Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Potential Free Agent Bargains Part 1: The Solartes

Yangervis Solarte, Rigoberto Cervantes-ABC de la Semana
Every year, we see players who sign minor league deals or 1-year deals worth very little come up big for a contending team. These players are not guaranteed much more than a Spring Training invitation, but they make the most out of their opportunities and play significant roles for their respective teams. Two relievers signed at the end of the last offseason, Ryan Madson and Carlos Villanueva, became top options in the back end of playoff bullpens. Yangervis Solarte, who the Yankees picked up as a relative unknown prior to 2014, took off in Spring Training and started strong before being dealt to San Diego for Chase Headley. Solarte is now a key cog in the Padres lineup, playing multiple infield positions with a potent bat, hitting .270 with 33 doubles and 14 home runs in 2015. Bargains in the free agent market can include anyone from former stars recovering from injury (The Madsons), undervalued assets (The Villanuevas), or complete unknowns (The Solartes) who, under the right direction, could flourish in a big way. This is the first piece in a three part series, covering the first category, The Solartes, or minor league free agents who have flown under the radar, yet could make an impact for a major league club in 2016.


Erik Cordier, RHP (video)
Cordier, a 6'4" native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, stands out for one thing: his fastball. He throws 96-98 and can consistently hit 100, and he has the numbers to back up his stuff. The 29-year-old right hander struck out 11.6 per 9 in 2014 in AAA before posting an 11.9 K/9 at the same level this season. He also throws an at least average, sometimes plus slider around 86-88. His main flaw, like most other hard throwers, is his control and command, but his pitching delivery is fairly simple and repeatable. A major league bullpen in need of a middle reliever with potential for more could take a flyer on Cordier, and his fastball-slider combo should pick up some K's at little to no risk.

Juan Gonzalez, RHP
Juan Gonzalez, Getty Images
Juan Gonzalez, a Venezuelan 25-year-old righty was a relative unknown in baseball circles until this season, where he surprised many by representing the Dodgers in the Futures Game for the World Team. Across 50 innings between AA and AAA, Gonzalez put up a 1.62 ERA, especially impressive considering the hitter-friendly confines of the PCL. There is no video available for him online, so we are limited to stat lines and quotes from the internet. Baseball America says his fastball sits in the mid-90s with good running action and a slider around 87 mph, and he challenges hitters and gets ground ball outs. This statement is backed up by farm director and Dodgers managerial candidate Gabe Kapler, who says "Juan has really opened some eyes with his consistency, his velocity, and some deceptiveness in his delivery." As a minor league free agent, he should receive an invite to Spring Training with a MLB team, and if he can build on his 2015 success he could be a big bullpen piece going forward.

Andrew Barbosa, LHP (promotional video from when he was in college at USF)
Barbosa is the oldest pitcher and the least-hyped player on this list, a power-armed 28 year old lefty who has undergone shoulder and elbow surgery before. Standing at 6'8'' 230 lbs, Barbosa throws a fastball, curveball, and changeup, the latter of which he claims is his best and most consistent pitch. He has posted good numbers in every step of the minors, yet has been moved along slowly due to injuries and setbacks. After being released by the Diamondbacks early on, Barbosa had a short stint with Long Island Ducks in which he dominated before the Braves picked him up. He pitched well in AA with a 56/22 K/BB ratio in 47.1 innings. The walk rate is a tad high, but he can limit batted-ball damage (6.8 H/9, just one HR hit off him this season), making him an attractive, low-risk target to be a LOOGY in a big league bullpen.

Robert Zarate, LHP
Zarate has had an intriguing career path that has took him everywhere. A native of Venezuela, he signed with the Canadian-based Blue Jays when he was 18, and pitched in the Dominican Summer League for them with solid results. He was released despite putting up strong numbers in 2009, and was off the radar for several years until 2012 in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, although rumor has it he was in Japan for semi-pro ball with the independent Gunma Diamond Pegasus. It should also be noted that he spends most offseasons in his home country of Venezuela pitching in their Winter League. In 2015, the Rays brought him stateside to their AAA club, where he threw to the tune of a 2.90 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. His 10.9 K/9 was very impressive, and he showed the ability to limit walks and home runs as well. His ability to throw strikes and get whiffs from the left side should be appealing for teams in need of bullpen depth or help.

Position Players

Conner Crumbliss, 2B/OF (video)
Eye-popping. Those are the only words to describe his walk-rate, a true plus-plus tool of his. It is utterly insane, approaching nearly 20% in some of his seasons in the minor leagues. Crumbliss is athletic, has some speed and some pop to go with the tremendous approach. He is already 28, and it is hard to understand why the Athletics have had him repeat levels and stall his development. A college senior drafted in 2009, he has hit in every stop of the minors except a small 20-game sample of AAA in 2013, in which he even popped 3 home runs. He has hit at least 10 homers in each of the last three years and a solid career 77.6% stolen base success rate. His plus wRC+ numbers across his 6 years of minor league service (135, 148, 131, 112, 134, 142, 119) deserve at least a promotion to AAA, if not an outright shot at winning a big league bench spot in Spring Training. Bold prediction: if there is any no-name utility man who can step up and make an immediate impact in the major leagues, it is Crumbliss. Unfortunately, he missed most of 2015 with an injury, so a productive 2016 would require some rehab, making him an unlikely candidate for breakout. Still, a .250/.355/.365 line is not out of the question and would be a welcome addition for many major league teams. Of course, reasonable thinking leaves Crumbliss as an organizational filler, but even so he should be a decent piece in a Triple-A lineup with upside for more.

Tommy Field, INF (video)
Field is a defense-first shortstop with some pop in his bat. Also 28 years old, Tommy Field has exhibited power and patience throughout his minor league career. This past season, he posted a 12.2% walk rate to go with an 18.9% K-rate in AAA, and while a .192 ISO isn't extremely high, it is plenty of punch for a glove-minded middle infielder. He was rated the Best Defensive Infielder in the Rockies system before 2011, a testament to his plus glovework. He has bounced around quite a bit, with many teams taking a flyer on his profile, and there's no reason another team won't in Spring Training. He will be 29 come Opening Day, and if he does finally hit his stride and make a name for himself, look for a .230/.320/.410 batting line with about 10 homers and 5 stolen bases as a best case scenario, obviously with the always solid defense as well.

Destin Hood, OF (video)
If one had to pick just one word to describe Destin Hood, it would be 'explosive'. His tools are so loud, and that is why the Nationals took him in the second round out of high school in 2008. He went through his up and downs throughout the Nats system until he reached AAA in 2014, and he slashed .294/.344/.482 with 24 doubles and 10 homers. He became a minor league free agent at the end of that year, and it is puzzling why the Nationals didn't put the former top prospect, at just 24, on their 40-man roster. The Cleveland Indians picked him up and, in an even more inexplicable move, sent him to AA, where he hit well again before releasing him. The Phillies picked him up, and apparently they agreed with the Indians' evaluation, and they sent him to AA where, of course, he hit well again. Between these moves, it is very possible that there are some makeup or personality issues with Hood, but without any inside info, we will never know. From our standpoint, and maybe a few major league organizations, he is a toolshed oozing with potential who know has a track record of hitting high minors pitching well for two years now, and at just the age of 25, he has even more room to improve.

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