One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s such a cliche phrase and we hear it all the time. In baseball, though, it is so often true. Where one team sees a pitcher with sloppy mechanics who can’t throw strikes, another team sees a pitcher just one minor adjustment away from breaking through. Where one team sees a first baseman without nearly enough power to profile as a starter, another sees a great defender who will hit for a high average and may just show some pop once he gets comfortable at the big league level. At this site, we cover the Tampa Bay Rays and we know how proficient they are at signing players everyone else thought was washed up and turning them into key pieces of their success. But they are far from the only team with success stories, and every team can’t wait to find that next low-risk signing that turns out better than anyone could have hoped.
When you’re talking about players released from the minor leagues, though, it’s a different story. The odds of success are much lower and 95% of all moves if not more turn into nothing. But teams are always searching for players they think might be within the 5% knowing that the right signing could be a major boost for their franchise. In this article, we’re going to look at the recently-released players according to Baseball America’s Minor League Transactions and attempt to find who still has a chance to make a big league impact.
Group A: Big Leaguers Stuck at Triple-A
Brandon Lyon- Just last season, Brandon Lyon was among the best relievers in baseball. The 32 year old delivered quite possibly the best season of his career between the Astros and Blue Jays, going 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA, a 9.3 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 67 appearances in 61 innings pitched. Lyon had never been much of a strikeout pitcher, but suddenly he harnessed his curveball and struck out the most batters he ever had in a season despite pitching just the 7th-most innings of any season in his career. Yet after the season, Lyon could not find a team that wanted to sign him. Finally in February, he signed with the New York Mets for just $750,000. Why was there such a hassle for a pitcher who had been so effective the previous season? As it turned out, teams knew what they were doing when they avoided Lyon as his fastball velocity has dropped from 90.82 MPH last season to just 88.42 MPH this season according to Brooks Baseball. This season for the Mets, though, Lyon was pitching well, managing a 3.16 ERA through his first 33 appearances before allowing 8 runs in his final 3 innings pitched to trigger his designation for assignment and subsequent release. Then Lyon signed with the Red Sox on a minor league deal in July, but he exercised an out-clause on his contract when it became apparent that the Red Sox would not bring him up. What will happen to Lyon now? No team has signed him yet, but a contender still looking to make one more move to bolster their bullpen could go to him. His velocity may be down, but with his newfound plus curveball and solid cutter supplementing his fastball, he can still be an effective middle reliever. A team like the Indians, Cardinals, or Pirates could sign him as bullpen depth in the next few weeks.
Zach Duke- Just as easily as a small sample size could make a player look great, another small sample could come along to bring him down. Zach Duke managed a 1.32 ERA in 8 appearances for the Nationals in 2012 and it looked like he could be a major part of their bullpen this season. Instead, Duke managed just an 8.71 ERA in 12 apperances and got released. The small sample size giveth and the small sample size taketh away. But after getting let go, Duke signed a minor league deal with the Reds and has been untouchable for their Triple-A Louisville affiliate, managing a 1.37 ERA,a 9.2 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9 in 20 appearances and 19.2 IP. The Reds then proceeded to release him, likely more along the lines of Lyon’s situation as opposed to them having a burning desire to unload a red-hot Triple-A reliever. Duke has fallen a long way since his pair of 200-inning seasons for the Pirates, but he has never gotten the chance to be situational lefty and such an opportunity could be in order. Duke has held lefties to a .258/.292/.358 line in the minors since the start of 2011, striking out 52 while walking 13 and forcing a 49.1% groundball rate. Duke should proabably stop throwing his curveball, but with a good high-80’s sinker, a strong slider, and a usable changeup, he has the ability to get lefties out in short stints immediately. After Matt Thornton went down, the Red Sox could consider signing Duke as depth, and other teams will be interested as well.
