My goal is to sift through the remaining class of minor league free agents to see if there are any more hidden gems out there. This post will look exclusively at outfielders with both starters and relief pitchers coming next. It is extremely unlikely that a star caliber player or ace starter will be there for the taking, but useful bench guys, #5 starters and middle relievers are available in spades. Baseball America's insanely useful Minor League Free Agent Tracker was abused for this article, as were their player cards, archives, and rankings.
Aside from middle relievers, this is the most likely destination for a break out season to occur. Because of this, I decided to go in depth on seven available players.There are speedsters, big thumpers and pure athletes still available and yet to hit their prime. Not all will be able to help immediately, but a few can further down the line.
Drafted in the second round in 2006, Benson was immediately recognized for his athleticism, being named the best athlete in the Minnesota system after being a stand out football player in high school as well. He spent the first three seasons fine tuning his baseball skills as he focused on only one sport. 2010 was his breakout as he mashed 27 home runs, 31 doubles, and stole 19 bases to go with a .259/.343/.538 line between AA and High A. He repeated AA in 2011 and boosted his average to .284 with 11 more walks but 17 less extra base knocks as the year before. This got him a September call up where he hit .239/.270/.352 in 71 at bats.
He's fallen into a prolonged slump since, hitting just .209 the past two years. He battled hand and knee injuries all 2012, culminating in a less-than-stellar .202/.288/.336 line. Last year the Twins lost him to Texas when he was claimed off waivers in May after hitting just .192/.256/.285 in 42 games at AAA. He did better in a relative sense with the Rangers, hitting .205/.293/.394 in 37 games at AA.
He was named the best athlete in the Twins system four times (2006-07, 2010-11), the top 100 prospects twice (#100 in 2010, #99 in 2011) and was ranked as high as second in the Twins organization (2007, 2011). Its hard to say how much the injuries have sapped his athleticism. He still shows the raw power, .50 caliber arm and range to handle center as he once did just three years ago. He's my favorite candidate to make an impact if given the chance and he is able to stay healthy. He's also only going to be 26 next season.
Carrera was signed back in 2005 by the Mets as an 18 year old out of Venezuela. He spent three years in the short season leagues before making his full season debut in High A as a 21 year old in 2008. He hit .263/.344/.393 there with 11 doubles, 12 triples and seven home runs with 28 steals. He was also named best defensive outfielder in the Florida State League. Carrera really broke out after being traded to Seattle in a 12-player, 3-team trade between the Mets, Mariners and Indians. In AA he hit .337/.441/.416, walking 14.6% of the time with 27 steals and 18 extra base hits. His excellent year put him at #15 in the Seattle organization and he was rated as having the best strike zone discipline and the fastest baserunner in the system.
He was traded once more in June 2010 to the Indians, improving his .268/.339/.315 line in Tacoma to .286/.337/.385 in Columbus. He got his first crack at the big leagues in 2011, hitting .243/.301/.312 with 10 steals and 11 extra base hits in 68 games and .287/.371/.348 with 35 steals, walking 10.3% of the time with 13 extra base hits in 82 games at AAA. He went back to AAA in 2012, spending 97 games there while hitting .294/.345/.419 with 26 steals, 31 extra base hits and 19 doubles. In August he got the call again and hit .272/.312/.395 with 11 extra base hits and 8 steals over 48 games.
After spring training in 2013, Cleveland tried to sneak him through waivers and he was claimed by the Phillies where he made 13 at bats in a month. Philly then tried to pass him through waivers and the Indians picked him back up. He finished the year sporting a .248/.312/.346 line with a career high 43 steals and 26 extra base hits. His BABIP was around 20 points lower than normal and his walk rate came back to a normal 8%. His speed is still present, as is his range in center, but his average will always be BABIP-driven. If he maintains an 8-10% walk rate he can be a league average center fielder.
