Game 61: When minor-league signings pay off
What do teams look for when they sign minor-league free agents? It depends on the team.
If you’re a rebuilding team, maybe you’re looking for a diamond in the rough.
If you’re a team trying to keep a Triple-A affiliate happy, you’re looking for a player or two to help your farm team win.
If you’re a contending team, maybe you’re looking for a role player.
If you’re a stacked team with a roster that’s pretty well set, you’re usually looking for an insurance policy in case of injury.
The Tigers fell into the latter two categories this past offseason. They ended up filling both. For a contending team with few opportunities to offer minor-league free agents, it’s a pretty big feat.
Add Jose Alvarez’s gem Sunday to the work that Matt Tuiasosopo and Don Kelly have already put in for the Tigers this year, and you have three minor-league free agent signings paying dividends on a team that supposedly didn’t have any opportunities. It won’t win any awards, but so far, it has helped the Tigers win games.
The Tigers essentially put up their sixth starter (seventh if you count Drew Smyly) against an opposing team’s ace and won. The crushing blow came from the guy labeled their 25th man.
“I think the tribute goes to our minor-league manager [Phil Nevin in Toledo] and Al Avila,” manager Jim Leyland said after Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Indians. “You tip your cap to them obviously. I knew Tuiasosopo but I didn’t know much about him, and I didn’t know Alvarez at all.”
Alvarez was a young lefty arm the Tigers thought had some promise. He was a minor-league free agent at age 23, and Tigers evaluators saw more there than the stats showed. There was some early thought he could come to Spring Training and compete for a lefty relief job. When the Tigers had their early list of minor-league signings, he was somebody they were happy about.
Tuiasosopo’s signing has been well-documented from Spring Training, a guy who sent out emails looking for a chance and found an opportunity in Detroit, where the Tigers had tried to sign him a year earlier. It’s doubtful anyone imagined him having the kind of impact two months in that he has.
The Tigers obviously knew what Kelly could do. They weren’t sure they would re-sign him, but the lack of better opportunities elsewhere led him back.
Leyland bristles at the notion that they brought back Kelly because he likes him.
“I’m almost tired of reading that, how I like Don Kelly and I like Jose Valverde,” Leyland said. “I mean, of course I like Jose Valverde. He’s done a terrific job. But that has nothing to do with it. To be honest with you, if Quintin Berry could’ve played the infield and the outfield like Donnie Kelly is, he’d have probably made the team because of his speed. It doesn’t work that way.
“People keep talking about these things. What’s our better option than Valverde? What’s our better option than Donnie Kelly right now for the 25th player? If you had those options, you’d take them. But I do have a soft spot for him as a human being, yes, because he’s a wonderful, wonderful kid, the same as Valverde. But I don’t know what people think these alternatives are. They just throw stuff out there, like I should close with Rick Porcello. I mean, come on. People just talk. They don’t think about it.”
The fact that Avisail Garcia is garnering the bulk of the playing time in center field shows some response to Kelly’s slow start at the plate. But when Leyland looked for left-handed hitters to stack in his lineup against Justin Masterson, who’s holding right-handed batters under .200, Kelly was going to start.
He wasn’t expecting Kelly could take a slider low and in and send it out, but he’s not complaining.
“That was a huge hit for us,” Leyland said. “He’s done that some in the past. His average isn’t good, but that’s a pretty nice 25th player. I can bring him in to second, first, third, center, right, left, throw him in there against a tough righty like I did today. That’s a tough right-hander he hit it off of today.
“That’s not just some donkey he gets to hit. That’s not a fifth starter that he got to play against today. That’s a No. 1 guy. That’s pretty good.”