Not Necessarily a Minor Matter
There is a tendency for fans to write-off older players in the minor leagues. But throughout the history of baseball there have been many players labeled “4-A guy” or "career AAA player” who became successful front-line players after being given a chance. And that's still true today, as many minor league players buried in the bush leagues long for the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time.
SS Maury Wills, who spent nine years in the minors before he got a chance to play in the big leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3B Jose "Coco" Laboy, a ten-year minor league player with the Giants and the Cardinals before becoming 1969 N. L. Rookie of the Year with the expansion Montreal Expos, and 1970 N. L. All-Star OF Jim Hickman, who was left for dead & buried in AAA when the Cubs acquired him from the Dodgers along with Phil Regan in 1968, are just three examples of after-thoughts who persevered to have success in the big leagues somewhat late in their baseball lives. But one thing different between now and then is that minor leaguers like Wills, Laboy, and Hickman (and many, many others just like them over the years) did not have the right to be a free-agent. They were stuck wherever they were, forever, waiting for an opportunity that might not ever come.
But today's minor leaguers at least have hope. A light at the end of the tunnel. They have the right to become free-agents (under certain circumstances), just like their big league brethren do.
And for those of you who think minor league free-agency is an irrelevant off-season side-show, keep in mind that OF Ryan Ludwick was a minor league FA when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals post-2006, 1B Garrett Jones was a minor league FA when he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates post 2008, OF Andres Torres was a minor league FA when he signed with the San Francisco Giants post-2008, IF-OF Brooks Conrad was a minor league FA when he signed with the Atlanta Braves post-2008, LHP Javier Lopez (now an important member of the Giants bullpen) was a minor league FA when he signed with the Pirates prior to the 2010 season, and RHP R. A. Dickey was a minor league FA when he signed with the Mets post-2009.
A minor league player can become a free-agent three ways. One is by outright release (club option), another is by virtue of MLB Rule 55 - AKA "Six-Year Minor League Free-Agent" (player option), and the third is per Article XX of the CBA (also a player option).
Waivers are not required to release a minor league player, and a released minor league player receives two weeks termination pay unless he is released during the off-season before his contract is renewed by his parent club. A club can automatically renew a minor league player's contract no more than six times, so a club can unilaterally control a minor league player for no more than seven seasons (the season the player signs his first contract, plus six seasons after that) before the player is eligible to be a minor league free-agent under MLB Rule 55.
A minor league player qualifies for free-agency as a so-called "Six-Year Minor League Free-Agent" under MLB Rule 55 if the player has spent all or part of at least seven separate seasons on a minor league active list or disabled list (including all or parts of any season spent on Optional Assignment to the minors) and/or if the player has been previously released in his career. However, a player eligible to be a Rule 55 minor league free-agent is NOT eligible for free-agency if the player is added to an MLB 40-man roster by the 4th day following the conclusion of the World Series, or if the player and his club agree to a minor league successor contract for the following season prior to the conclusion of the MLB Free-Agency Filing Period (now the first five days immediately following the conclusion of the World Series), Clubs retain exclusive negotiating rights with their own Rule 55 minor league free-agents until the conclusion of the MLB Free-Agency Filing Period.
Under CBA Article XX, any MLB player who has accrued at least three years of MLB service time and/or has been outrighted previously in his career has the right to be a free-agent if the player is outrighted to the minor leagues. The player can exercise this right upon being outrighted, or he can defer the right until the end of the MLB regular season (he is given three days to decide if he is outrighted during the regular season, and he has a week to decide if he is outrighted during the off-season or Spring Training). If a player eligible to be a minor league free-agent under Article XX exercises his right to be a free-agent immediately after being outrighted, the player's contract is terminated and the player receives no termination pay. (Because unsigned players do not receive termination pay, players eligible to be minor league free-agents under Article XX who are outrighted during the off-season before being tendered a contract for the following season always opt for free-agency immediately). But if the outrighted player accepts the Outright Assignment and defers his right to be a free-agent until the end of the MLB regular season, the player's existing contract remains in force, and the player can file for free-agency beginning on the day after the conclusion of the MLB regular season up through October 15th. However, an outrighted player who defers the right to be a minor league free-agent until the conclusion of the MLB regular season is NOT eligible to be a free-agent if the player is added back to an MLB 40-man roster prior to the end of the MLB regular season. Clubs retain exclusive negotiating rights with their own Article XX minor league free-agents through October 15th.
