So often lost in much of the offseason discussion of $200MM+ contracts for the market’s top free agents and the drama of big names that linger on the open market too long is the slew of minor league signings that steadily trickle in from November through the end of Spring Training. To readers and writers alike, these transactions often become a footnote; at best, such transactions may capture our attention for a brief moment before the next major name signs or is rumored to be on the move. It’s easy, then, to overlook the amount of work that goes into such moves — unless, of course, you’re the agent negotiating the deal.
“Minor league deals are a lot of work,” agent Josh Kusnick said to MLBTR. “They’re not always easy to do. Some come together more quickly than others. There have been times in my career where a ball club will call me the minute free agency starts… They’ll make their offer, it’ll make sense, and then it’s done. But there are other situations where it’s dragged on for an entire year.”
As is the case with big league free agents, minor league free agents that linger on the open market into the New Year and late January can often find themselves facing uphill battles. In the case of veterans such as Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves and other recent players to sign minor league pacts, there will still be teams that are interested based on their Major League track record. However, that’s not always the case with less experienced players. Finding deals for players with limited (or zero) Major League experience becomes increasingly difficult as the winter wears on, and that problem can be even more complicated if the player is Latin American, as the process to secure a visa for those players is lengthy and can cause some clubs to shy away as Spring Training nears.
“It’s much easier to sign players with residency,” agent Rafael Godoy told MLBTR. Godoy, who primarily represents Latin American players, noted that some — particularly those with significant MLB experience — are desirable enough and get enough early interest that the timeline to get a visa isn’t problematic. However, due to the early age at which players from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic can sign, many become free agents at age-22 or age-23 without any Major League experience. If early interest in those players isn’t strong, their lack of experience and the length of the visa process can increase the difficulty of finding a good opportunity.
“You don’t really want to wait until the new year to get them all done,” said Godoy. Acquiring visas for players from Latin American countries requires a lot of paperwork and legwork, he explained. Teams will have to make appointments with the consulate in that player’s home country, account for constantly changing immigration rules and wait for a visa approval process following a meeting/interview in the foreign country. Even if a player has his passport and documentation in order, Godoy added, visas can be denied for a variety of reasons, delaying a player’s ability to arrive at camp on time. (Indeed, stories of players who are late to camp due to visa issues seem to permeate Spring Training each season.) Because of the length of the process, some teams will becoming increasingly reluctant to go down that road as Spring Training nears.
The potential for such delays is one reason that some teams will be less willing to embark on the visa journey as Spring Training nears. One agent told MLBTR that he’d once been informed by a team that he was fortunate his client had established U.S. citizenship over the course of his pro career, because they likely wouldn’t have given a look to a player that still needed a visa that late in the offseason.
Of course, an invitation to Major League Spring Training isn’t always a requirement. It may, sometimes, even be overrated, per one agent. Some teams give out Spring Training invites “like candy,” he continued, which will often result in a player getting demoted to minor league camp at the first or second cut.
Additional sticking points include opt-out clauses and, of course, money — be it monthly salary in the minors or the size of the Major League salary, should that player reach the bigs. Indeed, Kusnick said, in his experience, money is typically the determining factor. “The money, the guaranteed salary, that’s usually the part that’s the trickiest,” said Kusnick. Sometimes, he notes, the most money isn’t necessarily the best thing. “I’ve advised [minor league free agents] to take less money to go to a better situation,” said Kusnick, noting that a good opportunity to make a big league club can outweigh a better minor league payday. “No one wants to get rich in the minor leagues. They want to be big leaguers.”
Finding the right balance of guaranteed money and opportunity to make the big league roster is a difficult task, and there’s no guarantee that a player will listen to his agent’s advice in such situations. “Ultimately, it’s the player’s decision where he wants to play,” said one agent who has had clients return to familiar situations in the past despite better opportunities to make a Major League roster elsewhere. At that point, the agent said, Spring Training essentially becomes “a tryout” or audition of sorts… for the other 29 teams in the Majors, that is. In those situations, opt-out clauses for players with significant MLB service time become paramount, and refusal to include them (or only conceding an opt-out late in the regular season) is often a deal-breaker, even at the cost of a significant minor league salary.
However many complications an agent may encounter in seeking a non-guaranteed deal for his or her client, they all pale in comparison to the realization that a player simply will not find an opportunity with an affiliated club. Yet another agent described one unenviable task as the worst part about being an agent — having to sit a player down and tell him that teams simply aren’t interested anymore. “I try to be as straightforward and honest about it as I can,” he said, noting that not all players handle such devastating news as well as others.
Still, on the flip side of the equation, there are few moments that stick with agents quite like seeing a client successfully revive his career. Kusnick was elated by the resurgence of Jeremy Jeffress with the Brewers in the season’s final months. Kusnick recalls pitching a return to Milwaukee to Jeffress: “I said, ’Can you imagine going back to Milwaukee, pitching down the stretch, fighting for a playoff spot, and 50,000 fans cheering for you after all you’ve been through?'” Jeffress not only resurfaced with the Brewers but thrived, and Kusnick called a dramatic eighth-inning strikeout of Buster Posey with the game on the line “the affirmation of everything that we could never have dreamed of when he took that job … the coolest moment of my career, by far.”