Throughout every winter, baseball teams stock up on some veteran minor league free agents to fill out Triple-A rosters and provide depth in key areas. Most of these names never amount to anything, and many of them bounce around from system to system as the years go on. But occasionally they break through, and they’ll be playing in spring training anyway, so it’s worth a quick peek to see who they are.
We’ve looked at several of these free agents already this winter, including a mix of players who have already logged some MLB time and others who are yet to make it at all:
- OF Jaff Decker and OF Kenny Wilson
- OF Alejandro De Aza
- 1B/OF Chris Parmelee
- C Ryan Lavarnway
- re-signed LHP Ross Detwiler
- re-signed LHP Felix Doubront, C Matt McBride, OF Andrew Lambo, RHP Chris Smith, and RHP Aaron Kurcz
- FanPost (apilgrim): RHP Josh Smith (claimed off waivers)
In our final installment, we’re going to meet a quartet of right-handed relievers: Tyler Sturdevant, Simon Castro, Cesar Valdez, and Michael Brady. All but Brady have pitched in the majors before. (For perspective, the success stories from last year’s crop of minor league free agent relievers were Chris Smith and Patrick Schuster.)
Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the current depth chart. Here is one way of looking at it:
MLB guys: Doolittle, Madson, Casilla, Dull, Hendriks, Axford, Coulombe
Potential surplus starters: Alcantara, Triggs, maybe Frankie Montas
Triple-A and below: Bobby Wahl (on 40-man), Zach Neal, Chris Smith, Tucker Healy, Aaron Kurcz, Carlos Navas, and also these four free agent signings
And now, the new guys!
Tyler Sturdevant, RHP
Let’s start with the bad stuff about him, and then work our way toward a happier conclusion. Sturdevant was a 27th-round draft pick. He had Tommy John surgery in college, but don’t worry, he also lost a full pro season to a shoulder injury so at least he’s versatile. Two years ago he got popped for PEDs and missed another 50 games. He’s on the smaller side for a pitcher, at 6’0 and 185. He did finally make his MLB debut last year ... at age 30.
All of that helps explain why he was available as a minor league free agent. So what do the A’s want with him? First, let’s address those major injuries — they came in 2007 and 2013, and for what it’s worth he appears to have been healthy and firing on all cylinders for three straight years now. The medical history still counts, but clearly he’s capable of staying on the mound for a full season. The question is what he can do once there.
Sturdevant’s career began quickly, as it took him just over two calendar years to go from the back-end of the draft to Triple-A. But he finally stalled in his first full season at that level, and then the shoulder knocked him out. But he came back in 2014, zipped through a Double-A trial, and has posted the following numbers over the last three seasons in Triple-A (including playoffs):
Sturdevant, 2014-16 AAA: 3.61 ERA, 102⅓ ip, 107 Ks, 33 BB, 15 HR, 4.12 FIP
That would be a good enough line, but the homers drag it down to mediocre. For what it’s worth, though, his home parks (Columbus and Durham) were two relative bandboxes in the otherwise pitcher-friendly International League.
He finally got his call to the bigs last May, with the Tampa Bay Rays, and it went well (the homer was hit by Kyle Seager, which is fair enough):
Sturdevant, 2016 MLB: 3.93 ERA, 18⅓ ip, 14 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 3.47 FIP
As for what Sturdevant throws, here’s John Sickels of Minor League Ball:
He relies primarily on a fastball in the low-90s and a hard-breaking slider which is tough on right-handed hitters. He has a change-up but it is a show-me third pitch. He has shown he can dominate Triple-A when his command is working; in the majors he projects as a ROOGY or middle reliever.
Here’s that slider:
(Bonus video: 90 mph fastball induces 1-2-3 GIDP against Angels)
He’s put together a solid track record in the upper minors, he passed his first MLB test, he’s four years removed from his last major injury, and at 31 he’s old for a prospective rookie but average age for a viable reliever. Seems to me like a perfectly decent depth option, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him pitch in Oakland at some point this season.