Georgia native Cedric Hunter was taken in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft and signed for a $415K signing bonus by the Padres. He had about as great a debut as you can think of, hitting .364/.458/.469, walking almost twice as many times as striking out and he stole 17 bags as well. He also reached base in his first 49 games. This got him a number one ranking after 2006 for the Padres system after being the fifth selection the Friars made that June. He was also named the 3rd best prospect in the Arizona League and the best hitter for average in the San Diego system. He made his full season debut the following year in the Midwest league, hitting .284/.347/.380 if you include his three game cup of coffee in AAA. He played well in the Cal league in 2008 as a 20 year old, hitting 33 doubles, 11 home runs, 84 RBI, 186 hits, 98 runs scored and a .318/.362/.442 line with 42 walks to 27 strike outs. The 186 hits were tops in the minors that year. Hunter received praise for his mature approach, strong wrists, and exceptional command of the strike zone. He was named best hitter for average in the system following the year and was ranked #6 in the organization along with being named the 10th best player in the California league.
He really struggled for the first time in his career during his first crack at the high minors as a 21 year old. He only managed a .261/.294/.331 line over a full season with 20 doubles, two home runs, 13 steals, only 25 walks and 43 punch outs. He was over-aggressive and tried to be a power hitter, throwing away his ability to hit the ball to all fields as he concentrated on pulling the ball. This would be his last year cracking the top 30 list in the system where he came in at #23. The next year he got back to basics, hitting .308/.375/.423 in the first 71 games of 2010 at AA before getting the call to AAA. He struggled again, hitting .263/.305/.370 in his first taste of being a step from the majors. For the year he hit .287/.342/.397 with 27 doubles, 76 runs, 7 homers and three more walks than strike outs (47 to 44).
Hunter broke camp with the Padres in 2011 after a great spring but only spent six games with them as a 5th outfielder before heading to AAA for the year. He battled his way through a leg injury, only appearing in 81 games and posting a .255/.322/.358 line with 17 doubles, 44 runs, 33 RBI and his usual superb plate discipline. At the end of the year the Friars tried to sneak Hunter through waivers but he was claimed by Billy Beane and the wily Oakland bunch. April 1, 2012 the A's swapped him for "future consideration" to the Cardinals. With St. Louis, Hunter returned to AAA to man the outfield for their squad in Memphis. He hit .265/.355/.375 over 129 games, tallying 19 doubles, 40 runs, 44 RBI and 44 walks to 43 strike outs.
He was granted free agency following his 2012 season with the Cards and he latched on with the Indians. While a member of the tribe, he started the year back in AAA but apparently did not perform to their standards (a .250/.305/.365 line doesn't help) and he was demoted back to AA. He finished the year there by hitting .295/.344/.568, showing the power that had been talked about back when he was drafted. He hit 12 home runs in just 61 AA games, but sacrificed some of his plate discipline for that pop, walking only 17 times to 35 strike outs. For the year he knocked 14 bombs, 25 doubles, and 50 RBI with 25 walks and 49 punch outs in 330 total at bats. His batting line was .282/.332/.509 with a 128 wRC+ and .371 wOBA.
He has gradually moved off center field, now settling into left due to his below-average arm. Going into the 2014 season, Hunter will still be just 26 years old. He could be an interesting lottery ticket, especially if whatever he did in the second half of 2013 carries over to next year. He doesn't really have the profile of a starting left fielder but he can still help a team out as a 4th outfielder or pinch hitter/runner.
Riley "Brock" Kjeldgaard has certainly taken a different path than your run-of-the-mill minor leaguer. He was drafted in the 34th round of the 2005 draft out of Indian Hills CC in Iowa, signing a miniscule bonus that you would expect to be associated with a pick from that round right before the 2006 draft in the old "draft and follow" process. He was a 6'5 right handed pitcher but couldn't solve Rookie ball hitters that were much younger than he. The native Canadian then switched to first base where he showed off light-tower power. In 75 games in the Pioneer league in 2008 he hit 27 doubles, 14 home runs, and stole nine bases while finishing with a .278/.350/.503 line but struck out at an alarming 32.9% of the time.
