October 29, 2003
The real free agents
Over the next few months, most of the biggest stories in baseball will involve players switching teams, either by trades or through free agency.
Starting next week, I will take a look at this off-season's free agent crop and give my thoughts on who the top guys are, who the underrated guys are, who the overrated guys are, and who the potential bargains are.
But before I do that, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a different group of free agents - the six-year minor league free agents.
There are no big names on this list and none of these guys will be signing any multi-million-dollar deals anytime soon, but there are some players that can help teams, and these guys are essentially available for next-to-nothing, to whichever teams are interested.
A six-year free agent is someone who was signed at least six years ago and is not currently on a team's major league 40-man roster. Freed because of baseball's "six-year renewal plan," these guys were all granted free agency on October 15th and are free to sign with any team.
According to Baseball America, there are 588 six-year free agents this off-season. An interesting exercise might be to make a team out of this large group of players, but in reality that team would be pretty awful.
These guys are essentially what everyone is talking about when they bring up "replacement-level players." Some of the position-players can play a little defense, some of them can hit a little and some of them can run. There aren't many of them who can do all three, and probably only a few who can do two out of three. Some of the pitchers can strike guys out and some of them have good control, but you won't find many guys who can do both, and you'll find even fewer who can do both and have not had some serious arm injuries in the past.
This is the scrap heap. Any team that wants any of these guys can just call them up, make a little pitch to them, offer them a few bucks, and make them a promise about a spot in Triple-A or an invite to spring training. And, just like that, you've added a new player to the organization.
I was discussing this group of players with my good buddy Craig Burley (of Batter's Box and Baseball Primer fame) and I think he put it best, saying that this group contains the guys you would get to pick from if you were just awarded an expansion team and a stadium, but you didn't have any minor league players, draft picks or money. Just a GM, some coaches, a team logo and a place to play the games.
If you tried to build a team from the 588 available guys, you'd end up with...well, you'd end up with the Detroit Tigers, I guess. And really, who wants to do that, even just for fun?
Instead, I'm going to take a look at some of the more interesting names in the group and try to find a few diamonds in the rough that might be able to actually help a major league ballclub.
There were plenty of six-year free agents from last off-season that helped major league teams this year.
- Jeremi Gonzalez: 156.1 IP with a 3.91 ERA for Tampa Bay
- Luis Ayala: 10-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 71 IP for Montreal
- Josh Towers: 8-1 with a 4.48 ERA in 64.1 IP for Toronto
- Tommy Phelps: 63 IP with a 4.00 ERA for Florida
- Amaury Telemaco: 45.1 IP with a 3.97 ERA for Philadelphia
- Brian Shouse: 61 IP with a 3.10 ERA for Texas
- Dan Wheeler: 51 IP with a 3.71 ERA for New York
- Adam Melhuse: .299/.372/.584 in 40 Gs for Oakland
- Warren Morris: .272/.316/.373 in 377 PAs for Detroit
- Billy McMillon: .268/.354/.458 in 175 PAs for Oakland
- Ryan Freel: .285/.344/.431 in 153 PAs for Cincinnati
- Joe Vitiello: .342/.407/.539 in 38 Gs for Montreal
- Brooks Kieschnick had one of the more interesting seasons in baseball. The former top hitting prospect made the switch to the pitching mound and spent the year as a relief-pitcher/pinch-hitter for the Brewers. As a pitcher, Kieschnick went 1-1 with a 5.26 ERA in 53 innings, posting a solid 39/13 strikeout/walk ratio. As a hitter, he was awesome, hitting .300/.355/.614 with 7 homers in 70 at bats.
There may not be any stars on this list, but as you can see, if you need some cheap bullpen help, a decent innings-eater at the back of the rotation, or a couple of reasonably priced backup position-players, there are lots of good players to choose from.
So, let's take a look at some intriguing names from this year's list...
Morgan Burkhart is one of my favorite players that 99% of baseball fans have probably never heard of. He spent 1995-1998 playing in the independent Frontier League. In those four seasons, he hit .330, .357, .323 and .404. That final year, when he hit .404, Burkhart smacked 36 homers and 16 doubles in just 80 games, and had a .854 slugging percentage.
The Red Sox took notice and signed him. Burkhart started in Single-A, where he hit .363 with a .718 slugging percentage in 68 games. He then moved on to Double-A, where he hit just .230, but posted a relatively decent .448 slugging percentage, with 12 homers and 14 doubles in 66 games.
Burkhart started 2000 in Triple-A, slugged .504 in 105 games there, and eventually played in 25 games with the Red Sox, hitting a very impressive .288/.442/.493. It was back to Triple-A in 2001, with a little cup-of-coffee with Boston later in the year.
Burkhart resurfaced this past season playing for Kansas City's Triple-A team. He hit just .251/.364/.432 in 104 games and managed to get into six games with the Royals.
