Part of being a dedicated Red Sox Nation citizen is following the Red Sox’ offseason signings. Many of the holes the Red Sox fill are with minor league free agents, who are typically journeymen looking for one last shot of glory, or trying to get that ever-elusive World Series ring. While some of the signings can be projected as organizational depth, stockpiling talent in the high minors just in case, there are certain players who have a better chance to help the major league club. As we start the slate of Spring Training games wondering what the Red Sox might get out of Jose Mijares, Mike McCoy, or Scott Cousins, (or these current prospects) we should think about the under the radar signings (URS) of the last few years that have paid some dividends. These would be players basically that had been dropped by their old team, whether designated for assignment (DFA’d), not offered a contract, or released, and found a home with the Red Sox, at least for that season. Let’s take a look at the best URS of the last few years.
My pick for last season’s URS award would have to be Mike Carp. There had been rumors of trying to acquire him previously, but nothing had come of it until the Seattle Mariners designated him for assignment, and the Sox purchased him, as Spring Training was ending. Despite the fact that he only had 3 plate appearances through the team’s first 13 games, he was given a start in Cleveland and tore the cover off the ball through the first half of the season.
Manager John Farrell seemed to have a knack for getting the most out of him, riding his hot streaks as long as he could. Alternating him with Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, through July 28, he had an OPS of 1.000. Over the season’s final two months, reality started to set in, resulting in final numbers of .296/.362/553 (OPS+ 140) over 243 plate appearances. Management had enough faith in him to keep him on the roster for all three playoff rounds, though he only was used for eight hitless plate appearances. The fact that he could play first base and the corner outfield spots made him a valuable part of the team. The signing of Grady Sizemore (as well as Corey Brown) could create a logjam in the outfield if Sizemore can regain his old form, though. He signed an arbitration contract for next year, and is under team control through 2016.
This season went about as badly as it could. The polarizing figure of Bobby Valentine did not mesh with the team or the media. The team had its first losing record since 1966. Injuries and bad morale made for a long season. There were some bright spots, though. One of those was the URS of that year, Pedro Ciriaco.
Acquired in early January as a free agent, he shined the most against the New York Yankees, hitting .415 over 56 plate appearances. He became a super-utility guy, even switching from infield to outfield at times. Unfortunately, he turned into a guy playing over his head. He was not able to continue his 2012 success under John Farrell in 2013, making errors in the field and committing baserunning mistakes which are not tolerated if you are a utility player. He was traded to the Padres last June in a conditional deal which means no player ever came back in exchange for him.
Alfredo Aceves is the classic eccentric ballplayer who is a sportwriter’s dream when he is doing well because of all his crazy antics. He performed very well for the Yankees, with an ERA just over 3 in his first three seasons. Certainly, the Red Sox had to wonder why they would give up on Aceves. The Yankees were not happy with his recovery from a back injury following an offseason non-baseball injury.
Nevertheless, he did have that great record and success makes teams overlook possible faults. His 2011 was spectacular, at least on the surface. He sported a nifty 2.61 ERA (though the team was 27-29 in games he pitched). Once 2012, rolled around the veneer started to crack. He stepped into the closer role out of necessity but started to get knocked around. You can be eccentric when you have success, but when you start to fail, you look like an unfocused nut. He started out 2013 with not wanting to throw batting practice and went downhill from there. He was relegated to the minor leagues and is now gone from the organization, signing a minor league deal with the Orioles. Good luck, Buck Showalter.
In the end, no team should be relying too much on minor league free agents. Veteran Mike Carp should know that as a bench player, he has a much smaller margin for error. Trying to build on his success, he will surely keep his head down, not sleep in the clubhouse with a pillow of towels (Aceves), and will perform well with the glove (not Ciriaco). The team has to explore all their options with off-season signings. They tend to work in the short-run, but it is rare for a player to stick with a club after another one has let him go for very little or nothing.
Who will be this year’s URS? There is one guy who can tell you the value of the URS. He was signed to platoon with Jeremy Giambi after the Twins had non-tendered him after the 2002 season. His name…David Ortiz.