is willing to give anyone a chance provided they are cheap. Calero has rewarded them by striking out over a batter an inning and becoming one of their most reliable relievers. Which means he will probably be traded next year.
There was absolutely no reason to think the 29 year old Sanches would be any good this year, having posted a 6.13 ERA in 47 career MLB innings. But he's been terrific for the Marlins this season, posting a microscopic ERA this season while striking out nearly a hitting per inning. Steroids? Deal with the devil? Random fluctuation? Brian will never tell.
Brandon Medders 3.49 ERA 1.490 WHIP in 49 IP for San Francisco
Justin Miller 2.47 ERA 1.171 WHIP in 54 IP for San Francisco
Medders was designated for assignment last winter by the Diamondbacks. He had been very good in 2006, but has battled consistency ever since. The Giants picked him up and he won a spot in the pen in spring training. Since then he has been a solid contributor, striking out 7.5 per nine innings.
Miller has been even better, posting a 2.47 ERA this season. The tattooed reliever was very good in 2007, and not shabby in 2008, so it was a mystery why the Marlins let him go last winter. One team's trash is another team's treasure and the Giants were able to save a lot of money getting two pitchers to pitch well for the league minimum - a must when you're paying Barry Zito millions of dollars to suck.
Just Give Me Another Chance!
OF Jonny Gomes .281/.357/.568 in 69 games with Cincinnati
OF Laynce Nix .252/.303/.463 in 103 games with Cincinnati
Gomes and Nix have combined to form a powerful platoon for the Reds this year. Jonny was once a powerful Rays prospect who fell into the doghouse in Tmapa Bay. He has always been a defensively-challenged lefty-masher, but he fell off a cliff in 2008. Many teams desperate for power should have been calling for Gomes services, but it was the Reds who were smart (lucky?) enough to land him. He is fourth on the team in home runs, despite not joining the club til Memorial Day.
Nix showed power, but not much plate discipline as a prospect with the Rangers. He bounced along to the Brewers in a deal, but was never ever to recapture the promise he showed as a youngster. Outfield injuries gave him a chance in Cincinnati and he has made the most of his opportunity. Still a free swinger loathe to take a walk, Nix has displayed enough power to stay in the lineup.
IF Juan Uribe .273/.302/.431 in 85 games with San Francisco
Juan has always been a slightly exasperating player to watch. He has very good power for an infielder, but tends to swing at everything, has great defensive skills, but takes plays off. As a starter making millions, he can be maddening, but as a reserve player making the league minimum, he can be a valuable asset.
Palmer was a former 31st round pick by the Giants, but languished in their minor league system for seven seasons before finally getting a shot with the Angels. He was called upon when the Angels began the year with a decimated pitching staff, and has served admirably with a 4.49 ERA, but if you judge pitchers based on WINS like Joe Morgan, he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball!
Santos was drafted by the Yankees in 2001 and has bounced from the Orioles to the Mets serving primarily as organizational filler in AAA. He posted an OPS of -47 in 10 at-bats with Baltimore in 2008 at the age of 27, leaving little reason to believe he had better days ahead of him. Surprisingly, he has been a lone bright spot for the Metropolitans this season, leading them to deal Ramon Castro.
Bobby is so old that I actually saw him play at Michigan when I was in college a decade ago. He's always been a decent minor leaguer whose best asset seems to be getting on base. Now with his fourth organization, he's finally made his MLB debut at the age of 31, and has been pretty useful for the Cubs as a bench player.
Crusty Old Vets Who Couldn't Get MLB Deals
2B Adam Kennedy .281/.336/.415 in 94 games with Oakland
Kennedy was surprisingly released this winter by St. Louis, then found few bidders, signing a minor league deal with Tampa Bay. When Oakland lost starter Mark Ellis to injury, Kennedy was acquired from the Rays for IF Joe Dillon. Kennedy's 102 OPS+ exceeds that of Ellis, Brandon Phillips, Howie Kendrick, Placido Polanco and Kaz Matsui.
Sure his defense stinks and he's always been pretty overrated by the Chicago media. That doesn't erase the fact the White Sox got him for nothing and he's posted a decent .732 OPS (the average AL centerfielder is posting a .735 OPS, the average leftfielder is posting a .779 OPS) with a team high 20 stolen bases.
SS Omar Vizquel .307/.354/.387 in 46 games with Texas
While exposed as a 40 year old everyday player last season in San Francisco, Omar has rebounded to be quite valuable in a reserve role with the Rangers. He has served as a valuable mentor for young shortstop Elvis Andrus, has been useful with the bat, and he hasn't lost much with the glove, posting a UZR of 4.4.
Any other minor league free agents you can think of that have excelled this year?