James Darnell, Minor League Signings Provide Rays With Depth, Upside


Every team has to make minor league signings to fill out the upper levels of their minor league system. You can’t have a prospect for every spot, and even if you did, you always want depth for your major league team. But the key with these signings is to find not just filler players but ones that actually have a chance of working their way onto your big league roster. The Rays announced four minor league signings yesterday, and they found themselves some interesting players.

From his pro debut in 2008 up into 2012, James Darnell did nothing but hit, never logging an OPS under .780 and topping .860 four of the five years. He cracked the San Diego Padres’ roster for 25 games, and while he did not hit a ton (.671 OPS), he managed a 9-7 strikeout to walk ratio, displaying a mature approach even at the highest level. Darnell has always stood out as a righty-hitting third baseman with power, plate discipline, and solid defensive ability. The only reasons that combination of abilities has not translated itself into at least a big league bench role has been injuries. Darnell has been sidelined by something each of the last four years, most notably two left shoulder surgeries. But if Darnell can get healthy, he is exactly the type of player the Rays love.

Darnell mashes left-handed pitching, managing an OPS above .840 against them each year from 2009 to 2012 and topping .950 three times, plus he features versatility. A natural third baseman, Darnell also has logged 47 games in the outfield and 5 more at first base. He has not been that shabby against right-handed pitching either, giving him a chance to secure regular playing time if everything comes together. Darnell is in a similar position as Brandon Guyer, only the shoulder he hurt was his non-throwing one and he is a year younger (he will turn 27 this month). He is less athletic than Guyer and speed has never been a part of his game, but he has always hit and that is not something to overlook. The question is whether he can stay healthy after playing in just 53 games the last two years and get back to being the player he had always been. James Darnell is a no-brainer on a minor league deal, and a strong year at Triple-A could earn get him into the mix for big league playing time in September.

For the second straight offseason, the Rays are about to lose two catchers off their 40-man roster. After Stephen Vogt and Robinson Chirinos were both designated for assignment last offseason, Chris Gimenez is already gone and Jose Lobaton will soon follow (although likely via a trade), leaving just Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina on the Rays’ 40-man roster. That is why it is so important that the Rays have Roman Ali Solis signed to a minor league deal to be a third catcher in case anything happens. Solis, 26, is one of the many catchers littering the upper minors who stands out for his defensive ability. He features good arm strength, throwing out 34% of attempted basestealers in his career and also standing out as a strong pitch-framer, something we know the Rays can’t get enough of. At the plate, meanwhile, Solis is inconsistent because of poor plate discipline, but he does have some power. In the Mexican Pacific League, Solis has hit to a .263/.323/.434 line with 7 home runs, tied for 14th in the league, and just one other player who topped 5 home runs is also a catcher. If the Rays do need a backup for any period of time, they could do a lot worse than a stronger defender who can occasionally run into one at the plate.

Ray Olmedo is no stranger to the Rays organization, playing for Triple-A Durham in both 2009 and 2011. The Rays keep bringing him back and the reason is his versatility. Olmedo is a solid defensive shortstop who is especially good at second and third base, and he has also logged games in both corner outfield spots plus two games on the mound. At the plate, Olmedo lacks power from either side as a switch-hitter, but he makes contact, draws some walks, and is excellent at bunting his way aboard. He also has been very efficient on the basepaths the last two years, stealing 19 bases in 24 attempts despite just average speed. Olmedo is 32 now, but he was in the big leagues as recently as 2012 and will be a great resource to help several of the Rays’ prospects. It will be interesting to see if some help from Olmedo could help a player like Cole Figueroa finally crack the Rays’ roster, and he could be a guy who can help Ryan Brett continue to improve defensively at second base. Sometimes a player can make just as much of a difference as a teammate as he does through his own abilities, and since Olmedo keeps coming back, the Rays clearly believe that is the case.

Finally, we have Santiago Garrido, who easily qualifies as the wild card of the bunch. Garrido, who will spend the 2014 season at age 24, had a strong year on the surface in his first full season in relief in 2013, managing a 3.16 ERA in 40 appearances and 62.2 innings pitched. The issue is that if we delve just a bit deeper, the concerns become obvious–Garrido’s strikeout to walk ratio was just 50-39. But sometimes numbers like that can belie potential. Garrido is a pitcher with great late life on his fastball, and he also throws a changeup with some potential and a slider. He has a history of forcing groundballs as hitters kept the ball on the ground 48.0% of the time against him the last three years. And the most resounding praise is that the Rays are giving him a chance. They see something they just might be able to fix, and they have nothing to lose attempting to do so. Garrido is the least likely of these four to see time in the major leagues next year, but if the Rays make an adjustment that works, we never know we could happen.