While major league free agency headlines of the offseason, there are always diamonds in the rough to be found among the many more minor league players who become free agents five days after the World Series ends. That was this past Sunday, in recent years I’ve done an overview of impending free agents in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system shortly before, particularly with an eye to any that might be added to the 40-man to forestall free agency (as A.J. Jimenez was in 2016).
Unfortunately for various reasons I didn’t get that done in time, but I do think it’s worth looking over the players who have now departed the organization. There were a couple where I thought there might be a chance of being added to the 40-man, but ultimately the Jays did not.
There are three ways for a minor league player to be declared a free agent:
- 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.
- A player whose initial minor league contract has been renewed six times (ie, for six seasons after his first) is granted free agency at 5 PM ET on the fifth day after the end of the World Series.
- A player whose free-agent contract expires becomes a free agent five days after the end of the World Series.
Dany Jimenez, Travis Bergen and A.J. Cole elected free agency October 5th after having been sent outright at various points during the season. Jacob Barnes did so as well on October 22nd when he was sent outright. All would have qualified for free agency in one of the following groups anyway, so this just allowed them to hit the open market sooner.
Jimenez and Bergen were previously Rule 5 picks ho were returned, and since that entails clearing waivers Jimenez could have chosen free agency back in April. Instead he opted to stay in Buffalo, and was dominant at times. He still has high end stuff, perhaps one tweak away from things clicking as a higher end reliever. Barnes was removed when the Jays needed a roster spot to activate Joakim Soria (before his shortly impending free agency). I thought he looked pretty good for Buffalo, apparently firming up with cutter into a slider, but the sequence suggests he would have been removed anyway in time.
Six Year Free Agents (10)
This group is a mix of prospects signed or drafted as amateurs by the Jays and those acquired otherwise. Unlike in previous years, just one has previously been on the 40-man roster, the rest being players signed for 2015 whose six contract renewals are up.
Notably, this includes the biggest names from the 2015 draft class in RHP Jon Harris (first round), RHP Justin Maese (3rd round) as well as OF Reggie Pruitt (24th round, but the second largest bonus at $500,000). Who would have thought that six years later, Taylor Saucedo would be the lone man standing from Alex Anthopoulos’s last draft class?
Harris was first drafted by the Blue Jays in 2012 as a 33rd round flyer out of high school, attending MIssouri State and then somewhat sliding down the board to their first pick (technically in the compensatory round for losing Melky Cabrera). It was seen as a good value pick and he moved quickly through the lower levels but stalled out at AA in 2017-18. I was curious if stuff might tick up as a short reliever, and that conversion finally happened in 2020. The results were solid, but the stuff was largely the same.
Maese too moved quickly, reaching full season Lansing in the summer of 2016 after dominating Vancouver and appearing to be a very shrewd find out of the less-scouted El Paso region. His career was derailed by injuries in 2017, but given the fastball/slider combo if he could get healthy I was curious to see if there was a relief fit. That finally happened in 2021, and he had a very strong start with Vancouver before tailing off.
Pruitt was a toolsy outfielder with a Vanderbilt commitment that he appeared destined to fulfill before the Jays surprised by landing him at the signing deadline (perhaps related to Brady Singer not signing). He showed some flashes (.718 OPS repeating Lansing in 2019) but never really put it together.
Three others have been Blue Jays their entire career, part of the 2014-15 international free agent class. Kevin Vicuna received the second highest bonus at $350,000 and had a smooth glove on the middle infield, but never hit. Andres Guerra toiled as an extra catcher in the lower levels, perhaps already in a quasi-coaching capacity that could end up in a more formal role. Nash Knight was an undrafted free agent from Dallas Baptist who stuck around and worked his way to AAA as a utility guy.
The other four six year free agents were acquired from outside:
- RHP Juan de Paula was acquired from San Francisco in the April 2019 Kevin Pillar
dumptrade, the key piece whose inclusion finally consummated the deal a week into the season. It was his third time being traded (second within a year), and didn’t look the part of any type of prospect with Lansing, so make of Atkins comments what you will.
- RHP Hobie Harris was selected from the Yankees in the minor league phase of the 2019 Rule 5 Draft as a 2015 college draftee with success in the lower levels. He was solid for Buffalo in 2021 in his first extended run above high-A.
- OF Demi Orimoloye was acquired for from Milwaukee for Curtis Granderson in August 2018. He was a selected in the 4th round of the 2015 draft, signed for $450,000 as a toolsy pick out of high school in Ottawa, but had stalled out in the Brewers system. He would show some pop but ultimately couldn’t overcome swing-and-miss issues that limited his production.
- LHP Jacob Waguespack was acquired in July 2018 for Aaron Loup, and added to the 40-man that winter over Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen as an apparent front office favourite. He seemed to vindicate that with a solid rookie year (4.28 ERA in 78 innings), but struggled in 2020 and lost his 40-man spot over the winter.
2021 Free Agent Signees (13)
This ended up being a surprisingly normal sized cohort to recent years, whereas I was expecting closer to 20. The Jays made fewer signings of minor league free agents this winter, but that was more than offset by a wave of midseason signings to plug holes in the system caused by injuries, especially on the pitching side.
Stating with the former, four were free agents signed over the winter, mostly upper level veterans who were invited to spring training to provide depth if things got dire at the major league and they had to be pressed into service: 1B Tyler White, IF Richard Urena, OF Forrest Wall, and RHP James Dykstra. In addition, catcher Rodrigo Vigil and 1B Christian Colon were signed for Buffalo on the eve of the minor league season.
Five were signed during the minor league season to fill innings for various affiliates: RHP Johnny Barbato, C Jommer Hernandez, RHP Reilly Hovis, RHP Casey Lawrence and OF Gregory Polanco. Polanco mashed for Buffalo down the stretch; none of the others were particularly effective.
Another two were free agent signees major league experience who were acquired in trades: catcher Juan Graterol and OF Mallex Smith. It was a return of sorts to Buffalo for Graterol, as he was briefly in the system in 2017 having been claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Angeles in January and traded back to them after a mid-April DFA.
As usual, there were numerous potentially eligible players in this bucket who didn’t end up free agents, presumably because they either signed multi-year contracts in the first place or re-signed before the declaration date. The most notable name here was RHP Elvis Luciano, released by the Jays from the 40-man roster at the end of August before re-signing a few days later. It’s not surprising this deal would extend beyond 2021, though he will be available to any other interested teams in next month’s Rule 5 Draft.
There were four others, notable among them catcher Kellin Deglan, a British Columbian drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers back in 2010. He was invited to the Yankees Spring Training and traded to Buffalo in August. That was presumably a one year deal, so it’s likely both sides saw cause to renew rather than look elsewhere. Finally, RHPs Andrew Bash, Sean Mellen and Alex Nolan were signed midseason after previous releases before 2020, though none posted an ERA below 5.00. Nolan also pitched for Vancouver in 2019, signed out of Brock University.