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The continued decline of minor league signings

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Who needs free agents when Buffalo is pretty much set

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve become used to much quieter offseasons under Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins — especially compared to very active offseasons that typically occurred in the first half of this decade. This has been true across free agent activity, trades, waivers, everything. Two years ago, I wrote about how it was extending to signing minor league free agents as well:

MiFA

(I’ll forgive anyone who missed it the first time, since there was some bigger stuff going on at the time — it was posted 23 minutes before the inauguration of a certain someone).

Even amidst this less active background, something that has really stuck out to me this offseason was the almost complete total of activity in adding minor league free agents. For the longest time, the only new addition to the organization was infielder Eric Sogard. To some extent, this dearth reflected the slow broader market with players and teams waiting for thing to shake out, but there was nonetheless a steady stream of players signing.

With the Jays revealing last weekend their list of Spring Training invites, we found out they had brought in couple of pitchers as well, righties Willy Ortiz (from Tampa) and Javy Guerra (2018 with Miami). They had re-signed a couple of their 2018 free agents in catcher Pat Cantwell and RHP Josh Almonte, and have another couple in catcher Alberto Mineo and RHP Shawn Morimando who didn’t become free agents when they’re beyond their six renewals so agreed to 2019 contracts.

Most broadly defined then, that’s just seven free agents (or free agent eligible types) for 2019. With today being February 1st, I’ve updated the above chart to update for the last couple offseasons (some of the previous data has been slightly revised):

MiFA 2019

Not only are a greater number/percentage of signings coming later in the offseason, but there’s a very clear trend towards fewer minor league signings in the Shapiro/Atkins years. Some of that is surely different managerial practice than under Alex Anthopoulos, since one can see a very clear spike in the volume of signings after he took over and that was maintained.

But the broader explanation is probably the maturation of the farm system. When Anthopoulos took over, the farm system was pretty barren and for most of his tenure the AAA team was largely filled with “itinerant” players — minor league free agents, waiver claims and the like — as opposed to internally developed players pushing upwards. To a lesser extent, that applied to New Hampshire as well.

That’s changed in the past few years as the remains of the large 2010-12 high school draft classes and 2010-11 IFA classes have made their way up the system, along with the more balanced classes that followed. Especially on the pitching side, there’s still a need to fill out some roster spots annually, but there’s a fewer spots with more filled internally.

Indeed, looking at the various positional groupings, it’s clear why there’s minimal need for free agents given the stock of organizational options. At catcher, the major league side is pretty much set, with Reese McGuire and Max Pentecost as upper level minor league options. The eight outfielders on the 40-man fill out the Toronto outfield, but Buffalo’s as well, and further options such as Roemon Fields and Forrest Wall.

Likewise, Buffalo’s infield appears slated to filled internally, with Rowdy Tellez, Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Richard Urena figuring slot in for most of the starts as of now. Typically, the rotation has requiring external bolstering, but there appear to be at least as many candidates as spots — Thomas Pannone, Trent Thornton, Julian Merryweather, Sean Reid-Foley, Jacob Waguespack, Sam Gaviglio, David Paulino, the aforementioned Morimando, perhaps Jon Harris and T.J. Zeuch. Some of those will end up in Toronto, but it’s almost inevitably some end up backed up down to the Fisher Cats.

The one area where the depth is sparser, both at the major league and upper minor league level, is in the bullpen. That also happens to be an area of late offseason free agent deal making, so I’d certainly expect some signings here, as has happened last year with Seung-hwan Oh, Typer Clippard, John Axford, Jake Petricka and Craig Breslow.