Rick Hahn, the current General Manager of the Chicago White Sox, once told me that the market for minor league free agents every winter is as competitive as major league free agency, if not even more so. Realistically, these players are ones who have spent 6-7 years playing in the minor leagues without making the 40-man roster and you generally aren’t going to find anyone that projects to make much big league impact. But there is always that ‘maybe’; perhaps a new set of coaches and analysts will spot a flaw that a player’s previous org missed, suggest an adjustment he hadn’t heard before, expose him to new analytical information, place him in a new role, or even just figure out how to keep him healthy. Any one or all of those factors just might allow the player to breakout out on the field and leave the projections in the dust.
Those player development victories are what executives are chasing after when they jump into the minor league free agent market. That is what makes unremarkable transactions like this worth paying attention to:
Roster moves: OF Alexander Palma & 1B Luis Castro have been signed to minor league contracts.— Brewers Player Dev (@BrewersPD) November 7, 2019
Alexander Palma just recently turned 24 years old and began his professional career as a teenager when he signed as an international free agent with the Yankees. A high-contact hitter at the plate (who doesn’t draw many walks), Palma began coming into his own with the bat during his second go-round in A-Ball in 2016. His development has been stunted by injuries since then, however, as the right-handed hitter has spent time on the 60-day Injured List in each of the last three seasons. Palma has been extremely productive when on the field, though, batting .296/.341/.479 (136 wRC+) with 21 home runs, 11 steals, and a 15.3% strikeout rate in 153 games and 602 plate appearances since the start of 2017, spanning the minor league levels from Rookie-ball rehab assignments to a brief stint in Double-A.
Palma is primarily a corner outfielder who has played right field a bit more often than left throughout his career. Here is what Fangraphs had to say about Palma when listing him as a “prospect of note” in their write-up on the Yankees farm system prior to the start of the 2019 season:
[S]igned for $800,000 in the 2012 July 2nd class and was having a breakout year at Hi-A until he broke both his fibula and tibia. Much of his 2017 season was lost to injury, as well. He’s a 55 runner with above-average hit and raw power, and the power was starting to play in games.
Luis Castro also just recently turned 24 years old, and his pro journey started when he signed with the Rockies as a 16 year old. He has never rated highly as a prospect, but he quietly went about his business posting above-average batting lines in the lower minors before busting out in a partial season between short-season A-ball and and Class A-Advanced in 2018. In 57 games between the two stops, Castro hit .351/.436/.574 with eight long balls and 17 doubles. He carried that success over into 2019, beginning with 106 games back at Class A-Advanced then a 20 game stint in Double-A to conclude the season. All together, Castro batted .304/.419/.552 with 27 dingers and 15 stolen bases, striking out 20.6% of the time while drawing walks at a 13.2% clip.
Castro’s home run thump sort of came out of nowhere this season, and the fact that most of his damage over the past two seasons has been done while playing for Lancaster of the California League (whose home stadium is a hitters’ paradise nicknamed “The Launching Pad”) has created doubt about whether his supposed breakout is for real. Here is a report from 2080 Baseball that was posted during the summer:
Castro came out of nowhere in the first half of 2019 for Lancaster, pacing the California League with a cartoonish .313/.440/.607 slash line. He was named to the circuit’s mid-season all-star game (and the home run derby), but is likely more a mirage from Lancaster’s inflated offensive environment than a true prospect. He’s old for the level and has spent the last six seasons at or below A-Ball. A big-bodied 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Castro is very strong but limited to 1B defensively. This is likely an organizational player in the midst of a career season; in the best case, maybe Castro is starting to mash his way into an upper-level/4A depth role.
A right-handed pull hitter, Castro’s batted ball profile does suggest that he has made a conscious effort to hit more fly balls since the start of 2018. He has always been able to get on base frequently via the walk, but the question now is whether or not Castro will continue making enough contact to bring his power into games as he ascends to the upper minors.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference