Minor League Free Agents Finding Major League Deals

40-man roster spots are a precious commodity in Major League Baseball.  Many of the transactions on MLB Trade Rumors stem from this fact, as teams decide which players will occupy those last few spots.  The roster squeeze prevents many recognizable free agents from securing a Major League contract each offseason, from useful veterans like Jason Kubel, Shaun Marcum, and Jamey Carroll to former top prospects like Trevor Crowe and Taylor Teagarden.  Those players, despite a decent amount of name value, signed minor league deals.  However, a new trend emerged this offseason, as eight players with scant Major League experience signed Major League deals: Francisco Pena (Royals), Kelvin De La Cruz (Orioles), Edgmer Escalona (Orioles), Erik Cordier (Giants), Francisco Peguero (Orioles), David Cooper (Indians), Angel Castro (Cardinals), and David Adams (Indians).  Four of the players have no Major League experience at all, while none of the eight have more than 100 innings or 226 plate appearances in the bigs.

Upside As A Separator

The average age of these eight players is about 27 years old, significantly younger than a standard free agent who signs a Major League deal.  Many of these seven come with top prospect pedigrees.  Peguero, an outfielder signed by the Giants out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, was ranked as the team's fourth-best prospect prior to the 2011 season by Baseball America.  As recently as last year, Peguero was ranked eighth by BA, who said he "still has the most exciting combination of speed and power in the system, along with perhaps the best bat speed."  He went on to hit .316/.354/.408 in 70 Triple-A games to earn his second big league call-up with the Giants, though he received only six starts in September.

The Giants were faced with a difficult situation.  With Peguero having used his four minor league options, they risked losing him to a waiver claim if they weren't willing to put him on the 25-man roster out of spring training in 2014.  The Giants decided to remove Peguero from the 40-man roster by designating him for assignment in late November, cutting ties by non-tendering him five days later.  As agent Dan Rosquete tells it, "The minute the Giants said 'Hey, we're taking him off the roster,' they backed it up with, 'Well, we want him back, what's it going to take?'"  After Peguero's frustration from the lack of opportunity at the end of the season with the Giants, Rosquete's primary goal was to secure playing time for his client in 2014.  Interestingly, the Giants designated Peguero for assignment in part to make room for Cordier, a big arm who had become a six-year minor league free agent after pitching in relief for the Pirates' Triple-A team.  Cordier is one of four six-year minor league free agents this offseason to sign a Major League deal with no Major League experience.

The Orioles swooped in with an appreciation for Peguero's tools, an opportunity for playing time, and a Major League offer.  Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette "could tell me more about my client than I knew about him," jokes Rosquete.  "Dan Duquette called me and said 'Listen, I'm looking at everything and I can see this guy as an everyday outfielder.'"  In an email, Duquette tells MLBTR Peguero "has good talent as he is a lifetime .300 plus hitter in the minors and [is a] very good defensive player."  As a group, these eight Major League signings possess upside rarely found affordably in free agency. For example, the Indians landed a former first round draft pick in first baseman Cooper, the Orioles added a strikeout lefty who has touched 94 miles per hour in De La Cruz, and the Giants picked up a power reliever who can touch 97 in Cordier.  Plus, all of them are considered to be near big league ready.  

Contracts Dictated By Strong Markets

The majority of the eight players were six-year minor league free agents, with a handful of non-tenders mixed in.  Ultimately, teams wouldn't give Major League deals and the accompanying 40-man roster spot to this level of player unless it was necessary to get the deal done.  Duquette, who authored three of these eight big league deals with Peguero, De La Cruz, and Escalona, notes, "In each case other clubs were offering Major League contracts, so you could say that the Major League contract was required by the market."  

The only way for an agent to really know what it will take is to let the market play out.  Paul Kinzer represents the 24-year-old Pena, who became a six-year minor league free agent after 2013 when the Mets decided not to add him to their 40-man roster.  "I don't know if anybody expected the kind of response we got on him," says Kinzer of Pena.  Kinzer says the strong demand for catchers worked in Pena's favor.  Three teams were close on the player, and the Royals had to offer a Major League deal to separate themselves.  Cooper signed a minor league deal with the Indians in August after recovering from career-threatening herniated disk in his chest cavity.  He opted for free agency at the end of the month, and demand was strong enough that the Indians re-signed him to a Major League deal.  The Rays put pressure on the Tribe by also reportedly making a Major League offer.

