Free Agent Watch: Minor League Edition

Although most of the attention during the off-season is paid to the major league free agent market, there is an even more active free agent market during the off-season: the minor league free agent market. At the end of every season, a list of minor league players eligible for free agency is released. We have the list of the A's free agents inside...

The minor league free agent market figures to be busy again this season for the Oakland A's. This season, four players that the A's signed as minor league free agents last off-season spent time on the A's major league roster. Below are the A's farmhands who are eligible for free agency this off-season:

The Pitchers

Ray Aguilar: Aguilar was signed by the A's as a minor league free agent last off-season. Before last season, Aguilar had spent the year in the Florida Marlins organization after four seasons as an Atlanta Braves farmhand. Aguilar pitched for AA-Midland in 2006 and tied with Brad Knox for the Rockhounds' team lead for wins with 12. The left-handed starter went 12-7 with a 4.54 ERA while throwing 158.2 innings. He earned Texas League Pitcher of the Week honors for the week of May 1. Aguilar features a knuckleball and has been traditionally difficult to hit, but he has also had bouts of wildness which have inflated his ERA. In addition to the knuckler, Aguilar has a mid-80s fastball.

John Birtwell: Birtwell was a mid-season minor league free agent signing by the A's this year. The Harvard alum had a cup of coffee with the Stockton Ports and was promoted to AAA-Sacramento in mid-May. He spent the rest of the season in the River Cats' bullpen, posting a 3.38 ERA in 29.1 innings. He walked a lot of batters (16), but allowed only one homer and struck out 26. Birtwell just turned 27. He is a former college teammate of A's assistant general manager David Forst (Forst was the captain of the Harvard Crimson squad when Birtwell was a freshman). Birtwell had been a member of the Detroit Tigers organization before latching on with the A's.

David Bradley: Bradley was a minor league free agent signing by the A's last season. The right-handed hurler, who grew up in the same West Virginia town as A's outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, spent the season with AA-Midland. He spent time in the Rockhounds' starting rotation and in the bullpen, posting a 6-11 record with a 5.41 ERA in 131. 1 innings. Bradley was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 and he has spent time in the Frontier Independent League, as well as the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He turned 29 in late August.

Heath Castle : Castle's contract was purchased from the Florence Freedom of the Frontier Independent League in May this season. He was sent to A-Stockton, where he pitched both out of the bullpen and as a starter for the Ports. Castle found much more success as a reliever with Stockton , posting a 3.75 ERA in 21 relief appearances and a 7.43 ERA in six starts. Castle is a left-hander with a good, low-90s fastball and decent control. The A's often bring back their Independent League acquisitions for a second season (see Ziegler, Brad and Santos, Alex as examples), and given the A's dearth of hard-throwing left-handers, it wouldn't be surprising if the A's tried to re-up with Castle this off-season.

Kenneth Durost: Durost was another mid-season acquisition from Independent baseball. The right-handed starter was with the Schaumberg Flyers before joining the A's organization in July. Durost began his time with Oakland in High-A Stockton, making seven appearances (six starts). He went 3-1 with a 4.09 ERA in 33 innings. Durost was then sent to low-A Kane County, where he went 1-1 with a 4.61 ERA in five starts and was part of the Cougars' post-season rotation. He was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003 and was in the Brewers organization for three seasons before joining Schaumberg.

Seth Epstein: Epstein was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2001 in the 29th round. He played for the A's Rookie League squad in Arizona. Epstein, a 6'3'', 205 pound left-hander, went 0-1 with a 31.91 ERA in six games for the A's Rookie League team.

Randy Keisler: Keisler was signed by the A's as a minor league free agent with an invitation to major league camp this past off-season. He lasted late into camp but was sent back to AAA to start the season. Keisler pitched both out of the bullpen and in the starting rotation for the River Cats, going 9-5 with a 3.83 ERA in 25 appearances. He was called up to Oakland on two occasions and he made 11 relief appearances, posting a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings. Keisler, who has played for the Yankees, Padres and Reds at the major league level in the past, impressed the A's with his aggressiveness. He should be offered an invitation to major league spring training with some team, perhaps the A's.