Morgan Burkhart certainly isn't a Jim Thome-clone wasting away in the minor leagues, but I really think he can help a major league team. Of course, he is 31 years old already, so it would have been nice if someone would have given him a shot a few years ago.
In his three extended stints in Triple-A, Burkhart has hit .255/.392/.504, .269/.382/.502 and .251/.361/.432. He's going to hit for a bad batting average, but he'll take a ton of walks and hit quite a few homers. I would be willing to bet he could outperform at least a half-dozen starting major league first baseman from last year.
At the most, he's a league-average first baseman or DH for right around $250,000. At worst, he's a hell of a switch-hitting pinch-hitter/backup first baseman.
Joey Dawley was originally a 28th round pick of the Orioles way back in 1993. He bounced around for a while, playing in a couple of different independent league teams after being let go by Baltimore, and then signed as a free agent with the Braves in 1998.
Check out his numbers in Atlanta's minor league system over the past few seasons:
LVL IP ERA SO BB
2001 A/AA/AA 144 3.38 151 47
2002 AAA 140 2.63 136 36
2003 AAA 57 3.34 73 23
Dawley was a starter in 2001 and 2002 and then was switched to the bullpen this past season.
The strikeout rates are excellent, both as a starter and as a reliever, and his control is also very good. His strikeout/walk ratios over the past three years are 3.21, 3.78 and 3.17.
Dawley got into five games with the Braves this season and was absolutely hammered. He pitched a total of 7 innings and managed to strike out 8 batters, but he served up a total of 15 hits, including 3 homers. His career ERA now stands at 18.00, which is enough to make any minor league veteran want to keep fighting for another shot in the big leagues.
I think if I signed Dawley I would give him another shot as a starter, because his numbers there have certainly been good. At worst, he looks like a pretty decent right-handed setup man. I have no doubt that he could do better in a bullpen role than at least 50 or so currently employed major league relievers.
Brad Clontz holds the distinction for the biggest gap between a player's video game persona and his actual, real-life abilities. Several years ago, while Clontz was with the Pirates, the Brad Clontz on Triple Play Baseball for Sony Playstation was completely un-hittable.
Clontz is a sidearmer/submariner, and the video game version was too. You could throw 95 MPH fastballs past every hitter and then drop a tight-slider right over the inside part of the plate. The guy was unbelievable. I used him as my closer and I think he ended up with about 50 saves and an ERA below 1.00.
Unfortunately, the real Brad Clontz is entirely believable, and not all that exceptional. That said, I think he could do a very solid job in someone's bullpen.
Clontz has more major league experience than most of the six-year free agents, having pitched in the majors in parts of six years, for five different teams.
In 1995, as a 24-year old rookie, Clontz went 8-1 with a 3.65 ERA in 69 innings for the Braves. He had a bad year for Atlanta in 1996 and then went 5-1 with a 3.75 ERA in 48 innings for the Braves in 1997. He moved on to the Dodgers and Mets in 1998 and pitched a total of only 23.2 (horrible) innings.
He resurfaced with the Pirates in 1999 and pitched 49.1 innings with a 2.74 ERA in what was his last full-season in the majors. Overall, for his major league career, he has pitched in 272 games, all in relief, posting a 4.34 ERA in 277.2 innings.
Clontz spent this season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, which is a very tough place to pitch (think Coors Field, but without all the people). Clontz went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in 55.1 innings there, striking out 63 batters while walking 23 and giving up just 4 homers. He appeared in 57 games, recording 30 saves.
I see no reason why Brad Clontz couldn't give a team 60+ innings with a 3.50-4.00 ERA out of the bullpen. And what team can't use a sidearming right-hander like that?
As is the case with many sidearming righties, Clontz dominates right-handed hitting. In his 272 games in the majors, right-handed batters have hit just .222 off him. Of course, the flip-side is that lefties smack him around to the tune of a .350 average. Put him in the bullpen, do your best to keep him away from lefties, and a team could have a mini-Chad Bradford for the league-minimum.
Calvin Pickering was once one of the top hitting prospects in baseball. He was originally drafted by the Orioles in 1995, and his first several minor league seasons were awesome.
He made his pro-debut as a 19-year old in 1995 and hit .500 in 15 games. He played rookie-ball the next year, hitting .325 with 18 homers in 60 games. Pickering moved up to Single-A in 1997 and hit .311 with 25 homers and 31 doubles in 122 games.
In 1998, he made the jump to Double-A and continued to mash, hitting .309 with 31 homers and 28 doubles in 139 games. He also improved his plate discipline greatly, walking 98 times, compared to just 53 the previous year. Pickering got a brief cup of coffee with the Orioles in 1998, and hit .238 with 2 homers in 21 at bats.
Pickering played in Triple-A in 1999 and did pretty well, hitting .285 with 16 homers and 20 doubles in 103 games. He got a longer look with the Orioles that year, but hit just .125 in 40 at bats. It was back to Triple-A in 2000, and Pickering hit just .218 in 60 games there.
