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In Minors, free agency can be risky business

No guarantees for Barfield, others trying to find jobs on open market
January 5, 2016

Like most people who love baseball, Jeremy Barfield had a great time watching last year's World Series on TV. For Barfield, though, the final out of Game 5 carried with it a significance few fans understand.

That final out meant that in five days, he would be in a position he'd grown increasingly accustomed to recently. He would be out of a job.

"My thing is, obviously I enjoyed the World Series as a fan, but it's a ticking clock," said the 27-year-old outfielder, who has been on the open market four times in 12 months. "It's like, 'Here we go again.'"

Players become Minor League free agents when they've been released from their original contract or after their first six full seasons in the Minors. They often find themselves waiting for the phone to ring with considerably more angst than that of big-league free agents. When superstars such as David Price, Zack Greinke and Jason Heyward become free agents, they inevitably fuel a hot stove rumor mill and end up with big paychecks, but there are no guarantees for players in Barfield's situation.

"Nobody cares about Minor League free agents. Honestly, I don't know where I'll end up or if I'll get a job. It's the same situation a lot of guys are in, and there's nothing we as players can do," he said. "They say, 'If you don't like it, play better,' but it's not always based on how you play."

Barfield was drafted by the A's in the eighth round of 2008 and became a free agent at the end of the 2014 season, remaining unsigned through most of last winter. He got a deal with the Rockies last February, but was released after Spring Training. A couple long months later, Colorado re-signed him. But even after he finished the season posting a .318 on-base percentage with 11 extra-base hits over 42 games for Triple-A Albuquerque, Barfield had to sit patiently through the final days of 2015.

• Read about Barfield's long, strange 2015 »

Matt Purke , who began his pro career with the Nationals, didn't spend nearly as much of the offseason in suspense, but he knows just how precarious free agency can be.

"Being a Minor League free agent ... it's definitely stressful," he said. "You're hoping somebody out there believes in you. It gives you this situation where you have to face with reality -- if no one calls, baseball could be over."

Fortunately for the 25-year-old lefty, the White Sox got in touch with his agent, Peter Vescovo, and reached out to Purke personally in November, on the first day they were allowed to. He liked the enthusiasm they showed, and their early contact gave him a confidence boost. To that point, Purke had reason to wonder whether his value would be apparent to big-league organizations. After all, he'd questioned it himself.

"There were times when I fell into self doubt -- 'Maybe I'm not that good,' -- but I told myself from the beginning that I'm going to use [injuries] to make me better, if not on the field then conditioning myself mentally," he said. "With that and my support group and my family, I helped myself through times when it can get dark."

The Rangers selected Purke out of high school with the 14th overall pick of the 2009 Draft, but after the club's financial troubles reportedly caused it to squelch on a verbal agreement and make a significantly smaller offer, he opted to get an education and continue growing as a pitcher at Texas Christian University. Shoulder trouble in 2011 caused his Draft status to plummet, but a clean bill of health from Dr. James Andrews was good enough for Washington. The Nats snatched him in the third round and give him a contract with a reported $2.75 million bonus.

But Purke is the first to admit that very little went well in his career after that. Over the next four seasons, his throwing arm was seldom pain-free. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2012 and then needed Tommy John surgery in May 2014. All told, he's tallied 200 2/3 innings on the mound, going 10-18 with a 4.80 ERA. Double-A is the highest level he's reached.

"The Nationals and myself had expectations for me to be something -- to really succeed and soar. I know this didn't go the way they thought it would either," Purke said. "It's been a rocky road."

In fact, the reason Purke became a free agent after the 2015 campaign, two seasons before he otherwise would have, is because the Nationals released and re-signed him in November 2014. Having signed a Major League contract out of the Draft, Purke needed to stay on Washington's 40-man roster, and thusly he couldn't be sent to the Minors from Spring Training without being optioned. A player can only be optioned during three years under his initial contract. After that, if the organization tries to send him to the Minors, he can be claimed on waivers by the other 29 clubs. Last year was Purke's fourth as a pro, and he definitely wasn't positioned to make the Major League team out of camp.

"Myself and my agent and the Nationals, we knew something had to be done," Purke said. "I was out of options, and with having Tommy John surgery, they knew I was not going to be ready for Spring Training. They made the phone call, said, 'This is what we want to do right now, but we're going to re-sign him back.' It wasn't difficult, but I didn't expect to go through that."