Victor Moreno: Moreno was selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft before the 2005 season and he re-upped with the team last year. He spent the entire season on the AAA-Sacramento River Cats' roster, where he went 5-4 with a 5.38 ERA in 34 games (14 starts). Moreno was a big part of the bullpen for the Venezuelan Winter League team that won the Caribbean World Series last winter. Moreno will be 27 next season.

Kevin Olsen: Olsen was signed out of the Independent leagues this July and he was immediately inserted into the Rockhounds' starting rotation. He was very impressive, going 6-1 with a 3.61 ERA in 13 starts. Olsen has 28 major league appearances, spanning three seasons with the Florida Marlins. The right-hander had been out of affiliated baseball since 2004 until the A's acquired him this season. Olsen is 30 years old.

Adam Pettyjohn: The A's brought back the veteran left-hander during the season, signing him away from Long Beach of the Independent Golden Baseball League. Pettyjohn was last in the A's organization in 2004. During the 2005 season, he played for Long Beach . Pettyjohn appeared in 11 games (nine starts) for the River Cats in 2006. He went 3-2 with a 4.57 ERA. Pettyjohn, who made 16 appearances for the Detroit Tigers in 2001, could be of interest to the A's again if they are looking for left-handed pitching at the high levels of their system.

Brandon Puffer: Puffer was acquired mid-season after being dropped by the Houston Astros' organization, where he had been pitching at AAA-Round Rock. Puffer stayed in AAA with the A's, making 13 relief appearances with the River Cats. He went 0-0 with a 5.29 ERA. He has four seasons of major league experience with the Astros, Padres and Giants. In 2002, he made 55 appearances for the Astros. The A's could be interested in taking a longer look at Puffer next season, so it wouldn't be surprising if he was re-signed by the A's with an invitation to major league spring training.

Alex Santos: After a breakthrough season in the A's organization in 2005, Oakland brought Santos back on a minor league deal for 2006. He had a rough time at major league spring training camp, allowing six runs in 4.1 innings of work. He began the season down in AA-Midland, where he appeared in 15 games in relief. Santos was then promoted to AAA, where he was pitching well in eight appearances before getting hurt. He missed the rest of the season. Santos ' health will likely determine his future in affiliated baseball.

Eric Sheridan: Sheridan is only in his second season of professional baseball. He was in the Astros organization in 2005, but was released after the season. He latched on with the A's this season and spent time with the A's Rookie League squad and made one appearance at Vancouver and another at Stockton. The right-hander from Illinois played his college ball at Saddleback College and will be 23 next season.

Sam Walton: Walton was signed out of the Independent Leagues mid-season. He began the year in the Cardinals organization, but was cut early in the season. Walton began his career in the Mariners organization and he spent five years with the M's. He then reappeared in affiliated baseball in 2004 with the Devil Rays organization. Walton went 1-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 17 relief appearances for AA-Midland after joining the A's organization.

Mark Watson: Watson was acquired by the A's in a trade mid-season with the Chicago Cubs organization. The veteran left-hander made 26 appearances with AAA-Sacramento, posting a 2.91 ERA. He had a 3.38 ERA in 23 games with AAA-Iowa before the trade. Watson has been in affiliated baseball since 1996 and will be 33 next season.

Brad Ziegler: Ziegler was an Independent League acquisition back in 2004, when he was acquired from the Schaumberg Flyers. The right-hander helped the Modesto A's win the Cal League championship in 2004. He was re-signed that off-season and split the 2005 campaign between A-Stockton and AA-Midland. He led the California League in strikeouts despite finishing the year in AA and helped the Rockhounds win the Texas League championship. Ziegler again re-signed with Oakland last off-season. In 2006, he spent most of the year with AA-Midland, where he was one of the Rockhounds' top starters. He went 9-6 with a 3.37 ERA in 23 appearances (22 starts). Ziegler also made four starts at AAA-Sacramento, where he went 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA. The A's have reportedly asked Ziegler to experiment with using a submarine throwing motion next season, so he looks to be in the team's plans. Look for Ziegler to be re-signed this off-season and to be part of the AAA-Sacramento staff next season.