Group B: Ex-Big Leaguers Struggling to Hang On
Jose Valverde- It was a downright bizarre series of events when Jose Valverde went from sitting on his couch to being the Tigers closer in just a couple of weeks. But everyone knew from a start that it was going to be a failed experiment. Given how bad he looked at the end of the season, no one was surprised when Valverde managed just a 5.59 ERA in 20 appearances before getting outrighted to Triple-A and then released. Now that Valverde is on the market again, though, could another team go after his services? No, no one is going to annoint him their closer anytime soon, but the funny thing about Valverde is that he is still pumping fastball in the 93-94 MPH range. His splitter command simply wasn’t there during his big league time, and that led to the scary 2.8 home runs per 9 innings he allowed. Even if his fastball is still there, the way his splitter has fallen off likely spells doom for Valverde–unless he’s willing to go to someone’s Triple-A team and learn a new pitch. Valverde used to throw a slider, and at one point it was pretty good. Is there any chance that some team could sign him and try to bring it back to give a third weapon with which to attack hitters? Valverde is 35 years old and has made plenty of money. But if he’s willing to put the work in to make his career continue, someone could offer him a chance. The Rays love signing pitchers with premium velocity and working from there, and Valverde could be an interesting option as a pitcher they could rehabilitate for the rest of this season before bringing him back to the majors next year if all goes well. The Cubs, who have been amassing live arms lately, could hypothetically be another fit, although signing a 35 year old washed up closer would be a strange way to rebuild.
Boof Bonser- Does anyone remember Boof Bonser? I’m sure you’ve heard his name a few times, but do you remember the days when he was a pretty good pitcher for the Minnesota Twins? In any event, the Twins were five franchises ago for Bonser and he’s coming a rough year between the Giants’ and Indians’ Triple-A affiliates in which he went 2-8 with a 5.89 ERA and a 56-44 strikeout to walk ratio in 16 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 94.2 innings pitched. Those are ugly numbers. Why would anyone want to sign Bonser at this point? He’s had Tommy John Surgery and rotator cuff surgery since the last time he was an effective big league pitcher, and he’s now 31 years old! However, Bonser has never really had an issue getting righty batters out. For his major league career, righty batters managed just a .703 OPS against him compared to .886 by lefties, in large part because Bonser never developed an effective changeup. Bonser’s fastball velocity has gone from the mid-90’s to more 89-90 MPH at this point, but he still has the curveball and the cutter that have always been effective in retiring same-side hitters. Why not sign Bonser for basically nothing, put him in short relief against right-handed batters, and see what happens?
Group C: Quad-A Players Hoping for Another Chance
Josh Spence- The thing about being a middle reliever is that you’re a replacable commodity–if you don’t do well, your team will find someone else. Josh Spence managed a 2.73 ERA in 40 appearances and 29.2 IP for the Padres in 2011, but he slipped to a 4.35 ERA in 2012 and the Padres sent him down. He ended up with the Yankees for his season and has had himself a good season, managing a 3.86 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 33 appearances and 43 innings pitched. Spence should really be in the big leagues for somebody getting lefties out. In his big league time, lefties hit to just a .158/.247/.237 line against him in 86 plate appearances. They’re at just .215/.279/.333 in 216 plate appearances the last three years in the minor leagues. Spence pitches primarily off a high-70’s slider with sweeping action and sharp break and his sinker in the high-80’s that he does a good job keeping down. He also has a changeup which he throws when he faces righties and sparingly against lefties. Spence’s stuff doesn’t blow you away, but lefties can’t pick up his arm slot and he continues to prove that he has no problem getting him out. By the way, he’s only 25 years old. For teams looking for a lefty reliever with years under team control, Spence could be given a tryout the last few weeks of the season to see if he could be worth a 40-man roster spot next season.
