When Jeff Francoeur signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians earlier this week, it was another sign that even as we wait on Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and the rest to get sorted out, the last great part of the offseason is itching to begin: the minor league deals and non-roster invitations to spring training.
The reason Francoeur's deal got done so quickly (relatively speaking) is the outfield market has already more or less shaken itself out: not only have Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson and Jacoby Ellsbury signed, but Nate McLouth has found a home in Washington, Chris Young with the Mets and David Murphy with the very same Indians who Francoeur signed with.
In fact, Francoeur was far from the first free-agent outfielder to give in and take a minor league deal from a team when he was unable to find work with a big club, though he's far more recognizable than names like Chris Dickerson (Pirates), Trevor Crowe (Tigers) and Xavier Paul (Orioles). The only equally notable outfielder to sign a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training before him was Jason Kubel, who did so with the Minnesota Twins -- and Kubel has struggled through leg injuries the past two or three years, which made it unlikely that combined with his lack of production he was going to find a stable major league home.
As we hit mid-January and beyond, however -- and especially as soon as the starting pitching market finally begins to resolve -- we'll see other outfielders, as well as players across the rest of the defensive spectrum, take deals to try and make one more go at major league success, or barring that, at least a major league paycheck.
Of the remaining outfielders, the top names teetering on the brink of an NRI are probably former pitcher Rick Ankiel, utility outfielder Sam Fuld and technically eligible corner outfielder Delmon Young. Some of the others, like Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker or Chris Coghlan, were good enough last year that they still might find work as the 25th man on a roster (Coghlan especially). Fuld almost falls into that category, but he's hurt by the combination of a very bad year at the plate and the fact that he'll be 32 years old next season -- not young enough to convince a general manager that maybe he's a late bloomer like Coghlan, but not quite old enough to provide the "veteran experience" for rookies Johnson's agent is undoubtedly trying to sell to any team that'll listen. Still, Fuld has always been a character guy and fans love the way he plays. If the massive drop-off in his BABIP last year (which led to the massive drop-off of his average and the destruction of his entire offensive profile) was due to poor luck across 200 PA instead of the implosion of his ability to make good contact or his speed, he could still impress enough during spring training that either due to his performance or an injury on the big team, it makes sense to bring him onboard for Opening Day.
Ankiel is perhaps the youngest of "veteran experience" spring training invitee types out there considering how long he's been around the game as both a pitcher and a hitter and the respect he's gotten from people across the league while he's played. The fact he's been in the big leagues off and on since he was 19 and put up dreadful numbers last season for the Astros and the Mets makes it easy to forget he's not even 35 years old. Ankiel is one of the more obvious guys a team would go after more to improve the camp atmosphere than because they think they've found someone valuable on the scrapheap, but it would be surprising if he wasn't in a major league camp this spring at least with a non-roster invitation.
His polar opposite is Delmon Young. After spending most of last season with the Phillies before getting traded to the Tampa Bay Rays (the team that originally drafted him), Young is the sort of guy who gets brought back year after year because of what he might be able to do at the plate, but that well might have dried up to the point a NRI might be the best thing he can hope for. While it would be unfair to point to Young's off-the-field issues without mentioning that the last of those happened almost two years ago, it would also be unfair to pretend those concerns are what's making him unattractive to major league teams -- it's that, plus his inability to play defense, plus his inability to take a walk, plus a nasty platoon split. Luckily for him, that split favors him as a pinch-hitter against left-handed pitchers and some teams don't give a whit about how their players behave off the field. Since the Rays are one of those teams and have a big hole where a DH should go, it seems reasonable that they could bring him back with a minor league invitation.
As far as infielders go, the market here was a lot thinner from top to bottom than it was in the outfield and most of the big names were at second base, which is a bit of an oddity considering that league-wide second base is a fairly weak position. Once the big names signed, the Yankees snatched up a couple more of the lower-tier middle infielders in Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan and Brian Roberts as teams started sorting out the remaining roleplayers on the market; the biggest unsigned name, Stephen Drew, has little-to-no impact on anything for the same reason Nelson Cruz isn't affecting the outfielders: He's one of the few cases where attaching draft pick compensation has proven to be a significant poison pill.
Unlike in the outfield, there aren't that many guys left who are still heavily favored to get MLB contracts; Michael Young is probably at the top of that list, though there seems to be less and less interest even in his services as the offseason progresses. The best of the scrapheap pickups is probably either Mark Reynolds or Justin Turner, with a special shoutout to 38-year-old Placido Polanco.
Yankees fans in particular would have reason to want Reynolds back: After watching him mercilessly destroy their team during the Orioles' improbable 2012 run (Reynolds OPS'd 1.214 for Baltimore against New York that season), they saw the Yankees bring him onboard near the end of 2013 and watched him provide some stability at first and third to round out an otherwise disappointing year. Reynolds is an extremely flawed hitter, but still has the power that could have made him a star if his contact tool had ever developed in the slightest and he can be extremely useful if he's deployed properly. Since he's only going to be 30 next year, a number of teams could look at that power and make an extremely low-risk move to see if they can fix what's wrong with that swing -- because if Reynolds ever learns how to make consistent contact with the baseball instead of swinging through it as often as he does, he and Chris Davis could be similar hitters once more.
Turner is another alum of the Baltimore Orioles' organization, though he only played 12 games with the team at the big-league level; most of his time in the majors has been spent as a New York Met, where he has been, charitably speaking, an offense-first second baseman. The problem with that is while Turner's league-average bat over the last three seasons (.698 OPS in 886 PA as a Met) would be great on a guy who profiled well defensively, Turner has struggled to play consistent infield defense, and right now most teams in baseball are far more willing to put up with guys who can field but not hit than they are guys who can hit but not field -- and the teams that are willing to sacrifice defense for hitting, like the Cardinals, only do when that hitting is superb, not merely adequate. Turner could still find himself a major league deal with a team like the Twins, but it's more likely teams wait him out and he signs a minor league deal with an NRI over the next month.
Then there's Placido Polanco, who is tip-toeing closer to age 40 and is still able to play quality defense at third base; the Marlins didn't sign him last year just because they're cheap, after all. Polanco is a hard sell as a starter anywhere this year, just like he was last year, and an even harder sell as a utility man because he really only plays third base, but a team with little-to-no depth at that position and question marks about their starter -- the Chicago White Sox, for instance, or the Baltimore Orioles, who may want to have a fall-back plan for Machado depending on that knee -- would find value in him, especially on a minor league deal. The question, of course, is whether Polanco would be willing to accept one of those; at age 38 and with a whole lot of money in the bank, he might just decide it's time to hang it up.
All that said, the position players only represent about half the scrapheap -- and perhaps the less alluring half of the two, considering that arguably the most impactful minor league deal with an invite of last season was handed to Scott Kazmir, who is one of many pitchers cashing in during free agency this offseason. But that analysis will have to wait a couple weeks until Tanaka, Garza, Santana, Jimenez and the rest have signed; after all, you can't talk about who the best bargain bin pickups are going to be until you know what's going on sale.