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Swinging for the Fences: The value of minor league signings

Never underestimate the power of the spring training invite

Swinging for the Fences: The value of minor league signings
December 24, 2013
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Last Friday morning, I spent a full hour just watching Jason Giambi's two-run walk-off home run against the White Sox in late September over and over again. It's been three months since that magical night at Progressive Field, yet I still can't believe that it actually happened and I was there to witness it live.

It's hard to dispute Giambi's value to the Tribe both on the field and in the clubhouse last season, as his skipper Terry Francona will never hesitate to point out. And "Papa G" was just one of several successful minor league signings by Antonetti & Co. last offseason.

Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir also joined the ranks of successful minor league signings of the past year and have each also since received major league contracts. 

So far this offseason, while the rest of baseball has been consumed with 10-year contracts, posting fees and blockbuster trades, the Indians have been hard at work finding value on the market without breaking the bank.

The pitching market in particular has not been a friendly place for the bargain shopper.

Chris Antonetti has thus far done an adequate job at combing the available arms for starting pitching and bullpen help. John AxfordShaun Marcum and Josh Outman are the latest to join the staff at reasonable prices.

Marcum joins Matt CappsJ.C. RamirezTyler CloydMike Zagurski and others as the current pitchers the Indians have signed to minor league deals by the Indians with invites to spring training. Who will pan out for the Tribe in 2014? No one knows, but that's the fun of minor league signings. Low risk and potentially high reward.

Of course, this moneyball-esque strategy shouldn't be the only one implemented in building a playoff-contending team, but I'd rather take a chance on Shaun Marcum on a minor league deal than give a four-year/$52 million deal to Edwin Jackson.

While fans salivate for another Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn-type signing this offseason, allow me to demonstrate why the minor league signings the team has made and will make between now and spring training should not be overlooked.

Over the course of the past three seasons, hundreds of minor league contracts have been signed and more than a few have paid off gangbusters for their respective teams.

Here's some outside of the Indians' recent finds that have proved to be successful:

1. Ryan Vogelsong (San Francisco Giants - 2011):

As good a payoff as the Indians got in the Scott Kazmir deal last offseason, the Giants may have found the best talent on a dime in Ryan Vogelsong back in 2011. The right-hander had not pitched at the big league level in five years, including spending three years in Japan.

Vogelsong was cut by the Pirates in 2006 after posting a 6.39 ERA in 20 relief appearances with the Pirates. The right-hander then spent the next three years pitching in Japan where he posted an 11-14 record with a 4.17 ERA. In the 2010 offseason, he was signed by the Phillies where he spent time in AAA before being released mid-season. The Angels picked him up shortly after, where he also pitched in AAA before being granted free agency in the offseason. Vogelsong went 3-8 with a 4.81 ERA in 33 appearances between the two AAA clubs.

San Francisco then signed him to a minor league deal during the 2010-2011 offseason and something finally clicked as he put up career bests across the board, including wins (13), ERA (2.71), innings-pitched (179.2) and strikeouts (139) as he immediately became one of the Giants' best starters earning him an unexpected All-Star selection. Unfortunately, they fell short of the playoffs as the Diamondbacks took the division title.

In 2012, Vogelsong really put himself back on the map during the Giants' World Series Championship campaign. While his ERA did rise to 3.37, his impact was nevertheless significant, particularly in the postseason where he went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in four starts.

Of course, this is much more than a best-case scenario for a minor league signing, but still proof that a player can find their niche at any point in their career.

 2. Brandon Moss (Oakland Athletics - 2011):

Call it luck. Call it Moneyball, but Billy Beane obviously saw something in Brandon Moss after he had struggled to stick in the majors in 2010 and 2011 with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The once highly-touted Red Sox prospect was shipped off to the Pirates in 2008 in the Manny Ramirez/Jason Bay three-team mega trade after batting .291 in limited time in Boston. For the next two and a half seasons, Moss only hit .114 between the Buccos and Phillies.