Drew Carpenter- If “Quad-A player” was in the dictionary, Drew Carpenter might be the picture next to it. The last five years, Carpenter has appeared in at lesat one major league game this year but no more than 12, and this season he has appeared with four different organizations, earning a ticket out each time but finding another taker for his services. Carpenter has truly had a horrific 2013 between all those affiliates, going 6-8 with a 5.22 ERA, a 5.3 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9 in 21 starts and 110.1 innings pitched. Basically his entire minor league career, Carpenter has thrown strikes but hasn’t struck out many batters and has allowed way too many home runs. A funny exercise, though, is to look at Carpenter’s major league stats. In 22 relief appearances and a lone start, he actually has struck out 8.9 batters per 9 innings while walking 4.9 per 9. He has been a totally different pitcher. And while his 7.56 ERA in the major leagues leaves plenty to be desired, Carpenter does have the arsenal to be an effective major league pitcher. Carpenter has been starting games in the minors and working in long relief in the the majors. Maybe sending him out in short stints could make all the difference. Carpenter throws two effective secondary pitches, a slider and a changeup, and while the slider has been thrown primarily to righties and the changeup primarily to lefties, he can throw either to any batter. The changeup features nice late fade with his slider shows good tilt when it’s at its best. The big issue is that his fastball is probably his third best pitch, staying in the 89-91 MPH range and being a pitch that Carpenter struggles to keep down. If Carpenter’s fastball plays up to more 92-93 MPH when he’s only throwing an inning and can be a pitch he can use to get ahead in the count and go to his other pitches, he can be a very effective middle reliever that can get both righties and lefties out. Carpenter as a starting pitcher is a pipe dream at this point. But change his role and a team might be able to turn a struggling starting pitching into an effective relief arm.
(By the way, he was a college teammate of Evan Longoria at Long Beach State. Could the Rays sign him?)
Jeff Larish- No, this article wasn’t meant to be all about pitchers. It was just the way things worked out in terms of the players released this week. In any event, we finally get to our first position player in Larish. 2012 marked Larish’s second straight year at Triple-A in the Pirates organization, and it has not gone well. He has made it into just 20 games, managing a .167/.310/.313 line in 58 plate appearances. Injuries have decimated Larish the last three years as he has failed to play even 80 games in a season since 2010, the last year in which he appeared in the major leagues. When healthy, however, Larish has a lot of things to like about him. He’s a left-handed hitter who has primarily played first base, but he also plays a good left field and is passable at third base and right field as well. He doesn’t have the best pitch recognition and he will always strike out, but he has above-average power and solid patience at the plate. He has especially hit righties well, managing a rock-solid .724 OPS in 252 plate appearances against them in the major leagues. Larish has the tools to be a poor man’s Eric Hinske if he can get healthy and find himself an opportunity. Maybe Larish never gets healthy and it will never come together. But the bottom line with all these minor league free agents is that you can sign them for almost nothing and potentially get a big league contributor. Larish has the tools to be a major league player and we will have to see whether he can get past his injuries and show what he can do.
Mike Ekstrom- In spring training of 2011, Mike Ekstrom was a favorite to make the Rays’ Opening Day bullpen. And then everything fell apart. Ekstrom allowed 11 runs, 9 earned, in 8 innings of work, earning himself a ticket back to Triple-A for all but one big league appearance the entire season. Ekstrom then pitched well at Triple-A for the Rockies in 2012 to earn a promotion, but he managed a 6.32 ERA in 15 appearances (although that ERA goes down to 4.30 if you take out one bad game) and solidified his reputation as a Quad-A player who could get Triple-A hitters out but couldn’t do anything at the major league level. This season, Ekstrom has done nothing to change that, managing just a 5.14 ERA in 38 appearances and 56 innings pitched. Wait a second–Ekstrom had a 7.9 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9. That’s a 3.68 FIP. By the way, he also had a 56.8% groundball rate. Mike Ekstrom can be a really good relief pitcher. But why hasn’t he found success yet? The answer is that while Ekstrom’s repertoire just doesn’t work against lefties. Against righties, though, he has always been excellent. While he hasn’t been able to hold down a big league job, Ekstrom has acually been fine against lefties in the major leagues, holding them to .717 OPS with 26 strikeouts against 10 walks in 153 plate appearances. In the minors the last three years, he has held them to a .248/.305/.340 line with 102 strikeouts against 29 walks in 348 plate appearances. Ekstrom throws a low-90’s sinker that he commands well down in the zone to go along with a very good mid-80’s slider. His delivery is much more deceptive to righty batters, though, and his changeup is not very good leaving him succeptible to lefties. But if Ekstrom is used in short relief against primarily right-handed batters, a team could have themselves an effective middle relief arm. Ekstrom’s stuff is good enough that he will get another chance, and if the opportunity arises for him to pitch in the major leagues, maybe he could finally establish himself if he’s used correctly.
