The Genius in Minor League Deals
Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The free agent market is often filled with land mines. By the time most players reach free agency they are already past their primes, but they can always find a team willing to pay for the short term production worrying about the long term consequences later. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are a prime example of this with both Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Obviously, this is not an ideal way to spend one’s resources, particularly for a small market team like the Brewers. Instead of getting involved with big free agent signings, GM Doug Melvin has to be an avid user of the waiver wire, cheap deals, and minor league contracts.
The opponents of minor league deals will always say they aren’t actually adding any talent, and are merely adding marginal talent at the expense of looking for “real solutions.” Other times people simply wish to take pot shots at the owner for being cheap. Both points seem to make sense on the surface, but upon delving into the logic even briefly, look unbelievably foolish.
The pot shots at owners, particularly in the Brewers case, don’t make any sense. Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to expand payroll when the team is contending (the team reportedly went over budget in 2011 to win). There really doesn’t seem to be a precedent for owners pinching pockets. Fans also have to remember that baseball teams are not here for your entertainment, they are there for the owner to make money, and while they want to win since it brings more fans, their primary concern is to be profitable.
Also, calling an owner or GM cheap for not pursuing big names is ridiculous on the fact that most free agents have significant flaws within their games, particularly over the last few years when the market has been getting less and less talented with more teams signing players to extensions.
The other ridicule of minor league deals being a lack of talent has some backing. Of course players who sign minor league deals are not star players, otherwise they would have received guaranteed Major League work. But to say they can’t help or even be solid contributors is simply ignoring the more innovative ways to use players.
Bench players are often flawed players. They lack a skill or set of skills that would make them everyday players. But bench players also have some sort of talent that makes them a Major League player. Mark Reynolds, for example, is a great pickup on a minor league contract. He has prolific power, and the ability to play first base. He also has a severe shortcoming, he struggles to make contact. He is never going to be a star, but Reynolds is a nice piece to have on your team, and can be a contributor is used properly. Anyone arguing that adding a player with plus skills on a minor league deal is a bad move is misguided.
Bullpen depth is another thing that is great to build upon with minor league deals. Relievers, by nature, are flawed. Reliever performance is also extremely volatile, so outside of a few elite ones, you don’t really know what you’re going to get from year to year. Instead of throwing 3 year deals at the likes of Brandon League, teams can often times get similar or better performances from league minimum labor and retreads (think Jim Henderson, John Axford, and Brandon Kintzler).
Any outrage over a minor league deals that doesn’t involve Yuniesky Betancourt is a bit misguided. There’s no risk involved, and at worst there’s some minor league depth for when injuries will inevitably happen. Minor league deals are a great way to find market inefficiencies, make small upgrades, and provide depth to an organization, and I applaud Doug Melvin for looking to add depth to the organization through this means.