Independent-A League Stars to Watch in 2016
Every year I like to do a piece about Independent-A League players who played so well the past year they may have the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things, particularly if they are still reasonably young. I have a crop of these guys this year too, but I will note from the outset that almost no one really jumped out at me this year, as at least a couple usually have in past years.
The Atlantic League is the undisputed top Independent-A League in North America. It plays a 140-game schedule, roughly equal to AA and AAA, and attracts the top talent that can’t find jobs in the MLB system.
However, this year no one on either side of the ball really impressed me in terms of age and level of performance. The most promising player I found is probably Buddy Boshers, who will be 28 this year, already over the hill in terms of professional baseball players as a group.
Boshers was good enough to pitch in 25 games for the Angels in 2013, but a bad performance in AAA in 2014 got him cut out of the MLB system. In 2015, he had a 1.00 ERA with a pitching line of 54 IP, 39 hits and 14 BBs allowed and 71Ks. He’s still young enough that an MLB team could sign him and send him to AA or AAA to see if the Angels gave up on him too soon.
Ron Schreurs (23 in 2016). A player orginally from Curacao, he had a 2.55 ERA in relief with 25 Ks in 24.2 IP. The low innings pitched total suggests he had arm problems going into or coming out of the 2015 season.
Telvin Nash (25). Nash, a 1B/LF, has major league power but strikes out way too much. He hit .270 with a .908 OPS in half an Atlantic League season.
The American Association is generally regarded as the next best Indy-A League, and players who play well in this league who don’t sign with an MLB organization typically move up the Atlantic League the next season.
Tyler Alexander (24) ranks as my top prospect in this league, because he’s young and pitched quite well, with a 3.31 ERA and 111 strikeouts (4th) in 111.1 innings pitched. He’s a left-hander who’s a little wild, but he deserves another shot from an MLB organization.
John Straka (26) had a 3.27 ERA with 110 Ks (5th) in 127.1 IP. My guess is he moves up to the Atlantic League in 2016.
Patrick Johnson (27) is getting up there in age for this level, but he went 15-1 with a 2.08 ERA (3rd) with 132 Ks (2nd) in 134 IP. Even more impressively, he’s been one of the top pitchers in the Venezuelan Winter League this off-season, with a league leading 1.57 ERA in ten starts with 46 Ks (4th) in 51.2 IP.
Johnson may have suffered an injury late in the VWL season, as he didn’t make an appearance after December 2nd. He’s a small right-hander listed at 5’10” and 170 lbs, which certainly hurts his chances of signing with an MLB organization. If he can continue to pitch the way he did in 2015 going forward, he could potentially pitch in Asia one day.
John Brebbia (26) and Rob Wort (27). Two not particularly young relievers who had terrific seasons. Brebbia posted an 0.98 ERA with a pitching line of 64.1 IP, 34 hits and 15 walks allowed and 79 Ks; while Wort had a 1.79 ERA and a pitching line of 65.1 IP, 35 hits and 26 walks allowed and 92 Ks.
Christian Ibarra (23). Hit .278 with an .853 OPS in 58 games.
Carlos Fuentes (23). 3.38 ERA with 43 Ks in 45.1 IP.
In years past, the Can-Am League has generally been regarded as about equal to the American Association. However, attendance in the Can-Am League isn’t nearly as good, which one would think will eventually effect that league’s ability to compete for talent.
However, the Can-Am League seemed to have plenty of talent in 2015, although it may have something to do with the fact that with only six teams, the better players may stand out more.
Joe Maloney (25). A 1Bman who can play the corner outfield positions and even catcher in an emergency, Maloney hit .337 (2nd) with 14 HRs (4th) and led the league by a wide margin with a .991 OPS. Were Maloney to move up to the Atlantic League this year and continue to hit, he could definitely have a future in Asia.
John Walter (25). Walter had a 3.08 ERA (4th) with a league-leading 127 Ks in 120.1 IP. Listed at 6’5″ and 225 lbs, he’s got a major league pitcher’s body.
Gabriel Perez (25). Perez had a 2.90 ERA (2nd) with 109 Ks (2nd) in 108.2 IP.
Brian Ernst (25). Ernst had a 2.96 ERA (3rd) with 100 Ks (Tied 5th) in 109.1 IP.
Ryan Bollinger (25). Bollinger had a 3.68 ERA and 108 Ks (Tied 3rd) in 127.1 IP.
Leandro Castro (27). Castro batted .322 (6th) with 13 HRs (Tied 5th). He’s old to be a prospect at this level, but he played in 234 games in the AAA International League in 2013-2014, he can play center field, and he runs well (21 stolen bases in 23 attempts against the Can-Am League’s admittedly not very good catchers in 2015). His main problems are that he walks very little and would be a below-average defensive center fielder at the major league level. He’s another guy who might be good enough to make some real money in Asia one day.
Ty Young (23). A player who was apparently dropped from the Rays organization by his defensive failings, Young hit .265 with a .783 OPS in 2015.
What struck me about the Frontier League stars this year is how not young they were. The Frontier League is the lowest of the established Independent-A Leagues, and its rosters tend to be stocked with a lot of 22 and 23 year old undrafted former college players, so I was definitely surprised I didn’t find more promising players there this year.
Jose Barraza (21). As a 20 year old catcher/1Bman, Barraza hit .294 with a .783 OPS. The White Sox drafted Barraza in the 7th round out of high school, and he hit .287 with an .818 OPS in the Arizona Rookie League at age 19. Hard to understand why the White Sox released him (and no one else picked him up), unless he has some personality problems.
Cody Livesay (22). A young center fielder whose release by the Braves organization seems strange (he had a .362 on-base percentage in 117 games in the low minors through age 20), Livesay batted .308 with a .388 OBP in 2015.
Boo Vazquez (23) and Kyle Ruchim (23). A couple of the undrafted college players I was talking about, Vazquez hit .287 with an .865 OPS but played in only 41 games, while Ruchim hit .304 with an .825 OPS.
Andrew Brockett (23), Lucas Laster (23) and Trevor Richards (23). Brockett was released by the Royals organization after two seasons in which he combined for a 2.19 ERA with 46 Ks in 49.1 IP. As the Frontier League’s top closer in 2015, he had a 1.54 ERA with 28 Ks in 35 IP. Laster had a 3.81 ERA with 74 Ks in 78 IP, while Richards had a 3.36 ERA with 84 Ks in 91 IP.
Connor Little (25). Little had a terrific season in relief, posting a 1.19 ERA with a pitching line of 68 IP, 41 hits and 14 walks allowed and 90 Ks. He did it against inferior competition, but even so his numbers really do jump out at you.