Most of the air in the offseason room is swallowed up by the blockbuster deals. The Rangers paid how much for Jacob deGrom? How many years were on the Xander Bogaerts contract? Who is Carlos Correa playing for again?
Much of the remaining oxygen is reserved for the more garden variety and under-the-radar signings. The Red Sox may have gotten Adam Duvall for a steal! How are the Rays going to turn Zach Eflin into a Cy Young candidate?
What attention remains among the baseball obsessed public is reserved for hypothetical trades and lamenting why one team didn’t sign that player. However, there is an ocean’s worth of transactions taking place below the surface that can still have a major impact on each and every club. I’m referring, of course, to minor league contracts.
Unlike with a Major League deal, minor league contracts are not guaranteed, meaning they are low-risk transactions for the teams and, conversely, not exactly super player-friendly options. You can learn more about the dollars and cents of it all here. Suffice to say, when a player signs a minor league deal, they are usually in prove-it mode, whether as a veteran looking to earn back a regular job or a younger player who might not have that prospect shine just yet. But minor league contracts do not mean that a player can only play in the minor leagues for a given season. Most of you reading this probably already know that because every year, there are plenty of players who sign such deals in the winter and end up making some impact at the MLB level during the season. The Red Sox themselves employed several just last year, including Rob Refsnyder, Tyler Danish and Hansel Robles.
While it is likely that a few more players will follow in the footsteps of Refsnyder and company, trying to determine just who they will be isn’t an exact science. For example, the Red Sox signed former power hitting prospect Christin Stewart to a minor league contract last season, but despite being a team that only hit 155 home runs, they never called him up from Worcester.
Entering this season, there are three players that have a solid shot at being more Refsnyder and less Stewart when it comes to minor league contract signees. Let’s see who they are.
Up first is Jorge Alfaro. To peel back the curtain a bit, Alfaro was the real inspiration for this piece, as thanks to incredible power and a strong arm behind the dish, the 29-year-old catcher seems like a lock to become a meaningful contributor at the MLB level in 2023. With the Red Sox’s catching situation consisting of a still proving himself Connor Wong and the decent-ish Reese McGuire, there will be plenty of opportunities for Alfaro to assert himself as the best backstop on the roster.
Alfaro’s most elite skill is his power, as he can absolutely eviscerate the ball with a bat in his hands. He has a 70 rating in raw power (out of 80), according to FanGraphs, and had a max exit velocity in the 97th percentile in MLB last season. The problem is, Alfaro has not made contact consistently enough to become a full-time starter, let alone a star, during his seven MLB seasons. He has a career strikeout rate of 34.1 percent and his walk rate has hovered below five percent most seasons. In addition, although there are some things to like about his defensive game, namely his throwing arm, he hasn’t been elite enough as a defender to cover up for his offensive woes.
Even with his shortcomings, based on his skill set and the opportunity available to him with the Red Sox in 2023, Alfaro, who also has a non-roster invite to spring training, seems destined to make the MLB roster out of camp and to hold a spot for most of the season. I’d even go so far as to say I’m bullish on him getting more plate appearances than both McGuire and Wong if his power plays as well at Fenway Park as it should. Projections are a bit more conservative on that front, however, with Steamer pegging him for 43 games and 173 plate appearances with only five home runs. Either way, Alfaro should be bringing his incredible lettuce to Fenway Park this season for more than just a cup of coffee.
After Alfaro, Raimel Tapia is another relatively young player with a surprisingly long track record of MLB experience whom the Red Sox brought on with a minor league deal (including a non-roster invite to spring training). Tapia, who will turn 29 in a couple weeks, spent the first six seasons of his career with the Rockies before being traded to the Blue Jays last March.
Tapia is a man out of time, as he has put up solid batting averages for much of his career but never produced a league average offensive season, with a career-high wRC+ of 96 in 2020, a year when he batted .321 across 206 plate appearances. In 2022, Tapia again hovered just below that league average 100 wRC+ line despite a better than average strikeout rate, something he’s consistently folded into his game in the last few years, due to his lack of hard contact and power and dismal walk rate, finishing with a .265/.292/.380 slash line. Ultimately, Tapia is someone who will put the ball in play, but his contact quality and solid speed just hasn’t been enough to carry him to greater heights.
So what makes Tapia someone we could expect to get work at the MLB level with the Red Sox this season? The Red Sox’s need for depth, specifically in the outfield. While signing Adam Duvall certainly helps shore up the starting outfield spots on paper, just about every outfielder on the Red Sox’s MLB roster right now has questions marks. That means Tapia could, at the very least, be in for some fill-in work as a fourth outfielder, a role for which his profile is a much better fit than as a regular. The jury is still very much out on what to really expect, with some projections giving him more than 300 plate appearances and others pegging him for fewer than 100, but it seems safe enough to say he won’t be stuck in the minors all summer.
The final player the Red Sox signed to a minor league deal who has a solid shot at getting MLB playing time is Niko Goodrum. Much like Tapia, Goodrum’s opportunity will lie in his ability to improve the Red Sox’s depth rather than his potential to take a starting role away from someone. While he has become more of a first baseman, the 30-year-old has played all over the infield in his career, specifically at second base and shortstop, and he’s even added some outfield work. Through it all, he’s been solid defensively and inconsistent on offense (more on that in a few sentences). The Red Sox could use more certainty at just about every position beyond third base at this point, so Goodrum could be a good safety net if injuries crop up or other players underperform. They must be thinking that to some degree, as he got a non-roster invite to spring training along with that minor league deal.
Of course, Goodrum would need to shake off his own underperformance to take advantage of such an opportunity. Last year, the six-year veteran logged 45 forgettable plate appearances with the eventual World Series champion Astros following two seasons of diminishing returns with the Detroit Tigers. It was quite the downward spiral for Goodrum, who seemed poised to be a solid contributor for a rebuilding Detroit club in 2018 and 2019. While he never appeared ready to win any awards for his offense, he had some pop and speed, which he paired with solid defense and versatility to produce 4.5 combined fWAR during those two season. In the three seasons since, he’s accumulated only 1.0 fWAR.
Goodrum probably isn’t going add much to his career fWAR total in 2023, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play for the Red Sox at the MLB level. Projections right now are only giving him a handful of games, but Goodrum’s experience and versatility could move the Red Sox to at least consider him if the time calls for it.
While Alfaro, Tapia and Goodrum seem like the best bets to accumulate relatively significant playing time at the MLB level on minor league deals this year, some other players to keep an eye on include outfielder Greg Allen and reliever Ryan Sherriff. Allen is a 29-year-old outfielder with pretty solid speed and a decent defensive resume. He could also provide outfield depth like Tapia. Meanwhile, Sherriff is a 32-year-old left-hander who hasn’t pitched at the MLB level since 2021 and only has 44 1/3 career innings pitched (3.98 FIP). However, he was a non-roster invitee to spring training and as Danish showed last year, having little MLB experience isn’t a non-starter. Plus, the Red Sox may have reworked their bullpen this offseason, but they also just traded Josh Taylor, another southpaw, so they’ll need some other arms at some point.