Mitch Stetter- Mitch Stetter is best known for getting 15 straight outs via the strikeout for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009. It wasn’t that he struck out 15 straight batters, but instead that when he did get an out, it was a strikeout. That is just one of those bizarre statistics, and Stetter is probably destined to be a trivia question answer for the most esoteric of baseball fans for the rest of time. But the 32 year old lefty does not want that one statistic to be essentially his entire legacy. This season for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate, Stetter pitched well in every regard but control, managing a 4.01 ERA, a 9.5 K/9, a 6.9 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 32 appearances and 24.2 IP. Control has long been a problem for Stetter as he hasn’t walked less than 3.9 batters per 9 innings for any significant stretch since his time at Triple-A in 2008, but he managed a 3.45 ERA in 101 appearances and 70.1 innings pitched for the Brewers from 2008 to 2009 and managed a 2.67 ERA and a 40-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 30.1 IP primarily at Double-A in 2012. Stetter has fallen out of sorts, but when you have a pitcher who held lefties to a .194/.310/.335 line in the big leagues, do you really give up on him so soon? Stetter is a herky-jerk sidearmer with a delivery that’s next-to-impossible for lefty batters to pick up and makes his mediocre stuff play up like crazy–when he can throw strikes. He throws a low-80’s cutter and a sharp slider in the mid-70’s, and while you wish that he could do anything against righties, he has the stuff to keep getting lefties out. The team that signs him could try to simpify his delivery a little bit and get him to throw to changeup, but they’re acquiring a pitcher with the capability of retiring left-handed batters and see if he can back to that.
Group D: Prospects Still Trying to Prove Themselves
Andrew Brackman- Prospect isn’t the right word for Brackman considering he’s 27 years old and has actually appeared in three major league games. But as opposed to being a Triple-A pitcher who hasn’t been able to establish himself in the major leagues, Brackman has just been all over the place. This year, he appeared in just one game at the White Sox’ High-A affiliate, presumably because of some injury. Last year, he spent the year primarily at the Reds’ High-A affiliate, managing a 6.71 ERA with a bout as many walks as strikeouts in 63 innings pitched. And the year before in the Yankees system, he had a 6.00 ERA and an even 75-75 strikeout to walk ratio. Brackman has really only had half of one season in which he looked anything like the first round pick he was, his stint at Double-A in 2010. Brackman managed a 3.01 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 14 starts and 80.2 IP over that stint, giving us a tease of how good he could be before flaming out entirely. But will another team give him a chance to get back to that? First off, Brackman needs to have the motivation. Matt Eddy of Baseball America reported that Brackman, who is 6’10”, is considering returning to basketball after playing there in college and high school. But good luck starting your NBA career at age 28 and amounting to anything–although Brackman does already have over $r million in his pocket, so he could afford to do something like that. Brackman’s best bet is probably baseball. But he has to find a team with the ability to help him get back on track.
Brackman’s mechanics have gotten out of sorts, reducing his fastball from 93-95 MPH to more 88-92 MPH and making his curveball impossible for him to locate with any consistency. He’s also throwing a changeup and a slider, neither of which has gone anywhere. Is there a team willing to go back to the beginning with him and see if they can salvage him? The Rays could be an interesting fit considering they have worked with a similar type of pitcher in Jeff Niemann. They also had Mark Hendrickson on their team for a while, and it would be ironic for them to sign Brackman right as he’s considering doing a reverse-Hendrickson and going from baseball to basketball. The big question, though, is going to be whether some team’s minor league pitching coordinator thinks Brackman is fixable. Brackman will be waiting for a call. If he gets it, he’ll be signing on for nothing and doing everything in his power to change his fate. If no call comes, he’ll have to mull his options and maybe even something as crazy as basketball could be a possibility.
