Minor league contracts don’t generally draw much of a reaction over the course of a baseball offseason, with some rare exceptions. Everyone loves to see an out-of-the-blue comeback story on a non-guaranteed arrangement, but most minor league deals of any note are injured veterans, struggling former prospects or fringe big leaguers who have never really solidified their status as a contributor at the game’s top level. Every year, however, a handful of these no-risk investments produce solid returns.
We’re about a quarter through the 2021 season, so let’s check in on a handful of non-guaranteed pacts that have already proven to be wise investments for their clubs.
- Tyler Naquin, OF, Reds: Naquin’s signing was met with a collective yawn, but one Ohio club’s leftovers have turned into another’s treasure. The former Indians first-rounder has mashed his way into a regular role in Cincinnati, raking at a .265/.346/.530 clip through 133 plate appearances. Naquin parlayed a strong spring and a March injury to Shogo Akiyama into an Opening Day roster spot, but he’s now fourth on the team in plate appearances and third in wRC+ at 135 (min. 20 PAs). He’s hitting so much better than struggling center fielder Nick Senzel that Cincinnati hasn’t hesitated to move Senzel to the infield in the wake of Joey Votto’s injury, creating more playing time for Naquin. This doesn’t appear to be a mere small-sample fluke, either. Naquin ranks in the 95th percentile of MLB hitters in average exit velocity and has similarly strong percentile rankings in hard-hit rate (84th), xwOBA (89th), xSLG (93rd) and barrel rate (90th). He’s also controlled through the 2022 season via arbitration. For an Indians club that has gotten virtually no production from its outfield over the past two seasons, watching Naquin’s start in 2021 has to sting, even if they’re happy for their former prospect on a personal level.
- C.J. Cron, 1B, Rockies: Cron’s ability to hit hasn’t really been in question since his 2014 MLB debut, but injuries have dogged him in recent years. Fresh off a season-ending knee surgery in 2020, Cron inked a non-guaranteed pact with the Rockies, made the club out of Spring Training and has unsurprisingly emerged as their primary first baseman. He’s out to an excellent start, hitting .300/.397/.500 in 116 plate appearances. Cron missed 10 days with a back strain and, unlike Naquin, is a free agent at season’s end, so he didn’t grab the top spot on this list. Still, he’s been a bright spot for the Rockies and could give them a summer trade chip if he can stay healthy. It’s still somewhat puzzling that the Tigers didn’t bring him back, given how poorly things have gone at first base in Detroit, but perhaps Cron simply liked the opportunity presented in Colorado better.
- Matt Duffy, 3B, Cubs: Duffy began with his MLB career with a stellar year for the 2015 Giants, in which he hit .295/.334/.428 and finished second behind current teammate Kris Bryant in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He never really followed up on that debut effort, though, as underperformance and injuries knocked him off track over the next two seasons. Duffy rebounded to play fairly well with the Rays in 2018 but wound up released after a difficult 2019 campaign. The veteran infielder spent 2020 at the Yankees alternate training site. This offseason, Duffy attracted interest from a few clubs in a coaching and/or front office capacity, but the Cubs offered him a chance to reinvigorate his playing career and have been rewarded for doing so. Duffy made the Opening Day roster and has come out with a .281/.375/.360 line over his first 104 plate appearances, his top offensive output since the aforementioned rookie season. The right-handed hitter isn’t a power threat, but he’s an above-average defensive third baseman with a good approach who makes plenty of contact. Duffy solidifying the hot corner has allowed Bryant to help out an otherwise shaky, inconsistent outfield.
- Jed Lowrie, 2B, Athletics: There’s something about Lowrie and the A’s that just clicks every time he dons the green and gold. In his third stint with the team after missing practically all of the 2019-20 seasons as a Met, Lowrie is improbably hitting .254/.329/.394 through 158 plate appearances. With offense down around the league and a cavernous home park, that’s good for a healthy 108 wRC+. The veteran switch-hitter’s bat has cooled since a torrid start to the season, but the early return on his no-risk minor league pact has been strong.
- Charlie Culberson, INF/OF, Rangers: A popular utility player wherever he goes, Culberson is well on his way to endearing himself to the Rangers’ fanbase. Through his first 97 plate appearances, the 32-year-old is hitting .264/.316/.429 with three homers. Culberson has made one-off appearances at second base, shortstop and in left field, but the bulk of his playing time has come at third base.
- Pablo Sandoval, INF, Braves: Atlanta fans might’ve groaned when the Braves brought the Panda back on another minor league deal, but Sandoval has thrived as a pinch-hitter and seldom-used bench bat. Sandoval has come to the plate as a pinch-hitter 26 times and homered in four of those plate appearances. On the whole, he’s hitting .250/.372/.583 through 43 plate appearances. No one expects the former All-Star to continue at this pace, and you can certainly argue that since Sandoval is effectively a dedicated pinch-hitter, this isn’t an ideal use of a roster spot. Still, it’s hard to argue with four pinch-hit dingers, and we’re talking about minor league deals here, after all.
We’ll check in on this year’s crop of minor league signees a few months from now, as it’s quite likely that we’ll see the tides turn on some of these (and other) contracts. A hot streak from Travis Shaw in Milwaukee could quickly make his deal look all the more prudent, and Connor Joe is out to a hot start with the Rox in a return from last year’s cancer diagnosis, which is a feel-good story in and of itself. At least through the season’s 25 percent mark, however, this group of bats is paying dividends for the teams that rolled the dice.