Though it's been a relatively quiet winter for Sandy and Co. at the major league level, they've been quite active bringing in organizational depth on minor league contracts. In fact, they seemed to have cornered the market on one-time top prospects this offseason. I feel like I've lost track of the amount of times I've said, 'So and so was once an interesting prospect...next season he'll play for the Bisons.'
So why don't we take a bit of an inventory on the minor league free agent additions of this offseason so we all know what to expect coming into spring training:
Nov 12: OF Adam Loewen - The 27-yr old former fourth overall pick of the Orioles has quite an interesting backstory. But in short he's a two-time former BA Top 50 overall 6'6" lefty who became a power-hitting outfielder after injuries and inconsistency drove him off the mound. Loewen hasn't had many opportunities to prove himself at the major league level since the conversion but last season with Toronto's Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate the highly athletic lefty batted .306/.377/.508 with 14 homers and 11 stolen bases. He'll seriously challenge Mike Baxter for the role of 4th-5th OF this spring and has the talent to become a nice low risk, high reward spare part for the Mets going forward.
Nov 17: C Vinny Rottino - Like most of the guys on this list, the 31-yr old hasn't done much at the major league level, batting just .194 in 39 major league pa's. However, at the minor league level he has a more impressive .294/.363/.421 career triple-slash. In 2007, he ranked in the top 20 of John Sickels' Brewers Top Prospects list and in 2009 he was the starting catcher for Team Italy in the WBC under the tutelage of hitting coach Mike Piazza. This spring he'll contend with numerous other righty backstops for the role of Thole's understudy.
- Dec 12: RHP Jeremy Hefner - Like we've seen a few times now, Hefner is a player that was nabbed when he hit waivers due to Paul DePodesta's familiarity with the San Diego organization. The 25-yr old made Sickels' Top 20 Padres prospects list three consecutive years after being drafted out of Oral Roberts U. in '07 and was considered a good mix of solid stuff and command. He hasn't yet reached the show but in five minor league campaigns he has a career 3.84 ERA and a solid 2.82 K/BB. Now he was bad last year at Triple-A, though the PCL has made more than a few pitchers look worse than they really are. He'll likely fill out the Bisons rotation early on and compete with Chris Schwinden as SP depth if and when it is needed in Queens.
- Dec 13: C Lucas May - The 27-yr old May is another righty-hitting backstop who will likely be attempting to dethrone Mike Nickeas as the primary backup this spring. However, after bottoming out with a .238 average in Triple-A in 2011, he's likely to begin in that same role in Buffalo. May was never much of a prospect however he has shown some good pop for a catcher, once knocking 25 homers in a season and thrice surpassing 15. Like Rottino he has just 39 major league pa's, batting .189 in that time.
- Dec 13: LHP Garrett Olson - Olson was considered a top prospect for the Orioles for a number of years after being drafted in the first round in 2007. The 28-yr old soft-tossing lefty moved quickly through the minors, boasting a career 3.18 minor league ERA based on the strength of highly developed secondary offerings -- namely a power curve and an excellent change -- as well as pinpoint command. But as we've seen so many times before, as a finesse lefty Olson had trouble at the major league level, posting a 6+ ERA in parts of six seasons. Stuff-wise Olson is a clone of current Mets farmhand Mark Cohoon and may join him as part of the Bisons staff. However, Olson has already begun the transition to the bullpen and having had great success against lefties may audition for that role with the big club.
- Dec 15: LHP Chuck James - Another soft-tossing lefty, you may remember the 30-yr old for his 2+ seasons of league average work in the Atlanta rotation between '06 and '08. As a prospect he was another former blue-chipper, ranked by John Sickels as the Braves no. 2 prospect at his peak in '06 -- ahead of guys like Elvis Andrus and Yunel Escobar. He spent 2011 at Minnesota's Triple-A affiliate where he was quite good in relief, posting a 2.30 ERA with over a K/IP and excellent rates against both lefties and righties. Like Olson he'll audition for a role as a lefty out of the Mets 'pen and I'd say he's got a pretty good shot out of camp.