Kevin Rhoderick- In the MLB Draft, it’s nice to find a player in the middle rounds who could move quickly to the major leagues in a relief role. Quite often, though, it doesn’t work out. Kevin Rhoderick is a prime example. The Cubs’ 9th round pick in the 2010 Draft, Rhoderick started out at High-A in 2011 and earned a promotion to Double-A after just 7 appearances. Two years later, he still hasn’t cracked Triple-A. In 2013, Rhoderick has gone just 1-5 with a 5.65 ERA striking out 26 and walking 42 in 43 innings. Rhoderick’s strikeout to walk ratio has declined every year, and when you’re walking a batter per inning and only striking out 5.4 per 9, it’s time to give up. It made a lot of sense for the Cubs to part ways with Rhoderick. But other teams may look at him as a change-of-scenery type of player who may be worth a shot. Rhoderick actually has good stuff, throwing a low-90’s sinker with plenty of natural sink, a good slider, and a solid changeup. His issue has always been the mental aspect of the game. As Baseball America described in his Draft Report, “On talent alone, Rhoderick could be a Top 200 player, but he’s stubborn on the mound and has failed to make adjustments. He always tries to rear back and throw as hard as he can, disregarding finesse and attention to the running game.” If some team can just Rhoderick to relax and pitch to contact more, maybe he turns into something. Given how good of an arm he has, there may be some team out there believing they can get him right mentally and get him to pitch up to his talent level. But you also have to wonder after how big of a hole Rhoderick has dug for himself whether he’s even worth the trouble.
Matt Smith- One of the sad parts about sports is how someone can go from a feel good story to released in just a year if he stops performing. That has been the case with Matt Smith. Smith was a 49th round pick by the Astros in 2010 that didn’t sign, and the following season saw him undergo Tommy John Surgery. Luckily for Smith, though, he’s not a pitcher but a first baseman, and the Marlins saw enough in him to sign him as a non-drafted free agent in 2012. Smith was a 24 year old in Low-A but had a huge season, managing a .279/.358/.506 line with 15 doubles, 20 homers, and 70 RBI in 383 plate appearances. But this year, he managed just a .216/.245/.235 line at High-A while being terrorized by injuries, presumably his elbow again. The Marlins decided to cut ties. However, if Smith’s elbow checks out, maybe another team could give him a call. He’s a big guy at 6’3″, 230 who has some bat speed and real power, and while his age is a deterrent, he was playing well enough that he can’t be completely disregarded. It would be nice if another team sees something in Smith and his underdog story continues.
Cole Nelson- When a baseball player in Independent Ball finds his way to a major league organization, he only has a limited amount of time to prove himself or they’ll let him go. But sometimes you see a case where a player is released but another team saw enough in him to give him a longer look. Cole Nelson has to hope he will be one of those players. Nelson was the Tigers’ 10th round pick in 2010 as 6’7″, 235 lefty, but since signing, he has struggled through the usual roadblock to success for taller pitchers: repeating his mechanics. Nelson has managed a 49.2% groundball rate the last three years and 62.2% in his brief time (9 appearances) with the Atlanta Braves organization this year, and he has allowed only 0.4 homers per 9 in 287 professional innings. But he has allowed a 4.7 BB/9 while striking out just 7.6, and that won’t cut it. Nelson throws a fastball that ranges from the low-90’s to the mid-90’s depending on how good his mechanics are and he does an excellent job getting a downward angle on it and keeping it down. Between his fastball and a decent curveball, Nelson actually has not been that bad against lefties the past three years, holding them to a .278/.358/.371 line with 71 strikeouts against 31 walks. But his changeup hasn’t gone anywhere and finding consistency with all his pitches will be key. Nelson has a chance to be an overpowering pitcher or at least a situational lefty if he can get himself together. And the Rays may be the team willing to give him a chance–they drafted him in the 45th round in 2010 and have worked well with taller pitchers in the past.
Among the players we’ve discussed, there are some players who will be signed any day now and others who could be waiting for months desperate for a call. The Group A guys, Lyon and Duke, are guaranteed to be signed by somebody and there’s a pretty decent chance they’ll make another big league appearance before the year is through. Among everyone else, though, there’s uncertainly and also potential. We can’t be sure which players MLB front offices have been discussing for days attempting to figure out whether they’re worth a chance and which are being totally ignored. But while the odds are long for almost all of these players, there is somebody on this list just waiting to break out, and everyone in baseball is hoping to find him.