A Possible Trend

Though we don't have complete data on the number of inexperienced players signing Major League deals each offseason, the eight such contracts from 2013-14 is definitely the highest number in recent years.  Kinzer, who by his recollection has done three or four of these types of deals in his career, "absolutely" sees a trend toward more of them.  He explains, "Teams can go out and spend a little more on these guys and sometimes get a better return on their money than going with an older, veteran guy."  By "spend a little more," Kinzer is referring to the cost of a roster spot, since none of these contracts were for more than $75K above the $500K league minimum.  The going rate for a veteran backup catcher this winter has been in the $1-3MM range.

Teams are continually trying to find outside-the-box means of acquiring younger talent.  Showing a greater willingness to barter with a 40-man roster spot in November and early December, when most clubs are not near capacity, seems savvy.  The trend could truly explode if more success stories emerge.

The biggest recent success story is the signing of lefty Jose Quintana by the White Sox after the 2011 season.  Quintana was signed by the Mets out of Colombia for $40K in 2006, and signed with the Yankees about a year later after the Mets released him due to a violation of the Minor League Baseball drug policy.  Baseball America never ranked Quintana among the Yankees' top 30 prospects, and he became a six-year minor league free agent after '11.  GM Brian Cashman told Joel Sherman of the New York Post in June 2012, "We looked at him as a fringy prospect. We offered him a minor league contract to stay, but not a 40-man roster position. We didn’t feel he was ahead of other guys we gave spots to. It was a numbers game, but right now it does not look like a good decision."  White Sox scouts Joe Siers and Daraka Shaheed "made him stand out on the six-year free-agent list," then-assistant GM Rick Hahn told Sherman, and the Sox and GM Kenny Williams separated themselves from the pack by offering Quintana a Major League deal.  Fresh off 200 innings of 3.51 ball in 2013, Quintana is a scouting success for Chicago and the best recent example of a Major League deal paying off big for a player with no experience at the game's highest level.  

Quintana, who would go a long way toward stabilizing the Yankees' current rotation, is one that got away.  The team had a firsthand look at the southpaw for five years, but preferred to keep the roster spot open when he reached minor league free agency.  Of the eight who signed this offseason, seven landed with new clubs.  Time will tell whether the Mets, Dodgers, Pirates, Rockies, Giants, and Yankees will regret letting these players go, but if more credible big leaguers emerge from the group, it's likely we'll continue to see an increase in Major League deals for minor league free agents.


22 Responses to Minor League Free Agents Finding Major League Deals Leave a Reply

  1. haplito 2 years ago

    Define “upside”?

  2. johnsilver 2 years ago

    Baltimore has found one also like this.. One of their best SP who flies under the radar.. Miguel Gonzalez. Boston took him in the rule 5 draft several years ago, he promptly got hurt (forget what it was, but it was terribly bad) and he missed 2y. They released him, Baltimore picks him up and for 2y he has been a solid #2, if not 3 SP.

  3. Ruben_Tomorrow 2 years ago

    The chances of these guys succeeding in the majors, seems as equivalent to the chances of the Rule 5 guys making it. I instantly think of guys like Matt Antonelli and Greg Burke getting major league deals for doing nothing in the majors, and even having pedestrian minor league numbers. There are more but I guess it makes more sense to give “younger” guys a nice contract for not accomplishing much, instead of giving Jamey Carroll or Jason Kubel a major league deal at this point in their careers. Personally, I would like to see the Rule 5 gain more support. The spike in major league deals to minor leaguers seem to have weakened the Rule 5.

  4. richardsteeleMD 2 years ago

    Dan Duquette is redefining what it means to be a GM.

    • section 34 2 years ago

      Let’s let him have a little more success first. The wild-card team in 2012 was largely Andy MacPhail’s creation.

      It’s a shame Duquette has to work under inexplicably tight budget restrictions, but he does seem creative within them.

