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Impending minor league free agents

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Perennial catcher of the future A.J. Jimenez's Blue Jays days might be severely numbered
Perennial catcher of the future A.J. Jimenez's Blue Jays days might be severely numbered
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to free agency, the focus for the Blue Jays has been on the major league side, and rightly so given the significance of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (principally, among others). But another group of players will become free agents shortly after, who will not receive so much attention. But every year some minor league free agents come out of nowhere to provide value, in 2016 the best example being ex-Blue Jay Ryan Schimpf who signed with San Diego and took advantage of the fresh start and a shot at the big leagues to post 20 home runs, a 129 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR.

With that in mind, what follows is an overview of impending free agents in the Blue Jays minor league system. It's a little tricky since re-signings aren't always reported in official transactions, so we'll have to see who is actually granted free agency soon. But by my count, there are 35 Blue Jays minor leaguers at least eligible for free agency this winter.

There are three ways for a minor league player to be declared a free agent:

  1. A player sent outright to the minors off the 40-man for a second or subsequent time can elect free agency after the season by October 15th (unless returned to the 40-man). A player outrighted for the first time can do so provided he has three years of Major League service
  2. A player whose initial minor league contract has been renewed six times (ie, for six more seasons) is granted free agency five days after the end of the World Series
  3. A player whose contract expires becomes a free agent five days after the end of the World Series.
Outrights (1)

Scott Diamond (outright 6/17) elected free agency October 14th, and is the only one to do so via this method thus far. Junior Lake was eligible to do so, having been acquired on waivers last offseason, and sent outright three times in 2016. However, curiously he does not appear to have done so. He will still be a free agent in November, so it's curious he wouldn't elect it earlier to get a jump start on negotiating before the November wave. Perhaps an indication that he's already agreed to a 2017 contract that hasn't been announced to come back despite a down 2016.

Six Year Free Agents (8)

Several players here are off 40-man rosters at the end of the season for the first time since reaching six years from signing their initial contracts; they too are eligible are for free agency.

  • 3B Matt Dominguez
  • IF Andy Fermin (2010 draftee)
  • C A.J. Jimenez (2008 draftee)
  • OF Junior Lake
  • RHP Casey Lawrence (2010 non-drafted free agent)
  • 1B Jesus Montero
  • IF Shane Opitz (2010 draftee)
  • C Chris Schaffer (2010 non-drafted free agent)

The most familiar name here is Jimenez, who was outrighted off the 40-man at the beginning of the season, having exhausted his option years in 2013-15 without playing a single MLB game. This one-time Catcher of the Future will, for a couple days after the World Series, be the longest tenured player in the organization. There's now likely to be an opening at backup catcher, but re-adding him to prevent him from leaving and effectively making a guy with no experience the presumptive favourite does not seem likely. There could be interest in a minor league deal, but he may well want prefer fresh start somewhere else.

Opitz has climbed the ladder steadily over the last six years since getting a $225,000 bonus in those free spending 2010 days, but has had issues staying healthy and nothing really sticks out at this point. Dominguez, Lake and Montero were all waiver claims, who have significant 40-man time but appear to top out as AAAA types.

2016 Free Agent Signees (26)
Subgroup Players
Returnees (13) RHP Brad Allen, LHP John Anderson, RHP Dustin Antolin, RHP Scott Copeland, C Luis Hurtado (player/coach), RHP Bobby Korecky, RHP Wilmin Lara, RHP Blake McFarland, OF Melky Mesa, RHP Gustavo Pierre, RHP Carlos Ramirez, RHP Luis Santos, RHP Murphy Smith
Outsiders (13) IF David Adams, RHP Jason Berken, OF Domonic Brown, IF Alexi Casilla, C Wilkin Castillo, RHP Wilmer Font, 1B Casey Kotchman, C Erik Kratz, C Ryan Lavarnaway, SS Jio Mier, RHP Gregor Mora, RHP Ty Sterner, RHP John Straka

This last, most populous group divides evenly in half: those who returned for or during 2016 having played in the Blue Jays system in 2015 and been eligible for free agency; and those who signed for or during 2016 coming from another organization.

Addressing the latter group first, there was nobody whose 2016 performance particularly distinguished himself. It would not be surprising if a couple found their way back in 2016, but otherwise there do not appear to be any significant losses here.

It's a different story when it comes to the returnees. Antolin and Copeland are both longtime pitchers in the organization with recent MLB time, who could help Buffalo and serve as depth. Murphy Smith (1.50 ERA in 72 AA innings) had a nice 2016. McFarland will be interesting, since he was seemingly on the cusp of the majors and got a good look in Spring Training, but didn't throw a pitch during the season and was released off the 40-man and re-signed to a minor league deal. Unless it was a multi-year deal, he'll have options as he looks to complete the journey from non-drafted FA in 2011 to the bigs.

The name I really want to highlight is Carlos Ramirez, who signed in 2008 as a shortstop but stalled out in low-A by 2013-14 before trying his hand at pitching. He showed enough promise to be re-signed last winter, and spent 2015 in high-A Dunedin where he posted a 2.20 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 41 innings. After the early going, he was usually sitting in the 93-95 range, with a hard slider. Some outings he was flat out dominant, others he struggled throwing strikes. But that's to be expected for someone only two years into pitching full-time. I'd really like to see him back in 2017, the question will be how many other teams have serious interest.