Searching for the next Russ Canzler: Impact Minor League Free Agents

This past offseason, the Rays signed a player named Russ Canzler as a minor league free agent to be their Triple-A third baseman, not expecting very much from him. Instead had an outstanding season, hitting .314 with 40 doubles, 18 homers, 83 RBI, and a .930 OPS (OBP plus slugging percentage, MLB average was .720 in 2011) on his way to the International League MVP Award. Now Canzler, after being added to the Rays’ 40-man roster and appearing in 3 September games for the Rays, is in the mix to be the Rays’ first baseman next season and at the very least has a very good chance to make the 25-man roster. Who will be this year’s Russ Canzler?

Looking for players who minor league free agents who just finished Double-A and could be in the major league mix for 2013 is too broad so I’m expanding this to talk about any impact minor league free agents. For this post, I scanned the minor league free agent list from Baseball America looking for players talented enough to make a big league impact within the next few seasons. I did this regardless of whether or not the player signed, but I’ll mention if the Rays should be interested if the player is unsigned. Let’s see what players we can come up with (they’re in alphabetical order).


Matt Antonelli, UTIL (signed major league contract with Orioles)

At one point in time, Padres fans had sizable expectations for Matt Antonelli. Antonelli was the Padres’ first round draft pick in the 2006 draft, and in 2007, he lived up to all the hype, hitting .307 with 25 doubles, 21 homers, 28 stolen bases, and a .894 OPS in 131 games between High-A and Double-A. That led to Antonelli being ranked the 50th best prospect in baseball entering the 2008 season and Padres fans were ecstatic. But Antonelli collapsed over the next two seasons, posting OPS’s of .657 and .638 while struggling through knee, thigh, and ankle injuries (and a .573 OPS in the majors for the Padres, although he did single of Greg Maddux in his first career at-bat), and then he missed all but 1 game in 2010 after undergoing surgery on his left wrist. But Antonelli was healthy in 2011 and signed with the Washington Nationals as a minor league free agent, and there he stayed primarily healthy and he showed flashes of the type of talent we all knew he had in him. He hit .298 with 20 doubles, 8 homers, 6 stolen bases, and a .847 OPS in 90 games while playing third base, second base, shortstop, and left field. He posted a nice 19.6% LD% (line drive percentage among all batted balls) according to Minor League Central compared to the league average of around 18%. That was enough to get a bunch of teams in the bidding for Antonelli, who will turn 27 in September, and he ended up with the Orioles after they offered him a big league contract. With the Orioles, Antonelli will be a utility player, and if Brian Roberts and J.J. Hardy have injury problems like in recent seasons, don’t be surprised if Antonelli makes quite a few starts as long as he hits well. Antonelli will never meet the expectations Padres fans had for him back in 2007, but he has the ability to be a solid big league infielder. He has some power and some speed, and if he gets a big league opportunity from the O’s, he has the ability to succeed.

Quintin Berry, CF (signed minor league contract with Tigers)

Speed is an asset at any level- but it’s nice when you can hit too. Quintin Berry has always had the speed, but the question has always been whether he could hit. Berry, a centerfielder by trade, has stolen 242 bases in 6 minor league seasons, an average of 40 per season, with a 79% success rate. He has averaged 45 stolen bases per season since transitioning to full-season ball. But Berry has absolutely no power to speak of, owning just a .339 career minor league SLG, and he has always depended on bunts to be a .267 career minor league hitter. But in 2011, Berry did show some hitting ability at Double-A in the Cincinnati Reds organization and a few games at Triple-A. He hit .284 with 16 doubles, 6 homers, still 42 stolen bases (just 7 CS), a .383 OBP, and a .391 SLG in 97 games. The 6 homers and .391 SLG were both career-highs. His 15% LD% was still significantly below average, although the best of his career, and his .383 BAbip was also considerably higher than his .331 career BAbip. (BAbip is batting average on balls in play, a player’s batting average when he puts the ball into play, taking out strikeouts and homers and adding in sac flies to the regular batting average formula. The MLB average is around .300.) Berry is now 27 years old, so he’s a late bloomer, but he’s an outstanding athlete, and if he can hit at all, he’ll be a productive big league player because of his speed and also his plate discipline (.358 minor league OBP). The Tigers signed Berry to a minor league contract this offseason, hoping his solid hitting in 2011 was no fluke. You give athletes like Berry opportunities. If he can somehow keep hitting, he could be a player who steals 40 bases in the major leagues while posting a solid OBP and playing a good centerfield. It may not happen, but especially on a low-risk minor league contract, Berry was worth a shot.

