We took a look last week at some of the minor league pacts that have paid the most dividends, focusing in on position players in both leagues. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of offense throughout baseball as a whole at the moment, there are even more success stories on the pitching side of the coin. Some of these are products of small sample size, particularly for the many relievers on the list, but at least for our initial check-in on this subject, the early returns have been strong.
- Ian Kennedy, RHP, Rangers: We’re nearing Memorial Day weekend, and Kennedy is tied for the American League lead in saves — just as everyone expected! The 36-year-old righty isn’t just scraping by and narrowly escaping in a bunch of three-run leads, though. He’s tallied 19 1/3 innings and allowed just four runs, all while recording a terrific 31.1 percent strikeout rate and a tiny 5.4 percent walk rate. If Texas remains near the bottom of the AL West standings, he’ll be an appealing trade target for bullpen-needy clubs.
- Drew Steckenrider, RHP, Mariners: A quality setup man with the 2017-18 Marlins, Steckenrider’s time in Miami was derailed by injuries — most notably a 2019 flexor strain. He looks to be back on track in his new surroundings, however, having tossed 18 1/3 innings of 2.45 ERA ball with a 29.2 percent strikeout rate and an 11.1 percent walk rate. The walks are a bit elevated, but he’s helped to combat that with a career-best 54 percent ground-ball mark. The Mariners (or another club) could control Steckenrider through 2023 via arbitration as well, which only adds to the value.
- Jimmy Nelson, RHP, Dodgers: The Dodgers just placed Nelson on the injured list due to a forearm issue, so there are (once again) some obvious health question marks with Nelson. There’s no ignoring how effective he’s been thus far, however. Nelson’s 39.1 percent strikeout rate is the ninth-best among all MLB relievers, and he’s paired that with a pristine 2.41 ERA. Like Shaw, he’s walked too many batters (13 percent), but the former Brewers ace has shown high-leverage, late-inning potential with L.A.
- Bryan Shaw, RHP, Indians: Shaw was an iron man in the Cleveland ’pen but flopped in Colorado after signing a three-year, $27MM contract going into 2018. Back in his old stomping grounds, he’s tallied 19 innings with a pristine 1.42 ERA. The 33-year-old has issued 13 walks, so he’ll need to cut back on the free passes if he hopes to continue this success, but Shaw’s strikeout and ground-ball percentages are among the best of his career (29.3 percent, 57.5 percent, respectively).
- Lucas Luetge, LHP, Yankees: Luetge’s last MLB appearance prior to his Yankees debut came with the 2015 Mariners. The now-34-year-old southpaw signed minor league deals with five organizations before making it back to the show, which is remarkable in and of itself. That he’s been one of the Yankees’ best relievers, however, makes his story all the more incredible. Luetge, who entered 2021 with all of 89 MLB frames under his belt, has a 2.95 ERA and a 19-to-3 K/BB ratio in 21 1/3 innings for the Yankees thus far. Considering the injuries to Zack Britton and Darren O’Day, Luetge’s unexpected contributions have been a godsend. If he can keep this up, he’ll be arbitration-eligible this winter and controllable through the 2024 season.
- Hyeon-jong Yang, LHP, Rangers: Yang, a former KBO MVP, could’ve returned to that league on a guaranteed deal but refused to give up on his aspirations of playing in the Majors, even if it meant taking a non-guaranteed pact. He’s 21 1/3 innings into the realization of that lifelong goal, and the Rangers are no doubt pleased with their decision. Yang, 33, opened the season with the Rangers’ alternate site group but had his contract selected in late April. He now owns a 3.38 ERA, and while his pedestrian strikeout and walk rates might point to some possible regression, he’s induced plenty of weak contact (average 87.4 mph exit velocity, just a 13.1 percent line-drive rate). An 11.2 percent swinging-strike rate suggests there could be more K’s to come, as well.
- Chi Chi Gonzalez, RHP, Rockies: Gonzalez’s numbers don’t stand out that much, but he’s eating innings and delivering roughly league-average run-prevention numbers when adjusting for his home park (102 ERA+, 99 ERA-). Through nine appearances, seven of them starts, Gonzalez is carrying a 4.54 ERA. He’s totaled 41 2/3 innings for a Rockies club that has gone the whole season without lefty Kyle Freeland. Gonzalez has rattled off consecutive quality starts and helped the Rox get through the first two months of the season. The secondary marks aren’t great, but average innings have value — especially in 2021 when teams are so conscientious about their pitchers’ workloads.
