Previewing the Rockies' 2013 offeason, Part 1: MiLB free agency

USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to my first article in a series planned to cover some of the Rockies' most significant offseason activities, and the procedural elements of the offseason in general. With the season still going, it is premature to start breaking down stuff about the 40-man roster, but with the minor league season done, I feel it is appropriate to start there. Today, I will be breaking down the players that will be leaving the system as minor league free agents this year. Who of importance is on their way to freedom? Whom might we re-sign? Let's break it down.

The Rockies have 37 players that project to leave via MiLB free agency, though some of them have some unique quirks that I will get into as we go. I have broken up the list into three categories: 1-year free agents, 7-year free agents, and "0-year" free agents (special cases that didn't fit firmly into the other categories).

1-year Free Agents

Most players leaving the system are players that were signed by teams for one year during the offseason to help fill out the minor league depth charts. Some were signed by the Rockies at various points during the season, others were acquired via trade mid-season. There are 22 of these players currently awaiting free agency next month.

- P Justin Berg
- IF Reid Brignac
- P Bobby Cassevah
- P Roman Colon
- P Aaron Cook
- P Armando Galarraga
- P Sean Gallagher
- P Leuris Gomez *
- C Jose Gonzalez *
- P Juan Gonzalez *

- P Tim Gustafson
- IF/OF Hernan Iribarren *
- P Logan Kensing
- P Mike Marbry *
- P Vianney Mayo *
- C/IF Matt McBride
*
- P Mike McClendon
- OF Xavier Nady
- P Hisanori Takahashi
- P Jonathan Vargas *
- P Chris Volstad
- IF Henry Wrigley

* players that spent 2012 in the Rockies system and were re-signed to 1-year deals for 2013

I'll begin with taking a look at the players the Rockies have a longer history with. The Rockies tend to be fondest of re-signing younger Latin players that have developed at an average pace, which is on the slower curve of the Latin development pace since they sign younger and spend more years developing for stateside play, or of signing players that lost significant chunks of their peak prospect years to injury. Of this list of players, my attention is immediately called to Leuris Gomez and Juan Gonzalez, two guys that fit both of these profiles and also had excellent seasons in the Drillers' bullpen. Gomez, already at 26 years old, is an extreme dark-horse for a Cole Garner/Josh Sullivan style 40-man promotion to prevent him from qualifying for free agency, but I think it is ultimately the 23 year old Gonzalez that is most likely to get a chance to pitch for the Sky Sox next season. Regardless, both of these players have solid chances of continuing their pro careers, with us or with someone else.

Two other players that fit that bill are Jonathan Vargas and Vianney Mayo, but Vargas has been unable to fully rehab from his injuries for a few years now, while Mayo missed the entire 2013 season due to injury. It's a bigger question mark with these guys, as their future health and effectiveness are complete question marks at this point, but the Rockies have brought back players with less hope than these two before. I wouldn't rule out returns, health permitting.

Mike Marbry and Hernan Iribarren have been franchise guys for a while now, each re-signing with the Rockies multiple years out of free agency. Both rapidly approaching their 30s, they look like long-shots to produce long-term major league careers (Iribarren had a few cups of coffee with Milwaukee, but nothing since joining the Rockies in 2011), but continued reliability and effectiveness each year from both players has kept them as favorite depth options for the franchise. Each year a return gets less and less likely, but don't be surprised to see their relationship with the Rockies continue; these are the types of guys who may pop up in coaching roles in our system someday.

The final player with any decently good chance of re-signing with the Rockies is Matt McBride. The Rockies are short on upper-level catching depth, and after missing the second half of the 2013 season due to injury, the Rockies may look to put him back in the fold and see if his hit tool manifests itself into something valuable. With Yorvit Torrealba departing via MLB FA, McBride is not really inherently a worse option than Jordan Pacheco moving forward, who enters the offseason as the leader for 2014's backup catcher spot only by default. McBride is an easy Step 1 towards turning that bench spot into a competition. The other catcher among these players, Jose Gonzalez, is one of the Rockies' more head-scratching devotees. Gonzalez has failed to hit above .230 for five straight pro seasons, yet the Rockies have re-signed him twice and even gave him a trip to the AFL last year. All surface-logic implies that giving him another go isn't in the cards, but the Rockies clearly see something in this guy that isn't manifesting itself on that surface.... so who really knows?