A minor league free-agent can sign a contract with any major league or minor league club (including the player's former club) without any restrictions. A club receives no compensation for losing a minor league free-agent.
ELIGIBLE TO BE RULE 55 MINOR LEAGUE FREE-AGENT POST-2010:
James Adduci, OF (10/29 UPDATE: Outrighted to minors - eligible to be Rule 55 FA)
Mitch Atkins, RHP
Adrian Aviles, OF-LHP
Austin Bibens-Dirkx, RHP
Russ Canzler, 1B
Robinson Chirinos, C-INF (10/29 UPDATE: Added to Cubs 40-man roster)
Jason Dubois, OF
Jeff Gray, RHP (10/26 UPDATE: Outrighted to minors - eligible to be Rule 55 FA)
Mark Johnson, C
Bryan Lahair, 1B
Antoni Lugo, 3B
J. R. Mathes, LHP
Scott McClain, 3B
Mario Mercedes, C
Jonathan Mota, INF (10/26 UPDATE: Signed 2011 minor league contract with Cubs)
Alvaro Ramirez, OF
Mark Reed, C
NOTE: RHP Thomas Diamond, INF Bobby Scales, and OF Brad Snyder were on the list of Cubs minor league players eligible to be Rule 55 free-agents post-2010 prior to being added to the Cubs 40-man roster during the season (Diamond on 8/2 and Scales and Snyder on 9/7). Then Scales became eligible to be an Article XX minor league FA when he was outrighted to the minors on 10/14, because he had been outrighted previously in his career.
Of the 17 Cubs minor leaguers eligible to be minor league free-agents post-2010 (15 by way of MLB Rule 55 and two via CBA Article XX), Robinson Chirinos is the only one likely to be added to the Cubs MLB 40-man roster. Orginally signed by the Cubs out of Venezuela as a hot-shot 16-year old second-baseman, Chirinos could be molded into a C-1B-2B-3B-RHPH, perhaps becoming the eventual 25-man roster replacement for Jeff Baker.
Of the 16 others, several will likely end up re-signing with the Cubs. Historically, about half of the Cubs minor leaguers eligible to be Rule 55 minor league free-agents return to the organization for at least one more season. In some cases it’s probably a comfort-zone factor, and in other cases the player might get a pay raise (maybe up from $15,000 to $25,000) and/or an NRI to Spring Training, while some players just have no place else to go.
PITCHER: The Cubs always sign a handful of pitchers with MLB and/or AAA experience to minor league contracts and give them an NRI to Spring Training. The ones who don’t make the Opening Day 25-man roster (and that’s usually all of them) get sent to Iowa where they hope to get a shot later in the season. This off-season I would expect the Cubs to sign two or three RH relief pitchers with MLB experience to minor league contracts who will actually be given a legitimate shot at winning a big league bullpen job in Spring Training.
CUBS MINOR LEAGUE FREE-AGENT PITCHERS:
21-year old Adrian Aviles is an ex-OF the Cubs are converting to LHP at their Dominican Academy. He did not pitch in any DSL games in 2010. Aviles is eligible to be a Rule 55 Minor League FA because he was released previously in his career (by the Los Angeles Dodgers), but he probably will return to the Cubs organization in 2011 unless he gets released.
