Impending Minor League Free Agents of Interest 2022

While the baseball world becomes captivated by free agency following the end of a season, much of the focus tends to be on the major league side of things. However, there are also plenty of players who end up hitting the open market through minor league free agency as well, and while the success rate of such players isn’t exactly high, that doesn’t mean that minors free agency should be ignored either. Previous years have unearthed useful players like Austin Nola, Kyle Finnegan, Jose Siri, and Zach Thompson, and last offseason’s group has seen Nick Plummer emerge as a potential contributor to the Mets.

In general, players are generally first eligible for minor league free agency if a) they are not on the 40-man roster, and b) have spent at least parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues for non-rehab reasons. With one exception (due to his specific circumstances), I will be focusing on the group that will be newly eligible following this coming season, which includes those in the 2015-2016 IFA class and those drafted in the 2016 Rule 4 Draft. Although there may be some debate about their actual eligibility due to injuries, I have decided to opt for inclusion to be safe instead of automatically assuming that injuries would keep them from minors free agency (a mistake I made with Plummer). That being said, it’s also important to keep in mind that just because a player is eligible doesn’t mean that they’ll end up making it to the open market, as players can always agree to a new minors deal before free agency begins. Additionally, my focus will be on players with minimal service time in the majors, so while I will include Ronnie Dawson (who has less than 10 days in the majors), I will be excluding players like T.J. Zeuch, who has less than a year of service time but enough time to no longer consider him a prospect.

So, who are the names to keep an eye on for the rest of the season?

Position Player Frontrunners:

Miles Mastrobuoni (INF/OF, TBR)

While Mastrobuoni has never been highly regarded as a prospect, he is looking like a frontrunner for a possible 40-man deal if/when he hits minors free agency. Mastrobuoni is a bat-first prospect, whose main draw is his on-base ability that’s been notably above-average since hitting the majors and has so far been enough to compensate for his middling power. As for his defense, he has experience at most positions, but realistically his average arm and speed don’t play that well defensively, and he’ll likely be below-average wherever he plays. He’s most likely a bench player in the majors with enough bat and versatility to be interesting, although there’s enough of a chance for his bat to play for Mastrobuoni to get starting time for a rebuilding team, similar to Ramon Urias for the Orioles.

Jose Fermin (INF, CLE)

Fermin is an excellent example of Cleveland’s approach to position player prospects as a middle infielder with excellent bat-to-ball skills. Although he lacks major power, Fermin has so far been able to compensate with superb bat control and a decent ability to take a walk. Defensively, he may be stretched at shortstop but is capable of playing any infield position, although he has mainly played third base this year in deference to other, higher-ranked prospects in Columbus. While there is a likely floor of an okay bench player, Fermin’s power problems may suggest that it’s also his ceiling barring a notable step forward in this department. However, while he may be a stretch at shortstop, that combined with his bat-to-ball abilities should garner him plenty of interest if he becomes a minors free agent.

Will Benson (OF, CLE)

To say Benson has been polarizing is an understatement. On the one hand, he has an excellent combination of power and speed that could make him an All-Star center fielder with a cannon of an arm if he pans out. However, not only is that a major "if", but the largest issue holding him back has been his bat, with major contact-related concerns having him tumble down prospect lists. The good news for him so far in 2022 is that he’s not only reined in those problems so far, but his 22.9% strikeout rate (at the time of writing) is a career best. Given Cleveland’s other questions in the outfield, it’s entirely possible that Benson may get a chance in the majors if Steven Kwan or Oscar Gonzalez end up stumbling, and if he ends up reaching minors free agency Benson is sure to be a priority target for teams. Additionally, if his contact problems end up manifesting themselves again in force, it is worth mentioning that his 6’5" frame and rocket arm should make him an interesting conversion arm candidate, with Michael Gettys being a notable example involving the latter.

Estuery Ruiz (OF, SDP)

As polarizing as Benson has been, Ruiz has been just as much over the current season. Originally a second baseman, Ruiz is now a full-time outfielder who is still raw defensively but has enough speed and arm to work at all three spots. However, he has been on fire offensively to begin 2022, with notably improved walk and strikeout rates alongside solid power outputs. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that Ruiz is the definition of aggressive on the basepaths, with him having 41 stolen bases so far this season. (Yes, you read that correctly.) However, the main debate lies with whether the improvements in his strikeout rate are actually real, with Fangraphs in particular expressing skepticism that his contact ability is anything but a mirage. That being said, there’s enough in his profile where a team could easily decide to roll the dice on him anyway, especially teams that put more value than others on stolen bases.