- Dec 16: RHP Jeff Stevens - On Dec. 16th the Mets signed another former top prospect in the hard-throwing Stevens. The 28-yr old is best known as the PTBNL in the notorious
Minaya-authored Brandon Phillips to the IndiansBrandon Phillips to the Reds deal. After some moderate success as a minor league closer, the hard-throwing righty made a handful of appearances with the Cubs between '09 and '11, but nothing of note (see, 6.27 ERA). However, he possesses a very good low-to-mid 90's fb and has always boasted good K-rates, but walks have been a real issue. To me, we could become another Brian Stokes-esque back of the staff reliever.
- Dec 22: C Rob Johnson - The offensive woes of this 28-yr old defensive-minded backstop have been much publicized -- see, .197 career average in ~650 big league ab's. So he's here strictly as a defensive option in the backup catcher batter royale. He was actually considered a decent all-around catching prospect for the Mariners after batting .305 in Triple-A with an .800+ OPS in '08. However, at this point he'll likely only turn up with the Mets if the front office really places a high emphasis on defense, which isn't impossible for the backup position.
- Dec 30: OF/IF Corey Wimberly - Capping a busy December, the Mets signed the 28-yr old former Rockies prospect who put his name on the map by batting .381 in his pro debut back in '05. Sickels rated him in the Rockies top 20 in subsequent years based on his bat and excellent speed and in six minor league seasons he batted .297/.367/.359. Problem is he just doesn't have enough power to be a major league starter but he has shown excellent defensive flexibility and will likely battle for the last spot on the bench as a cheap, multi-faceted utility man in the mold of a Jerry Hairston, with a little less power.
- Jan 3: Omar Quintanilla - Quintanilla was drafted 33rd overall by the A's in '03 after winning the College World Series with the University of Texas. Quintanilla ranked among Oakland's top ten prospects for the next couple seasons after batting .358 and .341 in his first two seasons, respectively. Unfortunately his bat didn't live up to the early hype. But his glove did and he's carved out a nice little niche as a Wilson Valdez-esque defensive-minded backup infielder with the Rockies and Rangers ever since. In 227 major league games he's posted a .213 career average with 2 homers and 3 stolen bases.
- Jan 10: MI Sean Kazmar - The 27-yr old '04 fifth rounder of the Padres is one of the few players on this list who never really had many expectations. Very early on he proved he wasn't much of a hitter, evident by his .255 career minor league average. However, Kazmar had two things that kept him moving up the ladder: He had decent plate discipline and he was a good fielder between short and second. Once again, he had 39 major league at bats and he batted just .205. Pretty much a pure minor league depth pickup.
- Jan 10: RHP Fernando Cabrera - Aside from Miguel Batista, the 30-yr old Cabrera has the most major league experience of anyone on this list. In parts of seven seasons with the Indians, Orioles and Red Sox, he's posted a pretty mediocre 5.24 ERA exclusively in relief. He's actually only appeared in over 25+ major league games twice in that time. In parts of twelve minor league seasons he's posted a more palatable 3.24 ERA, including a very solid 2.71 ERA in Triple-A in 2011. Cabrera is known for his extreme reliance on a slider, throwing the pitch nearly 43% of the time since 2008. Again, depth for the Buffalo staff -- he'll know his way around after three seasons there when they were an Indians affiliate -- though with a decent shot to appear with the Mets at some point during the season.
- Jan 10: RHP Miguel Batista - Not much I need to say about the soon-to-be 41-yr old, we all know him pretty well. He'll once again compete as both starting and relief depth, most likely in-season when the needs arises.
- Jan 27: Matt Tuiasosopo - Going back to our theme of former top prospects, the Mets signed the '04 third rounder and longtime Mariners prospect just last week. Puget Sound's favorite son signed with his hometown team out of high school and ranked very highly on prospect lists for his outstanding athleticism alone. However, unfortunately his amazing raw tools just didn't translate as he was never able to develop the kind of offensive game to profile as major leaguer. In parts of three seasons with Seattle between '08 and '10, he batted just .176 with 5 homers. Even as a minor leaguer he only managed a .263/.359/.405 triple-slash, while playing so-so defense at third. He's pretty much a sure-bet to play most of his 2011 with Buffalo as he's already a few slots down on the organization's third base pecking order.
Next time we'll take a look at those minor league free agents who left the organization this winter.