Last Monday, four days after the conclusion of the World Series, the contracts of 510 minor league players expired, and they entered minor league free agency. The majority of these players, now free to sign with any of the 30 MLB organizations, are long-shots to have even the slightest impact at the major league level in 2020.
However, some hold value, and could have the potential to claim spots on the Detroit Tigers’ roster as they break camp next season, or as injury replacements, especially as MLB rosters expand to 26 players in 2020. Niko Goodrum was signed by the Tigers as a minor league free agent in advance of the 2018 season, and has established himself as a decent everyday player with solid upside.
Here’s a look at some of the more interesting options available to Detroit on the minor league free agent market this offseason.
RHP Alexander Guillen
Signed in 2013 out of the Dominican Republic by the Colorado Rockies, Guillen was deemed a reliever very early. His career got off to a rocky start [Ed.: pun intended, I hope]; he pitched only one inning that year and was unable to pitch again until 2014 thanks to an elbow injury. Six years later, however, the righty thrived in Double-A and was able to limit opponents to 50 hits over 76 2⁄3 innings. His performance was good for a 1.53 ERA and 2.34 FIP, supplemented by a rock-solid 10.68 strikeouts per nine innings.
Guillen’s stuff sounds like that of a future high leverage arm, so it’s surprising the Rockies have allowed him to go to free agency. It is certainly good enough to merit some interest, especially with so little at stake for the Tigers next year. FanGraphs is enamored with his breaking ball, calling it a double-plus slider. In addition, the Denver Post noted that his fastball can reach a lofty 98 miles per hour. The 2019 season was the first that Guillen saw commensurate results, but he’s only 24 years old. Those factors could lead the Tigers to find him a place in the organization.
2B Nate Orf
This Baylor product has already experienced a far better career than anyone could have expected from an undrafted free agent, even getting a cup of coffee with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018. Orf’s free agency comes after spending the better part of three seasons entrenched as a run producer in Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate. Of those three years, 2019 was his worst (by wRC+), but he also boosted his walk rate to a massive 13 percent and only struck out in 14.8 percent of plate appearances.
Orf hasn’t done as much at the plate as some with the league-wide power surge in Triple-A. He only hit 11 home runs in 2019, but that isn’t where he derives his value. He’s a steady hand in the field and provides quality plate appearances, never selling out his approach for the sake of a little extra thump. He appeared in Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five series at least once every year from 2016 to 2018 because what he does on the diamond works. What do the Tigers have to lose by seeing if Orf’s game works at the major league level?
3B Mitch Nay
File this one under “nothing to lose.” There’s no other way to put it — Nay destroyed Double-A Southern League pitching in 2019. The Reds snatched the former compensation pick from Toronto’s system during the minor league phase of the 2017 Rule 5 draft and he rewarded their gamble by breaking out in High-A and posting big numbers in the three seasons since. This season was his best yet; he batted .304/.366/.561 over 82 games in Double-A. He limited strikeouts and demonstrated decent pop, resulting in a 164 wRC+.
Despite failing to do much of value in Triple-A after a July promotion, he’s still worth a second look. His shine as a valuable prospect has long since become dull, but his raw power and poise at the plate still hold out some promise. Also, it shouldn’t take much to displace Dawel Lugo at the hot corner in Detroit. Nay probably isn’t anything special, but could provide some healthy competition among a group of infielders that has grown somewhat stagnant.
2B Gosuke Katoh
One of the youngest players to reach free agency this year is former New Yankees second-rounder Gosuke Katoh. Almost assuredly, Katoh would have been added to the 40-man roster and thereby protected from minor league free agency if he were a part of nearly any organization. However, between New York’s loaded roster and sitting hopelessly blocked by Gleyber Torres and D.J. LeMahieu, the organization will feel little pain in letting Katoh walk.
He was regarded as a glove-first prospect on draft day, but no one foresaw how mightily he struggled to get his footing in pro ball. Katoh spent five seasons bouncing around the low minors before finally breaking out in 2017, but he underperformed again in 2018. His Triple-A campaign was among his best in the minors; he hit .279/.382/.443 along with reasonable walk and strikeout rates. His real value comes from his other traits, though, as a plus runner and rangy, sure-handed second baseman. The Tigers have no better internal options at second base unless they want to commit Niko Goodrum to a full-time role there, so there’s a chance they could try to find room for Katoh in the organization.
1B José Marmolejos
Another prospect who ran out of time, Marmolejos still has upside for a rebuilding club without a real option at first base. With the exception of a somewhat disappointing showing in 2018, he has always been an excellent performer. That held up in 2019, when he hit .315/.366/.545 in Triple-A. It wasn’t enough to earn him a call-up during the Washington Nationals’ World Series-bound playoff run, though, and they chose to let him go after the season ended. His unsustainable .370 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 30-grade speed indicate he’s probably due for some regression.
On the flip side, his left-handed bat could be an interesting addition to the Tigers’ anemic lineup in 2020. Miguel Cabrera should shift to more plate appearances in the designated hitter role, and Marmolejos would come at virtually no cost. What’s more, his Steamer-projected line of .261/.314/.401 would, sadly, be among the best on the team.
RHP Micheal Peoples
The second pitcher and final player on our list is a bit of an underdog. Peoples’ age (28) and completely unheralded trek through the minor leagues makes him a less interesting target than most. His numbers aren’t anything special, either, but he could plug a hole in the Tigers roster. One of the festering problems that plagued the Detroit roster in 2019 was a lack of depth in the starting rotation, which is exactly what Peoples would provide.
Finally healthy for the first time since 2016, the righty logged 144 2⁄3 innings and limited walks to 1.80 per nine innings. His strikeout rates aren’t anything special and he’d be hard-pressed to serve in any role beyond fifth starter, but Peoples’ 6’5” frame is built to pack on the innings. The Tigers are in the market for just that kind of player. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to throw $150,000 and a non-roster invitation to spring training his way.
For the entire list of minor league free agents, see Baseball America’s comprehensive review.