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Prospecting for Minor League free agent pitchers

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Who could break camp on a major league roster and produce? How about a sneaky, low-risk but high upside investment? Check and see.

Jeff Niemann
Jeff Niemann
J. Meric

The finale in the Prospecting for Minor League free agent series will focus on pitchers that could have an impact in 2014 and beyond. 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. It is extremely unlikely that an ace starter will be there for the taking, but #5 starters and middle relievers are available in spades. Baseball America's insanely useful Minor League Free Agent Tracker was used for this article, as were their player cards, archives, and rankings.

Starting Pitchers

Occasionally you'll find an innings eater that could fill a slot at the back end of the rotation, depending on the team. Here are a few candidates that can contribute now.

Jair Jurrjens

Age Height Weight
28 6'1 200 LB

Jurrjens is a well known commidity, having been an All-Star for the National League in 2011. Originally signed out of Curacao in 2003 by the Tigers, Jurrjens breezed through the low minors, hitting AA by the age of 20 in 2006. The next year he had a dominant stretch back in AA before getting the call to the majors, making seven starts for Detroit to finish the year. After the season he ranked as the 49th best prospect in baseball, with scouts noting a 4-seam fastball that worked 92-94 with a 2-seamer with heavy sink. His changeup was plus with a developing slider and good pitchability and a fearless demeanor on the hill. Durability was his only issue with groin and shoulder issues during the season. In October 2007 he was packaged with Gorkys Hernandez and sent to Atlanta for Edgar Rentaria. He was ranked the 3rd best prospect in Atlanta's system.

Come opening day 2008 he was a part of the Braves rotation. That year he threw 188.1 innings with a 3.68 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 6.6 K/9, 8.9 H/9, and 3.4 BB/9. He got 1.5 ground outs for every fly out and finished with a 13-10 record and was worth 3.4 fWAR. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He utilized his fastball very well, getting hitters to chase the 2-seamer low and busting the 4-seam up. His change up took a step forward as well and was a real weapon for him. He was even better in 2009, breaking the 200 innings pitched barrier with an outstanding 2.60 ERA. He was only 23 years old but was pitching like a veteran. He allowed just 7.8 H/9 with 6.4 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and a 1.21 WHIP with an ERA+ of 159. According to FanGraphs he was also worth 3.7 WAR.

2010 was the beginning of Jurrjens' decline. He lost a month and a half to a twice-strained right hamstring at the beginning of the year and then tried (unsuccessfully) to pitch through a torn meniscus in his right knee at the end. For the year he had a 4.64 ERA over 116.1 innings with 6.7 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 9.3 H/9 and a 1.39 WHIP with an 84 ERA+. His fWAR dropped to just 1.1 but his FIP was almost a half run lower than his ERA at 4.19. He also made three rehab starts in AAA with similar results, though in a much shorter sample size. He threw 13 innings with 6 walks to 9 punch outs, 20 hits allowed and eight earned runs for a 5.54 ERA. The leg injuries certainly sapped his effectiveness but his component ratios remained similar, except for two big factors. He was allowing more fly balls than ever (41.9%) and more of those fly balls were leaving the park (8.8 HR/FB). Jurrjens was also using his slider more and change up less.

Though 2009 was his best career season, his first half of 2011 was as effective as could be. Hitting the All-Star break he was 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA (best in MLB) through 110.2 innings with 5.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9,7.6 H/9, and 2.6 K/BB. It was all downhill from there as his balky knee began to affect him again. He only made seven more starts, looking like a completely different pitcher. He gave up 10.7 H/9, had a 5.88 ERA and his K/BB ratio dropped practically in half. Because of his stellar first half the season totals don't looks so bad but he was clearly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde throughout the whole year. He made 23 starts coming out to a 2.96 ERA over 152 innings with 5.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 8.4 H/9 and a 1.22 WHIP with 1.3 fWAR and a 3.99 FIP. Hopes were high he could recover from the knee issues as he underwent surgery after the season.

Jurrjens only made four disastrous starts for the Braves to begin the 2012 campaign before being sent down to AAA Gwinnett. He three 16.2 innings to a 9.18 ERA, 10 walks to eight strike outs and 30 hits allowed. Batters were hitting .411 with a 1.167 OPS against him. He made 10 starts (57.2 IP) in AAA from the end of April until mid-June with uninspiring results (5.15 ERA, 10.6 H/9, 4.7 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9). He was knocked around after being called up again and finished the year back in AAA. For the year he had a a 6.89 ERA in Atlanta with 13.4 H/9, 3.5 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 over 48.1 innings. In AAA he had a 4.98 ERA over 72.1 innings with 9.8 H/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 4.9 K/9. His fastball velocity had dropped all the way to an average of 88 mph, but his change up was still about 82 mph. This didn't leave nearly enough difference of speed between the two pitches which accounted for 85% of his pitches thrown.