Like Ryan Vogelsong, Moss was at the low point of his major league career when the A's signed him to a minor league deal prior to the 2012 season. In just 84 games, the outfielder and first baseman not only got back on track at the plate batting .291, he also found a power stroke that he had not previously tapped into in his career as he belted 21 homers while playing only slightly more than half the games in the season.

This past season, Moss earned more of a starting role with Oakland as he hit .256 with 30 home runs and 87 RBI in 145 games. Thanks to his limited major league service time prior to 2012, Moss is under team control for the next three seasons.

3. Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox - 2011):

Here was a left-hander that both New York franchises had given up on before finally getting a shot with the White Sox in 2012. Signed as an amateur free agent with the Mets in 2006, Quintana only made three appearances for their rookie league club and scuffled allowing seven runs (five earned) in just five and a third innings of work.

The left-hander was then suspended for the entire 2007 season for violating MLB's drug policy. During that time, the Mets released him and he remained unsigned until 2008 when the Yankees picked him up. Between 2008 and 2011, Quintana posted a record of 18-7 with a 2.61 ERA with the Yankees organization. However, for whatever reason, the team didn't see him fit to wear pinstripes as they granted him free agency in the 2011-2012 offseason.

Not even a week had gone by before the White Sox snatched him up on a minor league deal. And those of us here in Cleveland should remember Quintana's major league debut well as he held the Tribe to only one hit over five and two thirds innings of work on May 7, 2012. The left-hander went on to go 6-6 with a 3.76 ERA in his first big league season. In 2013, Quintana pitched 200 innings and had an ERA of 3.51 in 33 starts for Chicago as he has established himself as one of their better starters.

4. Andy Pettitte (New York Yankees - 2012):

Okay, I know, why would one of the Yankees' infamous "Core Four" be on this list? Well, for as great a career as Andy Pettitte had with New York, he was originally brought back out of retirement for his final two years on a minor league deal. The left-hander appeared to pick up right where he left off when he first decided to try and hang it up after the 2010 season, pitching out of the rotation immediately and providing some stability in the back of the Yankee rotation.

Of course, as Indians fans are well aware of, his triumphant return was cut short by a fateful line drive off the bat ofCasey Kotchman caught Pettitte on the ankle and sidelined him for much of the remainder of the season. The veteran finished the year at 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts for New York.

2013 was where Pettitte's value as a low-risk veteran starter came into play as the now-tattered and battered Yankees managed to stay in the playoff race up until the final weeks of the season. Pettitte and fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda were basically the only thing holding the Yankees pitching staff together in the dog days of summer as they were riddled with injuries and inconsistency.

The left-hander then decided to call it quits for good after going 11-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 30 starts, where he racked up 185.1 innings for an ailing Yankees ballclub.

5. Jared Burton (Minnesota Twins - 2011):

It's no secret that since the Minnesota Twins have fallen from prominence, they have struggled to rebuild their pitching staff. Their former stars on the mound have faltered and prospects and acquisitions haven't worked out. However, one small gamble they took did work out in their favor.

Prior to the 2012 season, the Twins picked up right-hander Jared Burton on a minor league deal after he had been released by the Reds. Burton hadn't pitched horribly for Cincinnati, but he spent most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons in the minors due mostly to recurring injuries. The Reds finally opted to move on from their former Rule 5 draft pick following the 2011 season.

Over the course of one season in 2012, Burton went from being an injury risk trying to fight for a spot in the big league bullpen in spring training to emerging as one of the top setup men in the league. In 64 appearances, the right-hander posted an impressive ERA of 2.18 and recorded 18 holds, earning him a two-year contract extension from the Twins during the offseason.

Burton took a step back in 2013 with an ERA of 3.82, but still maintained his standing as the Twins' primary setup man recording the league's third most holds at 27.

...................................

So does this mean every minor league signing should be regarded on the same level as a major league player acquisition? No, of course not, but they also shouldn't be brushed aside and disregarded because they don't make major headlines.

This is not meant to discount the value of big league signings either. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn had as much a major impact on the 2013 Indians' season as Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn.