      • 123Redsox 1 year ago

        he is a great GM. He has seemed to turn the O’s around and he put together the redSox 2003 team and the w.s. team in 04′ and many of those guys stuck around for 07′

    • whacked 1 year ago

      If that’s so, I prefer Billy Beane’s definition.

  5. Brian Baker 2 years ago

    David Adams is an intriguing guy for the Indians. He struggled in 43 games with Yankees last year, but his minor league numbers show this guy is a very good hitter that had a lot of bad luck with injuries. If he’s healthy, he could end up playing everyday for Cleveland. He can play 2B or 3B. His numbers in the minors come out to 3 full seasons (even though he played 6). Career OPS over .800 with a ton of doubles. Kind of reminds me of Martin Prado.

  6. Joe Orsatti 2 years ago

    Peguero is a great signing. Give him some ABs and just watch.

    • He has a loyal following among Giants prospect hounds. His knee injury and the surgeries involved took a toll on his speed/defense/basepaths. Mainly his power just hasn’t filled in at all. Still, at ST last year, he could really hit. I can understand him wanting to get more chances with another club.

  7. Andrew Kinsman 2 years ago

    I may be wrong but I was under the impression that one of the reasons that Cooper & Adams were signed to MLB rather than MILB deals for the Tribe was because they each have an option remaining and can be used as back-ups in AAA in 2014 (assuming they don’t make the 25-man). And of course, if they do then force their way onto the 25-man some time in 2014 then the Tribe has many years of contract control ahead.

    Conversely, if they had been signed to MILB deals then they would likely have been able to secure their release immediately if/when they fail to make the 25-man after spring training, and the Tribe would have lost them as AAA depth.

    • You’re right, some of these guys do have options remaining. But there was no particular reason to do an MLB deal with them if the market didn’t warrant it.

  8. With the Giants, it was my impression they designated Peguero for assignment in part to make room for 27 year old Erik Cordier – your story on it – link to mlbtraderumors.com

    The Giants apparently had to offer him a major league deal to win the bid against other teams offering minor league deals.

    As Cordier has no mlb experience, he might not fit in this story but it seems to me he fits pretty well with this profile you’ve outlined. In effect the Giants cut extra hitters to pick up another bullpen arm.

  9. John Donovan 2 years ago

    I appreciate that a lot of effort went into this story and it definitely is something to think about, but I really do think this is much ado about nothing, or more precisely much ado about very little. To think that any of these eight players is going to be the next Jose Quintana is stretching to say the least. There is a bit of information that was left out in order to make that statement and that the OTHER minor league free agents signed in 2011 as well as the entire class signed in 2012 and 2013. That info is needed, so the reader can determine the actual probability of success for this type of transaction.

    In my mind this is very similar to the Rule V Draft where every now and then a Johan Santana will emerge, but for the most part few impact players change hands. No one remembers the majority of players that don’t work out, but they do remember the Josh Hamiltons and Joakim Sorias that are successful.

    • Dick__Whitman 2 years ago

      You are right about the similarity to the Rule V draft. And you are also right about the amount of work that went into this report. We should all be tipping our collective cap to Tim Dierkes for shining a light on a roster management trend that would have gone completely unreported otherwise.

      • Definitely there is an “unofficial rule 5″ draft that goes on at certain crunch times during the year where teams juggle their 40-man, and those guys get claimed early and often. Particularly choke points like preparing for the Rule 5, the end of ST and when FAs are signed.

        I agree with Don Draper up above, cap tip to Tim Dierkes for sure, helping flesh out stories like this.

  10. KingofKauff 2 years ago

    It seems those who received “Major League Deals” or 40 man roster spots were younger, in terms of service time, due to roster flexibility and the optioning process. Players who have more than 5 years of service have the right to refuse an option therefore teams would rather not offer a “major league deal” to someone competing for a spot.

  11. InsaneThunderCrusade 2 years ago

    Does this have anything to do with the fact that players from the Rule 4 draft are no longer allowed to sing Major League Deals and be placed on the 40 man roster?

    Although I think it might be too soon for it to have had a big impact. I believe there has only been two drafts since the new CBA

  12. dave andras 3 months ago

    Dave

  13. dave andras 3 months ago

    Judge , and I haven’t touch anyone.

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