The rest of this field has a lot less direct connection to the system, making their returns a lot less likely as all would be remiss if they didn't try to play the field of all 30 MLB teams for jobs. Aaron Cook is of course the most storied Rockies figure on this list, but after a frustrating season filled with injury and ineffectiveness, Cook chose to leave the team and may legitimately be considering a retirement scenario. Chris Volstad and Reid Brignac spent moderate time with the Rockies this year, neither bringing anything particularly noteworthy to the table. The Rockies liked Brignac enough to re-sign him to a MiLB deal after trading him to the Yankees in May, but I'm not sure how much that means going forward with middle infielders remaining the Rockies' most immediate area of crowding at the "AAAA" level Brignac fits.

Of all of these players, Logan Kensing may stand out as the one I'm most interested in seeing given a second shot in our system. He had a really good year as the Sky Sox closer, and his single Rockies appearance this year felt like it could be the start of a deeper narrative for Kensing. Regardless, Kensing is not the type of player that will be a priority to retain. Henry Wrigley also made some impressions this year, putting up a notable enough performance in major league camp back in March that the Rockies went out of their way to retain him despite Ben Paulsen and Kiel Roling already set to man first base at the top two levels. Wrigley ended up injured for most of the season, and his good will from the Spring is likely long irrelevant.

Wrapping up the list, Justin Berg, Tim Gustafson, and Mike McClendon, all of whom were signed in the offseason to compete for rotation/bullpen depth at the AA/AAA levels are all easily replaceable with comparable players from a very wide field. Bobby Cassevah, who was signed for the same purpose after being released by the Angels in Spring Training, likely fits the bill too after missing most of the season with injury. Sean Gallagher probably represents the most notable pitching depth FA on this list, having signed mid-season to try and revitalize a derailed career after experiencing some MLB success in the past. He performed well for the most part, but falls into the camp of players with no special attachment to the Rockies; still just 27, he should have no problem getting a MiLB deal with any team in need of AAA rotation guys.

Roman Colon, Armando Galarraga, Hisanori Takahashi and Xavier Nady all spent relatively little time in our system, each acquired from other teams via trade to fill voids on the Sky Sox roster when players like Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz and Corey Dickerson found their way to the MLB club. All former MLB players for multiple seasons, they're going to take any opportunity they best feel is the way back to a MLB team, and that means seeing any of these guys return specifically to us would be unexpected.

7-year Free Agents

Here we collect the true "franchise guys", MiLB players that have finished up their initial seven-year contracts after signing in the 2007 signing season, and will be qualified to declare free agency from their home in pro-baseball for the very first time. Not all of these players spent their entire careers with the Rockies, but it's a good bet that these players likely represent the talent pool the Rockies will be taking a look at most strongly when it comes to selecting certain players they're interested in retaining and becoming future bolded names on the 1-year list next season. By this stage in their careers, most players from that class have been released. Only 12 of them remained long enough to reach the free agency stage.

- OF Juan Crousset
- C Lars Davis
- P Raul Fernandez
- P Isaiah Froneberger
- P Nelson Gonzalez
- IF Darin Holcomb *
- IF Angelys Nina
- C Michael Ramirez
- P Cory Riordan
- P Nick Schmidt
- P Michael Solbach
- OF Francisco Sosa

* retired

Darin Holcomb retired years ago due to significant back problems, but I never saw any official release documents for the third baseman, indicating that the Rockies never officially released the player in the off chance he found himself able to play again. If Holcomb is indeed still the Rockies property, he won't be anymore after this year.

Some people might recognize a select few names on this list. Angelys Nina and Cory Riordan, in particular, flirted with back-end PuRP status in their MiLB careers. Nelson Gonzalez and Juan Crousset were on various radars as possible breakout candidates after demonstrating good seasons in the past, but neither ever really did build on them. Nick Schmidt may be the most well known name, the former round 1 Padre pick we acquired in the Huston Street trade. Lars Davis and Isaiah Froneberger never really boosted themselves into prospectdom, but both built solid enough reputations in select skills to stick around for an entire base-length MiLB contract.

But the name I'm most interested in on this list is that of Francisco Sosa, who may be the biggest remaining breakout candidate of all the players set to leave this year. Sosa, 23 years old, didn't really get a lot of prospect attention in his career before 2013. Signing with the Rockies at 16 years old, it took three and a half years in the Rockies' Latin development program before he went stateside, and two and a half more in short-season ball before finally getting the chance to play a full season of pro ball for Asheville this year. The young outfielder responded very strongly, demonstrating significantly improved power numbers in addition to above average speed tools. I believe Sosa should be the team's #1 re-signing priority of any player leaving the minors this year, if they haven't done so already. He may also represent the most likely player to receive a sudden October promotion to the 40-man roster if Sosa's camp starts exploring other organizations for opportunities.