But let me ask you this, in a big spot late in the game, would you rather have seen Mark Reyonlds or Jason Giambi at the plate with the game on the line?

Could Shaun Marcum be the Indians' version of Ryan Vogelsong?

Who knows?

That's the fun of minor league signings.

Jake's Takes...

Shin-Soo Choo agrees to 7-year/$130 million deal with Rangers... Okay, did we Cleveland fans ever envision Choo getting this kind of payday? There's no arguing that he's a talented ballplayer, but with no major awards or even All-Star selections in his career thus far, it just goes to show how inflated the market has become and how wide-ranging the standards of value has grown in just the past few years.

The financial aspects aside, though, this is a decent pickup for Texas, who has had an eye on Choo for a while, from what I hear. The Rangers are getting a dynamic hitter at the top of their lineup to help set the table for sluggersAdrian Beltre and newly-acquired Prince Fielder. Aside from his strong throwing arm, his defense isn't anything special, but then again, neither was Nelson Cruz's, who has likely has seen his last at-bat in a Rangers uniform.

Indians trade Drew Stubbs to Colorado in exchange for Josh Outman... Let me first bid a heartfelt farewell to Rich Hill. 2013 proved to be just another part of his yo-yo career and unfortunately, we got him on the low point in the cycle. I wish him all the best, of course, but won't be disappointed to not see him throw another pitch in a Cleveland uniform.

As far as the trade, I know the Indians had reportedly inquired about Outman during the season at the deadline and the Rockies had apparently asked for Carlos Carrasco in return. Now Carrasco has had his problems, but he still is too much to give up for a matchup lefty.

It's also debatable that Stubbs was too much to give up for him, but in the end, I like the deal for both sides. The Tribe got a decent left-handed reliever that they have lacked since Rafael Perez left town. The Rockies get a quality utility outfielder in Stubbs, who is better suited for the National League anyway and needs more opportunities to play his natural position in center field.

Dodgers sign Chris Perez to 1-year/$2.25 million, plus incentives... When the speculation started about the Indians possibly bringing back Chris Perez on a lesser deal, I really hoped someone else would pick him up before that happened. Nothing against him personally, but I think the best thing for him and the Tribe is to cut all ties and go their seperate ways.

Now the question is what is Los Angeles doing stockpiling all these pitchers? Shortly afterward, they also signed journeyman right-hander Jamey Wright to a one-year deal. Of course, as it was speculated by one of my Twitter followers, maybe they are setting up for a major trade.

Or maybe Magic Johnson just likes a lot of pitching. As the old adage goes, you can never have too much of it.

Grant Balfour's deal with Orioles falls through due to physical concerns... I don't know the whole story behind this situation, but the Orioles seemed to miss out on an excellent opportunity to add a veteran closer even after the concerns over his physical cropped up. The Red Sox had a similar situation with Mike Napoli last offseason and managed to renegotiate a lesser deal.

Of course, not all negotiations are the same and the health concerns over Balfour may have been more serious than Napoli's. However, there are two things that are certain as of right now: 1) Balfour's market value this offseason has been tarnished, and 2) the Orioles have lost a certain amount of credibility in the free agent market.

Until either side proves otherwise, I'd expect things in the Hot Stove world to cool off a bit for both of them.

In Conclusion...

Is it Christmas Eve already? It still feels like just yesterday when I was sitting in the Progressive Field mezzanine watching Giambi's home run ball come in for landing. But that also means we're that much closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear (49 days to be exact).

In all seriousness, though, I'd just like to thank Tony Lastoria and all the wonderful people here at IBI for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this fine publication as well as the loyal readers who have made my first year with the site a productive one. Have a safe and wonderful holiday season with all your families and loved ones!

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! And Go Tribe!

Follow me on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake for all the latest Cleveland Indians news and baseball chat.

User Comments

Ross
December 24, 2013 - 3:10 PM EST
Happy Holidays to all IBI writers and staff. Keep up the good work next year and let's hope the Tribe exceeds expectations again in 2014.

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