He wasn't ready for a return to competitive action until the end of May and logged just 64 innings in '15. That wasn't a huge sample size to demonstrate he still has the potential to.develop into a quality big league pitcher. When the White Sox showed real interest on the first day the free-agent market opened, Purke listened to what they had to say, checked around with people who knew the system and decided he'd found a new home.

"I'm definitely excited to have the opportunity to go somewhere and play," he said, acknowledging it's not easy to leave his original parent club behind.

"It was a difficult decision, but I knew I had to start fresh and try to get new scenery. The Washington Nationals have been great to me. They've taken good care of me and supported me, and I appreciate everything they've done. I was very blessed to be in that organization, and I met a lot of great people. But at the same time, I am definitely excited to start a new chapter, and we'll see where the road takes us."

Even for Minor Leaguers who enter free agency all but sure they'll land a role somewhere, the process is unpredictable. Things worked out about as positively as they could for Ji-Man Choi , a South Korean-born first baseman who's headed into the 2016 season with the best opportunity to make a big-league roster he's ever had. Yet this offseason has also been more of a rollercoaster ride than he would have expected, and like Purke, he's had to leave the only Major League organization he's played for.

Choi won't turn 25 until May, but he's already had a long five years of pro ball in the United States. He's raked at every level he's played -- he boasts a career slash line of .302/.404/.481, with nearly half of his experience coming at Double-A and Triple-A -- but so far he hasn't been able to stay on the field long enough to fully live up to his promise. Choi's been limited to a total of 335 games. He missed 2011 with a strained back muscle, was limited to 74 games by a methandienone suspension in 2014 and suffered a broken fibula in big-league camp during Spring Training last season.

Following the bone break, the Mariners -- for whom Choi has played since 2010 -- designated him for assignment to clear a roster spot. Since it was widely known he'd miss a minimum of four months, he cleared waivers when Seattle sent him to Triple-A Tacoma. When he did get into the Rainiers lineup in late August, he batted .298 with 16 RBIs and 24 total bases over 18 games.

But during the season, the Mariners told Choi and his agent, John Lee, that he would be on the open market come November. Lee was confident teams would not only recognize Choi's potential, but understand that his injury history was just that -- history -- and the positive PED test, which baffled Choi at the time, was not a reflection of Choi's character, nor something that would happen again.

"We were prepared, and on the first day [of free agency], the Seattle Mariners, the Padres and three other teams called. Every day, teams kept calling. We got calls from 13 different ballclubs and 10 teams made real offers," Lee said. "I think [Seattle] misestimated Choi's value in the free-agent market, but since he became a free agent, he's been one of the hot items. There were not many first basemen on the big-league and the Minor League market, so his value was up higher than what we expected."

Lee and Choi found themselves in a position rare for Minor League free agents -- they had some bargaining power. One of the most important things they wanted was an opt-out clause, giving Choi the freedom to walk away from the contract midseason if he's tearing up Triple-A ball, but is blocked by talent on the big-league club.

"After [the 10 offers came in], it was negotiating numbers and terms and conditions," Lee said. "Choi didn't want to leave the Seattle Mariners, but number-wise and with terms and conditions, [the Mariners' offer] was not what he expected, so we had to pull that aside."

The Orioles came through with what Choi and Lee considered the best offer -- a contract with incentives that can make it worth up to $1 million for one year, with a July 1 opt-out clause. Choi signed in mid-November.

But three weeks later, he was on the move to another organization. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who had been among the 10 teams to make Choi an offer, selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, meaning he'll either remain on the Halos' big-league roster through the year or be returned to Baltimore. Angels director of Minor League operations Mike LaCassa has told the LA Times he fully expects Choi to not only stick, but contribute on the big-league level, and he voiced similar confidence in the 230-pound switch-hitter to Lee.

"Mike called and said, 'See how much we wanted Choi?' That made us feel very good," Lee said. "I was very excited, and Choi felt the same way that I did. It's a great opportunity for playing in the big leagues."

But while Minor League free agency gave Choi a contract he can be happy with throughout 2016, whether he's playing in Anaheim or Triple-A Norfolk, a lot of players are still waiting for that phone call with an offer to play for any organization, under almost any terms. There's only one thing those players can do.

"Just being ready whenever my name is called. That's it," Barfield said. "You just have to be ready to make the most of any opportunity you're given. Even when you are given an opportunity and make the most of it, it doesn't even guarantee anything."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.