Darin Downs, LHP (signed minor league contract with Tigers)

It’s a miracle that former Rays prospect Darin Downs is still pitching. Downs, a lefty, was signed for $300,000 as a 5th round pick by the Cubs in 2003, but after 5 inconsistent seasons, Downs was released and signed by the Rays midway through the 2008 season. In 2009, the Rays gave Downs a chance to start as a 24 year old at High-A Charlotte, and there, he put it all together. He went 12-4 with a 2.00 ERA in 19 starts and a relief appearance for Charlotte, posting an 8.2 K/9, a 1.7 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 121.2 IP. His 2.98 FIP and 2.94 xFIP according to ML Splits were incredible, and he posted an outstanding 55.4% GB% (groundball percentage among batted balls). Later he won the High-A MVP award. But after being promoted to Double-A Montgomery, tragedy struck. Downs was hit in the head by a line drive, leading to a skull fracture that not only derailed Downs’ season, but also threatened his ability to speak, and to a lesser extent, his life. Downs made a full recovery, but his career was certainly affected. Downs moved to Montgomery and later Triple-A Durham’s bullpen in 2010, and he did pretty well, posting a 2.95 ERA and a 2.89 FIP in 37 relief appearances and 4 starts. He posted a 10.4 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 between the two levels, although his GB% went down to around 44%. Downs’ bid to be a major league starter appeared to be over, but there seemed to be a possibility he could succeed out of the bullpen. In 2011, Downs signed with the Florida Marlins organization, where he split time between Double-A and Triple-A yet again. He posted just a 4.66 ERA in 18 starts, 14 relief appearances, and 112 IP. But he did post a 7.0 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9, leading to a more appealing 3.49 FIP and a 4.03 xFIP. Downs isn’t the pitcher he may have been on track to be before the tragic line drive, but his career isn’t over yet. Downs, who will turn 27 on December 26th, signed a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers and will look to crack the major league roster before the season is through. We don’t know much about Downs’ pitches other than the fact that he throws a fastball in the low-90′s, a nice changeup, and an overhand curveball. But he has achieved success in the past with that arsenal, and we’ll see if he can get back on track in 2011. Downs is a nice story and we’ll have to wait and see how his tale concludes.

Eric Duncan, INF (signed minor contract with Royals)

You’ve heard the name before. You don’t remember where. You’re racking your brain trying to remember who Eric Duncan is. Then it comes to you- he’s that third baseman who at one point was going to be the next big superstar for the Yankees. A lot has happened. When you look at Duncan’s minor league numbers, they’re pretty pedestrian. His career .248/.321/.412 isn’t much to look at. He has hit 105 minor league home runs in 9 seasons, an average of 11.67 per season. He always had the talent, but it never surfaced. But in 2011, he finally showed something. He hit .274 with 21 doubles, 22 homers, 62 RBI, a .322 OBP, and a .527 SLG in 103 games for the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate, playing second base, first base, third base, and left field. The 22 home runs were the most home runs he had ever hit in a season in the minors, and the .527 mark was easily the highest slugging percentage of his career. Was it a fluke? Well, according to Minor League Central, 24.2% of his flyballs to the outfield went for home runs compared to the league average of 12.5%. Was it an improvement in his swing or just some flyballs that had been stopping at the track leaving the yard? The Royals took a chance on Duncan, hoping he can continue hitting in 2012. We know he has the ability, and maybe he’s finally found himself. We’ll have to watch how Duncan does in 2012.

Ryan Edell, LHP (signed minor league contract with Orioles)

When a pitcher has outstanding control, missing bats, and doesn’t allow too many home runs, that sounds like a formula for success. Yet left-hander Ryan Edell, who will be 29 in July, hasn’t made a single big league appearance. That could be about to change. Edell has elite control. He has a 1.8 career BB/9 in 780.2 minor league innings, and he was even better than that in 2011, posting a farcical 1.2 BB/9 in 149 IP. Edell doesn’t strike out batters as impressively, owning a 7.3 career K/9 including a 6.9 K/9 in 2011, and his 0.8 HR/9 for his career and in 2011 is just decent. But nevertheless, it’s pretty ridiculous that Edell has never appeared in the big leagues. He throws a fastball in the low-90′s, an inconsistent breaking ball, and a changeup according to this scouting report from when he was an Indians prospect. That arsenal has led to Edell being a flyball pitcher, but all things considered, Edell is a solid pitcher because of his outstanding control. It’s no coincidence that he has posted a 3.60 career ERA in the minors and a 3.45 FIP.  The Rays, who always need bullpen arms, should sign Edell to a minor league deal. Edell’s control could be an asset out of the bullpen, and he could potentially fall right into the long reliever-spot starter role that Andy Sonnanstine, Alexander Torres, and Dane De La Rosa filled at some points in 2011 for the Rays while allowing the actual prospects to keep developing in the minor leagues. He stays composed and while he might not dominate hitters, he won’t be overwhelmed by them either and he could be able to give the Rays some solid bullpen innings. Worst-case scenario, he doesn’t work out and he gives Durham some nice innings as a starter. I don’t understand why Edell hasn’t already been signed. He’s not young anymore, but he has the ability to be a solid big league reliever or 5th starter. Someone needs to give Edell a chance.

