Throughout every winter, baseball teams stock up on 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.
The Oakland A’s had several minor league free agents reach the bigs last summer, though none of them played particularly well. Chris Smith threw 55⅔ innings over 14 games, including nine starts. Simon Castro and Michael Brady combined for nearly 70 frames out of the bullpen, and Cesar Valdez made a spot start in April and pitched a few games in relief. Unfortunately, that group combined for a 6.06 ERA, with Castro’s 4.38 the best among them.
The position player side wasn’t any better. Jaff Decker provided 62 ineffective plate appearances as a backup outfielder, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway made his way into six games at times when Josh Phegley was unavailable. But even though the 2017 depth guys didn’t pan out into anything more than filler, the fact remains that a lot of them got opportunities and you never know when one might seize the chance to break out. Let’s get to know this year’s crop.
Of the nine names on the MiLB free agent list, four of them are pitchers. Those four break down into one familiar righty, and three new lefties. The southpaws face a particularly thin depth chart, with only Ryan Buchter and Danny Coulombe above them in Oakland and almost no other competition in the upper minors (only 2014 draft pick Cody Stull has been as high as Double-A).
Simon Castro, RHP
2017 stats (OAK): 4.38 ERA, 37 ip, 35 Ks, 14 BB, 7 HR, 5.02 FIP
The A’s did bring back one of last year’s names. Castro was the closest thing they found to a success story, tossing 37 innings with a league-average ERA. He gave up a few too many dingers and probably won’t ever be a reliable late-inning option, but he profiles as a perfectly decent middle reliever. He’ll pitch at age 30 this season, with a fastball that averages 94 mph and a plus slider; last August, Tim Eckert-Fong wrote that he should use the slider even more than he already does.
There are already 10 righty relievers on the 40-man roster, and several more who could figure into the Triple-A picture. It would take a lot to get Castro to Oakland again, but bullpen depth can dry up in a hurry so it’s nice to have him around.
Eric Jokisch, LHP
2017 stats (AAA): 4.21 ERA, 134⅔ ip, 91 Ks, 42 BB, 12 HR, 4.49 FIP
Jokisch has actually started for most of his pro career, including 22 of his 29 games last year. However, the A’s have such a crowded rotation that I can’t imagine there will be room for him anywhere but Nashville’s bullpen. The 28-year-old was originally drafted by the Cubs and got a September call-up in 2014, but he hasn’t reached MLB since and spent 2017 in the D’Backs system.
The most recent scouting report I found was from 2015, and it matched up with the 2014 numbers on Brooks Baseball: an 88-92 mph fastball, a changeup that he relies on heavily, and a couple breaking balls that he uses every so often.
Jeremy Bleich, LHP
2017 stats (AAA): 3.22 ERA, 50⅓ ip, 43 Ks, 9 BB, 4 HR, 3.58 FIP
He’s definitely not boring. Bleich was a Yankees 1st-round pick back in 2008, out of Stanford no less. In high school, he was profiled in a Michael Lewis book. Furthermore, his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he pitched for Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic in 2017. After that tournament he briefly dabbled in Independent Ball before being signed by the Dodgers last April.
Bleich has spent the last four years in the upper minors for four different teams, but he’s still never reached MLB. He had his best Triple-A success last year at age 30, and the New Orleans Advocate offered this scouting report in July:
Bleich’s fastball is now at 95 mph, up from 92. “But when you talk about his stuff, it’s that he consistently throws four pitches — fastball, curve, change and slider — for strikes,” [pitching coach Matt Herges] said. “He’s able to throw from different arm angles, which is like having six pitches. Not everybody can do that.” ... [Bleich said]: “I have been mixing angles, changing the eye level of hitters, and that has taken the pressure off some of my other pitches.”
Jarret Martin, LHP
2017 stats (AA): 2.04 ERA, 39⅔ ip, 40 Ks, 30 BB, 0 HR, 3.70 FIP
The Bakersfield native was drafted by the Orioles in 2009, and was once traded for former Athletics hurler Dana Eveland. He eventually bounced around a few organizations and had shoulder surgery, and by 2016 he’d washed up in Independent Ball and was working construction on the side. However, he reappeared with the Giants last summer and put up a career-best performance in Double-A, which is the highest level he’s reached so far.
In her S.F. Chronicle story linked above, Susan Slusser notes that the A’s want Martin to throw his slider more this year. She also reports that his fastball is clocking in the mid-90s so far this spring. Martin will pitch at age 28 this season.
The A’s added a couple of infielders to their upper minors depth chart, after trading away Joey Wendle, Max Schrock, and Yairo Munoz this winter. Both newcomers have MLB experience, which is a nice bonus considering that Jed Lowrie has an unreliable health record, Marcus Semien missed half of last year, and Matt Chapman is already having an MRI on his hand to begin the spring. Chad Pinder is available as a backup, but Athletics Nation is also hoping to see him play some outfield. Meanwhile, there’s no need to rush Top 100 prospect Franklin Barreto until he’s ready, and fellow top prospects Jorge Mateo and Sheldon Neuse aren’t locks to open above Double-A.
Steve Lombardozzi, 2B/LF
2017 stats (AAA): .274/.337/.339, 79 wRC+, 2 HR, 13 SB, 8.5% BB, 13.5% Ks
The son of a former major leaguer, Steve Jr spent the bulk of his career so far with the Nationals. They drafted him in 2008, and he played 257 MLB games with them from 2011-13. He also briefly reached the bigs with the Orioles (‘14), Pirates (‘15), and Marlins (‘17, two games), but he’s posted negative WAR overall for his career. He spent most of last summer with Miami’s Triple-A club.
The 29-year-old switch-hitter makes a lot of contact at the plate, but doesn’t have much extra-base power and almost never hits homers — in 848 plate appearances, he’s got a 70 wRC+ and only five dingers. He also doesn’t get on base a lot, nor steal once there. He’s got some versatility on defense but not at any premium positions, and he’s no better than average at the positions he does play. In other words, he’s an emergency utility player.
Nick Noonan, IF
2017 stats (AAA): .261/.313/.362, 75 wRC+, 3 HR, 6.8% BB, 18.8% Ks
He was once a Giants 1st-round pick, No. 32 overall in 2007, out of the same San Diego high school that produced A’s 2017 draftee Nick Allen. However, Noonan’s career never really took off and his prospect stock quickly disappeared. He did eventually reach San Francisco in 2013 and again in 2015, and he briefly played for the Padres in 2016, but all of those stints have added up to just 155 career plate appearances in MLB (29 wRC+).
Noonan has a similar offensive profile to Lombardozzi, in that he doesn’t really get on base, hit homers, or steal bases. The lefty-swinging Noonan has ever so slightly more power, but he also strikes out quite a bit more. On defense he’s truly versatile, having spent the first few years of his career at 2B, then 2014-16 as primarily a SS, and finally 2017 mostly at 3B. He’s probably not a plus at any spot, but at least he can fill in wherever needed. He’ll play at age 29 this season.
Even with Khris Davis set to spend more time at DH, the A’s managed to beef up their outfield over the last year. Stephen Piscotty now mans one corner, and Matt Joyce is still around in the other. The CF question has been addressed in the form of top prospect Dustin Fowler and fellow youngster Boog Powell. There are righties ready to platoon if needed, like Jake Smolinski and infield convert Pinder. And there are finally some interesting prospects on the upper-minors horizon as well, led by Ramon Laureano, B.J. Boyd, and Tyler Ramirez. Despite all that, they brought in three new bodies.
Slade Heathcott, OF
2017 stats (AA/AAA): .267/.350/.435, 116 wRC+, 14 HR, 10.0% BB, 23.0% Ks
Another Yankees 1st-round pick, this one from 2009 (the year after Bleich). He was a Top 100 prospect for them at one point, but injuries always got in the way and he also battled a drinking problem. He got 28 plate appearances with the Yanks in 2015 and actually holds a career .400 batting average in the bigs with a couple dingers. After finally washing out of New York’s system in 2016, he passed through the White Sox and then settled with the Giants last year.
The lefty hit for more power than usual last summer, with his first-ever double-digit homer total. He’s also maintained strong walk rates the last couple seasons. On defense he’s played almost exclusively CF in his career, though it’s not clear that he ever developed into the plus fielder he was once projected to be. As a prospect he was lauded for his excellent raw tools, and at age 27 he’s still just entering his prime, so in addition to serving as depth he might actually have a glimmer of upside remaining. He’s more or less this year’s version of Jaff Decker, even down to the unique name.
Nick Martini, OF
2017 stats (AAA): .303/.394/.436, 119 wRC+, 6 HR, 12.9% BB, 18.1% Ks
He was drafted by the Cardinals in 2011, and spent his entire career with them until now. He’s spent the last three years in the upper minors, and he’s controlled the strike zone masterfully in that time (12.5% BB, 15.0% Ks). However, he doesn’t hit for much power at all, so he needs to get on base at a high rate to remain productive. On defense he’s played all three outfield positions in his career, split about 40-40-20 between center, right, and left. He’s a pure lefty who will turn 28 during the summer.
Anthony Garcia, OF
2017 stats (AA): .294/.370/.487, 138 wRC+, 15 HR, 10.1% BB, 18.1% Ks
Like Martini, Garcia has spent his whole career in the Cardinals system. He was drafted out of high school in Puerto Rico in 2009, and by 2015 (age 23) he was hitting well in Double-A. Unfortunately, since then he hasn’t managed to take the next step and stick in Triple-A. At his best he can control the zone well, get on base, and hit for solid power. On defense he’s played mostly LF in his career, but Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse says he’s got the arm for RF. The right-hander is still only 26 years old.
As minor league free agents go, this group is as good as any. The lefty relievers were a critical need as there aren’t really any spares after Buchter and Coulombe, and I think Bleich looks particularly intriguing. The infielders aren’t exciting, but they probably won’t block anyone and at least they have some MLB experience in case of an emergency. And although I don’t want to overcrowd the increasingly interesting outfield ranks, the new trio at least brings a lot of on-base ability and CF experience, all while being 28 or younger with most of their prime years left.
The odds are always against these proverbial misfit toys. Even if a few of them do make it to Oakland, it’s unlikely that any will meaningfully contribute. But every so often you find the ol’ diamond in the rough like the A’s once did with Brandon Moss, and there could be an opportunity this year for a scrap-heap southpaw or a late-blooming outfielder to be the next unexpected success story.
If a minor league free agent rises up to become a contributor for the 2018 A’s, it will be ...
This poll is closed
Simon Castro, RHP
Eric Jokisch, LHP
Jeremy Bleich, LHP
Jarret Martin, LHP
Steve Lombardozzi, UT
Nick Noonan, IF
Slade Heathcott, CF
Nick Martini, OF
Anthony Garcia, OF