He was already old for the league after his position switch being 22 in the upper levels of Rookie ball so the Brewers sent him to full season A ball in 2009. He made it into 133 games, hitting 30 doubles, 20 home runs and he drove in 74 while hitting .250/.342/.458 and stealing 12 bags. His strike out rate barely dropped but his walk rate rose above 10%. He also began the transition to the outfield, playing 52 games in left and right field. Deemed a success, he continued climbing the ladder with his next stop at High A. In roughly the same amount of playing time, Kjeldgaard's line dropped to .245/.308/.416 as he stopped walking (down 4%) but kept supplying cool breezes throughout the stadium. He finished the year with 29 doubles, 17 home runs and still drove in 75.
In 2011, he returned to the High A Florida State League as a 25 year old and absolutely terrorized the pitchers. He had a .268/.366/.558 line with 18 home runs in just 65 games with 13 stolen bases as well. He had cut his strike out rate by 4% and improved his walk rate by 3%. He continued to hit well (.271/.341/.424) and sustain his strike out rate (29%) while his walk rate dropped a pair of percentage points to 7.4% after his promotion to AA. He hit six more home runs to give him 24 for the season, and finished the year with a composite .270/.354/.495 line with 76 RBI, 18 doubles and 15 steals. Despite his age he put himself on the front office's map as he went back to AA in 2012. Injuries plagued him, causing him to miss time with a thumb injury and later breaking his foot in the Arizona Fall League. He started the year in AA then went to the Rookie Arizona league and High A from June to July for rehab before coming back to AA to finish the year, hitting .255/.375/.472 after the injury. He then hit four home runs in 33 plate appearances in the AFL before the foot injury.
Last year the 6'5 righty knocked 24 home runs, 11 doubles, 70 RBI and he posted his best walk rate of his career for a full season with 12.5% as his strike out rate settled at 28.7%. His batting line left a bit to be desired (.222/.333/.417) as he struggled to consistently put the ball in play. It confuses me that the Brewers would let a player with some serious pop from the right side hit free agency when they have such a gaping hole at first base, where he has experience. His prowess in the outfield is not gold glove worthy but it's passable and he certainly has plenty of arm strength. He will be 28 next season but should be seen more as a 26 year old with his failed attempts at pitching to begin his career.
Though it feels like Martinez has been around forever, he's still only going to be 25 years old next season. He was originally signed by the Mets in 2005 for $1.4M, and has been a hot commodity since. Before ever playing a professional game, he was rated as the 4th best prospect in a barren system. He debuted the following year in Low A as a 17 year old center fielder and mashed. In just 45 games in the South Atlantic league, he hit .333/.389/.505 with five home runs, 14 doubles and seven stolen bases with 15 walks and 46 strike outs. He moved on to High A where he struggled in 30 games to the tune of a .196/.260/.375 line but with five home runs and almost half of his hits going for extra bases (11 out of 23). After the regular season ended he became the youngest player ever in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .304 against players at least three years his elder. He fought through a bone bruise in his hand and a knee sprain during the year but played will enough that he was named the #2 prospect in the Mets system following the 2006 season, both the best power hitter and best hitter for average in the system, and the #3 prospect in the South Atlantic. With accolades like this it's not hard to see why he was ranked the 22nd best prospect in baseball.
In 2007 the Mets challenged Martinez once again with a VERY aggressive placement to start the year at AA as an 18 year old. He broke the hamate bone in his hand at the beginning of the year and the pain lingered throughout the season and he was shut down in July. The injury shows in his stats as he only hit .265/.331/.376 through 63 games with 11 doubles, four home runs, 22 RBI and 21 walks to 57 strike outs. Despite playing through pain the majority of the year, scouts still loved how long his bat stayed through the zone, his advanced approach going gap-to-gap, excellent bat speed and projected plus power for him down the line. He moved into the top spot in the Mets organization, #20 overall, the #3 prospect in the AA Eastern League, and again was tabbed as being both the best power hitter and best hitter for average in the system.