The Orioles then cut him loose and he was later picked up by the Reds and then the Red Sox. He got four at bats with Cincinnati in 2001 and 50 with Boston. After that, he just sort of disappeared for a while, at least as far as I can tell.
He played last season with the "Vaqueros" of the Mexican League, where he hit .323/.463/.625 with 25 homers and 13 doubles in 88 games. That was enough to get Cincinnati's attention again, and the Reds signed him to a minor league deal a few months ago. He joined Triple-A Louisville for the end of the year, hitting .284/.422/.469 in 26 games.
Calvin Pickering is a huge man. He's listed at 6'5" and 278 pounds, but I think that weight is from high school. He's had some injuries and some problems with his weight and I think I have heard previously that some people have felt he has a bad attitude, although I'm not entirely sure about that and may be thinking of someone else.
That said, this is a guy who has shown a real ability to hit incredibly well throughout his minor league career. Whether it is rookie-ball, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A or the Mexican Leagues, the one thing Pickering has been able to do is hit a baseball. Plus, after all of these years bouncing around from league to league and team to team, Pickering is still just 27 years old.
I think Pickering would be a perfect left-handed portion of a DH-platoon for some American League team and, depending on what he's tipping the scales at these days, he wouldn't be a horrible guy to platoon at first base either. The man can hit (.301 career minor league average, with a .543 slugging percentage) and that's the number one thing a first baseman or DH needs to do.
A team that takes a chance on Pickering (and really, what is there to lose with a guy like this?) may very well end up with a left-handed slugger right in the middle of his prime years, for about $250,000 a season. Sure beats the hell out of recycling the Kevin Youngs of the world over and over again.
Way back in November of 1999, John Sickels, whose opinions on prospects I respect as much as anyone, saw Pickering (still with Baltimore) play in the Arizona Fall League and had the following comments:
"Two things I am now convinced of after watching Pickering in two games. 1) He can definitely hit. 2) His massive girth and lack of effort on defense are serious problems. That said, his bat is excellent and he deserves a chance."
The same thing is true now, except Pickering is a little older and that "chance" won't cost a team quite as much.
Travis Phelps is a guy whose presence on this list confuses me. Up until this season, he was property of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an organization always in need of decent pitching. And, at just 25 years old, he has had success both in the minor leagues and in the major leagues. Yet, this March, the Devil Rays let him go and he was claimed by the Braves. And now Atlanta has cut him loose as well.
Phelps pitched quite a bit for the Devil Rays in 2001, going 2-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 62 innings. He also pitched a little bit for them in 2002. For his major league career, Phelps has a 3.97 ERA in 99.2 innings pitched. He has some control issues, but he struck out 90 batters in those 99.2 innings (8.12/9) and his career ERA+ of 113 is very solid.
You would think anyone who has shown the ability to pitch with an ERA under 4.00 for any length of time in the majors would be someone Tampa Bay would want to hold onto, especially if they're 25 years old, but I guess not.
Beyond his fairly decent stints in the majors, Phelps has also done well in the minors. This past season, while at Triple-A Richmond, Phelps went 9-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 93.1 innings. He appeared in a total of 47 games and even made eight starts, his first time as a starter since 2000. Along with the career ERA of 3.97 in the majors, Phelps has a 3.55 Triple-A ERA and a 3.00 Double-A ERA.
Like many guys on this list, Travis Phelps is just as good a bet to give a team 60 innings with a 3.50 ERA as any number of well-paid, veteran relievers in the majors right now.
Dallimore is a former ninth-rounder of the Astros back in 1996. He didn't hit a whole lot during his first five seasons, but seems to have found his groove recently.
He hit .327 in 127 games at Double-A in 2001 and followed that up by hitting .294 at Triple-A last season. Despite those solid back-to-back years, Dallimore was on this same minor league free agent list last season. He ended up joining the Giants organization, where he had an amazing season for Triple-A Fresno. Dallimore played in 91 games, splitting time between second base and third base, while hitting .352.
If this guy gets a chance and doesn't do a better job as a utility infielder than half the guys currently holding down those jobs in the majors, I'll eat my Neifi Perez rookie card.
Some other names to keep an eye on as teams begin to snatch up these six-year free agents...
- Michael Coleman
- Jon Nunnally
- Jermaine Clark
- Mitch Meluskey
- Mike Coolbaugh
- Ramon Castro
- Rob Ryan
- Mark Johnson
- Rob Stratton
- Hiram Bocachica
- Kevin Witt
- Brent Butler
- Jacob Cruz
- Rontrez Johnson
- Josue Matos
- Eric Hiljus
- Gary Glover
- Ed Yarnall
- Corey Thurman
- Brian Tollberg
- Roy Smith
- Todd Williams
- Carlos Almanzar
- Travis Driskill
- Peter Munro
- Brad Baisley
See you tomorrow!
Oh, and if this story is for real, I think it's safe to say it'll be tomorrow's topic.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****