Pitcher Frontrunners:

Matt Krook (LHP, NYY)

While his 2022 results so far aren’t pretty, Krook still represents one of the more interesting pitching options among possible minors free agents. Although he doesn’t throw particularly hard (his sinker averages in the low 90s), he gets a tremendous amount of movement on his sinker, which has helped him generate above-average groundball rates, and he also throws a solid changeup and okay slider. That being said, his command and control are below-average, and it’s particularly exacerbated by the sheer life on his sinker, which likely limits him to an up-and-down role in either the rotation or relief unless those problems can be mitigated. If a team does feel like they can manage it, however, he could turn out to be a very useful addition to a pitching staff in almost any capacity.

Lucas Erceg (RHP, MIL)

Erceg might seem like an odd addition to this list, but the pure stuff he’s been throwing as of late could easily make him a priority target for minors free agency. A two-way player in college before being drafted as a third baseman, Erceg ended up stalling out as a position player before transitioning back to the mound in 2021. While his command and control are still raw, Erceg’s stuff has taken a major step forward, throwing his fastball in the upper 90s while also complementing it with a slider in the high 80s/low 90s. However, Erceg still needs refinement to his game, and he likely will need more time in the minors to develop. That being said, he represents an intriguing gamble for a team that can help him take that final step, and his stuff suggests a future outcome of an impact reliever if they can pull it off.

Jhony Brito (RHP, NYY)

Although Brito hasn’t gotten much attention as a prospect, his performance so far in 2022 may end up changing some minds. A 2015 IFA signing, Brito has generally been more of a command/control pitcher who has always been above-average at limiting walks. However, he shouldn’t be seen as a "great command, middling stuff" pitcher, as not only does he throw a mid-90s fastball (touching 98 in April to boot), but he pairs it with a mid-80s changeup with great late movement and a low 80s slider that’s a playable third pitch. However, there are some questions about how well he can hold up in the rotation on a regular basis, and Brito might end up fitting better in the bullpen by coming out in shorter stints. That being said, teams that are particularly intrigued by him may want to see if he can stick in the rotation based on his fastball/changeup/command base.

Other Notable Hitters:

Robbie Tenerowicz (INF, CIN): While he’s received practically zero attention, he could turn out to be a very interesting diamond in the rough. A bat-first infielder, "Byrd" (as he’s known among teammates) overhauled himself during the 2020 shutdown at Driveline in order to make better use of his power, and while it hasn’t always shown up in home runs, he’s since done enough damage to AA to earn himself a promotion over the past week (at the time of writing this). Additionally, he’s not only demonstrated a better walk rate in his repeat AA assignment, he’s also demonstrated some positional versatility as well at all four corners and second base, though third base is probably his best position.

Alex Call (OF, CLE): The third round pick of the White Sox, Call was initially seen as a reach but has seemingly overhauled his profile after being traded for Yonder Alonso in the 2018-2019 offseason. Defensively he is a capable defender at all three outfield spots, though he’s a better fit in the corner outfield than in center field. However, while his bat was initally unspectacular, his post-2020 performance has seen major steps forward in both his walk and strikeout rates, although his power is more "doubles power" than that of a true home-run threat. Call likely doesn’t have a high ceiling, though his improvements with the bat combined with his outfield ability make a fourth outfielder future entirely possible, if not someone who does enough of the smaller things well to start in center if roster circumstances dictate it.

Seuly Matias (OF, KCR): While other names in this article have varying degrees of power, Matias easily has the most, generally sticking on prospect lists for it despite his other questions. However, the question that has held him back the most has been around his contact ability, as it is nothing short of atrocious with a career strikeout rate of 36.2%. If his bat-to-ball skills can even be below-average, he should be able to stick in the majors, but the contact issues are so severe that it’s a realistic outcome for him to bust out of baseball entirely.

Brady Policelli (C/UTIL, DET): Policelli is a bit of an oddball, as while most of his time has come behind the plate, he’s also demonstrated a surprising amount of versatility around the field and logging time at every position (even pitcher). Realistically, he’s likely a third catcher who’s bat is ahead of his power, but the sheer amount of versatility (and his plus arm enabling it) might convince teams to take a closer look at him to see how his okay minors production can translate to the majors.

Enmanuel Valdez (2B/3B, HOU): Valdez is likely going to be a polarizing minors FA candidate based on how much teams believe his minors performance. A bat-first prospect, Valdez has so far performed wherever he’s been placed while showing some defensive versatility between second and third base (as well as left field this year). However, Fangraphs has raised concerns with vulnerabilities in the zone, and while he’s shown defensive versatility that same defense is generally regarded as below-average.

Brett Cumberland (C, BAL): A former Braves prospect, Cumberland’s value is tied entirely to his ability to stick behind the plate. While he’s shown a propensity to take a walk, his bat and power grade out as average at best, and he’s considered rough behind the plate. However, the implementation of the universal strike zone may make him more tolerable defensively to the point of making him a bat-first backup, although he’s more likely a third catcher as things stand presently.

