Finding Value Amongst Minor-League Signings

Sorry for the delay putting this up today. I went for an early morning hike and when one hikes in the desert one realizes that relatively quickly all trails begin to look the same. So several backtracks to the high point to figure out where I was going later, and it is mid-afternoon before I get back instead of well before noon. All is good! I am alive! And to my fellow-Californians (that still is new for me...) go visit your state parks! Onto the baseball issue at hand...

The A's have a serious outfield problem. Someone on Twitter (if you are the one take credit for it!) highlighted how funny the A's "depth chart" looked on www.oaklandas.com. It does indeed look funny to have only four outfielders on a 40-man roster:

Roster_medium

But four outfielders, an outfield battery does not make. 

Everyone is talking about Grady Sizemore. Now that he is out of Cleveland and Grady's Ladies have become Lowe's Hoes (I couldn't resist...) he is the popular choice to become the A's center fielder. We should not go there. The reasons are aplenty and have been discussed countless times, so I don't want to talk about that. Also while Yoenis Cespedes sounds fascinating and Norichika Aoki sounds great as well, there is a good chance the A's get priced out of those two as well - with all this stadium stuff still looming overhead (though Aoki's down 2011 may make him a more realistic target). 

However there are players that the A's can surely go after and every year teams do - minor-league free-agents. This bargain bin of baseball features a few guys who will come cheap, require little more than an invitation to spring training and could pay dividends. Let's look at who these diamonds in the rough could potentially be:

Felix Pie - Pie has not had a great MLB career with a .249/.298/.374 slash line, he hasn't been turning heads like he was supposed to as a highly touted prospect. He doesn't walk (6.5% career BB%), he has no power (.061 ISO), doesn't really have wheels (only 20 SB in 398 games), and is an average defender. Cut loose by the O's, he played 85 games for them this year with a pretty dismal .244 wOBA adding up to -2.1 WAR (which also carried his career mark into the negative now at -0.1). Pie can play LF and CF and will likely get a shot to shine somewhere, at only 27 years old might not be the worst gamble on earth.

Lastings Milledge - Milledge wore out his welcome in Flushing, then wore out his welcome in Washington, then wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh, and quite possibly did playing for the Charlotte Knights this past season for all we know. Once a very highly ranked prospect (in 2006 he was the #9 prospect in all of baseball care of Baseball America), he never got off the ground in MLB owning a pedestrian slash line of .269/.328/.395 with 33 home runs in 433 games spread across six seasons. Last season spent entirely in Charlotte save for two games with the White Sox, he hit .295/.364/.441 with 12 home runs featuring a good K% of just 12.5%. A poor defender who can play all three outfield spots (just not very well) like Pie, he will get a shot somewhere. 

Fred Lewis - Lewis was supposed to be the backup outfielder extraordinaire for Cincinnati this year as they would defend their NL Central Crown. Several things in that past sentence backfired in 2011. In 81 games with the Reds, Lewis hit .230/.321/.317 with a paltry .278 wOBA. All those marks fell far short of his career prior: .267/.345/.406 with a .332 wOBA. While not an All-Star, Lewis can start regularly and has MLB experience at all three outfield positions. He is probably the best bet on this list to be a regular MLB player next year.

Willy Taveras - Like all these players Taveras has his flaws. Like Coco Crisp he has the speed of a leadoff hitter but his career .320 OBP says he doesn't have the ability to get on base that is coveted out of your #1 guy. Tavares who owns a career .274/.320/.327 slash line in 670 MLB games last played in the pros with the Washington Nationals in 2010. He was briefly a member of the A's organization once, coming to Oakland in the deal that brought Adam Rosales over from Cincinnati (the A's released him eight days later and then six days following that he signed on with the Nats). Tavares can play center field and has a career 8.6 UZR/150 there. 

Paul McAnulty - McAnulty can rake putting up wRC+'s of 138 in 2006, 169 in 2008 and 119 last year. Problem is all this raking has been at the Triple-A  level. McAnulty's wRC+ in his 133 game long MLB career: 77. At Triple-A he owns a .294/.370/.493 slash line with 84 home runs. He can play the corner outfield and corner infield positions and hopefully we can blame a lion's share of his .201 career batting average on a .263 BABIP? Probably not. 