The Position Players

Matt Allegra: There was a time when Allegra was one of the A's best outfield prospects. The former A's 1999 19th round pick had a big year for A-Visalia in 2002 at age 21, but he struggled at AA-Midland in 2003 and was hurt for much of the 2004 season. In 2005, he struggled badly at AA, but put together a fine season for the A-Stockton Ports. Allegra spent most of the 2006 season back in AA and he finally put together a decent campaign for the Rockhounds. The right-handed slugger had 15 homers in only 96 games and he drove-in 65 runs. Plate discipline has always been Allegra's biggest problem, as he has averaged well more than a strikeout a game throughout his career. He certainly has a lot of talent and it wouldn't be surprising if the A's tried to bring him back in the fold, especially considering the progress he made at AA in 2006.

Doug Clark: Clark may have been new to the Oakland A's organization this season, but he was a familiar name to Bay Area baseball fans. The Massachusetts native was a career San Francisco Giants' farmhand before signing with the A's as a minor league free agent last off-season. Clark had a solid season for the AAA-Sacramento River Cats, hitting 15 homers and stealing 25 bases. He also collected his first major league hit and stolen base during a brief stint with Oakland . Clark will be 31 at the start of next season, but he should receive some interest from teams looking for major league outfield insurance at AAA.

Nate Espy: Espy has been a minor league free agent each of the last two seasons. He began his career with the Phillies organization in 1998 and was traded to the St. Louis organization in 2004. After the 2004 season, the lanky first baseman signed with the Seattle Mariners organization, where he spent the season in AA-San Antonio. He signed with the A's as a free agent this past off-season and spent most of the season in AAA, where he filled in at first base for the injured Daric Barton. In 99 games for the River Cats, he hit .275 with 10 homers and 48 RBI. He will be 29 at the start of next season.

Keith Ginter: Both Ginter and the A's are likely to be pleased with their separation this off-season. Oakland acquired the second baseman from the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2005 season with the thought that he would be the A's everyday second baseman. However, he couldn't get his bat going at all last season and was regulated to the A's bench. In the off-season, he was dropped from the 25-man roster, but he elected to stay with the A's and play at AAA rather than give up his $1.4 million salary for the season. He had a good year for the River Cats as their everyday second baseman, hitting .268 with 13 homers in 114 games. He should draw some attention from teams looking to bring a second baseman into major league camp on a minor league deal to compete for a spot on the 25-man roster.

Scott McClain: McClain is a long-time minor league veteran. He began his career in 1990 with the Baltimore Orioles and he has been at it ever since. Along the way, McClain has been to the major leagues for a cup of coffee with both Tampa Bay and the Cubs. He also played four seasons for Seibu in Japan . McClain signed as a minor league free agent this past off-season and he was a big contributor to the River Cats. He hit 28 homers and drove-in 107 runs, winning both the Pacific Coast League MVP award and the River Cats' team MVP award. The A's have a number of prospects at third and first (McClain's two positions) who are likely to be promoted to AAA, so they aren't likely to bring McClain back. However, if he wants to continue his career at age 35, he'll likely have plenty of suitors.

Ronnie Merrill: Merrill was drafted in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft out of the San Diego Padres organization. The slick-fielding Merrill was the AA-Midland Rockhounds' starting shortstop this season. He hit .244 with 30 doubles in 118 games for the Rockhounds.

Luis Perez: Perez is one of the A's youngest minor league free agents and, perhaps, the most intriguing. He won the California League batting title by hitting .334 for the A-Stockton Ports this season. Perez began the year as the fourth outfielder, but played his way into the starting rotation. Despite being only 23, Perez has been in the A's system for a long time. He was signed in 1999 as a 16-year old out of Venezuela . He played for the A's Dominican League team in 2000 and made the jump to the States and Rookie Ball in 2002. In four seasons in the States, Perez has yet to advance past High-A. However, with the season he just had, he is likely to get a shot at AA next season with the A's or another organization.

Jose Pineda: Pineda has been a fixture in the Kane County outfield each of the past two seasons. The 24-year-old spent four years on the A's Dominican League Summer team before being sent to low-A Kane County last season. In 2006, Pineda appeared in 130 games for the Cougars, hitting .254 with 15 homers and 74 RBI. He also stole 21 bases.


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