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Re-Introducing Oakland A’s 2019 minor league free agent signings

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Can the A’s unearth another Nick Martini success story?

Brian Schlitter
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

(This is an update of a previous article. I did this roundup in early February, but then the A’s immediately signed a bunch more players so I’m redoing it to include everyone. Much of this is directly copied from the old version, but with new stuff interspersed where necessary.)

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’re currently 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.

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 but got knocked around. He’s a soft-tosser with a low arm slot who’s shown sharp control in the minors.

And now, the new additions. I’m splitting them into two categories: Established Veterans, and Misfit Toys.

Established veterans

These veterans are names you’ve likely heard of before, because they’ve been in the majors for over a decade — like when the A’s signed Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson last year. They’re here to provide reliably MLB-caliber depth, and we already know what they have to offer now that they’re in their mid-30s, so this isn’t the area to look for sudden breakouts beyond what they’ve done in the past. They’re the most likely on the list to contribute in Oakland, but it won’t be a huge shock when they do.

Jerry Blevins, LHP

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

Blevins is a long-time veteran who just needed to lower the bar contractually to get his next opportunity, and you can click here to read our full news post about his signing. He’s been in the majors for the last decade and he was good for most of that time (career 3.52 ERA, 3.66 FIP). The 35-year-old is just a standard bounce-back candidate coming off an uncharacteristically poor season, looking to prove 2018 was a blip instead of the beginning of his decline, and Oakland’s bullpen is wide open for a second lefty behind Ryan Buchter. Also check him out in a recent segment on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Nick Hundley, C

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

Hundley is another long-time established veteran, rather than an unknown flyer hoping to break out, and you can click here for the full news about him. 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 has a chance to make the Opening Day roster, with Josh Phegley as his main competition for the righty platoon/backup catcher role, and Hundley has the advantage of an imminent opt-out clause to help force the issue.

Cliff Pennington, IF

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

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. Click here for the full news post. He’s a utility infielder who doesn’t bring much at the plate (career 79 wRC+), but offers quality and versatility on the defensive side of the ball. He’ll turn 35 this season, and he’s probably 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.

Misfit toys

Now for the fun part! These are the guys I was talking about in the intro of the article, the relatively unknowns who occasionally break out into more. Most of them have reached the majors before but didn’t stick there, but on the other hand most of them are under age 30 so they are still in their primes and have at least the theoretical chance at further upside. If one of these names seriously contributes, then he’ll become the next on the list of late-bloomers like Martini and Moss, et al.

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.

Logan Verrett, RHP

Spent 2018 in KBO (Korea)

Verrett appeared in the majors from 2015-17, mostly with the Mets and briefly with the Rangers and Orioles, before playing last year in Korea. 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.

Entering his age-29 season, his fastball is low-90s (as of 2017) and he leans heavily on a slider, with a couple other secondary offerings mixed in. He has experience as both a starter and reliever, most recently as a starter in Korea, but he hasn’t been a full-time starter in the U.S. since 2014. His name is pronounced {vur-ETT}.

(Note: Verrett is not currently on the Non-Roster Invitee list for spring training.)

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.

Entering his age-27 season, his fastball tops out around 93 mph. He’s got a slider as his other main offering, plus a new cutter he added last year, and control is among his strengths. He was a starter last season in Korea, as well as for much of his previous time in the minors, and the A’s will initially try him out as a starter/swingman this spring, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Here’s more from Brew Crew Ball, who also mentions that he has a Tommy John surgery on his past resume. His name is pronounced {wong}.

Tyler Alexander, LHP

Spent 2015-2018 in independent leagues

Alexander has never appeared in the majors and hasn’t even been in the minors since 2014, having spent most of his career in independent leagues due to multiple suspensions for marijuana. He was in the American Association for thee years, and then the Canadian-American Association last season, and has also played extensively in Mexican and Dominican fall/winter leagues. However, he has been invited to MLB camp this spring, and he’s so interesting that we did a full news post about him.

The 27-year-old throws his fastball in the low-90s, supplements it with a slider and change, and keeps everything down and around the zone, reports Slusser. He also adds a “crossfire, deceptive delivery,” which Slusser likens to the funkiness of Chris Sale. 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). Alexander was a starter in Indy ball, but the implication is that he’s most likely here as a reliever.

Trey McNutt, RHP

Spent 2017 and 2018 in independent American Association

McNutt joins Alexander as pitchers who have never appeared in the majors, and who spent time in independent leagues recently. 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 the American Association — 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 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.

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). Blevins, Hundley, and Pennington are safe, known quantities backing up particularly thin areas of the depth chart. Beyond them, there are a few particularly intriguing lefty relievers, 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 viable 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. Alexander stands as the most fascinating wild card on the list.

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.