Nina, still 24, also probably has a pro career ahead of him yet, but I don't think it will be with us unless we move on from guys like Josh Rutledge and Charlie Culberson this offseason, and those players both higher-tier prospects with more experience at a similar age. With Taylor Featherston likely to occupy 2B duties for the Drillers, Nina could be squeezed out of an opportunity.

Younger players like Crousset, Froneberger and Gonzalez could all find themselves scooped up to 1-year deals, depth depending, which as established is not an unusual move for our system. Michael Ramirez and Raul Fernandez could be candidates for that too, though their futures in baseball are a lot less certain based on their career performances.

As for the older guys, Davis could find himself given another chance if the catching depth ahead of Tom Murphy remains a too great a concern. Schmidt's conversion to the bullpen didn't go well at first, but with an improved second half, he could represent a lefty relief arm, which we're pretty dry of right now. Michael Solbach is an interesting character too; spending most of his time in the Yankees system, he's pitched well at every level except the AAA, which was limited to this season. At 28 years old, he's a bit like the aforementioned Mike Marbry, a decent pitcher that, while not a prospect's age, is capable of holding down a depth position in a minor league bullpen.

As for Riordan, the only one of these players to have ever reached a major league roster (he was a Rule 5 protectee in 2011, before being outrighted off the roster the following offseason; he saw no MLB game action), he had a pretty difficult season split between the bullpen and spot starting, which is pretty much a death knell for MiLB depth guys. It's pretty likely we see his AAA roster spot replaced by any number of slightly more established pitchers the same age that have already seen a bit of MLB action or have at least excelled at the AAA level.

"0-year" Free Agents

These three players have different circumstances compared to the other two categories. All of them spent most of the season on the Rockies' MLB roster, having been removed late in the year to make roster space for other players. With no MiLB contract to land on, these three will all be headed out to free agency next year..... or will they?

Tyler Colvin is the most clear situation on this list. Colvin accepted his AAA assignment even though the season was over, expecting that his only chance at a September callup was with us on the off chance of an injury or some other incident. His "conjured" minor league deal will end before it even began at the end of the season.

The other two players are Josh Sullivan and Edgmer Escalona, who both are connected to some mysterious goings-on that I'm not really sure about. The Rockies didn't even bother to outright Sullivan after designating him for assignment in August, simply releasing the surprise 2012/13 offseason promotee. But a couple weeks ago, Sullivan suddenly appeared in the system again, being placed on the generic disabled list, implying that the reliever had been re-signed. But why re-sign him so close to the end of the season if he couldn't even pitch? I have two possible explanations: the Rockies signed him for 2014 as well, meaning he wouldn't depart via FA anyway, or they signed him back so he could use Rockies resources and facilities to help his recovery from the injury that sidelined him for most of the season.

Edgmer Escalona is a whole different mystery. Escalona didn't have enough service time to reject his outright assignment, so he defaulted onto a MiLB contract automatically until the end of the year when it will dissolve. He was outrighted to the Sky Sox just a few days before their season ended, and never reported for the assignment (at least, he wasn't activated, which makes sense given the limited remaining time during the MiLB season).

But last week, something strange happened. The Rockies released documentation that Escalona had been re-purchased to the 40-man roster and recalled to the Rockies while they were in San Francisco. A bit of a surprise, but not immensely so; after all, Escalona had spent the entire season with the Rockies up until that point, maybe now that the roster had more open space on it the team decided to go ahead and have him back through September callups and then make a more permanent decision about his place on the roster during the offseason. But the following day, all evidence of this transaction mysteriously disappeared, with only a curiously worded "Edgmer Escalona's roster status changed" transaction appearing on the Sky Sox transactions page. I have no idea what that means. Did they re-sign the reliever on a MiLB deal for 2014 and the documentation was wrong? Or did something more unusual happen, as you may never know with Escalona's supposed reputation? Either way, with both Escalona or Sullivan, I have no idea if they've been re-signed for 2014, or even what their current status in the organization is at this very moment.

So that's that, 2700 words on minor league free agents. I will continue this series in the offseason with more MLB-level stuff. As the seasons winds to a close at the end of the month, I will likely make Part 2 a breakdown of the 40-man roster as it stands, and what I expect to happen to it moving through "Outright October" into "Non-Tender November" (yay alliteration). See you next time!

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