This Year in the Australian Baseball League

With this off-season’s MLB free agent signing period slow going indeed, this baseball blogger has been somewhat hard-pressed to come up with topics to write about.  Thus, you, gentle reader, have been subjected to numerous posts about Asian baseball, where the signings of foreign players have been more forthcoming.  Besides, the fringes of the professional baseball world interest me and seem like a ripe topic that few other baseball blogs cover.

Thus, it feels like a good time for a post on the action in this year’s Australian Baseball League.  The ABL isn’t in the same class as the big four Caribbean Winter Leagues (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela), but is probably better than the Winter Leagues in any of Panama, Nicaragua or Colombia.  It plays a short season, even by Winter League standards, of about 40 games.

The ABL is heavily subsidized by MLB as a way to develop interest in baseball in Australia and to help generate a continuing supply of Aussie prospects for MLB.  I could not help but notice earlier today that, while the ABL’s website provides very detailed box scores, including game temperatures and wind speeds, it does not report attendance numbers, a sure sign that the games are not well attended by the standards of even this level of professional baseball and must be subsidized by someone to keep the league afloat.

The ABL draws an interesting mix of Australian players and Independent-A American players not quite good enough during the summer to secure work in the Big Four Caribbean Winter Leagues.  The Circuit also draws a smattering of pro players from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The top pitcher in the ABL this season is Shota Imanaga.  Imanaga is a potentially a world class NPB pitcher, who is coming off a brutal 2018 summer season and apparently pitching in the ABL this winter to get himself back on track.

After the 2017 season, Imanaga looked like a potential future MLB prospect, as I mentioned that off-season.  In 2018, however, he went 4-11 in NPB with a brutal 6.80 ERA.  His command deteriorated significantly from the prior two seasons, and he seems to have hurt by the rise in NPB home-running hitting this past season.  He still managed to strike out 80 batters in 84.2 innings pitched, and his performance in the ABL this winter suggests there is nothing fundamentally wrong with his pitching arm, always a concern for a pitcher listed under 5’10” and 180 lbs.

Against a much lower level of competition, and limited so far to six starts and 35 IP, Imanaga has posted a 0.51 ERA and 57 strikeouts while allowing only 14 hits, one home run and one walk.  If nothing else, Imanaga’s foray to the ABL should certainly boost his confidence going into the 2019 NPB season.

Frank Gailey, Ryan Bollinger, Mikey Reynolds and Zach Wilson are examples of typical North American players playing in the ABL this winter.  Ryan Bollinger pitched pretty well in the Yankees’ system last summer, mostly at the AA level, and he struck out 97 batters and 111.2 IP.  He has been signed by the Padres this off-season with an invitation to Spring Training, but will most likely start the 2019 season at AAA El Paso.

Needless to say, the ABL is a refuge for Australian players who just can’t give up the enjoyment they get from playing professional baseball.  Former major leaguer Travis Blackly, for example, is still around at age 36 pitching effectively Down Under (and in the very low Indy-A Pacific Association during the Northern Hemisphere summer).  He’s now pitched professionally in at least seven countries (U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia).

Steve Kent and Luke Hughes are a couple of old Aussie war horses who have played in the MLB system and the ABL for many years.  Hughes played in the majors for the Twins and the A’s from 2010-2012.

More recent major leaguer Gift Ngoepe, originally of South Africa, is playing well in the ABL this season.  After a brutally bad 2018 season mostly for the Blue Jays’ AAA team in Buffalo, which caused him to get released in mid-August, Ngoepe is obviously hoping a strong winter in Oz will get him contract to play baseball somewhere next summer.

Pete Kozma and Josh Collmenter, two other familiar major league names, are in basically the same boat as Ngoepe — Kozma is trying to resuscitate his career after a rough year in the Tigers’ organization, and Collmenter is trying to come back from injuries that kept him out of action throughout the 2018 regular season.  Kozma, at least, has signed an minor league contract to return to the Tigers’ organization with invitation to spring training in 2019.

 

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, Detroit Tigers, Independent-A Leagues, Minnesota Twins, Minor Leagues, New York Yankees, NPB, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays

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