Now that friendly Grapefruit and Cactus League games are set to commence, spring fever is once again in the air. And as usual, baseball is in a state of blissful optimism. It doesn’t really matter if you have ties to the World Champion San Francisco Giants or the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies. Every team starts with a clean slate, with both players and fans caught up in a world of fantasy.
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It’s quite a different scenario, however, for big league veterans who hope to keep living the dream. It’s crunch time for minor league free agents who have been invited to compete for a job. The goal is to secure a spot on the 25-man squad, since a team’s extended roster is generally reserved for it’s carefully groomed prospects. The odds are long and it quickly becomes a numbers game. To coin one of Yogi’s favorite phrases, it gets late early.
Still, stuff happens during spring training, especially injuries. And if players don’t perform up to expectations, depth charts can shrink. That’s why a free agent candidate is always a good insurance policy. To elaborate on that thought, I’ve jotted down an alphabetical list of 15 experienced Latino players in various camps who could be serviceable additions to their respective teams.
J.P. Arencibia, Baltimore Orioles
Even though the O’s welcome back Matt Wieters with open arms, none of the club’s reserve catchers offer the experience that this Cuban-American can provide. But the ball is in Arencibia’s court after a dreadful year in Texas. Clearly, it’s now or never for the once highly regarded Blue Jays prospect.
Alexi Casilla, Tampa Bay Rays
Yes, this is the “other” Alexi and not Hawk Harrelson’s favorite White Sox player. The slick middle infielder suffered for many seasons in Minnesota, and may now do the same with the low-budget Rays. What he can offer is defensive stability and a nice backup option for Asdrubal Cabrera. I think he makes the team.
Ronny Cedeno, San Francisco Giants
The 32 year old veteran hasn’t been a starting infielder since his stint with the Pirates in 2011. During a decade in the big leagues, Cedeno has played for seven different teams and has never brought much to the table at the plate or on the field. What the Venezuelan offers is stability, and manager Bruce Bochy yearns for a bench guy with experience.
Bruce Chen, Cleveland Indians
There always seems to be opportunities out there for cagey southpaw pitchers, and Chen definitely fits in that category. The 37-year-old Panama City native has recovered from a bulging disk in his back, and he is known as a positive guy on the field and in the clubhouse. Tribe skipper Terry Francona loves those types of guys, so Chen will likely land a gig as a long reliever.
Jonathan Herrera, Chicago Cubs
A longtime Colorado Rockie and boyhood pal of Carlos Gonzalez back in Maracaibo, the 30-year-old Herrera saw action in only 42 games last season as a Red Sox reserve. A switch-hitter who plays six different positions, Herrera will find a lot more work on the north side of Chicago, where manager Joe Maddon will plug him in like a poor man’s Ben Zobrist.
Franklin Morales, Kansas City Royals
The American League champions feel like they need to strengthen their pen, although I’m not sure why. Morales is a hard-throwing lefty who will be intriguing in camp. And if he makes the team, the Rockies/Red Sox castoff will love pitching at Kauffman Stadium.
Ramiro Pena, San Diego Padres
The Padres may have greatly improved their offense, but the middle infield remains unsettled after the release of Everth Cabrera. The versatile, soft-handed Pena could put a band-aid on some of those issues. And the 29-year-old Mexican is a switch-hitter who can give manager Buddy Black some lineup flexibility.
Wandy Rodriguez, Atlanta Braves
It was interesting when the Braves inked Rodriguez, 36, to a minor league deal only days after he flunked his physical with the Phillies. But Atlanta scouts liked what they saw in the veteran lefty during select outings in the Dominican Winter League. The tilt and command on Wandy’s breaking ball is back, but the veteran’s health will be the telling factor.
