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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees sign Jonathan Loáisiga

Signed as a minor league free agent who missed three straight seasons due to arm troubles, Jonathan Loáisiga has become one of the most reliable arms in the Yankee bullpen.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Minor league contracts are what I like to call “no risk, high reward” deals for the ballclub that signs them. Since they typically involve little guaranteed money and do not use up a 40-man roster spot, teams usually hand them out fairly generously. Every spring training roster, for example, is filled with aging veterans and minor league free agents looking for a shot at cracking the Opening Day roster.

A handful of players throughout the league take their opportunity and run with it — Lucas Luetge in 2021 and Yangervis Solarte in 2014 are just two of many who made the Opening Day roster and saw success, while others put themselves in a position for a mid-season call-up. These players, however, are the outlier, as most find themselves in Triple-A or on their couch for the season; thus, when a team receives any level of production from one, they’re thrilled.

Minor league free agents who are not ready to even compete for a shot at the MLB roster are even more of a low-risk, high-reward bet. When one becomes an important contributor down the road...well, that’s a coup by the front office.

Signing Details: Minor league contract

Transaction Date: February 6, 2016

NYY stats: 93 games (11 starts), 150 innings 3.36 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 25.6 K%, 8.1 BB%, 1.233 WHIP, 3.8 bWAR, 3.0 fWAR

Originally signed out of Nicaragua by the San Francisco Giants, Jonathan Loáisiga made only 13 appearances within the organization, all in 2013 for the DSL Giants, during which time he posted a 2.75 ERA and 1.107 WHIP. After that strong start to his professional career, everything went downhill rapidly, as shoulder injuries robbed him of the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons. Ultimately, the Giants decided to cut him loose in May 2015.

Encouraged by his performance in the Nicaraguan Winter Leagues, the Yankees opted to sign Loáisiga the following February, enticed by the life on his fastball and the movement on his breaking pitches. Unfortunately, after just one start in the Yankes organization as a member of the Charleston RiverDogs, he returned to the shelf, this time, with Tommy John surgery. Unlike the Giants, however, the Yankees stuck with Loáisiga, adding him to the 40-man roster that winter to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft.

When he returned to the field with the GCL Yankees in the middle of 2017, Loáisiga went to work showing the team that their faith in him was justified. He flew through the system. After making just four starts with the Staten Island Yankees at the end of the 2017 season, he began the 2018 season with the High-A Tampa Yankees. Four starts later, he punched his ticket to Double-A Trenton. When the Yankees needed a starting pitcher to replace the injured Masahiro Tanaka on June 15, they recalled Loáisiga from Trenton, bypassing the entire Scranton RailRiders roster.

Making his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays, Loáisiga more than delivered, striking out six in five scoreless innings to earn his first major league win as the Yankees collectively shut out the Rays, 5-0.

Loáisiga would follow that up with three more starts, against the Mariners, Phillies, and Braves, before being sent down to Scranton. In that time, he flashed potential as a starter, posting a 3.00 ERA (2.88 FIP), striking out 21 across 18 innings, and limiting batters to a .227/.311/.333 slash. But more arm troubles prevented him from returning to the big league mound until September. When he did, he struggled to the tune of 10.80 ERA (5.26 FIP) in 6.2 innings, while opposing hitters slashed .367/.441/.667.

Loáisiga’s first three seasons followed that pattern. Working as a swingman, he demonstrated reason to believe that he could be a top-flight starter, before inevitably ending up on the shelf for significant stretches. Because of these injuries, he was unable to get himself in a groove, and he lacked consistency.

Then the calendar turned over to 2021, and everything changed. With the idea of developing him as a starting pitcher abandoned, the Yankees fully committed to using Loáisiga exclusively as a reliever, and he took to the role like a Mandalorian takes to his armor. Taking over from Chad Green as the team’s primary fireman, he quickly became not only the best reliever on the Yankees, but one of the best relievers in all of baseball.

Among relievers, his 2.4 fWAR ranked behind only Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader, his 2.18 xERA second to Hendriks among relievers with enough balls in play to qualify for the Statcast leaderboards. And he did that while filling a variety of roles for the Yankees, including 25 appearances of more than one inning (10 of which were two or more).

Going into 2022, the Yankees bullpen once again projects to be among the league’s best, and Jonathan Loáisiga is a big reason for that. And while it may be premature to declare him the next Yankee closer, there’s a lot of reason to believe that, so long as he can stay healthy, Loáisiga can be a trusted member of the bullpen for the next few years. All in all, not a bad result for a minor league free agent who missed almost three full seasons due to arm trouble.