By 2008 it became clear the Martinez was injury prone as he missed significant time for the second year in a row, this time with hamstring problems. When he got on the field he didn't produce like his sky high expectations. He made it into 90 games, hitting .292/.345/.440 with 20 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 45 RBI, and 27 walks to 75 punch outs. By this point some scouts began wondering if Martinez would wind up a tweener while others stuck to the impact power hitter he looked like his first year. Though he wasn't lighting the minors on fire, he was playing exceptionally well for a player his age at that level. He held on to the top spot in the farm system but dropped to 30th overall while also dropping to the 7th best prospect in the Eastern League. He also held on to the best power hitter designation in the organization. In 2009 he started the year in AAA before getting the call to New York in late May. He was sent down mid June and promoted back up three days later. By July 4 he was back on the shelf due to a torn meniscus in his right knee that required surgery. In 45 AAA games he hit .290/.337/.540 with 16 doubles and eight home runs but fell on his face in his first MLB action. In New York he hit .176/.242/.275 in 29 games before being shut down. At this point in his development he flashed 5-tool talent but just could not stay healthy. He fell to 3rd in the Mets system, 77th overall, and the 12th best prospect in the AAA International League.
Injuries ate up half of his 2010 season as well as he dealt with issues in his back, hamstring and knees, only making it into 71 AAA games, 4 High A rehab games, and 7 big league contests. While in the minors he hit .254/.317/.449 with 17 doubles, 12 home runs, and 18 walks to 67 strike outs in 272 at bats. He was just 3-18 during his stint in the bigs. He fell to 8th in the Mets organization and out of the top 100. After all the injuries he has sustained to his lower half, his speed abandoned him. He still showed plus power when healthy but his approach had become too pull-oriented and he was still impatient at the plate. Defensively he had to move off center, spending the majority of his time in right field. 2011 was more of the same but with less power. He only hit .260/.329/.417 in 63 AAA games and was 5-22 in 11 MLB games.
In the 2012 offseason he was claimed off waivers by the Astros and went to their AAA team to begin the year. He stayed healthy and hit .314/.367/.507 up until August before finishing out the year with Houston. Under the brightest lights he only hit .237/.300/.466 but with six bombs and seven doubles in 118 at bats. This past season he broke camp back in AAA with Houston before getting called up for 11 games. In the short sample of 33 at bats he hit .182/.229/.273 and was sent back down to AAA. By June the Astros decided to move on and sent him to the Yankees for relief pitcher Charles Basford. With Houston he hit .219/.291/.371 and with New York's AAA affiliate he hit .325/.394/.554. For the whole year he finished with a .266/.336/.452 with 12 doubles, seven home runs, 39 RBI and 17 walks to 43 strike outs in 188 at bats. His only extended major league action has been in 2012 and he was actually above average offensively. If given steady at bats and good health (a HUGE if), I truly think Martinez could become a solid regular at best with pinch hitting a fall back option because of his power.
Another former Twins farmhand, Angel Morales was a 3rd round pick in 2007 out of Puerto Rico and signed for $234K. He went to the Gulf Coast League to begin his career as a 17 year old and performed well, hitting .256/.357/.405 with 11 extra base hits and 11 steals but he struck out over 30% of the time. His performance got him on the top 20 list of players in the GCL that year, coming in at #19. Scouts noted his swing had a lot of holes but he had good bat speed and crushed what he did square up. His speed was average and he had an above-average arm, good enough to be tabbed the best outfield arm in the Minnesota system. He moved on to the Appalachian League for 2008 and had a break out year while playing center field. In just 183 at bats he crushed 15 home runs and 12 doubles with a .301/.413/.623 line, had more extra base hits than singles, seven stolen bases and got his walk rate up to 12%. He also struck out in a third of his at bats but with a 188 wRC+ and .472 wOBA it was manageable and he also led the league in slugging percentage and home runs. A performance like that shot him up prospect lists, getting him ranked 10th in the Twins system and 8th in the Appy league. A common thread between scouts was that he was incredibly raw but had plenty of tools with prodigious power. He was tabbed as a dead pull hitter and had a lot of trouble recognizing breaking balls along with a two-part swing that left him very vulnerable to offspeed stuff.