Josh Ford, C (unsigned)

There’s no one-liner I can use to describe Josh Ford. He’s been everywhere and back as a minor leaguer, he went from decent prospect to top prospect to bad prospect, then hurt his elbow and went MIA because of Tommy John Surgery and complications, and then he resurfaced to have his best minor league season and then another solid season. Ford a big guy at 6-1, 225, was the 9th round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2005 draft and had a nice pro debut, hitting .282 with a .346 OBP in 43 games at short-season ball while throwing out 41% of attempted base stealers. Then in 2006, the D-backs aggressively promoted him to High-A Lancaster and there he was impressive again, hitting .293 with 17 doubles, 7 homers, 52 RBI, and a.358 OBP in 103 games while throwing out 41% of attempted base stealers once again. The one thing that was missing was the power he was supposed to have, posting just a .365 SLG and a pathetic .082 ISO (isolated power- slugging percentage minus batting average). Ford had hit 26 home runs in 127 games at Baylor from 2003 to 2004 before tailing off to 9 homers in 2005 and curtailing his draft value. Nevertheless, Ford was hitting well enough and playing good enough defense that he seemed to have the potential to crack a big league roster. 2007 was more of the same for Ford as he battled through injuries to hit .265 with 13 doubles, 3 homers, 29 RBI, a .345 OBP and a 44% caught stealing percentage as a 24 year old at Double-A Mobile. He made up for the lack of playing time by going to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .333 with 5 doubles and 5 RBI in 5 games. But then he suffered an elbow injury during the offseason, and it would cost him big-time.

Ford had to undergo Tommy John Surgery in January in 2008 and he missed all of the 2008 season. Further complications from the injury caused him to miss all of 2009 as well. Ford only resurfaced in 2010, and by that time he was 27 years old. But he made up for all the missed time by turning in his best season. His power showed up in a big way as he hit .273 with 29 doubles, 19 homers, 77 RBI, a .342 OBP, and a .470 SLG. Defensively, he was still affected by the Tommy John Surgery as he threw out just 25% of base runners, but the hope was that the arm strength would come back. The question was whether Ford could sustain the power. In 2011, Ford returned to Double-A and had a pretty good season, hitting .265 with 18 doubles, 8 homers, 36 RBI, a .329 OBP, and a .408 SLG in 85 games. His 20.8% LD% was pretty impressive, but his weak point was strikeouts as he struck out 95 times, 28.2% of his plate appearances, compared to the league average of 18.7%. His bat declined, but his arm strength came back as he threw out 38% of attempted base stealers. Ford’s bat may never be consistently good going forward, but he has some pop and because of his great defense (Scout.com called him “a superb defensive catcher”), he’s certainly worth an opportunity from some ballclub. Ford turns 29 in January, but he could be a big league backup catcher in the coming years, and if you never know what could happen if he can hit ever hit for power again consistently. Ford still has never played at Triple-A, but he should be considered by all big league teams that need catcher depth, and the Rays certainly fall into that category. He has the tools to be at least a backup catcher, and maybe, just maybe, he could be lightning in a bottle for whichever team signs him.

Archie Gilbert, OF (unsigned)

According to prospect evaluators there are 5 primary tools that define how good a prospect is and what kind of player he will become. They are hitting ability, ability to hit for power, speed and capability to use the speed, fielding ability, and arm strength. Archie Gilbert has the speed and enough of the other tools to potentially be a major league player. Gilbert, who will turn 28 next July, has been doubted all the way through his minor league career, but at every level he has proved the doubters wrong. Gilbert was signed as a undrafted free agent by the Red Sox in 2005, but was released after posting just a .553 OPS at Rookie ball in 24 games. But Gilbert caught on with the Chicago White Sox in 2006 and dominated the Rookie level, hitting .332 with an .852 OPS and 35 stolen bases in 42 attempts in just 52 games. That 35 stolen bases in 52 games mark would come out to 109 bases if projected over 162 games. Gilbert was way too old for the level at age 22, but he showed he had talent and the White Sox saw that and re-signed him. Gilbert was promoted to the Low-A in 2007 and had another very good season, hitting .289 with 17 doubles, 6 triples, 9 homers, 49 RBI, a .825 OPS, and 35 bases once again (13 CS) in 101 games.