Simon Castro, RHP
Let’s start with this:
One very quiet A's signing I did like this winter: Simon Castro as an NRI. He's been terrific in minors since conversion to bullpen.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 23, 2017
Well alright then, you’ve got my attention Simon. Let’s see what Dan is talking about.
Castro’s career can be split up into three distinct segments:
- Padres, 2006-11: Establishes himself as a Top 100 prospect, as a fireballing starting pitcher. Reaches as high as No. 47 on Baseball Prospectus in 2010. Eventually traded to Chicago for Carlos Quentin.
- White Sox, 2012-13: Stalls in the upper minors, and moves to the bullpen midway through 2013. Makes his MLB debut and does well in four relief appearances. At this time he was a teammate of Josh Phegley in the minors, which is a nice bonus since it means one of the A’s catchers has worked with him before.
- Rockies, 2014-16: Missed all of 2014 to an injury, though I haven’t yet discovered what it was. When he returned, he posted two impressive seasons as a Triple-A reliever, and even spent time as his team’s closer last year. Got a late-season call-up to Colorado in 2015 but got knocked around in 11 games.
A story in three acts: Act 1, in which the youngster brims with raw talent and sets out to take on the world; Act 2, in which the world fights back and the player has to adapt to a new role; and Act 3, in which the now-journeyman has overcome his obstacles and figured things out, and is ready to finally make it. (Still waiting on the conclusion to Act 3 over these next couple years. He’ll pitch at age 29 this season.)
As for the standout performance Szymborski is referencing above:
Castro, 2015-16 AAA: 3.59 ERA, 110⅓ ip, 132 Ks, 32 BB, 11 HR, 3.65 FIP
Even his brief MLB time hasn’t been that bad (from 2013 and 2015):
Castro, MLB career: 4.76 ERA, 17 ip, 15 Ks, 8 BB, 1 HR, 3.86 FIP
Like with Sturdevant, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Castro in green and gold at some point with his fastball/slider combo. It will take multiple injuries to the current group, but if one of these guys has a memorable Cactus League and/or starts lighting it up in Triple-A then they could find their way up.
Cesar Valdez, RHP
The last time Valdez pitched in MLB, Rajai Davis was on the A’s. Wait, that doesn’t ... you know what I mean. Last time Rajai was on the A’s. It was 2010.
Valdez was 25 at the time, after a steady if unspectacular march up the minors as a starter. He got torched for a 7.65 ERA in 20 big league innings for Arizona, with shoddy peripherals (13 Ks, 10 BB). After another year in Triple-A, he went to the Mexican League from 2012-15.
It’s in 2015 that he starts to get interesting, as this FanGraphs community post details. He put up a 2.95 FIP in 160⅔ innings in the Mexican League that season thanks to suddenly microscopic walk and HR rates, which was enough to get him back to the minors with the Astros. He repeated that performance in the Pacific Coast League last year (see numbers below), and then did so again in the Dominican winter league — he led his team to the title and won the championship series MVP award along the way.
Valdez, 2016 AAA: 3.12 ERA, 138⅓ ip, 114 Ks, 13 BB, 8 HR, 3.24 FIP
(That walk rate comes out to 2.3% of batters, or 0.85 BB/9)
He’ll be 32 years old this season, so the question remains whether he’s just a veteran beating up on minor leaguers or a guy who truly turned a corner and is ready for a late-career breakout. But if he’s only the third-most interesting depth flyer on this list, then this is a surprisingly good group of misfit toys.
Michael Brady, RHP
This last pitcher is fun for different reasons. He hasn’t yet reached MLB and has barely even played in Triple-A, but he was drafted out of UC Berkeley as an infielder back in 2009 and didn’t convert to pitching until the next year. And his career walk rate is 1.5 BB/9 (4.2% of batters). Sounds like the makings of an Oakland Athletic!
He’ll be 30 this season and he’s only got a handful of appearances above Double-A, but hey, org filler can be a lot less interesting than this.
Brady, AA career: 3.07 ERA, 290⅔ ip, 274 Ks, 45 BB, 21 HR
Brady, AAA career: 5.79 ERA, 32⅔ ip, 29 Ks, 13 BB, 2 HR
Welcome to the A’s four newest relievers!