SweetSpot: Fred Lewis

Minor-league free agents also out there

November, 8, 2011
During Hot Stove season, the majority of attention goes to the major league free agents, of course. But every winter, attention goes to that less-heralded crop of talent dumped into the “free talent” pool, available to the highest bidder: minor-league free agents.

These are the veterans not on teams’ 40-man rosters who have used up all six of their contract renewals with their original organization or whose one-year contracts have run out. As Baseball America’s Matt Eddy reported on Friday, there are more than 530 minor-league free agents, but now there's over 600 available.

Admittedly, most of these guys are going to wind up still beating the bushes after getting no more than a spring-training invite. Their value is usually in the depth they can provide a team -- a well-run organization makes sure it has big league-ready depth available at Triple-A, because everyone will have to deal with injuries at one point or another.

But a handful of these guys will get big-league deals, and more will be pursued every bit as aggressively as major league free agents. Even if they’re signed to non-roster deals, more than a few can anticipate winning jobs in spring training and getting added to the 40-man roster before Opening Day.

Starting with the outfielders available, more than a few guys with serious big-league experience are available: Scott Podsednik, Fred Lewis, Jay Gibbons, Ryan Langerhans and Reggie Willits, for example. Lewis could still prove a useful fourth outfielder in a platoon role; he clearly struggled getting fewer at-bats as a player on Dusty Baker’s bench with the Reds.

There are also some former highly-touted prospects in the mix, notably Felix Pie and Lastings Milledge. Like Lewis, Pie flopped in a part-time role, but come the opening of camps next spring, he makes for a nifty stealth alternative for teams looking for a regular center fielder, especially considering he’ll be just 27 years old. Milledge failed to go nuts at the plate in a full season with Triple-A Charlotte (.295/.364/.441), but he’s also heading into his age-27 season -- as a bargain pickup, he might surprise, but if he doesn’t the very small expense is easy enough for most teams to absorb.

Beyond the outfielders, other names worth noting at a few positions:

Catcher: From among the more catch-and-throw types, Rob Johnson, Dusty Brown and Dusty Ryan, and Cole Armstrong (guys who bat lefty are always a little interesting); for bat-first/only types, Max Ramirez and Jake Fox are out there. The guy who might be especially interesting to check out is Mark Wagner, back from a hamate bone injury and perhaps finally ready to live up to the hype he once got in the Red Sox system.

Infield corners: Jorge Cantu and Kevin Kouzmanoff are the veterans with some success on their track records, while Andy LaRoche, Brandon Wood and Jeff Clement might represent the best of the former blue chippers who’ve faded like an old pair of Levi’s. I’m interested in seeing where the always-fragile Nick Johnson lands.

Middle infield: If you’re wondering if this pool of talent holds lots of alternatives for teams unwilling to chase the big-names shortstops on the market, the answer’s no. Chin-lung Hu might be worth a look if you think all of the weirdness of the last two years is behind him -- between injuries, an attempt to convert to switch-hitting, and a case of the yips on throwing, clearly there’s a lot that has gone wrong. At the keystone, veterans such as Felipe Lopez, Bill Hall and Kevin Frandsen are available.

Starting pitchers: Armando Galarraga might be a nice guy for a team with a big outfield and distant fences to take a chance on; going to Phoenix from Detroit wasn’t going to be a good fit. Laugh if you like, but somebody’s going to take a look at Oliver Perez now that his contract’s a thing of the past. Extreme strike-throwers like Matt Torra and Will Inman are available; while they’re not great bets for extended success, but at the back end of big-league rotations all sorts of people can get a look.

Relievers: Jason Bulger and Shane Lindsay both cook with gas, while for ex-famous veteran types you’ve got names like Robinson Tejeda, Vinnie Chulk and Lance Cormier to choose from. I’m curious to see where Sam Deduno winds up, given a career minor-league strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9. For lefties, you’re no doubt already familiar with Hideki Okajima and Dennys Reyes, but I’d be more interested in seeing where the Giants’ Alex Hinshaw and his swing-and-miss stuff winds up; also a healed-up Donald Veal.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

DeRosa injury gives Bowker a chance

May, 14, 2010
After coming of a somewhat surprising 88 win season in 2009, the San Francisco Giants were looking to improve their ailing offense. The pitching was top notch. The offense, outside of Pablo Sandoval, was a major problem. Team hitting ranked dead last or near dead last in a number of statistical categories -- runs scored, OBP, OPS, wOBA -- and it was clear from the start of the offseason that the club was determined to do something about it.

On December 29, 2009, the Giants signed Mark DeRosa to a two-year, $12M deal.

The Giants, unfazed by DeRosa's wrist injury in 2009, expected the 35-year-old veteran to play multiple positions on the diamond while providing some much needed stability on offense. Before entering the 2010 season, DeRosa laid claim to a career slash-line of: .275/.343/.424.

Unfortunately for the Giants, DeRosa has struggled to produce at the plate in 2010. After 104 plate appearances with his new team, DeRosa is hitting a paltry .194/.279/.258 -- most shocking has been DeRosa's total absence of power. In 2010, DeRosa has 18 hits, 14 of which have been singles. As a right-handed batter, his power is to his pull-side of left field. Yet, of the 18 hits that DeRosa has collected, only 2 of them have been pulled into LF.

A few numbers:

The above data (thanks to Baseball-Reference) indicates Mark DeRosa's hit trajectory for the past three years, his current numbers and his career average. As you can see, DeRosa being a right-handed hitter, is most likely to pull the ball for hits (33.1% career average) or hit the ball up the middle (48.4% career average). DeRosa's 2010 data sample is small, but I think it's somewhat telling. DeRosa has flared a few hits up the middle (55.5%) but has nearly doubled his career average when hitting the ball to the opposite field. And, of course, this data only represents base hits and not all batted balls from DeRosa. If you examined his spray charts, you would see that he's hitting an awful lot of balls into the opposite field.

With the latest news of DeRosa dubbing his offseason wrist surgery a "total failure" the Giants are going to have to address his health issues soon. There's a good chance DeRosa could undergo another procedure and miss a chunk, if not all, of the this year. If the Giants are looking to replace DeRosa with an in-house player, they should look no further than current bench rider, John Bowker.

Bowker has been somewhat of a middling prospect in the Giants farm system. He's already grabbed 448 (mostly sporadic) plate appearances in the majors split between 2008-2010. Over those 448 PAs Bowker has hit a lackluster: 241/.291/.397. You might be asking, why do we want to give Bowker a chance? Because for Bowker, something appears to have changed in AAA in 2009. Under the tutelage of then AAA hitting coach, and current Giants hitting coach, Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens, Bowker transformed from a free-swinging outfield prospect into the AAA version of Bobby Abreu. He nearly doubled his career average for walk percentages in the minors -- walking in 16.4 percent of his plate appearances -- while posting a .451 OBP. Bowker finished his PCL gig with a line of: .342/.451/.596. A remarkable year anyway you slice it.

The Giants options for replacing DeRosa in left field after they traded away Fred Lewis are slim. Giving Bowker increased playing time is a risk, but the Giants don't have much of a choice. Bowker represents a hitter with an up-and-down development path but he does offer upside if his AAA performance was the sign of a player making adjustments to his approach. It's hard to see any team making a trade so early in the season so the Giants should let Bowker get 150-200 at bats as the starter in left field.