11 February 2015

Impressions of the Orioles' (minor-league) Free Agent Signings - Part One

The Baltimore Orioles have avoided making a major splash in the 2014-2015 off-season - the big moves were the signing of well-traveled left-handed spot relief pitcher Wesley Wright, the selection of two players in the Rule 5 draft, and the trade acquisition of Travis Snider. But they haven't been completely inactive; they've signed a fair number of minor-league free agents. Most of the players signed to these contracts hope to be minor league roster filler - the lucky ones get to spend a year in Frederick or Salisbury while the unlucky ones get released in spring training. (Think Zane Chavez.) A smaller number are higher-level roster filler, who will likely help Bowie and Norfolk compete and who, if they play well, might earn a week or two in the big leagues as a bench player. (Think Cord Phelps.) And a few are players with real chances to make the Orioles out of spring training but who were signed to minor-league contracts because there just wasn't room on the 40-man roster. (Think Delmon Young, 2014.)

Most fans don't pay attention to these signings (unless the player is like Delmon Young) until the player is promoted to the Orioles. However, I think it's at least worth going through the signings to see in advance if there is anyone who might wear an Orioles' uniform or put up impressive numbers for one of their affiliates. This article won't analyze anyone in depth; it will be a very superficial look at these players. Some have played on or against Norfolk, and so I'll be mixing in some of my individual observations with a review of the stat lines. And as you read this, remember that it's very unlikely that anyone will be more than a mop-up relief pitcher or benchwarmer.

The Orioles signed three minor-league free agents to major-league contracts, putting them on the 40-man winter roster. A team will generally sign a minor-league free agent to a major-league contract if they perceive him to be in demand or that another team might take him in the Rule 5 draft. (Players newly signed to a minor-league contract can be selected in the Rule 5 draft, and occasionally such players are selected.)

It's easy to see why the Orioles signed Rey Navarro to a major-league contract. He's 25, a middle infielder, and played well in both 2013 and 2014. The Diamondbacks drafted him out of Puerto Rico in 2007 at a very young age - he didn't turn 18 until December of 2007. As a result, he was overmatched at the plate in his first seasons and was traded to the Royals in 2010. He took his time to get through the minor-leagues, and he had a promising 2013 season at age 23. However, because he signed so young, he had then completed his first six-year professional contract. The Royals didn't add him to their 40-man roster; he was granted free agency; and he signed with the Reds. He split 2014 evenly between AA and AAA and hit .282/.343/.435, playing shortstop and second base in a 60/40 split. Unfortunately, while Navarro had been a good defender early in his career, he doesn't appear to have been a good defender in 2014. Still, it's easy to see that Navarro may have been in demand and he should be a serviceable utility infielder if the Orioles need him. And, he's still young enough that it's probable that he hasn't reached his peak.

The Orioles also signed two of their own minor-league free agents to major-league contracts. Oliver Drake is an interesting story, and it's possible that he too was in demand. He was drafted out of the Naval Academy as a draft-eligible sophomore; he signed instead of returning to Navy and acquiring an armed services commitment. He has always had good control, but his stuff improved after he became a full-time relief pitcher. Over the past two seasons, he has averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings; in 2014 he led the Eastern League with 31 saves. He'll pitch at age 28 in 2015, and is a good, low-cost candidate for a middle-relief role right now. He will probably start 2015 at Norfolk and might step into a twelfth-man bullpen role. At the very least he should be able to handle the Norfolk-to-Baltimore shuttle role.

Eddie Gamboa. Photo courtesy of Les Treagus / Norfolk Tides.

Eddie Gamboa is another pitcher with an interesting backstory, although it seems doubtful that he was in high demand as a minor-league free agent. His signing a major-league contract seems to be as much a vote of confidence as anything. Gamboa was a late-round college senior draftee who signed for a $1000 bonus. He started his career as a roster-filler arm and was reached Double-A in his first full season simply by pitching very well. His role changed to swingman in 2010 and he continued to pitch well, but by 2012 it was evident that he didn't have the sheer stuff to become a major-league pitcher. In the 2012-2013 offseason, he decided to become a knuckleball pitcher and pitched some excellent games in a generally solid season split between Bowie and Norfolk. He was supposed to begin 2014 as the Norfolk spot-starter/long relief pitcher, but when Kevin Gausman was hurriedly promoted to Baltimore Gamboa became the Tides' opening-day starter. When T.J. McFarland was promoted to Baltimore for good, Gamboa moved into the Norfolk rotation and pitched fairly well.

In June, however, Gamboa's season and career suffered a setback when he was suspended for testosterone use. Reading between the lines of the statements of both Gamboa and the Orioles, I conclude that Gamboa most likely was entitled to a therapeutic use exemption and failed to get one. It also would be hard to imagine the Orioles signing Gamboa - or any other ordinary minor leaguer - to a major-league contract if they felt he was unfairly using testosterone. This signing appears to be an endorsement of Gamboa's character as much as anything, and I expect him to be removed from the 40-man roster as soon as it becomes necessary.

These are the three minor-league free agents the Orioles signed to major-league contracts. In my next post, I'll look at a few free agents the Orioles signed to minor-league contracts.

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