Minor-league signings aren’t flashy. Any free agent who has to settle for a non-guaranteed contract presumably isn’t good enough to get a major league deal, and that’s usually not the type of guy who carries your team to a championship. There’s a pretty good chance that the guy you sign to a minor-league deal won’t ever play for you in The Show.
That’s why there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement among Cleveland fans in reaction to the Tribe’s pair of weekend signings: Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka—and understandably so. Giambi is a 42-year-old DH who OPSed under .700 last year, and Matsuzaka is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA. Mike James of The Defend Cleveland Show summed this sentiment up concisely, both for Giambi (“The only 42 year old’s I like on MLB rosters are ones that throw knuckleballs”) and for Matsuzaka (“calling this a long shot [to improve the team] might be far too kind”).
But this sentiment is misguided. While these signings might not be headline-grabbers, the minor-league deals for Giambi and Matsuzaka were strokes of genius by the Indians front office and exactly the kind of moves the team should be making at this point.
For starters, minor-league signings are among the best tools a team has at its disposal for patching up roster weaknesses. As I wrote on these very pages last month, it’s not just about what you can potentially gain from a non-guaranteed deal (see “Blake, Casey” or “Hannahan, Jack”). It’s about you’re (not) giving up:
But even if you can’t any reason to get excited about a minor-league signing (guys like Joe Martinez and Brian Jeroloman probably aren’t full of untapped potential) there’s another reason not to be down on it: There’s nothing to lose! The worst that happens is the player fails to make the Opening Day roster out of Spring Training and either gets his release or heads to the minors. Don’t think of it as low-risk, low-reward. Think of it as no-risk, some-reward.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. If you can get something, or even the potential of something, without giving up anything meaningful in return, you make that deal in a heartbeat. Baseball is no exception.
So, too, are the specific players perfect fits for the Tribe. As I wrote two weeks ago, Matsuzaka is exactly the kind of pitcher the Indians should be throwing into their Spring Training rotation sweepstakes. He’s a fixer-upper project for sure (he probably wasn’t really a true-talent 8.28 ERA pitcher last year, but yikes), but the talent that helped him to terrorize opposing hitters in Japan and pitch well in the beginning of his stateside career—lest we forget, he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 2008—is still in him somewhere. He’s only 32 years old and a fresh start in a town with a less unforgiving media and fanbase could be just what the doctor ordered for him to revive his career. Assuming Trevor Bauer isn’t ready for the majors, Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir are probably the highest-upside pitchers Cleveland has now.
Meanwhile, Giambi will help to fill the left-handed power void left by newly minted Yankee Travis Hafner. Despite his advanced age and disappointing 2012 campaign, Giambi is just a year removed from slugging .603 (no, that’s not a typo) with a home run every 10 at-bats coming off the bench for the Rockies. He’s a question mark for sure, but he immediately becomes the highest-upside hitter in the organization and the favorite to be the Indians’ quasi-regular designated hitter. Though his signing raises the question of why the Indians didn’t just re-sign Hafner or bring in Jim Thome, he’s a welcome addition to the team.
In signing Giambi and Matsuzaka, the Indians got a crafty starting pitcher with plausible top-of-the-rotation potential and a generational great hitter (seriously, look at his numbers from 2001) who can still put a charge into the ball without having to make any roster spot or monetary commitments they might later regret. Maybe it’s not something for nothing, but it’s the very real potential of something for nothing. And you can’t lose when you make moves like that.