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Another Look at the Bargain Bin...or patching holes with duck tape

Bargain shopping seems like the topic of the day for a Black Friday. Except this blog is about the Astros, and bargain shopping means something more like Goodwill, rather than Sak's or Macy's. The Astros say they are trying to improve the team and cutting the payroll at the same, all of which seems paradoxical when you realize that they have to work around the edges of a ton of sunk costs. In order to do that, the team probably has to patch some holes with duck tape in order to save money to add or keep a player with more impact.

Recently I mentioned an article at Fangraphs by Dave Cameron which referenced a few notable minor league free agents. Minor league free agents are the ultimate bargain bin; some older minor league players out there can be productive big league players; however, it's largely a gamble, since we don't know for sure who will succeed. OremLK has been looking at Rule 5 draft candidates, which is interesting and helpful. However, minor league free agents hold one advantage over Rule 5 picks, in that they do not have to be kept on the roster for a full season, and can be sent to AAA, if they are agreeable to doing so. The disadvantage is that many of the minor league free agents are older than Rule 5 picks---sometimes a lot older. However, it is a fairly low risk investment to sign several minor league free agents and allow them to compete for a big league job in spring training.

I took another look at the players on Baseball America's minor league free agent list. I'll talk about some interesting players on that list after the jump.

Shelley Duncan, OF, 1B.

He isn't even on the list, because he wasn't made available until last Friday as the Yankees finaiized their 40 man roster, by outrighting Duncan to the Yankees' AAA club. Duncan has rejected his assignment, and plans to look for a major league job. At the age of 29, Duncan is more likely to get offers for pinch hit / reserve outfielder jobs. I've previously mentioned his name in my comments at TCB, because I think he would be a good candidate for a reserve outfielder position with the Astros, with the ability to provide inexpensive power off the bench. Duncan has consistently exhibited offense and power in AAA, and was named MVP of the International League this year. I wouldn't be suprised if the Cardinals invite him to spring training, since his father is pitching coach Dave Duncan. Duncan is well liked by Yankees fans for his aggressiveness and enthusiasm, earning him the nickname "Slam" for his celebrations and high fives on the bench. A number of New York blog and media pieces have recently wished him the best in finding a major league job. LoHud reporter Craig Jennings says:

I keep thinking of Garrett Jones, who I watched rake in the International League for years without getting a shot with the Twins. Then the Pirates picked him up and he became a Rookie of the Year candidate. I have no idea whether Duncan can do something similar, but I know he put up Triple-A numbers as good as or better than Jones. He just wasn’t a match for the Yankees organization.

Ready Made Third Base Platoon?

Okay, I'm joking--a little bit anyway--when I suggest that two minor league free agents could form an effective third base platoon. But my point is that both of these 3d basemen in AAA were very productive, and you would think that one of them might turn out to form one end of a platoon for the Astros; and at the least could be more productive than Chris Johnson.

I previously discussed Reuben Gotay, who was highlighted in Dave Cameron's article. The 26 year old former second baseman posted a .877 OPS for the D-Backs' AAA team, with superb plate discipline that led to .427 OBP. Hector Luna, a 29 year old former major league utility infielder, posted huge numbers at 3d base for the Dodgers' AAA affiliate last year. Here is his triple slash:.351, .415, .610, 1.025. Yes, that's an OPS over a 1.0. And, yes, Albuquerque is an offensive oriented ballpark---but even neutralizing his stats puts his OPS well over .900. Late last season, the SBN blog True Blue LA pleaded with the Dodgers to call up Luna:

For those who want to just attribute what Luna is doing to the PCL fine, but they were saying the same thing about Jake Fox back in June. The difference is that Fox is a lousy catcher trying to play 3rd base, while Luna is an ex major league middle infielder playing 3rd base. When we tried to find a RHH who could punish LHP we found very few major league bench players who fit the bill. Luna is crushing LHP with an OPS against them sitting at 1.399. He's also produced an OPS over 1.000 at both home and away. I recently read a comment attributing his excellent season to playing at home for the Isotopes but the splits would seem to negate that argument. The man is simply hitting wherever he plays against both Left and Right handed pitchers...I'm saying that Hector Luna deserves a shot to strengthen our bench. Just because a man is 29 years old does not mean he can't resume his major league career. It doesn't happen often but history is peppered with players like Olmedo Saenz and Geronimo Berroa who got late starts and became excellent part time players into their 30's.

Why did I start off calling these two guys a ready made platoon? The switch hitter Gotay has .304 batting average and .904 OPS versus RHP. Hector Luna hit .398 with a 1.248 OPS versus LHP. Both guys show some power, and lots of on base least against AAA pitchers.


Fernando Hernandez is a 25 year old righthanded relief pitcher in the White Sox organization. He was previously picked up by Oakland in the Rule 5 draft several years ago, made the A's opening day roster, but was returned to the White Sox after pitching only a few innings at the major league level. Hernandez started the year in AA, and then moved up to AAA, where he was equally effective. His combined 2009 stats: 2.91 FIP, 1.71 ERA in AA and 1.59 ERA in AAA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.79 K/9, 3.18 BB/9.. He strikes out 1 in 4 batters he faces, and walks only about 1 in 10 batters. He generates a good groundball rate, reaching 60% in AAA. The diminutive (5-11) reliever has been effective against both RHB and LHB, with a .190 batting average by lefties and a .179 batting average by righties. Based on his stats, there is little not to like about this relief pitcher.

Erick Threets is a 29 year old lefthanded relief pitcher in the Dodgers' organization. The Astros probably will be in the market for another LH relief pitcher, particularly if Wesley Wright is converted to a starting pitcher. Threets previously pitched in the Giants system, including a brief but successful major league stint with the Giants in 2008. His 3.81 FIP and 1.52 ERA in AAA was particularly impressive when you take into account that he pitched at an offense-friendly ballpark in Albuquerque. His 63% groundball rate is very good, and somewhat unusual for a lefthander. He strikes out 17% of the batters he faces and walks only 9%.

Hyang-Nam Choi is another relief pitcher for the Dodgers' AAA affiliate last year. Normally I wouldn't mention a 38 year old minor leaguer, but Choi is an unusual case, since he has experience pitching professionally in both Korea and Japan. His stats at Albuquerque are quite impressive. In 61 innings, he had a 3.25 FIP, a 2.34 ERA, a 2.81 RA/9, with a 12 K/9 rate and a 3.06 BB rate, which looks even better when we consider that he pitched in Albuquerque. He struck out 32% of the batters he faced and walked only 8%. He is more effective against RHB. The Cardinals invited him to spring training last year, but he didn't make the big league team, and then was signed by the Dodgers for pitching depth.