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Introducing Oakland A’s 2019 minor league free agent signings

Can the A’s unearth another Nick Martini?

Kyle Crockett
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

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.

We got a prime example of the value of these signings last year, when Nick Martini came up and made a real contribution to a postseason club. After spending eight seasons in the minors waiting for his chance, he finally made his MLB debut at age 28 and ran with it. The outfielder posted a .397 OBP in 55 games and spent most of his time batting leadoff in the lineup, including in the Wild Card Game.

Of course, that kind of success story doesn’t come around every year, so let’s not get our hopes up too high. More often the best of the bunch is just the one who makes a brief appearance in Oakland at all, like Jeremy Bleich did last year — two games, for a total of four batters faced and a 54.00 ERA. The “stars” of the 2017 class were Chris Smith, Simon Castro, and Michael Brady, and it’s been a long time since they unearthed Brandon Moss.

One other note is that there’s still time for more additions, so this isn’t necessarily a complete list yet. Last year the A’s didn’t sign Brett Anderson until late-March, and Edwin Jackson didn’t come around until June. They were wonderful contributors too, though I don’t feel like they’re in the same category as Martini because they were already long-established MLB veterans instead of surprise late-bloomers.

Let’s get to know this year’s crop. They’re mostly pitchers, and almost all of them have at least debuted in the bigs before. With the questionable state of the A’s pitching staff, it’s easy to imagine some of them getting a chance this summer.

First up are two returners. Catcher Beau Taylor decided to stay with the only organization he’s ever played for, and he represents some familiar backup depth in the thinnest area of the team. He finally made his MLB debut last season at age 28, after eight years in the minors. Click here for more about his re-signing. Also coming back is lefty reliever Dean Kiekhefer, who made four appearances for the A’s last summer as a LOOGY. He’s a soft-tosser with a low arm slot who’s shown sharp control in the minors.

And now, the new additions.

Jerry Blevins, LHP

2018 stats (MLB): 4.85 ERA, 42⅔ ip, 41 Ks, 22 BB, 6 HR, 4.97 FIP

Blevins is more in the Anderson/Jackson mold, as a long-time veteran who just needed to lower the bar contractually to get his next opportunity. He’s easily the most likely name on this list to help the 2019 A’s, because he’s been in the majors for the last decade and he was good for most of that time. The 35-year-old is just a standard bounce-back candidate coming off an uncharacteristically poor season, and Oakland’s bullpen is wide open for a second lefty behind Ryan Buchter. Here’s more on the Blevins signing.

Jake Buchanan, RHP

2018 stats (AAA): 5.17 ERA, 156⅔ ip, 86 Ks, 47 BB, 9 HR, 4.47 FIP

Buchanan appeared in the majors every season from 2014-17, but he only amassed 64⅔ total innings for the Astros, Cubs, and Reds. His career MLB numbers include a 4.73 ERA and 4.87 FIP, mostly in relief work. He’s been primarily a starter in the minors, though, including last year.

The 29-year-old pitches to a lot of contact, and even in the minors he doesn’t strike anyone out. He does keep the ball on the ground, but not so much as to be notable — not even 50% of the time the last couple years in Triple-A, though his grounder rate is at 58.2% in his limited MLB action. His arsenal is about what you’d expect from that profile, with a fastball that averages around 89-90 mph and a slider as his top secondary (ahead of a curve and change).

Kyle Crockett, LHP

2018 stats (AAA): 3.00 ERA, 39 ip, 38 Ks, 7 BB, 3 HR, 3.08 FIP

Crockett has appeared in the majors in each of the last five seasons, mostly with the Indians until last year with the Reds. If you add up his whole career in the bigs, it would be a pretty good season: 74⅔ innings, 3.74 ERA, 3.09 FIP, a strikeout per inning and three per walk, 12 holds without blowing any, and a full 1.0 WAR on both scales. Similarly, his last three seasons in Triple-A have produced a 3.69 ERA and 3.14 FIP in 105 total frames.

