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.