Free Agency and the Jays – Part 2: Amateur Free Agents

Last week I began a series of columns detailing Toronto’s history in the free agent market with a high level look at the best and worst free agents in terms of WAR.

Today I will take a more in-depth look at the Jays’ history of signing amateur free agents.

An amateur free agent is defined as a player who is not eligible for the draft (i.e. not from Canada, the US, or a US territory) or a player who was eligible for the draft but was not drafted.  These players are considered amateur free agents and are able to sign with any franchise.  The most noteworthy amateur free agent in the last few years was likely Aroldis Chapman, the 105 MPH throwing fireballer lefty signed by the Cincinnati Reds.

By my count, the Blue Jays have signed 59 players as amateur free agents dating back to 1977.  Of those 59, 16 of them never played a single major league game for Toronto, meaning 73% of signings ended up in the big leagues – not a bad percentage.  Of note, a few of the 16 to never play for Toronto would go on to have major league success for other teams, including Alfredo Aceves (a staple in the Yankees bullpen the past three years), and Jose Mesa (a great closer with 321 career saves).

As mentioned in Friday’s column, amateur free agents come with an inherent high risk / high reward system.  Since many of the players are signed at a very young age and come from places such as Puerto Rico, Venezuela, or the Dominican Republic, there is often a substantial, and sometimes steep, learning curve that comes with playing professional baseball in the US.  Not only do players have to learn how to play the “American way”, they also have to mature and grow, and overcome a language barrier.  That’s why for every successful signing there are often several unsuccessful ones, players who simply can not overcome those barriers.  Toronto has several prospects that fit into the latter, names such as Tilson Brito, Fred Manrique, Brad Cornett, William Suero, Nigel Wilson, and Oswaldo Peraza.

But pass those barriers, and the rewards can be great.  Below is a look at Toronto’s best and worst amateur free agent signings:

The players on the “Best” list are certainly familiar.  Two of the greatest Blue Jays of all time – Carlos Delgado and Tony Fernandez – came via the amateur free agency route.  Even more impressive about Fernandez is the fact that his career WAR is 33.3 for the Blue Jays because he came back three different times via free agency and trade.  Luis Leal pitched six excellent seasons for the Jays in the early years, and Escobar and Chacin both made splashes when they made the majors.

On the “Worst” chart, what’s interesting to note are the names tied for 3rd, Sandy Martinez and Kevin Cash – both at one point considered Toronto’s “Catcher of the Future”.  In fact scrolling down the entire list of amateur free agents you will find two more members of the “Catcher of the Future” club – Robinzon Diaz and Guillermo Quiroz.  Both were signed as amateur free agents, both finished their career’s with the Jays with negative WARs (Diaz at -0.1, Quiroz at -0.8).  Let’s be thankful J.P. Arencibia came through the draft…

Other notable names on the amateur free agent list include:

– Junior Felix (3.7 WAR)

– Nelson Liriano (1.3 WAR)

– Paul Spoljaric (1.1 WAR)

– Graeme Lloyd (0.8 WAR)

– Rob Ducey (0.0 WAR)

– Luis Sojo (0.0 WAR)

– Scott Richmond (0.0 WAR)

Of course one of the most notable amateur free agent signings, and the one that Jays fans are most excited about, finished last season in double-A New Hampshire.  It’s still far too early to tell whether he’ll end up like Tony Fernandez or Domingo Cedeno, but if Adeiny Hechavarria can continue the growth he showed last season, I would expect to see him in the “Best” list a few years down the road.

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