Every winter, a host of players agree to minor league contracts with hopes of finding good opportunities to make it onto a big league roster at some point in the season. Some of these are reached early on, as teams target players they like but who lack the track record to warrant a major league deal. Others are made just before Spring Training by players who had been holding out hope for a guaranteed contract.
In most cases, minor league signees provide depth and leadership in the upper minors. A good number of those players end up as solid role players on the major league roster, some more impactful than others. And every now and again, a high-end big league player emerges after inking a non-guaranteed contract. (E.g., J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner.)
This year’s MiLB free agent crop didn’t produce any controllable standouts in the mold of Martinez and Turner, but it was loaded with quality players who have delivered immense value to their teams. Who gets your vote as the best of the year?
(Teams listed are original signing clubs. Players ordered alphabetically by last name. Did I miss someone? Choose “Other” and discuss in the comments.)
Joe Blanton, Royals — After appearing in just two minor league games last year, the 34-year-old righty was surprising enough when putting up solid results for Kansas City. But he’s been even better for the Pirates, firing 26 frames from the pen with a 31:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just four earned runs.
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners — He hasn’t had much big league time, but the 32-year-old slashing a ridiculous .309/.358/.647 in 148 MLB plate appearances and was hitting quite well at Triple-A before that. He’ll be quite an interesting free agent to watch, though of course his .357 BABIP and (especially) 36.4% home run-to-flyball ratio are bound to fall.
Kelly Johnson, Braves — Johnson has been steady and productive since signing with Atlanta and moving to the Mets via trade. Filling in all over the diamond, Johnson has provided his clubs with flexibility and a .270/.319/.456 slash in 308 trips to the plate.
Mark Lowe, Mariners — A relatively undistinguished reliever for most of his career, Lowe transformed into a stud this year in Seattle. He hasn’t been quite as good since being shipped to the Jays, but still owns a 1.63 ERA with 10.3 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9 over 49 2/3 frames.
Ryan Madson, Royals — Madson, 34, had not even pitched in the big leagues since 2011 when he came to K.C., yet he picked up right where he left off. All told, he’s contributed 54 2/3 innings with a 2.47 ERA and 8.4 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9.
Franklin Morales, Royals — Notice a theme here? Another bargain bin score for a bullpen that hardly needed any help, the southpaw Morales has tossed 58 innings of 2.79 ERA ball. He’s been particularly stingy against opposing lefties, but has also held righties to below-league-average batting results.
Clint Robinson, Nationals — Unlike the other players on this list, Robinson had virtually no track record in the big leagues coming into the year. While his outfield defense has been predictably poor, it’s not really his fault that the club was forced to use him out of position. Robinson has been a revelation on offense, slashing .272/.368/.423 over 277 plate appearances.
Geovany Soto, White Sox — It was somewhat surprising to see the veteran Soto fail to earn a big league contract, and he’s shown why in Chicago. With well-rated defense and a .237/.321/.444 slash over his 191 plate appearances, Soto has been worth about a win and a half above replacement despite limited duty — and that’s before factoring in his strong framing numbers.
Carlos Villanueva, Cardinals — Targeted by St. Louis because of his swingman capabilities, Villanueva has not been needed as a starter but has excelled in the pen. He sits with a sub-3.00 ERA over 57 1/3 innings, with 8.2 K/9 against 3.0 BB/9.