The 27-year-old doesn’t throw hard, and he doesn’t miss many bats, but he’s still been able to rack up strikeouts even at the highest level. His fastball averages in the high-80s and he throws it two-thirds of the time, supplemented with a slider and a change. There’s a little bit of deception in his delivery and a fairly low release point, and as you might expect he’s consistently been tougher on lefty hitters throughout his career. In the bigs he’s mostly been used as a LOOGY, and he’s thrived in that role when called upon.

Kyle Lobstein, LHP

2018 stats (AAA): 5.14 ERA, 35 ip, 31 Ks, 15 BB, 1 HR, 3.72 FIP

Lobstein appeared in the majors from 2014-16, with the Tigers and Pirates, but hasn’t been back since. He was a 2nd-round pick out of high school back in 2008, and played for six organizations before joining Oakland. None of his MLB stints were particularly fruitful, whether as a starter or reliever, with a career 5.06 ERA, 4.39 FIP, and only 5.2 K/9.

The 29-year-old has the same kind of soft-tossing arsenal as the last couple guys — a high-80s fastball and a slider, plus a curve and change now and then. He’s got some platoon splits, but his profile is more of a starter/swingman than a lefty specialist.

Brian Schlitter, RHP

2018 stats (AAA): 3.36 ERA, 67 ip, 46 K, 26 BB, 2 HR, 4.06 FIP

Schlitter first reached the majors all the way back in 2010, and then again in 2014-15, all with the Cubs. In between those stints, he missed 2011 due to Tommy John surgery. He was in the bigs for nearly all of 2014 (for 56⅓ innings), to the tune of 4.15 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 12 holds in 16 tries (decent all around). More recently, he spent 2017 in Japan and then last summer in the Dodgers system.

The 33-year-old brings some strong velocity, with the latest readings from Brooks Baseball (from 2016) putting his four-seam at 96 and his sinker at 95. He also mixes in a slider, and the whole package adds up to a serious groundball profile. In Triple-A he’s consistently well over 60% grounders (68.1% last year), and his full 2014 in the majors produced a 59.9% that ranked toward the top of the league that season. He’s a pure reliever and has never started a pro game, but he’s been capable of going a second inning now and then.

Wei-Chung Wang, LHP

Spent 2018 in KBO (Korea)

Wang appeared in the majors in 2014 and 2017, both times with the Brewers. The ‘14 stint was just for Rule 5 purposes, as he was 22 and hadn’t yet pitched above Rookie Ball. In ‘17 he converted to relief work, and in MLB that year he faced just nine batters over eight appearances and retired only four of them. In Triple-A that same summer, though, he posted a 2.05 ERA and 4.04 FIP in 57 innings. His fastball clocked around 94 mph that year, with the slider as his other main offering and control counted among his strengths. Here’s more from Brew Crew Ball, who also mentions that he has a Tommy John surgery on his past resume. He’ll pitch at age 27 this season. (Update: Velocity now tops at 93, but he’s added a cutter. The A’s will try him as a starter/swingman initially.)

Trey McNutt, RHP

Spent 2017 and 2018 in independent American Association

McNutt is the only one on this list who has never played in the majors. He was a Top 100 prospect entering 2011 and got as high as Double-A in 2016, but then he spent the last two seasons in an independent league (where he allowed a homer to a 53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro). According to Chris Murphy of Inforum, McNutt’s story goes as follows: late-round draftee with a big fastball, followed by shoulder surgery that sapped his heat and cost him all of 2014, followed by Driveline to get his velocity back to the mid-90s, and now a triumphant return to a big league organization at age 29.

(Note: McNutt is the only one of these new-comers not currently on the Non-Roster Invitee list for spring training.)

Eric Campbell, 1B/3B/LF

2018 stats (AAA): .313/.420/.445, 133 wRC+, 6 HR, 14.4% BB, 15.2% Ks

Campbell appeared in the majors from 2014-16, all with the Mets. In 505 total plate appearances, he posted an 80 wRC+ (.221/.312/.311) and was just barely below replacement-level. He went to Japan for 2017, then returned last year and played in the Marlins system.

Entering age 32, he’s completely mastered Triple-A with the bat. The right-hander has consistently put up monster numbers there every year since 2013, and his 2018 stats listed above (in 402 PAs) are more or less the same as his career marks at the level (144 wRC+, similar slash line, walks and strikeouts both just over 14%).

