Journey of the Undrafted Baseball Free Agents

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Major League Baseball teams acquire talent mainly through the draft, free agency and trades. However, sometimes organizations can be lucky and find a diamond in the rough. Brandon Magee takes a look at undrafted baseball free agents and the impact they can have on an organization.

Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft allows teams forty rounds to find talent they hope to develop into future stars. With over 1,200 players picked each season, it would seem unlikely that someone capable of developing into an everyday major league player could simply go undrafted. And yet, every year, players go undrafted, land in independent leagues or sign as undrafted free agents to compete for their dream of major league baseball, and occasionally they succeed. 

The Red Sox have a couple of players on their Major League squad that have gone through that journey. The legendary tale of Daniel Nava is well-known. Nava made it to the majors in 2010, hitting a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the majors. Not a surprise, perhaps, considering the odds he faced along his journey. Unable to make the Santa Clara baseball team, he became the equipment manager instead. Unable to continue affording tuition to Santa Clara, he enrolled at the College of San Mateo, a local junior college. He walked-on to the San Mateo baseball team and became a JUCO All-American, and was offered a scholarship back to Santa Clara…where he proceeded to bat .395/.494/.530 for the Broncos and earn All-WCC honors. Yet, despite excelling in Division-I baseball, Nava went undrafted.

Nava signed with the independent Chico Outlaws out of college, and was promptly cut. Undeterred, he signed again with the Outlaws the next season, batted .371/.475/.625 and was eventually signed by the Boston Red Sox. Nava made his affiliated baseball debut with Boston’s High-A team in Lancaster, California as a 25-year-old in 2008, batting .341/.424/.523 for the Jethawks. He would spend 2009 in High-A Salem and AA Portland, and started 2010 in AAA Pawtucket before finally getting what all players want, a shot at a Major League career. In his five seasons at the ML level, Nava has batted .267/.357/.387 and has a World Series ring. A well–earned ring for someone who kept fighting for more chances.

Ryan Hanigan also had a journey to get noticed. Hanigan, who went to Division II Rollins College, batted .384/.454/.498 in 2002, but failed to get drafted. The catcher would play in the Cape Cod League during the summer of 2002 and he would eventually be signed in late August by the Cincinnati Reds. After five full seasons in the Reds minor league organization, where he never failed to have an OBP of .333 or above, Hanigan made his major league debut as a 27-year-old in September of 2007. Since that debut, Hanigan has continued to reach base with the same consistency he showed in the minors, putting up a batting line of .254/.353/.338 in his nine major league seasons.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have continued to scour the independent leagues for players who may have been missed. Aaron Wilkerson is the latest prospect the Sox have plucked from that pool. Wilkerson, who went to NAIA Cumberland University, dazzled in 2010, going 14-1 with a 2.13 ERA and earning second–team All-NAIA honors and a NAIA Championship. Named a preseason NAIA All-American for 2011, Wilkerson somehow bettered his results, going 12-0 with a 1.49 ERA and earning first–team All-NAIA honors. Wilkerson lost his first career game at Cumberland only to follow it with 26 consecutive wins, including throwing 54 consecutive scoreless innings between February 19th and April 8th of 2011. That run of dominance should certainly have earned Wilkerson the honor of being drafted.

But, it did not. After the season, Wilkerson was diagnosed with a frayed ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery. His independent league career started in 2013, with the Gary Southshore RailCats of the Northern League before moving onto the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association, the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League and the Fort Worth Cats of United League Baseball all during the 2013 season, pitching 20 games and going 10-2. He started last season with the AirHogs, going 3-1 with a 3.35 ERA in 13 games before the Red Sox plucked him out of the independent leagues. Placed with the Lowell Spinners, the 25-year-old dominated the younger competition, going 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA in eight starts.

This season, Wilkerson played in six games for the Greenville Drive (putting up a 4.76 ERA in 17 innings) before getting a promotion to High-A Salem. Wilkerson has mostly started for Salem, but has also been utilized multiple times out of the bullpen between starts. Wilkerson has been excellent for the Red Sox, going 7-2 with a 2.76 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 75 innings of work, striking out 83 in the process. In his 11 starts, he has failed to go at least five innings only once, a 3 ⅔ inning fiasco on June 30th that was book-ended by a pair of six inning appearances on either side. It would be no surprise to see Wilkerson move to the AA Portland SeaDogs soon.

The latest undrafted free agent to sign with the Red Sox is second baseman Andy Perez. The Duke senior, a second-team All-ACC player this season for the second time in his career, went undrafted despite batting .290/.373/.429 with 35 stolen bases this season. His defensive reputation is also stellar, committing just a single error in 53 games this season for the Blue Devils. Perez has certainly started his professional career in impressive fashion, batting .389/.478/.556 in his first six games in the Gulf Coast League.

Will either Wilkerson or Perez make it to the Majors? History gives us two answers. The first is negative; the vast majority of players who play in the minors don’t make it whether they’re drafted or not. However, the second is more optimistic. Nava and Hanigan are far from the only undrafted free agents to make it to the Majors. Kevin Millar, Dan Quisenberry, Jim Leyritz, Kevin Mitchell and Bobby Bonilla all went undrafted, but made quite an impact in the show.

The path to the major leagues is littered with stumbling blocks waiting to trip up even the heartiest of players. But for those who have fought through rejection just to get signed to an independent contract, these obstacles are merely another hurdle to overcome. Daniel Nava and Ryan Hanigan made the majors despite not being drafted. Aaron Wilkerson and Andy Perez are now on that same path, proving to themselves and to all 30 Major League clubs that they should have had their name called in June, and a chance to start off with a professional contract right from the start.

Brandon Magee is our resident minor league expert, but has also written a trade deadline primer, about the signing of Andrew Benintendi, Pablo SandovalBROCK HOLT!, and a case to call up Jackie Bradley Jr.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

Check out Rick Rowand‘s take on moving Brock Holt to third base.

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