Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Last Refuge of a Crummy Team

Minor league free agents here; get 'em while they're hot!

Baseball America's big, bad annual list of minor league free agents has hit the interwebs, and a tiny subset of obsessive dreamers rejoices. Five-hundred-thirty-three marginally skilled and potentially healthy talents have been set free. Five-hundred-thirty-three possibilities for improving your favorite team by a fraction of a WAR or so, if all breaks right.

Generally speaking, minor league free agents can be grouped into four classes:

1) Guys who have been property of the Washington Nationals;

2) Guys you've heard of, but for some reason never panned out;

3) Guys you've heard of, but who might not be healthy (and probably aren't healthy, since they're on this list); and

4) Guys you've never heard of.

I think that covers it.

Just eyeballing the list, guys who have been with the Nats (either on the major or minor league level) at one time or another make up, I don't know, 15-20 percent of this list. That includes the 27 guys in the Nationals' system in 2010 who are now minor league free agents. We already know about these guys, so let's try to forget them. And if you don't know about some of these guys, you don't want to know about them now.

Which brings me to a lodestar principle of minor league free agency. Pick any guy who's been in the Nats' system who, you once believed, had a chance to contribute, but who ultimately did not contribute. Then consider that every minor league system has guys like that. And now realize that the pool of minor league free agents is loaded with guys like that -- guys who have some indicators of quality, but don't actually provide much (if any) quality on the major league level. New stories are very rarely written.

That said, the Nationals will sign some of these 533 names, if only to fill out their minor league rosters, and some of these players offer at least a scintilla of hope of contributing, even if only in a pinch, for the big league club. Here's an unexhaustively researched list of the more appetizing $5 hot-'n-readies on the market:

Dennis Sarfate (RHP, Orioles): Most minor league free agent success stories (or at least a plurality) seem to be relievers, which makes sense, since the bullpen is a place where weaknesses can be hidden and strengths can be leveraged. This is not to say that wild-as-hell-big-guy Sarfate is a success story in the making, because he's probably not. But if you want the Nats to take a shot at a poor man's version of Joel Hanrahan, here's a candidate.

Wladimir Balentien (RF, Reds): Balentien is a Joel Guzman All Star -- a young power hitter who's failed to establish himself, but who isn't old enough yet to seal his fate that he won't establish himself, but who will soon enough run out of chances to establish himself, like Guzman. Balentien, who turned 26 in July, never even got a chance with the division champion Reds in 2010, so this may the final shot for him, and the Nats are the type of team with a messy enough outfield picture that a brief window might open for him.

Andy Marte (3B, Indians): I mean, just for the hell of it.

Jason Hirsh (RHP, Yankees): Sort of a latter-day Tim Redding, a guy with a taste of big league decency years ago who's seeking to reestablish himself after a year or two as a Triple-A rotation anchor. Hirsh was a better prospect than Redding, but it's a similar story. Then again, the Nats aren't really at a point where they need another Tim Redding, or at least I hope they're not.

Ryan Edell (LHP, A's): Has only scant experience above Double-A, but consistently good-to-great strikeout-to-walk ratios. There's pretty much no chance of him ever breaking through as a starter, and I really don't know much at all about him, but this type of pitcher sometimes contributes as a lefty reliever after gaining a bit of savvy.

Oscar Villareal (RHP, Phillies): There's not much to recommend of the guy at this point, but Villareal has in the past offered sporadic seasons of being a relief workhorse. It's not an impossibility that he could pop up again next season.

Eric Kratz (C, Pirates): While flipping past the MLB Network last summer, I saw Kratz get his first major league hit. With that kind of special kinship in mind, I suggest that he is capable of serving the Jamie-Burke-On-Call role. Maybe he even meets the exacting standard of being as good as Wil Nieves.

I dunno -- losing interest here. I definitely think the Nats should sign one of Dontrelle Willis or Mark Prior, just because.