Independent A League Stars 2013-2014, Part I

The last couple of posts I’ve written (here and here) discussed Independent-A league players getting second chances and undrafted players.  Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to do a post regarding the best Independent-A League players in 2013, especially those who have did not get back into the MLB system before the end of the 2013 season.

I’m limiting this piece to the best/most successful of the Independent Leagues, the Atlantic League, the American Association, the Frontier League, and the Canadian-American (“Can-Am”) League (which has recently been absorbed as a semi-independent part of the American Association), since these leagues contain the lion’s share of the best players and prospects not playing in the MLB system.  There are a number of other Independent A Leagues now such as the Pecos League, the Pacific Association, the United League, and the Freedom League, but these leagues tend to be fly-by-night operations, drawing dangerously low attendance for survival and fielding the lowest-paid, youngest and/or least talented players.

In researching this article, I noticed a definite hierarchy in the Independent-A Leagues.  Obviously, the Pecos, Pacific, United and Freedom circuits are at the bottom, with the Frontier League a notch above as the best of what you might call the “independent rookie leagues”.  Above the Frontier League comes the American Association/Can-Am League, and above that the Atlantic League.  Above the Atlantic League for players who don’t make it back into the MLB system (which is, needless to say, most of them) is the Mexican League, which can then be an avenue for a few players to go on to better paying professional baseball in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The relative standings of the Independent-A Leagues is based on attendance and the relative increases in salaries that greater attendance provides.  In 2013, the eight-team Atlantic League had three teams draw better than 5,000 fans per game and all but one drew at least 3,00o per game across 65 to 70 home dates.  The worst attendance team, the Bridgeport Bluefish, still drew better than 2,300 per game.

The 13-team American Association had two teams draw at least 5,000 fans a game (including the Winnipeg Goldeyes, who draw an Independent-A best 5,800+ fans per home game), six other teams that drew at least 3,000 per game, and only one that drew less than 2,000 per game in 45 to 49 home dates.  The 13-team Frontier League had four teams draw between 3,000 and 3,2oo per game, four more teams that drew at least 2,300 per game, and no teams that drew fewer than 1,500 per game over 44 to 52 home dates.  Finally, the five-team Can-Am League had two teams that drew right around 3,000 per game, two more teams that drew at least 1,600 per game, and one team (the Newark Bears who are now Kaput) that drew fewer than 500 per game in 43 to 48 home dates.

By comparison, the 16-team Mexican League had six teams draw better than 5,000 per game, with the top two teams drawing better than 11,000 and 7,000 respectively, and only one team drawing fewer than 2,300 per game across 45 to 61 home dates.  KBO attendance was over 11,00o per game in 2013, and NPB attendance was over 25,000 per game.  Attendance was way up in Taiwan’s CPBL to over 6,000 per game, compared to 2,400 per game in 2012 (the CPBL is down to four, not-very-well-attended teams because of a series of gambling scandals), thanks to Taiwan’s strong showing in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (Taiwan made the second round) and Manny Ramirez playing the first half of 2013 for the EDA Rhinos (in a four-team league, one big star can make a big attendance difference).  This was the highest per game attendance in the CPBL since 1992.

At any rate, players move fairly regularly up and down the Independent-A Leagues based on their performances.

The Atlantic League

One of the things that strikes me about the players who were the top performers in the Atlantic League in 2013 is how old they are, at least by baseball standards.  The league’s starting players are mostly guys who reached at least AA ball before washing out of the MLB system because of age, injury and/or poor play.  There are also plenty of AAA regulars who got too old or had a bad season, and former major leaguers trying for one last hoorah.

The best pitcher in the Atlantic League in 2013 was probably Josh Lowey.  Lowey went 14-8 with a league-leading 2.89 ERA and 124 strikeouts (tied for 3rd) in 155.2 innings pitched.  Lowey also allowed only 125 hits, which is notable because most Atlantic League starters “pitch to contact,” i.e., give up a lot of hits.

Lowey will be 29 in 2014, so he isn’t much of a prospect.  In fact, he’s never pitched in the MLB system, instead working his way up the Independent-A leagues, with three seasons in the Frontier League, 2012 in the American Association and last year in the Atlantic League.  His best possible future almost certainly involves an opportunity to pitch in Asia, possibly after a successful 2014 season in the Mexican League.

The best hitter in the Atlantic League in 2013 was Cyle Hankerd, who hit .322/.396/.641 in 81 games.  This fine performance got him signed by the Anaheim Angels, and in 35 games for their AA club in Arkansas he batted a respectable .260/.351/.433.  The problem for Hankerd is that he’ll also be 29 in 2014, so the odds of him making it to the majors remains extremely slim.

The only player young enough to still be considered a prospect who played well in the Atlantic League (at least that I could find) was LHP Nate Reed.  As a reliever and spot starter, he posted a 2.87 ERA with 71 Ks in 75.1 IP.  He’ll be 26 in 2014, but no major league organization had signed him as of the end of the 2013 season.

Two other relievers who deserve mention are lefty Roy Merritt and righty Jon Velasquez.  Both had ERAs under 2.00 and each struck out more than a batter per inning pitched.  Both will be 28 in 2014.

Obviously, few players make it to the majors by way of the Atlantic League.  However, the league is a success on its own terms, and one has to think (I don’t live on the East Coast, so I haven’t seen an Atlantic League game) it provides its fans with a high level of professional baseball, given the number of long-time professional players in the league.

Explore posts in the same categories: Anaheim Angels, Baseball Abroad, Minor Leagues

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