Other Notable Pitchers:

Zack Kelly (RHP, BOS): Among all the names on this list, Kelly is probably the easiest to cheer for, going from signing as an undrafted player to overcoming multiple releases and an elbow injury to being on the cusp of the majors. He relies on a mid-90s fastball and a changeup with above-average movement, and he has more recently included a cutter that could end up being an average third pitch. While his command and control are major areas of improvement, his stuff alone has netted him excellent results as of late, and even with his likely bad luck he currently projects as a decent reliever. His inclusion is a bit of an unusual case, as his prior releases make him eligible for minors FA despite not having the usual amount of minors service time.

Alex Speas (RHP, TEX): In terms of pure stuff, Speas easily has the best fastball/curveball pairing of upcoming minors free agents, with a fastball sitting in the high 90s and a breaking ball with nasty movement (sources vary as to whether it’s a curveball or slider). However, Speas is realistically limited to a stuff-based flier, as it’s hard to decide what’s worse between his command/control or his injury history. Speas should be a target for many teams, as even with below-aveage command/control Speas can be an impact reliever, but at the same time his flags are nothing short of crimson. (Note: Speas has been on the restricted list since the season’s start, and Lone Star Ball’s Adam J. Morris has noted that with Texas it is usually a precursor for a player leaving the team. However, he remains on this list in case circumstances change.)

Cole Ragans (LHP, TEX): The minors FA eligibility of Ragans is up for debate due to the amount of time he’s missed, but if Ragans becomes eligible, he instantly becomes one of the more interesting candidates among this year’s "new class". Drafted as a first-round pick in 2016 as a pitchability lefty with solid stuff, his career has been derailed by a pair of Tommy John surgeries that have also stunted the development of his pitches. However, Ragans has started 2022 strong as a changeup/command starter, and while the rest of his repertoire is more middling, he has enough to straddle the backend starter/middle reliever range. Of course, having two Tommy John surgeries will make teams very wary for his health, and while starting is within his range of futures he doesn’t have much margin for error if he wants to make it a reality.

Johan Dominguez (RHP, CHW): Although his future role is a notable question, Dominguez represents an interesting opportunity for teams looking for a potential backend starter. While he has a full four-pitch mix, he primarily relies on his mid-90s fastball and above-average slider, while his command took a notable step forward in 2021. However, his previous durability questions now have the additional complication of a Tommy John surgery in April, and while a team should see whether he can handle a rotation spot, his future may now lie in the bullpen as an interesting fastball/slider reliever who could go once through a batting order when needed.

A.J. Puckett (RHP, ATL): Included as the most notable Braves MiLB candidate, Puckett has finally begun to move past his health issues and begun to show some of his pre-draft promise. While much of his profile is meh (low 90s fastball, okay slider and control/command), his changeup is still above-average, and his 2022 "struggles" have mostly been bad luck. While his shift to the bullpen is likely more because of his impending MiLB FA status, Puckett’s profile is likely there long-term, with a Jackson Stephens-esque role as a possible outcome if he can handle AAA.

Brief 2016 Draft Pedigree Mentions:

Riley Pint (RHP, COL): The fourth overall pick, Pint has huge stuff, but his issues with command both make his pitches play down and give him a major issue with walks. Briefly retired in 2021 before coming back in 2022.

Ryan Boldt (OF, TBR): Drafted in the second round by the Rays, Boldt is a well-rounded center fielder with notable health-related concerns that stretch back to his high-school days.

Blake Rutherford (OF, CHW): The Yankees’ first round pick, Rutherford falls into an awkward "tweener outfielder" profile where he’s also had problems producing offensively. Added onto the White Sox 40-man in November 2019 but outrighted off it in April of this year.

Hudson Potts (INF, BOS): A Padres first-rounder, Potts has excellent raw power but has severe problems with accessing it effectively and is trending more towards 1B defensively.

Joe Rizzo (INF, SEA): The Mariners’ second round pick, Rizzo has solid feel to hit but hasn’t been able to turn it into effective offensive production, and his defense at third base continues to be mediocre.

Logan Shore (RHP, DET): The Athletics’ second-rounder, Shore has an excellent changeup but a middling profile otherwise. He can probably serve as a spot starter but needs to take a step forward to be more than that.

Delvin Perez (SS, STL): Selected as the Cardinals’ first pick at #23, Perez is still a solid defender but has been unable to develop with the bat.

Connor Jones (RHP, SEA): The Cardinals’ second round pick hasn’t fared much better, as Jones has a good fastball/slider combo but is held back by command problems and is likely more of an up/down arm without further improvements.

Ronnie Dawson (OF, CIN): The Astros’ second round pick, Dawson can play all three outfield spots and briefly got time in the majors, but has major concerns with the bat, even with manageable strikeout rates in the minors as of late.

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