With the month of April in the rearview mirror, we’ve had the chance to see some early results from minor league free agents. Though signed without any financial commitments, many such players have an impact. To take an extreme example, J.D. Martinez signed with the Tigers just before the start of the 2014 season — here’s the story the deal warranted — and has been worth better than four wins above replacement since.
It’s too early to know where it’ll all end up, but let’s have a glance at some of the most impressive performances to date from players who couldn’t find guaranteed money over the winter.
These players have put up quality results out of the gates:
John Axford, Rockies – Though he has tossed just five innings after missing time to deal with a frightening episode with his young son, Axford has impressed when available. He’s yet to allow a run while striking out six batters, and still brings mid-90s heat.
Rafael Betancourt, Rockies – The 40-year-old has been nothing short of dominant in his return from Tommy John surgery. Through 9 2/3 innings, he has permitted just two earned runs and five hits while striking out 11 and walking only one batter.
Kelly Johnson, Braves – For a team that needed help at second and third as well as in the run production department, Johnson has brought much-needed pop. He owns a .250/.308/.479 slash and has smacked three long balls in 52 turns at bat.
Ryan Madson, Royals – Madson has fit right in with a dominant Royals pen, striking out better than 10 batters per nine while walking just 2.5 and yielding a 50% ground ball rate. A classic low BABIP/high LOB% combo indicate that some regression is coming, but advanced metrics value his work at a sub-3.00 level.
Justin Maxwell, Giants – Through 57 plate appearances, Maxwell owns a stellar (and non-BABIP-fueled) .255/.333/.510 slash with three home runs. Throw in highly-rated defense from the corner field, and the Hunter Pence fill-in has already racked up nearly a full win above replacement.
Filling A Need
Others have been plenty useful to their clubs and/or look like they could be moving forward:
Anthony Bass, Rangers – For a pitching-needy club, 18 1/3 innings of long relief with a 3.44 ERA is most welcome. That’s just what Bass has delivered, and advanced metrics say that he has if anything been (very slightly) unlucky.
Blaine Boyer, Twins – Boyer has filled up 12 1/3 innings for an underwhelming Minnesota pen. While his 3.65 ERA and slightly lagging peripherals are nothing to get excited about, he’s been a useful piece for Minnesota.
Roberto Hernandez, Astros – When you go hunting on the MiLB free agent market for a fifth starter, you’re hoping for what Hernandez has delivered in Houston: 3.80 earned over 23 2/3 innings in four starts.
Jason Marquis, Reds – The bottom-line results haven’t been there (5.48 ERA), but Marquis has shown surprising promise at age 36. Though he doesn’t even reach 88 mph with his average fastball, Marquis has retired 24 batters by way of strikeout in 23 frames while walking only seven hitters.
Anthony Swarzak, Indians – Though the 4.09 ERA is less than impressive, Swarzak has shown well and carries sub-3.50 metrics. Victimized by a .429 BABIP, Swarzak has K’ed 9.0 while walking just 2.45 per nine innings.
Joe Thatcher, Astros – The 33-year-old was added on a no-risk deal, but has produced quality results at times in the past. He’s been useful as a LOOGY thus far, allowing two earned to cross the plate but striking out five and walking only one over 4 1/3 innings in eight appearances.
Carlos Villanueva, Cardinals – St. Louis reportedly targeted the swingman early and has received a nice return to date, as Villanueva has allowed just one earned run in 9 1/3 innings, striking out seven and walking three. Of course, advanced metrics are far less impressed, as they can see that the righty has benefited from a .048 BABIP and 100% strand rate.
Some potentially important pieces have yet to see enough MLB time to make much of an assessment. Here are some names to keep an eye on the rest of the way:
Scott Baker, Dodgers – He’s only seen one start, but gave the rotation-needy Dodgers seven innings while allowing just three earned and striking out six. It’s been a while since he was healthy and effective, but Baker has a fairly long history as a solid rotation piece and could help hold down the fort in LA.
Slade Heathcott, Yankees – A former top-100 prospect who had fallen off the radar, the 24-year-old was non-tendered and re-signed by New York. He’s done nothing but impress since, following up on a hot spring in big league camp with a .329/.386/.443 slash in 89 Triple-A plate appearances.
James Russell, Cubs – A sturdy reliever for Chicago for several years, Russell showed well with the Braves last year but was released after a tough spring — due in part to avoid a big piece of his $2.4MM arbitration salary. Since heading to Iowa, Russell has struck out 11 batters in just 7 2/3 frames and has yet to allow a run or walk.
Ryan Webb, Indians – Cleveland added Webb after he was caught up in an early-season salary dumping move by the Orioles and found himself immediately released by the Dodgers. He’s always been a sturdy reliever, and has shown well in limited action thus far.