Jurrjens was granted free agency prior to the 2013 season and hooked on with the Baltimore Orioles. He signed a one year deal for a base salary of $1.5M with up to $2.5M worth of incentives. He started the year in AAA and made 8 solid starts (3.08 ERA in 52.2 IP) before a spot start with Baltimore in May. He was demoted after the game and only received one more shot with the Orioles big league club in late June before going back to AAA. He was granted free agency in July and signed with Detroit, his original club. He finished the year with the AAA squad, combining to throw 134 innings with a 4.57 ERA between Baltimore and Detroit's AAA clubs. He continued to get hit around, allowing 9.9 H/9 with just 5.1 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 with a 1.38 WHIP. His fastball still resided in the 88-89 range with a rare 90 showing up on the radar gun. His essentially ditched his slider and two-seamer, turning into a two-pitch guy with neither pitch having any break or real difference in speed.

In order for Jurrjens to regain his prior form he needs to make the necessary adjustments to his game. A good start would be to re-introduce his sinking fastball. With an average of 88 mph on his four seam, he needs movement to help avoid the barrel of the bat. He also needs to throw his slider more since his change up has become a much less effective weapon with his velocity regression. Another possibility would be to introduce a new pitch.

Jeff Neimann

Age Height Weight
31 6'9 285 LB

While it may seem like Neimann has been around for awhile, its because he kind of has. A first round pick in 2004, going 4th overall to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the gargantuan Texan was ranked the 20th best prospect in the game before ever throwing a professional pitch and third in the Tampa Bay system. His fastball sat between 92-97 mph with a dominant slider and good control of his massive frame. During his debut season of 2005 he battled groin and shoulder issues and only registered 30.2 innings with a 4.11 ERA spread between High A and AA. He showed why he went 4th overall, limiting batters to 5.6 H/9 with 12.3 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, and a 1.11 WHIP. His fastball remained very effective as he got excellent plane on it and kept it low in the zone. His slider was seen as the best in the Tampa organization with sharp, cutting action. He also began using his change up and spike curve more as he didn't really need them in college. After the season his prospect status had fallen to 70th overall but jumped to the #2 spot in the Rays' farm.

Niemann began the 2006 season at age 23 and back in AA. He didn't get started until mid June due to offseason surgery to address issues with his collarbone and shoulder, but he was excellent when healthy. Over 77.1 innings he only allowed 6.5 H/9 with 3.4 BB/9, 9.8 K/9, a 1.10 WHIP, and 3.43 FIP to a 2.68 ERA. His bread and butter fastball-slider combo were just as effective as ever, with the slider once again ranking as tops in Tampa Bay's farm system. His other offspeed stuff (change and spike curve) made strides as becoming MLB average pitches. At this point he just really needed to stay healthy and pitch a full season. After the season he gained more accolades, coming in at #35 overall, 4th in Tampa Bay's organization, and 8th in the Southern League. He also was the subject of one of the funniest descriptions of a player by a scout,"[He looks like a] lumberjack throwing cheddar." Niemann's ceiling was still as a top of the rotation anchor, but his health and the injury history of pitchers from Rice were red flags.

He spent the entirety of 2007 in the AAA International League and turned in his first full season of work. He threw 131 innings with a 3.98 ERA but allowed 9.9 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, 8.5 K/9, with a 1.45 WHIP and 3.87 FIP. He also allowed the highest BABIP of his career over a full season at .337 and saw his fastball velocity dip to the 91-94 mph range. His slider had also taken a step back, losing both velocity and bite. Luckily his curve ball took a step forward to an above average pitch, and he picked up a split fingered fastball to supplant his below average change up. Mechanically he developed a few flaws, sometimes rushing his delivery and he had a stab in the back of his arm motion that kept him from getting on top of the ball. His tempo and delivery also turned off scouts. He took his sweet time on the mound and one scout likened his delivery to the "Iron Mike" pitching machines with zero deception. He ranked as the 7th best prospect for Tampa, 9th in the International League and came in at #99 in the Top 100.