In 2009 he moved on to full season ball at the tender age of 19. On defense he split his time evenly between center and right field. He dealt with a handful of injuries throughout the year but still managed to lead the team in home runs (13), stolen bases (19) and RBI (62). He hit .266/.329/.455 with 22 doubles and 63 runs scored while cutting his strike out rate by 8% to 25% but his walk rate also went down almost 5 points to 7.2%. He still had issues with his swing and pitch recognition but his power/speed combo along with his arm kept him in the prospect conversation. He was ranked 8th in the Twins organization following the season but did not crack the top 20 in the Midwest League.
Sent back to the Midwest to start 2010, Morales manhandled Low A pitching to a .289/.381/.474 line with 24 extra base knocks, 18 steals, 34 runs and 36 RBI in 60 games while manning right field. He got the call to High A in June and finished the season by hitting .282/.347/.349 in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Across both levels he had a .280/.362/.405 line with 24 doubles, 10 triples and five home runs with 29 steals, 69 runs and he upped his walk rate to 9.5% while his strike out rate rose slightly. He fell to 14th in the Twins system following the season as he still had yet to address his two biggest weaknesses, pitch recognition and the hitch in his swing.
Looking to break into the high minors in 2011, Morales went down with an elbow injury that sidelined him from the start of the year to late July. He only made it into 37 games (including 4 rehab games in the GCL), hitting .259/.314/.400 with seven doubles and four home runs in 135 at bats. He was left off the 40-man roster following the year but was not chosen in the Rule 5 draft and came back to the Florida State League for 2012. He spent the entire season there, handling center field with ease as he hit a measly .220/.310/.328. He knocked 20 extra base hits with 12 stolen bases and 56 runs scored in 363 at bats. He got his walk rate back up over 10% and his K rate stabilized at 27%. Morales was still only 22 and was more tools than production but it was enough to run him back out there in 2013 as the starter.
This past season he kicked off the year by showing off the bat that got him selected in the third round. He hit .297/.364/.525 in the first 55 games of the year with 17 doubles, seven home runs and 36 RBI with 5 stolen bases. He was called up to AA in June along with Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario and struggled in his first dose of the high minors with a .169/.230/.307 line. The issues he had with more advanced pitching in AA brought his season line down to .239/.304/.427 with 12 homers, 23 doubles, five triples, 52 RBI and 8 steals. His strike out rate spiked up to 34% after the promotion and only 8.4% of his batted balls in AA were line drives. While he still possess great raw power, unless he fixes his free swinging approach he will not be able to tap into it. He will be 24 next season so he has time on his side and someone will inevitably take a flyer on the thumb in his stick to see if he can pull it together.
The only switch hitter on the list, Robinson was selected in the 10th round of the 2005 draft from a Los Angeles high school by the Dodgers and signed for pennies compared to the rest of the guys here for $50K. He was also part of the RBI program run by MLB in high school. He spent his first two seasons in Rookie ball, posting a .283/.336/.449 line in 2005 and a .259/.342/.381 line in 2006 which included a three game stint at the end of the year in High A. Robinson was very raw at this point but was very athletic and oozed tools. In both 2005 and 2006 he was named the fastest baserunner in the Dodgers farm system. In 2006 he almost quit the game. He was struggling to learn how to switch hit and had to deal with tragedy back home in California; he had learned his best friend was killed in a carjacking in South Central. He did not give up though and played with a heavy heart.
He made his full season debut in 2007 as a 19 year old center fielder. In Great Lakes he hit .253/.314/.311 with just 15 extra base hits, 22 steals and 32 walks (7.2%) to 119 punch outs (26.9%) in 296 at bats. At this point he was still trying to refine his approach and adjust to the grind of full season ball. Promoted to High A in 2008, Robinson began displaying more power, hitting 20 doubles, eight triples and four home runs with 22 steals and 67 runs scored. His walk rate dipped to 6.7% but he set a career best by striking out in only 21.3% of the time. He was still raw but was showing more promise.
