A New Market
Ever since he lambasted the results of the Home Run derby, saying that Josh Hamilton had 'paid for the tux, limo and corsage but Justin Morneau kissed the girl' after the Canadian slugger had bested the feelgood story at Yankee Stadium, I have loathed Rick Reilly. It was a disgusting display of pandering from a columnist who would like you to believe that he is a crusader for justice. Yet his latest article on ESPN.com is intriguing - a look at a crop of 30 year olds that have put up solid minor league numbers but in their prime years, the mid-20s, they were passed in depth charts by guys on PEDs or were buried in the minors as aging veterans prolonged their careers with HGH. Reilly highlights two minor league veterans in 30 year old Mitch Jones (Dodgers organization) and 29 year old Shawn Garrett (Mariner organization). Neither, however, have solid career numbers. Jones, a corner infielder, has had 3,949 minor league bats and has hit 200 home runs while batting .250/.334/.497. The 200 home runs is seemingly the basis for inclusion on a major league roster. The power is certainly there, as indicative of his .320 isolated power average. Garrett, on the other hand, has less of a compelling argument. Reilly cites Garrett's 2004 stint with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (a Rockies AAA affiliate) when he hit .371. What isn't reported is that the .371 batting average was compiled in just 125 plate appearances. His career line is .291/.345/.449 in 11 minor league seasons.
Reilly is on to something that he didn't even intend. To some, these are scrap-heap players but in reality, this is the new emerging market. As the league's power numbers begin to regress to the mean as the number of 'roided sluggers and HGH'ed veterans diminishes, the 27-32 year old minor leaguers veterans will continue their consistant output. For a relatively inexpensive contract and an invite to spring training, these formerly overlooked sluggers could be obtained as a part-time designated hitter/pinch hitter. Ryan Ludwick, with the St Louis Cardinals, is a perfect example of this. After experiencing brief snippets of play with Texas and Cleveland, the 29 year old Ludwick is having a career year with the Cardinals batting .303/.378/.599 with 32 home runs in 456 at bats. Ludwick's .270/.345/.501 minor league career numbers are strikingly similar to those of Mitch Jones. In addition to being the second-highest win contributor on the Cardinals team (2.49 wpa), the team is paying Ludwick less than $500,000 for his efforts.
There are plenty of other Ryan Ludwick types ready for an opportunity. Take John Lindsey for example. In 13 minor league seasons, Lindsey has managed to hit .278/.342/.459 with 156 home runs split between the Rockies, Mariners, Padres and Dodgers organizations but has been stuck behind James Loney and Nomar Garciaparra the past two years. Another to consider is the right-handed batting first baseman Val Pascucci, who is 28 years old and has played with the Expos, Marlins, Phillies and now the Mets organizations, has hit .278/.392/.494 with 174 home runs in his 8 minor league seasons. Pascucci would have to make an unlikely vault over Carlos Delgado. The Brewers have used Joe Dillon in various capacities in the last two seasons before sending him back to triple-AAA Nashville. In his 26 year old season in 2002 while in the Twins organization, Dillon split time between double-AA and triple-AAA where he hit .257/.356/.401 with 9 home runs in 362 at bats. In his 10 seasons in the minors, Dillon has hit .294/.379/.518 with 156 home runs. The 29 year old Tagg Bozied has batted .278/.349/.502 in his 7 minor league seasons while launching 117 home runs and reducing his strike out rate to 15%, down from 18%. Pawtucket's left-handed batting Chris Carter, who is currently being blocked by David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis in Boston, has been a career .308/.383/.518 with 110 home runs and will be 26 years old next year and, more importantly, a minor league free agent. These are just some of the examples of undervalued talent that have provided a solid minor league pedigree.
The Twins were willing to sink money and a minor leaguer for a player like Craig Monroe just to address the need for a right-handed bat. Any of the above minor leaguers (outside of Chris Carter) could have adequately filled that role at a fraction of the cost. Reilly might be on to something.