Niemann returned to AAA for the 2008 season and took a step forward and finally made his MLB debut in September. He made two AAA starts before getting called up for a pair of starts. He was demoted afterward and not recalled to the big leagues until September. For the year in AAA he made 24 starts spanning 133 innings with a 3.59 ERA and and 3.98 FIP. He allowed just 6.8 H/9, 3.4 BB/9, 8.7 K/9, had a 1.14 WHIP and he threw three complete games with one shut out. With Tampa he threw 16 innings to a 5.06 ERA, striking out 14 with eight walks, 18 hits, and an ERA+ of 89. Niemann's fastball stayed in the low 90's, peaking at 95 mph and his slider continued to regress to the point it was barely an average pitch. He also became more comfortable with his splitter. The arm stab was still at the back of his delivery and his deliberate pace made it easy enough for even Bengie Molina to steal a base off him. He ranked 10th in the Rays system and 16th in the International League but dropped out of the Top 100.

In 2009 and 2010, Niemann entrenched himself in the Tampa rotation. His first full season in the majors he threw 180.2 innings with two complete game shut outs, a 3.94 ERA, 4.07 FIP, and a 1.35 WHIP. He allowed 9.2 H/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 6.2 K/9 while finishing 4th in Rookie of the Year voting and with a 110 ERA+. He was worth 2.9 fWAR and had a ground ball rate of 40.5%. His fastball averaged 91.5 mph and was used almost 72% of the time. The curve ball was his go-to secondary pitch, being used 12% of the time while averaging 76.8 mph. His slider came in 11.6% of the time at 82.2 mph and the splitter was used 4.7% of the time coming in at 83.1 mph.

In 2010 he improved his ratio's but it did not show in his ERA. He gave up 8.2 H/9, 3.1 BB/9 and 6.8 K/9 through 174.1 IP with a 1.26 WHIP, 4.39 ERA, and 4.61 FIP. The injury bug struck him in April, July, and August though. He was hit by a batted ball in the shoulder in April but did not miss a start, and suffered a lower back strain in July and did not miss a start either. In August a right shoulder strain knocked him out for 21 games. He induced almost 4% more balls hit on the ground compared to 2009. One thing that didn't improve was the rate of balls flying over the fences. He allowed only 7.6 HR/FB his debut season but rose to 12.2 HR/FB in his sophomore campaign. This brought his fWAR down to just 1.0 despite a career low .263 BABIP. He began utilizing a two-seam fastball for the first time, using it 29% of the time compared to 34.5% for the four-seam fastball, but the fastball was still 8% less than the previous year. The curve remained his most often used offspeed pitch at 15.4% (78.3 mph avg.), the slider was used 11.1% (85.4 mph) and his split 9.5% (85 mph).

That injury bug caught up with Niemann once again in 2011 as he was knocked out of commission for over a month and a half with a back injury in early May. Before the injury he made six starts, posting a 5.74 ERA over 31.1 innings. Opponents were crushing him to an .812 OPS and he only had one start where he didn't allow more than three runs. He made three rehab starts in High A and AAA in June then returned to Tampa's rotation where he was a different animal. For the rest of the year he had a 3.55 ERA in 104 innings with 8.2 H/9, 7.6 K/9, and 2.6 BB/9. He practically ditched his slider (6.5%) in favor of the curve (23.7%), continued using the split (8.6%) and began throwing the two-seamer (37.9%) more than the four seam (23%). The fastball and curve were the same average speed as the year before while the slider was 1 mph slower and the split was 1.5 mph slower.

Can you see a theme in Niemann's career yet? He made seven starts to begin the 2012 season, throwing 34.2 innings with 29 hits and 12 walks to 30 strike outs with a 3.38 ERA. In his May 14th start against Toronto, he took ball off his right leg and continued to finish the inning. He was taken out and x-ray's revealed a broken fibula that would knock him out until his first rehab start in early August. He made four total rehab starts in High A and AAA and returned to Tampa's rotation September 1. He only threw 45 more pitches in the 2012 season as he hit the shelf again with rotator cuff inflammation. For the season he only threw 38 innings but they were impressive; just 7.1 H/9, 2.8 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, and a 1.11 WHIP.

At the beginning of April 2013, Niemann underwent shoulder surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff. He felt the reason for the injury was caused by a role change, moving to the bullpen after losing out on a spot in the rotation. He missed the entire season and the timetable for his return is April 2014, at the latest. While a shoulder surgery is a pretty major red flag, he could be had for pennies on the dollar compared to his past performance. Niemann earned $2.75M in 2012 and an even $3M for the 2013 season with 2014 his final arbitration eligible season before hitting free agency. An incentive-laden contract could be something that work for both sides.

Other possible options with MLB experience are Nick Blackburn, Armando Galarraga, and James McDonald.

Part 2 of the series will feature left handed starters and part 3 will finish up with the relief pitchers.