In 2008, after signing with the Oakland A’s, Gilbert went to High-A, where he hit .278 with 30 doubles, 5 triples, 7 homers, 49 RBI, a .769 OPS, and 35 stolen bases for the third season in a row (he was caught stealing 18 times). Gilbert was making his way up the latter and he continued to hit (and run). But things began to go downhill for Gilbert in 2009 in his first exposure to Double-A. He hit .283, but with fewer extra-base hits, just 16 doubles, 5 triples, and 3 homers, and also his OPS dropped to .744 and his stolen bases dropped to 29 (he was caught 15 times). Oakland sent him back to Double-A in 2010, and there he had very mixed results. He hit just .247 with a .721 OPS, but he hit 30 doubles and 11 homers and he stole 28 bases in 39 tries. The A’s had seen enough of Gilbert and he signed with the Nationals for 2011. He spent 5 games at High-A before coming back to Double-A and getting on track in all facets of his game. He hit .313 with a great .867 OPS, hitting 23 doubles and 12 homers, and stealing 31 bases in 35 attempts in 103 games. Gilbert showed in 2011 how he can do a little bit of everything. He can hit for average (although he was dependent on bunting as he posted just a 13.6% LD%), hit for some power, his speed is obvious, he played all three outfield positions defensively, and he showed some arm strength, posting 8 outfield assists. Gilbert has the tools to be a big league bench player and pinch-runner, and a pretty capable one. He’ll get an opportunity from someone, and while that team won’t be getting a star or probably not even a regular, they’ll get a contributor.

Jose Quintana, LHP (signed major league contract with White Sox)

Jose Quintana was a rare 22 year old minor league free agent, and the White Sox signed him to a major league contract knowing he has as much upside that any minor league free agent on the market. Quintana throws a low-90′s fastball with a nice curveball and a solid changeup, and all his pitches work more effectively because of his deceptive delivery. He used that arsenal to have a very good season at High-A Tampa in the Yankees organization in his first full season in America in 2011, going 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 12 starts, 18 relief appearances, and 102 IP. Quitana isn’t quite an elite prospect, but he has good control, misses some bats, forces weak contact, and could be a 3rd or 4th starter in the big leagues. He allowed a 14.7% LD% at High-A in 2011 with a solid 45.6% GB%, and he posted a 2.96 FIP and a 3.45 xFIP (if you use MLC‘s data on flyballs to the outfield for expected home runs- it goes up to  3.63 if you use total flyballs). We’ll have to see how Quintana’s stuff plays at higher levels, but he certainly has potential. He’s probably at least two years away from the big leagues, but he could end up as a really nice sign for the White Sox.

Yangervis Solarte, UTIL (signed minor league contract with Rangers)

Yangervis Solarte was a non-prospect, an organizational player at best, in the Minnesota Twins organization. In his first season at full season ball as a 20 year old in 2008, he hit just .238 between Low-A and High-A, with no power (3 home runs), and little speed (9 stolen bases). In 2009, Solarte missed nearly the entire season with a shoulder injury, and when he did play, he hit .176 with no homers or steals. But in 2010, something clicked. Solarte didn’t play exceptionally, but he did play reasonably between High-A, Double-A, and a brief stint at Rookie ball, hitting .292 with 18 doubles, 5 homers, 4 stolen bases, and a .729 OPS in 84 games. He posted a 17.4% LD%, quite a bit above the league average of around 15%, and unbelievably higher that the atrocious 12% mark he posted from 2007 up to and including 2009. Then in 2011, Solarte took another step forward. He hit .329 in 121 games at Double-A with 36 doubles, 7 homers, 5 stolen bases, and an .834 OPS. He posted an incredible 21.9% LD% compared to the league average of 15.8%, the 9th-best mark among all hitters who had at least 400 at-bats at the Double-A play level according to Minor League Central. Solarte isn’t a great player, and at age 24 he still hasn’t played at Triple-A, but he has really improved the past few seasons and the Texas Rangers have given him an opportunity to prove himself once again. Solarte has experience all over the field, at every position besides first base, pitcher, and catcher, and if he continues to hit as well as he has the past two seasons, he will find his way to the big leagues as a utilityman.

There is no risk with minor league free agents. You sign them to contracts that guarantee them almost nothing, and every once in a while you get lucky and you get a keeper that can help your big league ballclub. One of these players could be that player who diverges from the usual path of minor league free agents who bounce from ballclub to ballclub and becomes a solid big league regular.

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