I like to joke that teams make minor league signings just so writers like me can get way too excited about players who won’t see big league time all season. However, over the last several seasons, failing to get quality minor league free agents has cost the Rays.
This past season, the Rays had to call up Ali Solis, who hadn’t hit at all since 2012, to replace Ryan Hanigan went he went on the disabled list. Predictably, Solis did nothing, forcing Jose Molina into far more playing time than he deserved. Before long, the Rays had to call up Curt Casali to the big leagues even though he needed more time at Triple-A.
In 2013, Luke Scott hit the disabled list to begin the year, and the Rays’ best option to replace him was apparently 33 year old Shelley Duncan. That same season, the Rays had some outfield injuries and ended up promoting Jason Bourgeois. Then we can talk about all the marginal players from 2012 when Evan Longoria got injured: Will Rhymes, Drew Sutton, Brooks Conrad, etc.
Obviously you’re hoping every season that your minor league signings never become important, but someone is going to get hurt on your team and you never know when you’ll need a replacement. Luckily, the 2015 Rays look to be more ready than previous incarnations of the team thanks to three recent signings.
Bobby Wilson, a local product out of St. Petersburg College, has actually been a big league backup catcher before. The 31 year old has just a .209/.271/.321 line (66 OPS+) in 451 big league plate appearances, numbers that don’t exactly inspire confidence. However, he has actually put up a strong .241/.313/.451 line in 157 PA’s against lefties, and he’s also an excellent defender.
Wilson does a good job blocking balls in the dirt and is respectable at throwing out basestealers (27% career CS%), but he especially stands out for his pitch-framing. In 2012, his last full big league season, Wilson managed 8.4 framing runs above-average, 13th-best in baseball.
Essentially, Bobby Wilson gives the Rays a Jose Molina-esque player that they don’t need to bring up to the majors (or pay much money) until they need him. Whether Wilson will be the Rays’ third catcher at Triple-A or the team’s backup until Casali is ready, he will help the Rays improve their catching situation from last season.
Eugenio Velez and Corey Brown, meanwhile, will give the Rays outfield depth that actually consists of talented players. The Rays do have Mikie Mahtook on their 40-man roster right now, but they will not want to bring him up to fill a bench role and that is where Velez or Brown could come in.
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Velez, 32, does several different things that the Rays value. He is versatile, having the ability to play all three outfield positions and second base, he’s a good basestealer, and he has solid career numbers against right-handed pitching as a switch-hitter. Velez has a .256/.297/.408 line against righties in 559 MLB plate appearances and a .322/.381/.495 line in 1085 Triple-A PA’s against them the last four years.
Velez hasn’t seen big league time since 2011, but he has played very well at Triple-A and could be deserving of another chance. Because he can play second base, Velez could push Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham for a backup role out of spring training, and he is the type of player the Rays could find a use for if he did end up on their 25-man roster.
Brown, meanwhile, gives the Rays a left-handed outfielder who still has some upside. A 29 year old out of H.B. Plant High School in Tampa, Brown was a supplemental first round pick back in 2007 as a five-tool centerfielder. Brown has never made enough contact to receive an extended big league chance, but his power-speed combination and strong defense in centerfield still make him an interesting player.
Brown has a .261/.337/.485 line in 1315 plate appearances against righty pitching the last four years at Triple-A, inspiring confidence that he can do enough to be at least a big league backup. If the Rays do need an outfielder at any point in 2015, Brown would give them a player with the ability to make some things happen. For all of his flaws, he is still more exciting than players like Bourgeois and Rich Thompson.
Bobby Wilson, Eugenio Velez, and Corey Brown certainly cannot be described as great players–there is a reason that the Rays got them on minor league deals. However, all three are better than the Triple-A depth the Rays have had in the past and could even compete for backup roles out of spring training. The Rays’ best scenario in 2015 involves these three players receiving little big league time if any, but if injuries happen, we will appreciate that the Rays brought them into the fold.