Major League Baseball teams acquire amateur talent through the draft and by signing international free agents, and they acquire professional talent through free agency and trades. They can also sign professional free agents to minor league contracts.
The most popular of those options is spending big money on free agents like Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke of this winter's crop. The least talked about aspect of talent acquisition is the signing of free agents to minor league contracts. However, minor league free agency has been a boon to the San Francisco Giants in recent years.
The 2010 World Series Championship team received key contributions from Andres Torres, Juan Uribe and Santiago Casilla—three players signed to minor league contracts by the Giants.
Torres was signed prior to the 2009 season, and he became the starting center fielder on the 2010 team—taking over for big-money free agent acquisition Aaron Rowand.
Uribe was also signed prior to the 2009 season, and he became the starting shortstop in 2010. His home run off of Ryan Madson in Game 6 of the NLCS propelled the Giants into the World Series.
Casilla, who just signed a three-year contract extension with the Giants, was signed to a minor league deal prior to 2010. In three seasons with the Giants he's thrown 170.1 innings and delivered a 2.84 ERA as a key reliever on two championship teams.
The 2012 World Series team received contributions from Casilla, Ryan Vogelsong, Gregor Blanco and Joaquin Arias, four players acquired via minor league contracts.
Vogelsong, who was originally drafted by the Giants in 1998 and reacquired prior to 2011, has emerged as a front-line starter. He's put up a 3.05 ERA in 61 games over the past two seasons. He went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in four starts—all Giants victories—during the 2012 postseason.
Blanco won a job as the fourth outfielder out of spring training, then took over the starting spot in right field from Nate Schierholtz before the team traded for Hunter Pence at the deadline. Blanco then took over in left field for Melky Cabrera for the final two months of the regular season and all 16 postseason games after Cabrera failed a drug test.
Arias didn't make the team out of spring training, but he was called up from the minors in late April. He stuck on the roster as the starting third baseman when Pablo Sandoval was injured, and then as the right-handed portion of the shortstop platoon with lefty-batting Brandon Crawford.
Blanco and Arias combined to make $1 million while providing 3.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract that received more media attention than Blanco and Arias will receive in their entire lifetimes, and yet Pujols was worth 3.9 wins last season.
WAR is far from a perfect stat, but it's the best number at our disposal to describe a player's total contribution to the team. WAR says that Blanco and Arias were just about equal in combined value to Pujols last season—demonstrating how important minor league contracts can be.
This winter, the Giants have not acquired any new players through free agency. They re-signed free agents Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt, but they have not made any outside free agent acquisitions. They've also eschewed the trade market.
However, they have been busy with minor league contracts. They have agreed to minor league deals with reliever Chad Gaudin, catcher Guillermo Quiroz, infielder Wilson Valdez and outfielder Cole Gillespie. They also claimed reliever Sandy Rosario off of waivers in another unheralded move.
Quiroz will have a hard time making the team unless the Giants decide to carry a third catcher behind Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez, which isn't likely. However, Valdez will have a chance to join Arias as a backup infielder, Gaudin and Rosario will compete for a spot in the bullpen and Gillespie has a chance to make the team as a backup outfielder.
Valdez hit only .206 for the Reds last season, but he comes with a strong defensive reputation. Gaudin has a low-to-mid 90's fastball and slider, making him a potential weapon against righties out of the bullpen if he makes the squad.
Rosario has even better stuff with a 94-97 MPH fastball. He's been hit hard in just 7.2 innings in the big leagues, but he struck out 319 hitters in 310 innings during his minor league career.
Gillespie also doesn't have much major league experience, but he's hit .290/.393/.474 in seven minor league seasons. He could potentially form the right-handed portion of the left field platoon with Blanco. His patience at the plate is his best asset.
The Giants didn't make any big splashes in free agency this winter, but that isn't the only way to accumulate value. Torres, Uribe, Casilla, Vogelsong, Blanco and Arias were unheralded acquisitions that helped the Giants win two of the last three championships.
Signing players off the scrap heap isn't as exciting as acquiring a Pujols or a Hamilton. However, the combined value of a few minor league free agents can exceed the value of an elite free agent at a fraction of the cost.
The Giants are hoping that their recent success with minor league contracts continues to pay dividends in 2013. Signing minor league free agents doesn't warrant holding press conferences before the season, but they can help you hold a parade after the season.