Brent Clevlen - Clevlen got his start with the 2006 American League Champion Detroit Tigers where he participated in 31 games hitting .282/.317/.641 as a 22-year old. After that, it was all down hill for Clevlen who has since moved on to play in the Atlanta system (with a brief stay in Atlanta in 2010 - four game brief) along with that of the Reds and Phillies. At 28 Clevlen is younger than many of these other players and has a bit of pop (109 HRs in 992 career MiLB games). His big problem? Strikeouts. 36.9% of his MLB at-bats ended in a strikeout and he has racked up 1,068 against lesser MiLB pitching. Clevlen can play all three outfield positions - but doesn't play any of them particularly well.

Scott Podsednik - If this list were to have an All-Star it'd be Podsednik - well, really he was an All-Star in 2005 with the World Champion White Sox - a year he finished 12th in MVP voting in the AL. That year he hit .290/.351/.349 while swiping 59 bags for the South Siders. Since then he hasn't hit much worse: .280/.335/.377 in 560 games spanning 2006-2010. Yet despite this Podsednik who last played MLB ball in 2010 is without a job this offseason his 2011 campaign spent with four separate clubs the Gulf Coast Phillies, Dunedin Blue Jays, Las Vegas 51s and Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. He combined for only 34 games, hitting .254/.340/.396 at least flashing some speed (6-for-6 in steals). He can play left and center field but at 36 my guess is he is in left field, or left out.

Delwyn Young - Young has made a career out of being  that guy on an NL roster, who ends up playing in a lot of games care of double switches and stuff and at the end of the season you realize he has played more often than you ever really remember him playing. Over the course of 5 MLB seasons (his last appearance coming with the Buccos in 2010), the 30-year Young posted a .258/.317/.393 slash line with an unexciting seventeen home runs splashed across 344 games. A corner outfielder and sometime second baseman, Young spent 2011 proving he was not really adept at hitting Triple-A pitching with the Lehigh Iron Pigs where he put up a .244/.298/.387 slash line with an alarming 109 K's in 126 games. Despite his 2011 troubles he is a career .295/.354/.496 MiLB hitter so there may be some value there, his versatility in being able to play second also is unique.

Nick Stavinoha - Only 30 years old, Stavinoha can hit minor-league pitching. He has 100 career MiLB home runs in only 655 games, to go along with a strong if not sparkling .298/.346/.481 slash line. Last year he was particularly fearsome for PCL pitching as donning the Memphis Redbirds jersey he whacked 28 home runs in 133 games. Despite that fearsome hitting, he did not earn a call up to St. Louis to spend anytime with the 2011 World Champs last appearing for the MLB version of the Redbirds in 2010. He is a corner outfielder.

Bobby Kielty - Kielty is one of the more accomplished players on this list. A career 4.2 WAR player (only Podsednik's 11.0 and Lewis' 5.6 rank higher among players on this list) he doesn't strike out too often (17.9% for his MLB career) and features an above average 102 wRC+. The former Oakland Athletic spent 2011 with the San Antonio Missions and Tucson Padres in San Diego's system putting up a combined .297/.363/.505 slash line. He will be 35 next year and can play both corner outfield positions.

Jason Lane - Another participant of the 2005 World Series, Lane was on the losing side with the Houston Astros. He is unique for throwing left-handed but batting right-handed (way to bring your value down Jason). Lane hit the last home run and made the last out at Busch Stadium in 2005 and since then not much has gone right for him. 2005 was a .267/.316/.499 26 home run campaign. Since then he has played in just parts of two MLB seasons putting up a .192/.295/.375 slash line with a surprising 23 home runs - feast or famine shall we? Lane has spent the last few years in the minor league systems of the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Marlins never regaining the form that made him a vital part of the NL Champ Astros. He can conceivably play all three outfield positons.

So what is the big takeaway? There really isn't much out there for the A's to pluck away at on the MiLB free-agent outfield class. But that doesn't mean you don't try. Simply put, one can argue what we have isn't much better than these guys, would Cedric Hunter or Jai Miller really look out of place on this list? 

This however is what the A's are dealing with. Why spend big on a Sizemore when there are still two-other outfield positons to be filled? We need to be building for something better and sustainable and one-year deals don't do that for us, let's call this one in, save our money for international signings and the draft and right this ship - that means maybe a few of these names make it onto Oakland's roster this year...

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