RHP Mitch Atkins was outrighted off the Cubs 40—man roster in September. It is likely that no matter where he ends up, he will get a minor league contract (possibly for as much as $75K) with an NRI to Spring Training. He could get that if he returns to the Cubs, or he could also get that from just about any other MLB organization. Now 25, Atkins was a John Stockstill draft pick back in 2004, so I would not be surprised if Atkins signs a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
RHP Austin Bibens-Dirkx is eligible to be a Rule 55 Minor League FA because he was released previously in his career (by Seattle). The 25-year old Bibens-Dirkx is the rare bird who went to Indy ball after being released out of “A” ball, and then came back, getting all the way up to AAA by the 2010 season. ABD was in the Iowa Cubs starting rotation by the end of the season and had a decent year. He is presently pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League (VWL), where scouts from all 30 organizations can watch him pitch. Like Mitch Atkins, Bibens-Dirkx will get an NRI to Spring Training and a guaranteed AAA roster slot no matter where he ends up.
29-year old LHP J. R. Mathes was a rotation starter at Iowa for the past four seasons and got an NRI to Spring Training with the big club in both 2009 and 2010, but he has never been given a chance to pitch in the big leagues, so I doubt that Mathes will return to the Cubs organization in 2011 even if he is guaranteed a job at Iowa and given another NRI to Spring Training. All 30 MLB organizations can give him that, but there should be a handful of organizations who can also give him a genuine shot at pitching in the big leagues.
RHP Mike Parisi has already filed for free-agency through CBA Article XX, but could return to the Cubs organization in 2011 because he has a long-standing working relationship with Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Mark Riggins going back to when both were in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Parisi was selected by the Cubs from the Cardinals in the Major League Phase of the 2009 Rule 5 Draft, but was outrighted to AAA at the end of Spring Training. The 27-year old Parisi had the right to be a free-agent after being outrighted because he had been outrighted previously in his career, but he deferred his right to be a FA until after the end of the 2010 regular season. Parisi spent most of the 2010 season on the AA Tennessee Smokies Disabled List with a sore shoulder.
CATCHER: The Cubs are loaded with catchers at the higher levels (with Welington Castillo, Robinson Chirinos, Steve Clevenger, and Chris Robinson all contending for jobs at Iowa in 2011, and with Michael Brenly ready to be the #1 backstop at AA), but they lack depth at the Daytona/Peoria level where Luis Flores is probably the only catcher currently in the organization likely to begin the 2011 season at Daytona. So either Mark Reed and/or Mario Mercedes could return to Daytona in 2011. The Cubs also might sign an experienced free-agent catcher out of independent ball to compete for a job at Daytona.
CUBS MINOR LEAGUE FREE-AGENT CATCHERS:
24-year old Mario Mercedes is very likely to return to the Cubs organization in 2011, because he is considered a mentor for the younger Latin players, and because he probably will have an opportunity to remain with the organization as a manager, coach, or scout once his playing days are over.
24-year old Mark Reed (the younger brother of ex-MLB OF Jeremy Reed) was a 3rd round draft pick of the Cubs in 2004 and has good receiving skills, but he has not been able to master the art of hitting. If Reed returns it would probably require a guarantee that he will be at AA in 2011, even though he probably would be needed more at Daytona. Reed could get the AA guarantee from the Cubs, but he also might want to try his luck with another organization that is not so deep at catcher at the AAA/AA levels, especially if he can wangle an NRI to Spring Training out of somebody.
35-year old MLB veteran LH catcher Mark Johnson served as a “player-coach” at Iowa in 2010, spending most of the season on the Disabled List with a “sprained ankle” and getting reactivated for short periods when the I-Cubs needed an extra body on the bench. Then after the end of the PCL season, Johnson served as a Catching Instructor (and Game Manager the last week) with the Cubs AZ Instructional League team at Fitch Park. Look for Johnson to return to the Cubs organization in 2011 as a full-time instructor or manager.
INFIELD: The Cubs will probably sign a free-agent SS with MLB experience to a minor league contract during the off-season to compete with Darwin Barney for the Cubs middle-infield gig at Spring Training, with the loser being the starting SS at Iowa.
CUBS MINOR LEAGUE FREE-AGENT INFIELDERS:
24-year old Russ Canzler had a very good year at AA Tennessee in 2010 (287/372/566 with 21 HR), but it took him seven seasons to get there. He is a “natural” first-baseman, but has played 3B, LF, and RF in recent years. Canzler is one guy who probably would really benefit from a change of organization, maybe go someplace where he can get an NRI to Spring Training and play AAA ball in 2011. The Cubs would probably not be able to give him such a guarantee should he opt to re-up with the Cubs for 2011.
