Of the 174 free agents to sign with MLB teams since November, 60 have been inked to minor league contracts. Most of these players won't be heard from -- for them, minor league means minor league, as they'll fill veteran depth roles on Double-A and Triple-A squads.
But every year, a few veterans brought in on minor league flyers turn out to be the perfect peg to fit a team's biggest hole. Here are six players signed to minor league deals over the past three months who could play major roles on their teams in 2014.
Colby Lewis, Rangers
Lewis has been out since mid-2012 due to surgeries on his hip and arm. But prior to those injuries, Lewis made 80 excellent starts over two-and-a-half seasons with the Rangers. Over 506 innings, Lewis struck out 408 against just 135 walks (3.4 K/BB) and posted a 3.93 ERA (113 ERA+). It's hard to find pitchers who can navigate the hitter-friendly fences and atmosphere of Texas, and Lewis has proven his skillset can play there. That's why the Rangers have kept him on the payroll (which includes overseeing his rehab) despite his myriad health issues.
The Rangers have so many starting pitching options that Lewis may have been relegated to a long relief role even if he showed up to spring training in perfect health. But with Derek Holland suffering a knee injury as a result of a collision with his dog, an extra rotation spot is open. Lewis will be one of the frontrunners come Feburary.
Mark Reynolds, Brewers
Reynolds signed with the Brewers on Friday and immediately vaulted to the top of the club's first base depth chart. The move isn't so much about Reynolds's merits -- he has hit just .221/.321/.411 over the last two seasons and been a rough definition of a replacement-level player -- as it is about the vortex of incompetence that was first base in Milwaukee last season.
Consider the five players to see time at first base for the Brewers in 2013:
Considering this crew -- a pair of shortstops, a waiver-wire third baseman and a pair of career minor leaguers -- it's not surprising the Brewers were bad. But the 2013 Brewers, according to FanGraphs, fielded the worst squad of first basemen of any team in the history of major professional baseball. To rephrase, the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers first basemen accrued -4.6 WAR, ranked 2,745th of 2,745 teams since 1871.
Mark Reynolds might not be that good. But as long as he shows up, there's no way he can be worse.
Jason Kubel, Twins
In 2012, Kubel hit .253/.327/.506 and set a career high with 30 home runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks. That he was limited to a minor league contract this offseason is a testament to just how far he fell in 2013, as he mustered 15 extra-base hits over 97 games between Arizona and Cleveland and set career lows in batting average, OPS (.610) and OPS+ (69).
Kubel will be returning to Minnesota in 2014, where he played from 2004 through 2011. His best season came with Minnesota in 2009 as a 27-year-old, when he hit 28 home runs and posted career highs in RBIs (103), doubles (35), batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.369), slugging percentage (.539), OPS (.907) and OPS+ (137). The Twins struggled to find offense out of the corner outfield and DH spots in 2013, so they have little to lose by seeing if any of the oomph is left in Kubel's bat.
Tsuyoshi Wada, Cubs
The Orioles signed Wada out of Japan with a two-year, $8 million contract prior to the 2012 season, but Tommy John surgery prevented Wada from ever making an appearance in an Orioles jersey. Wada did at least get back on a mound late in the season, however, as he made 19 starts for Triple-A Norfolk with moderate effectivness: 102.2 IP, 4.03 ERA, 80 K, 35 BB.
Despite his injury issues, the Cubs plan to use the 32-year-old Wada out of the rotation. Of Wada's 210 Japanese appearances, 207 came as a starter, where he had great success over a nine-year career with the SoftBank Hawks. Wada owns a sparkling 3.13 career ERA and a 3.4 K/BB over those 207 starts. His best season in NPB was his final one in 2011, when he posted a brilliant 1.51 ERA over 184 2/3 innings, including 168 strikeouts and just 40 walks. The Cubs only have three starters locked into the rotation in Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija, so a healthy Wada has a great chance at earning his way onto the roster, even if Chicago does manage to sign Masahiro Tanaka.
Henry Rodriguez, Marlins
Since 2010, there have been 25 pitcher seasons with at least 20 innings pitched and an average fastball velocity over 97.0 mph. Four of them belong to Henry Rodriguez. Since 2008, there have been 1,998 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher. Of those, 228 -- 11.4 percent -- have been thrown by Rodriguez, third behind Aroldis Chapman and Joel Zumaya.
Despite the heat, Rodriguez has been awful over the past two seasons -- in 57 appearances between the Nationals and Cubs, Rodriguez has a 5.08 ERA and a 5.55 FIP. He struck out just one more batter than he walked. But Rodriguez is just 26 years old, and nothing screams "closer" louder than a 100 mph fastball. The Marlins will give him a chance to work out the control issues in their bullpen. Considering Steve Cishek and Michael Dunn are the most established relievers the Marlins have, Rodriguez will have the opportunity to rise into a late-inning role.
All of these players are flawed in some way. All have high bust potential. But every year, a few players come from nowhere to revitalize a career after fighting for a roster spot on a minor league contract in the spring. This year should be no different, as these five players and others will be bringing plenty of talent to spring training in 2014.