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Minor League free agents can fill Major roles

The starting lineups for Games 3 and 4 of the 2012 World Series featured Most Valuable Player Award winners Miguel Cabrera at third base for the Tigers and Buster Posey behind the plate for the Giants. In contrast, there were the two left fielders, Detroit's Quintin Berry and San Francisco's Gregor Blanco.

A year earlier, both were afterthoughts. As Minor League free agents, both were available to any team at almost no cost. In October, they were playing roles in the most important games of the season.

"It's amazing," Berry said before the playoffs began. "I was at home last year working out at 24 Hour Fitness, just watching the [playoffs] go on and just realizing how great it would be to ever get a chance to be a part of something like that."

These results may not be typical, but they illustrate the potential impact of little-noticed Minor League free agents. This offseason features 630 of them, according to Baseball America. Most were declared as such on Nov. 3, after their contracts expired and they weren't re-signed. Others elected free agency rather than accept an outright assignment to a Minor League affiliate, following their removal from a 40-man roster.

Ready for a shot
A look at some of this offseason's notable Minor League free agents:
Player Pos. '13 Age '12 Top Level (Org.) Signed?
Shelley Duncan 1B/OF 33 MLB (CLE) No
Lew Ford OF 36 MLB (BAL) Yes (BAL)
Travis Ishikawa 1B 29 MLB (MIL) No
Kila Ka'aihue 1B 29 MLB (OAK) Yes (ARI)
John Maine RHP 32 AAA (NYY) No
Evan Meek RHP 30 MLB (PIT) No
Nyjer Morgan OF 32 MLB (MIL) No
Felix Pie OF 28 AAA (ATL) Yes (PIT)
Kevin Slowey RHP 29 AAA (CLE) No
Brandon Wood IF 28 AAA (COL) Yes (KC)
They vary in age, experience and marketability. They include longtime big leaguers (Doug Davis, Joel Pineiro), former hot prospects (Andy LaRoche, Brandon Wood) and several other familiar names. Many continue to search for their first promotion to the game's highest level. All faced the anxiety of unemployment.

"There is that uncertainty of, 'Is one team going to call? Are 20 teams going to call?'" said veteran reliever Mitch Stetter, a Minor League free agent who will turn 32 in January. "Obviously you want to have a job for the next year, and so I think it's a very tough thing to deal with -- not knowing what's going to happen, where you're going to be, where you're going to be living next year. But also it can be fun, too."

Fun, that is, once teams show interest. Stetter got that from the Angels, who signed him to a Minor League deal on Nov. 13, with an invitation to Spring Training. The left-handed specialist, who spent parts of five seasons with the Brewers from 2007-11, is one of 129 Minor League free agents -- along with Wood -- who had found a new home by Tuesday.

While such transactions are footnotes amidst the Hot Stove hype, a lot goes into them.

"We initially -- as early as we can -- reach out to the clubs to find out what their needs are, then utilize a strategy where we look at the players we have available and see where the best fits may be," said Rex Gary of Turner-Gary Sports, which represents Stetter, among other Minor League free agents. "We send out information on our players to all the clubs, and clubs will call us; we will call them."

Finding employment is objective No. 1. Finding the right match with a team that can provide a legitimate chance is a crucial secondary goal.

Stetter also was a Minor League free agent last offseason, when his recovery from hip surgery prevented him from signing until Jan. 23, with the Rangers. Texas only pitched him four times during Spring Training, and Stetter said it preferred a multiple-inning lefty to a specialist. The club released him in late March, before he returned to the Brewers and spent the year in the Minors.

Now healthy, Stetter signed early and already is beginning to work out at the Angels' Spring Training complex in Tempe, Ariz., near his home. Assistant general manager Scott Servais told Stetter that while making the club out of Spring Training will be tough, a need exists for a lefty who can be ready at Triple-A Salt Lake.

"If a guy's in this situation, opportunity is paramount," Gary said, "and you have to ... trust in the fact that if Mitch Stetter pitches the way he's capable, he's going to find his way to the big leagues, somehow, someway."

For John Boggs, who represents Berry, "there's always a list of pros and cons," that goes with any offer. Geography and money can factor in, but ultimately it's about being in a position to succeed.

Take pitcher Sean O'Sullivan, another Boggs client and current Minor League free agent. The 25-year-old pitched 43 games and started 34 for the Angels and Royals from 2009-11 before spending last season at Triple-A for Kansas City and Toronto. It's Boggs' job not only to understand his client's preferences, but also vet interested teams and evaluate their plans and existing personnel, so O'Sullivan isn't stuck, "in an environment where he's just going to wallow in Triple-A."

It's an inexact science.

"It'd be helpful if we had a crystal ball, but I've been looking for one for 20-plus years and I haven't found one," Boggs said. "You have to use your best instincts. You have to get the most information you can and based on that, you make the best judgment call you can."

Many times it doesn't work out. Occasionally the right fit mixes with luck and circumstance to produce an ideal situation.

Last offseason, Berry was turning 27 and had finished his sixth Minor League season for his third organization, having spent all but four games at Double-A or below. Boggs targeted the Tigers as a desirable landing spot for an outfielder with Berry's speed and defense; assistant general manager Al Avila agreed and brought Berry to Major League camp.

Strong performances there and in Triple-A positioned Berry for a callup when Austin Jackson suffered an injury in May. Five months later, Berry was starting in the Fall Classic.

"Seeing someone like that make it, it's a very emotional, rewarding feeling because at the end of the day, he basically came through," Boggs said. "He took advantage of the opportunity, did great things with it."

Quintin Berry, Gregor Blanco, Sean O'Sullivan, Mitch Stetter