1B-OF Bryan Lahair fits the profile of the Garrett Jones model to a "T". And while he had another good year at AAA in 2010 (308/385/557 with 25 HR and 30 doubles at Iowa), he probably is not a fit with the 2011 Cubs. Unlike fellow I-Cubs lefty sluggers Micah Hoffpauir and Brad Snyder, Lahair REALLY struggles against LHP, so he would be (at best) a LH platoon 1B and/or LH PH at the big league level. With LH hitting Matt Spencer the likely #1 1B at Iowa in 2011 and with LH hitting Steve Clevenger also probably getting some PT there, the 27-year old Lahair will probably opt to try his luck elsewhere, hoping for some Garrett Jones-type serendipity.
Scott McClain signed a Minor League Uniform Player Contract with the Cubs for 2010, but served as a “player-coach” at Fitch Park. The 38-year old 3B-1B had knee surgery post-2009 and never really recovered enough to be placed on the Active List at Iowa. If he returns to the Cubs organization in 2011, it will probably be as a coach.
23-year old Jonathan Mota is a career minor league utility infielder, but he learned the art of catching at Extended Spring Training this past Spring, so he can also be a 3rd string catcher, too. That’s especially valuable on a AA or AAA roster where the 24-man limit puts versatility at a premium. Depending on where Nate Samson and Marwin Gonzalez end up, there will be room for Mota at either Iowa, Tennessee, or Daytona. (10-26 UPDATE: Re-signed with Cubs for 2011)
22-year old 3B Antoni Lugo spent the 2010 season in the DSL, playing with both the with DSL Cubs #1 and DSL Cubs #2. He hit 294/382/472, and was third in the league in HR and 9th in OPS. He is eligible to be a Rule 55 Minor League FA because he was released previously in his career (by the Chicago White Sox). He will probably return to the Cubs organization in 2011, unless he believes he will never get an opportunity to play in the U. S. if he remains in the Cubs organization.
Bobby Scales was outrighted to AAA last week, and was eligible to be a free-agent immediately per CBA Article XX because he had been outrighted previously in his career. And Scales did indeed opt to be a free-agent, and so now he is free to pursue a AAA gig and NRI to Spring Training with some MLB club in 2011. (Scales is 33 years old and has spent all or parts of the last eight seasons at AAA).
OUTFIELD: The Cubs might sign an outfielder to a minor league contract with an NRI to Spring Training, but if they do it probably will be only if they trade Sam Fuld and/or Brad Snyder during the off-season. Otherwise, the Cubs are already three-deep at all three OF positions going into ST. (Soriano-Guyer-Adduci in LF, Byrd-Fuld-Camp in CF, and Fukudome-Colvin-Snyder in RF).
CUBS MINOR LEAGUE FREE-AGENT OUTFIELDERS:
Veteran OF-1B Jason Dubois was signed by the Cubs to a minor league contract last off-season to give the Iowa Cubs a veteran RH 1B-OF power bat on a team loaded with LH sluggers (Hoffpauir, Lahair, and Snyder). The 31-year old Dubois hit 300/385/632 with 20 HR for the I-Cubs in 2010, but it’s very unlikely that Du-bee will return to Des Moines next season because the 2011 Iowa Cubs won’t have Hoffpauir, Lahair, or Snyder on the roster (Hoffpauir and Snyder are out of options and Lahair is a Rule 55 FA and is unlikely to return).
Alvaro Ramirez is eligible to be a Rule 55 Minor League Free-Agent because he was previously released in his career (by the New York Yankees). The 24-year old Ramirez had a good year at Boise and Peoria (combined 322/350/429), and he could return to the Cubs organization next season as long as he believes he will be given a legitimate chance to make the Daytona Cubs Opening Day roster. He does fit the profile of a minor league 4th OF.