- Nabil Crismatt, RHP, Padres: Crismatt had just 8 1/3 innings of MLB experience (all with the 2020 Cardinals) when he arrived in Padres camp this spring. He’s more than doubled that total in 2021 already, pitching 17 2/3 innings of 2.55 ERA ball with a hefty 52.2 percent grounder rate. Crismatt is an oddity in today’s game, sitting under 89 mph with a fastball that is only seldom used due to the fact that he throws his changeup at a whopping 46.5 percent clip. It’s weird, but so far — it’s worked.
- Anthony Bender, RHP, Marlins: A 26-year-old rookie who never pitched above Double-A with the Royals or Brewers before joining the Marlins on a minor league deal this winter, Bender is sitting 97.4 mph with his heater and has tossed 8 2/3 shutout innings to open his career. He’s whiffed 36.7 percent of his opponents against a 3.3 percent walk rate. Small sample? Sure, but Bender also rattled off 8 1/3 shutout frames during Spring Training, too. Not bad for a guy who posted a 5.48 ERA with the independent American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen in 2020.
- Heath Hembree, RHP, Reds: After a rough 2020 season, Hembree has bounced back early in 2021. His 4.15 ERA through 13 frames is nothing special, but his strikeout rate is sitting at a career-high 33.3 percent after plummeting in 2020. His 6.3 percent walk rate is a career-best, and his 13.1 percent swinging-strike rate isn’t far off from his peak years in Boston. Hembree’s velocity is also up to 95.2 mph after dipping to 93.9 mph in 2019-20. It’s early, but those are some encouraging indicators.
- Zack Littell, RHP, Giants: Littell hasn’t spent much time with the Giants yet, but he’s chucked 10 2/3 innings and held opponents to just one run on eight hits and three walks with nine punchouts. His 94.8 mph average fastball velocity is a career-high, as is his 48.3 percent grounder rate. The former Twins righty only has a year of big league service and could be controllable for several years if he figures it out in San Francisco.
- Deolis Guerra, RHP, Athletics: It’s hard to believe Guerra just turned 32, given that he was one of the pieces traded from the Mets to the Twins way back in 2008’s Johan Santana trade. He’s bounced around the league in journeyman style but is enjoying a nice run with the A’s to kick off the ’21 season. In 20 2/3 frames, Guerra has a 3.92 ERA with a pedestrian K-BB% but intriguing levels of weak contact induced.
- JT Chargois, RHP, Mariners: Like Littell, Chargois hasn’t seen much time in the bigs yet, but he’s sporting a 9-to-1 K/BB ratio in 8 2/3 innings for Seattle. He’s had multiple chances with the Twins and Dodgers in recent years but never found much consistency. Chargois also mustered only a 5.81 ERA pitching for Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2020. Still, it’s a nice start to his 2021 season.
- Brad Boxberger, RHP, Brewers: The right-hander, who’ll turn 33 this week, has hurled 17 1/3 innings so far in Milwaukee and pitched to a 4.15 ERA but with a more impressive 17-to-3 K/BB mark. As with many relievers early in a given season, the bulk of the damage against Boxberger came in one appearance (against the Cardinals). He’s been unscored upon in 16 of his 19 outings so far in 2021.
- Ervin Santana, RHP, Royals: The Royals love their reunions more than any team in baseball, and Santana is somewhat improbably back to “smelling baseball,” as he likes to say, for a second stint in Kansas City. He’s only allowed four runs in 15 1/3 innings (2.35 ERA), but he’s also only picked up eight strikeouts against four walks. His fastball is sitting 93 mph again after living at 89-90 in 2018-19, but the red flags are plentiful: 13.1 percent strikeout rate, 91 percent strand rate, .213 BABIP, 45 percent opponents’ hard-hit rate.
- Paolo Espino, RHP, Nationals: The Nats quietly re-signed the now 34-year-old Espino before the calendar even flipped to November last year. So far, it’s been a worthwhile reunion, as he’s held opponents to four runs on nine hits and a walk with eight strikeouts in 14 innings (2.57 ERA). Espino won’t keep this up if he can’t miss some more bats and/or induce far more grounders, however. He’s currently benefiting from a .175 BABIP and an 83.3 percent strand rate, while his 26.6 percent grounder rate will make it to limit home runs. Still, the Nats have 14 innings of decent results to show for the deal.
As with the position players, some of these strong starts will fade. There are a few at the back of the list that look particularly difficult to sustain, but there also look to be some genuine bargains unearthed among this group. Some will likely result in trades (Kennedy), but it’d make for a fun story to follow should any of the controllable arms (e.g. Bender, Crismatt) ultimately emerge as long-term pieces for the clubs who gave them their best career opportunities to date.