2009 was his breakout season as he returned to the California League and went off. He hit .306/.375/.500 with High A Inland Empire then .246/.358/.439 for AA after an August promotion. For the whole year he hit .300/.373/.493 with 17 homers, 29 doubles, 11 triples, 47 stolen bases, 90 runs scored and he set a career high in walks with 60 (10%) to 143 punch outs (23.8%). He shot up to the 9th best prospect in the Dodgers organization and 15th best in the California League. He made improvements hitting from the left side and became a serious threat at the top of the order with his plus speed and developing power. He credited part of his breakout to switching to a bigger bat and trying to be more consistent, day in and day out. He was also named the best baserunner in the California League. Defensively his speed allows him to cover plenty of ground in center and his below-average arm doesn't hurt him there. Multiple scouts noted he became too power-conscious during the season and his approach would leave him susceptible to advanced breaking pitches.
The following year he was sent to AA to begin the year and responded with an equally impressive campaign. He didn't hit for the same power but improved other aspects of his game. He finished the season with a .300/.404/.438 line, 23 doubles, 9 home runs, 80 runs scored, 38 steals, and 73 walks (14%) to 125 strike outs (23.9%). He improved his plate discipline, but is still an aggressive hitter. At this point he became comfortable hitting from both sides of the plate and he also learned how to use his speed to his advantage, laying down more bunts and putting the ball on the ground more often. The 22 year old went to the Arizona Fall League following the season and hit .250/.389/.347 in 72 at bats with an impressive 16 walks to 22 strike outs along with four doubles, a home run, and six stolen bases.
In 2011 Robinson broke camp just a step away from the promised land, AAA Albuquerque. He hit .293/.375/.563 with 26 home runs, 9 doubles, 6 triples, 71 RBI, 8 stolen bases and 70 runs scored with 45 walks (10.8%) and 122 strike outs (29.3%) in 368 at bats. At the trade deadline, Robinson was a part of a three-team trade that sent him to Seattle with Boston also involved in the deal. After a quick three game stint with the AAA club, Robinson finished the year with the Mariners, hitting .210/.250/.336 the rest of the way with 12 doubles, a pair of home runs and just eight walks (5.2%) to 61 strike outs (39.4%) in 143 at bats. He was a bit over his head but was only 23 years old and still showed plenty of athleticism and speed. His lack of arm strength kept him from being anything more than an average center fielder though. In 2012 he went back to AAA to kick off the season. He hit .265/.331/.409 in 340 at bats with 18 doubles, nine home runs, 19 stolen bases and scored 51 runs. He cut his strike out rate by 7 points to 22.3% and walked 2% less as well. In late July he was called back up to Seattle and finished the season there. Once again he struggled at the plate but his rate stats improved (walk rate up 3%, strike out rate down 13%) as he hit three home runs, stole six bases and hit .221/.294/.324. That November he was sent to Baltimore for veteran middle infielder Robert Andino.
This past season he was once again in the minors with the Baltimore AAA squad in Norfolk where he really struggled to get it going, dealing with back and thumb injuries and hitting just .220/.307/.333 over 177 at bats. He was demoted to AA July 1st and finished the year in Bowie. After the demotion he hit .271/.348/.447 with 15 doubles and six home runs. For the whole season he came up to bat 376 times and hit .247/.329/.394 with 11 homers, 20 doubles, 21 steals, and 62 runs scored with 46 walks (10.7%) and 115 punch outs (26.8%). I think the injuries hurt him more than he let on as even his AAA performance was nowhere near his career AAA line. He's earned almost 300 at bats in the big leagues and has just not produced yet (.215/.272/.330). He needs extended at bats and if he has a great spring wherever he signs, he could crack the opening day roster for the first time in his career.