Johan Santana, Toronto Blue Jays
After two shoulder surgeries and a serious Achilles tendon tear, can the former Cy Young Award winner successfully make another comeback? The Venezuelan southpaw, soon to be 36, thinks he can despite throwing only 125 innings over the last four years. I’m pulling for Santana, but this is a guy who is a shell of his former self and certainly doesn’t need the money. Maybe the time has come to spend more time with his wife and kids.
Jhonatan Solano, Miami Marlins
The victim of a catching log jam with the Washington Nationals, Solano is pleased to have new life with the improved Fish and join his younger brother, Donovan. The Colombian siblings would make history back home if Jhonatan breaks camp with the varsity, but he’ll have to step it up after some disappointing stats last season.
Geovany Soto, Chicago White Sox
The 32-year-old Puerto Rican will slug it out with Canadian George Kottaras as a backup receiver for Tyler Flowers, who calls a good game. But Flowers strikes out a ton and the catching situation for the White Sox remains fluid, with two other guys on the 40-man roster. All considered, I guess Soto has as good a chance of making the club as anybody else. His experience is a plus.
Carlos Villanueva, St. Louis Cardinals
Although his $10 million deal with the Cubs was a bust, Villanueva could be of some value to the Cardinals as a long guy out of the pen. The 31-year-old Dominican will make $2 million if he makes the roster, and his five-pitch repertoire and rotation experience makes that a sound investment in my book.
Jose Valverde, San Diego Padres
Papa Grande still has the itch to pitch and entertain the crowd. The charisma is still there even though the sizzle on that heater has said to be extinguished. But Padre pitching guru Darren Balsley likes Valverde’s stuff thus far, and the Uncle Splity still bites. It would be fun to watch the burly Dominican go through his antics again on the mound, and he says the arm is well rested.
Dayan Viciedo, Toronto Blue Jays
Can the former White Sox left fielder, only 25, already be on the downside of his career? The Cuban certainly has plenty of pop in the bat, providing contact is made with the pelota. But a stiff glove has always been problematic, and jobs as a DH are limited. The Jays hope that Viciedo can be more versatile as a corner infielder, but even if he makes the team there will be money issues to consider.
For the Latino athlete who rose from humble beginnings to get a savory taste of The Show, knowing the end is near can be difficult to swallow. The minimum pay scale in the major leagues is now at $500,000, and that’s celebrity money back home. But with baseball’s popularity spanning across the globe, there are other avenues to explore once an MLB career comes to an end. A case in point is my amigo Jorge Cantu, 32, who last laid an egg with the Padres and Rangers. Interestingly enough, the Mexican utility infielder made $300,000 playing for the Doosan Bears in Korea last year.
That might be a slight pay cut, but Jorge isn’t complaining.
The reality of a 100 percent luxury tax scared away most teams that got involved in the Yoan Moncada derby, and other organizations were simply not prepared to spend so extravagantly on a rookie. Still, the Red Sox took the plunge and gave the teenager $31.5 million in exchange for his autograph. To put that into prospective, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu received a signing bonus of $12 and $10 million respectively, although both have long-term packages. The same is true for Moncada’s teammate, Rusney Castillo. So it remains to be seen how youngsters like Moncada and the Arizona Diamondback’s Yasmany Tomas, who banked a bonus of $14 million, will be compensated in the future. My guess is they will be paid in more modest sums while under team control, and then inked to back-loaded pacts. Otherwise, this whirlwind of spending for international players has to be seriously examined by the new commissioner.
Speaking of expensive Cuban free agents, the Dodgers plucked a plum in Puig, regardless of the money because he’s legit. But for the previous front office, the Alex Guerrero Saga has been nothing but sour lemonade. A Scott Boras client, Guerrero pocketed a $10 million bonus and made another $4 million while largely struggling in the minor leagues last season. He even lost part of his ear during a melee with a teammate in a Salt Lake City dugout. This season, the 28-year-old utility player will make another $4 million and can’t be demoted from the Dodgers varsity without his consent. If that happens, the contract will be breached and Guerrero must be paid $14 million to walk.
Now that’s a sweet deal!