On the defensive side, he’s played mostly 3B and 1B in the majors, plus some LF and a few innings at 2B. For what it’s worth, though, he spent most of his time at 2B last season and even played a couple games at SS.

Nick Hundley, C

2018 stats (MLB): .241/.298/.408, 91 wRC+, 10 HR, 7.2% BB, 27.9% Ks

Update! As dictated by Murphy’s Law, within 12 hours of posting this article the A’s signed another minor league free agent. Click here for the full news post, but here’s a quick summary.

Hundley belongs alongside Blevins on this list, as a long-time established veteran rather than an unknown flyer hoping to break out. He’s spent the last 11 seasons in the majors, with the Padres, Orioles, Rockies, and Giants, and his career 89 wRC+ is decent for a catcher (driven by solid power). His work behind the plate ranks somewhere between average and awful, but overall he’s still an upgrade over the A’s incumbents at the position. The 35-year-old settled for a minor league deal to find his next job, but he’s got a great chance of making it to Oakland.

Tyler Alexander, LHP

Spent 2015-2018 in independent leagues

Update! Another late addition! Alexander joins McNutt as pitchers who have never appeared in the majors, and who spent time in independent leagues recently. Alexander was in the American Association for thee years, and then the Canadian-American Association last season, and has also played extensively in Mexican fall/winter leagues. However, he has been invited to MLB camp this spring.

Alexander was a starter in Indy ball, but the implication is that he’s here as a reliever. Normally I would completely ignore Indy ball stats, but in this case it’s worth mentioning that in 2017 he set the all-time single-season record for strikeouts in any Indy ball league (167, in 148 innings). That post (from the New Jersey Herald) also mentions an arsenal of low-90s fastball, slider, curve, change, and the ability to work inside. Click here for the full news post about the 27-year-old.

Cliff Pennington, IF

2018 stats (AAA): .211/.311/.289, 64 wRC+, 1 HR, 12.5% BB, 21.3% Ks

Update! I should have just waited another week to do this post, because the A’s added yet another name to the list for the third time in five days. Click here for the full news post, but here’s a quick summary.

Pennington spent 10 years in the majors (the first five of them with the A’s), before toiling at Triple-A for most of 2018. He’s a utility infielder who doesn’t bring much at the plate, but offers quality and versatility on the defensive side of the ball. He’ll turn 35 this season, and he’s probably far less likely to reach Oakland than fellow experienced vets Blevins and Hundley, but he’s competent minor league depth at a shortstop position that didn’t have much of a backup plan behind Marcus Semien.

Logan Verrett, RHP

Spent 2018 in KBO (Korea)

Update! We’ve got another one! Verrett pitched in Korea last year, but he was in the majors from 2015-17, mostly with the Mets and briefly with the Rangers and Orioles. He’s thrown 150 innings in MLB, which grade as below-average (4.62 ERA, 5.17 FIP) but still within the range of serviceable; his ERA was also average-ish in the high-scoring KBO last year. His fastball is low-90s and he leans heavily on a slider, with a couple other secondary offerings mixed in. He has experience as both a starter and reliever, and will turn 29 this season.

Final thoughts

As minor league free agents go, this group is as good as any, especially when you toss in other pickups like Tanner Anderson (minor trade), Parker Bridwell (waiver claim), and Corban Joseph (minor league Rule 5). Even setting aside the known quantities of Blevins and Hundley and Pennington, there are a few lefties including a particularly intriguing LOOGY, and a couple of righty groundballers who might quite like pitching in front of Oakland’s infield, plus Taylor sticking around to catch. Las Vegas’ roster was probably going to be light at 1B, so even Campbell appears to fill a hole in the depth chart.

If I have to pick some favorites here, they’d be Crockett and Schlitter. Crockett appears to be an MLB-caliber LOOGY and I could see him getting some time in the majors this summer, giving me hope that there is usable lefty depth beyond just Blevins. As for Schlitter, I’m intrigued by the grounders, though I’d be way more interested if the A’s could turn him into a multi-inning guy on a team who might again lean on its bullpen for extra work.

The odds are always against these proverbial misfit toys, but you never know. Sometimes you find the ol’ diamond in the rough, and maybe the next unlikely contributor is somewhere on this list.