For Friars, Minors moves a chance for impact
Past signings like Denorfia have gone beyond providing solid insurance
SAN DIEGO -- When you sign two free agents, spending a combined $14 million alone in 2014 on Josh Johnson and Joaquin Benoit, people take notice.
When you make a seven-player deal to land two arms you've coveted, as the Padres did last week with the Rays, it also elicits plenty of attention.
But when you sign a Minor League free agent, you're probably be greeted by a collective groan from your fan base, sprinkled with indifference and yawns.
When compared with moves that directly impact the 25-man roster, signing Brooks Conrad or even Xavier Nady tend to fall short (no offense, gentlemen).
But that's not to say these moves don't serve a far greater purpose than simply supplying the El Paso Chihuahuas, San Diego's Triple-A affiliate, with warm bodies for the season.
It's about providing insurance for the big league roster, in case, say, a player heads to the disabled list or is suspended. Occasionally, these moves can impact the Major League roster every bit a much as a player with more service time and a fatter wallet.
"It's paid dividends for us," said Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch.
San Diego has squeezed plenty of production out of three recent Minor League signings, outfielders Chris Denorfia (5.6 oWAR in four seasons), Jesus Guzman (2.8 oWAR in three seasons, though he was traded to the Astros this winter) and reliever Dale Thayer (0.8 WAR in two seasons).
"It's a shorter-term investment for the club," Hinch said. "You're looking at a short window of contribution or just protection. You're fortunate when it turns into Chris Denorfia and Jesus Guzman."
While the Padres have spent the winter reshaping their roster, a process that Hinch is involved in, he's also worked to find Minor League free agents who could provide quality depth when something goes awry on the Major League roster.
"It's not easy to just go and get these guys," Hinch said. "It may look to fans like, 'Hey, let's go get him off the scrap heap,' but it's miserable if you don't do it on the front end. You can't be left naked."
The process of finding these players started in the fall, even before the regular season had ended, information culled from San Diego's professional scouts.
"We look at our Major League interest in the player; can he compete for a Major League roster spot? Those are your priority guys," Hinch said. "Then you start looking at how that might collide with your [current] depth.
"This year, we've been a little less active on the pitching front due to the upper level depth we have with pitching, guys knocking on the door or who are already in the big leagues. You also have to balance how much of it is Major League interest, how much of it is insurance and also how signing a guy might affect the trajectory of your top prospects."
There are several factors that go into finding the right player, Hinch said.
"When you are a Minor League free agent, you want the ability to compete for a Major League roster spot but also be then assured you have a defined role in Triple-A," Hinch said. "And that's what these guys and their agents are looking at. It's a little bit of a puzzle. And the more realistic opportunity you have for them to unseat one of your big league guys, it's much easier to sell that."
Hinch has help with this endeavor, with director of baseball operations Josh Stein, assistant to baseball operations/professional scouting Alex Slater and advance scout/baseball operations Nick Ennis part of the process. Randy Smith, the team's vice president of player development and international scouting who oversees the Minor League system, is also consulted.
Once targets are identified, the process of negotiation with agents starts. Sometimes, though, players will reach out to an organization on their own.
"The older the guys are, the more apt they are to handle the conversation with the club themselves," Hinch said. "In some cases, it's Josh [Byrnes], or it's me. [Manager Bud Black] has talked with Minor League free agents."
But not everyone is an ideal fit, especially those who are new to being a Minor League free agent and view their own skill set differently than other teams might.
"They have to know where their toehold is in the game is," Hinch said.
The pay range for Minor League free agents varies greatly, and for some teams can even top the $30,000 mark a month for five months at the Triple-A level. But generally, a player in the organization will make around $2,220 a month. If a team is looking for a player to serve as Major League protection, he'll likely make more than $12,000 a month. A "name" guy could make around $20,000 a month.
"It's a moving scale, but it's definitely grown. I think teams are now paying more for the premium guys," Hinch said. "The long season, 162 games, the chance of you going wire-to-wire with your players is very, very slim. These guys with experience, guys who have performed in the past, are valuable."
There's one other factor the Padres consider when looking for player, one that applies to their search for players on the Major League roster as well -- makeup.
"It's a separator in these types of deals. You don't want a disgruntled guy in Triple-A, souring the mood," Hinch said. "It's a tough level. There's guys on the way up, guys on the way down and there are guys on the way out. Those are difficult dynamics. So we will look at their history, we'll call around on them.
"We want to get the most out of these guys while they're here."