Archive for the ‘Independent-A Leagues’ category

David Harris and Other Winter League Batting Leaders

November 12, 2018

A player who has caught my eye this year is David Harris.  He turned 27 last August and was the best hitter in the Indy-A Can-Am League this past summer, slashing .331/.435/.590 in more than 400 plate appearances.  Although he’s still reasonably young, no major league organization was willing to sign him, even to fill in for late season injureds.

After 25 games in the Mexican Pacific League (LMP) this Fall, Harris is leading LMP with a 1.066 OPS.  Sure, it’s only a 25 game sample, but if Harris manages to stay hot and finish in the LMP’s top five in OPS, it will be a distinctly more impressive feat than leading the Can-Am League, particularly for a non-Mexican player.

Harris washed out of the Blue Jays’ system after two 100+ plate appearance trials at Class A+ Dunedin a few years back, and he may already be too old to seriously tempt MLB organizations.  Where does a player like Harris go from here?

The most likely answer is that Harris will be playing in the Atlantic League or Mexico’s summer league (LMB) next summer.  A really hot first half in LMB in 2019 could get him a contract to play in Japan’s NPB, but the odds of him being LMB’s OPS leader (or at least in the top three) in the first half of 2019 are probably slim.  It takes a lot of luck to be a consistent league leader even at the LMB/LMP level if MLB has already made a judgment that you don’t have the talent to merit another contract even though you haven’t yet reached age 28.

Ramon Urias, Saul Soto and Japhet Amador are other top hitters in the LMP this winter.  Ramon Urias had some big seasons in LMB until the Cardinals finally purchased his rights, and he’s still young enough to have some kind of an MLB major league career in the future.

Saul Soto is one of the best LMB players of his generation.  Soto slashed .262/.366/.401 as a 22 year old C/1B in nearly 300 Class A Sally League plate appearances, but was returned to LMB the next summer season.  Playing summers in LMB and winters in LMP mostly as a catcher, which equates to about the same number of games as a full MLB major league season, Soto has slugged well more than 350 career home runs south of the border.  At age 40 now, he’s been exclusively a 1Bman since the start of the 2016 winter season.

Japhet Amador had a nice little NPB career going until a positive steroids test this summer likely sent him back to LMB/LMP for good.  He’ll hit a lot more home runs in Mexico until his 300+ lbs body breaks down for good.

Soon to be 26 year old middle infielder Hanser Alberto is currently leading the Dominican Winter League with a .911 OPS.  Alberto has already received MLB major league playing time in three different seasons, but has batted dreadfully because he has no strike zone judgment.  Alberto appears to have the raw batting abilities of a major leaguer, particularly when you take into account his defense, but he may have to go to Asia to become a major league star.

Delmon Young is currently tied for the Venezuelan Winter League lead with five home runs.  Young played pretty well in LMB this past summer, and I’m not particularly surprised.  He only turned 33 in mid-September, and he had the raw athletic and batting abilities to be a No. 1 overall MLB draft pick once upon a time.

However, I don’t see Young returning to MLB.  He’s the same player now he was as an MLBer, meaning he won’t walk enough to be successful at the MLB major league level.  If he can lead the VWL in home runs, though, he might be able to catch on with an NPB team in search of right-handed power.

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Winter League Notes

November 9, 2018

With the free agent market yet to heat up (CC Sabathia re-signed with the Yankees for $8M, but that’s about it), I’ve been following players in the Caribbean Winter Leagues.  Here are a few I want to note.

The Nationals’ Victor Robles is lighting it up in the Dominican Winter League.  Youngsters of Robles’ talent and closeness to the majors usually don’t get to play in the Caribbean Winter Leagues unless they were hurt during the summer season, which Robles was.  He played in only 73 summer season games, so the Nats are letting him get some live game reps in the the Dominican Republic this winter.

Robles’ winter season may well end after only 20 or 25, like Eloy Jiminez last winter, because his MLB team doesn’t want to risk injury.  However, the Nats may want to give him reps since he’s definitely a candidate to make the Nationals’ roster out of Spring Training if/when Bryce Harper leaves for the big money.

Every baseball blogger, I suspect, is looking for players who are much better than anyone else seems to realize.  One of the players I’ve been watching in this regard is left-handed starter Tyler J. Alexander.  For several years he pitched his summers for Fargo-Moorhead in the Indy-A American Association and winters in the Mexican Pacific League.  He was consistently good with high strikeout rates, but couldn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention.

Alexander shook things up in 2018, starting the season with the Sussex County (New Jersey) Miners of the Can-Am League.  The Can-Am League isn’t any better than the American Association, but it probably gets more scouting because it’s on the East Coast.  He pitched well enough there to finally get a contract to pitch in the second half of the Mexican League (Summer) season.

This winter Alexander has elected to pitch in the Dominican Winter League, rather than the Mexican Pacific League, I think because he’s hoping to finally get someone’s attention in a league that pays a real wage.  He’s been great through his first five starts with a 2.13 ERA and 25 Ks in 25.1 IP.  If he can keep it up the rest of the winter, maybe somebody (besides me) will finally take notice.

Two Dominican Winter League pitchers who have done a lot to keep their high-paying summer league dreams alive are Esmil Rogers and Tommy Milone.

Esmil Rogers had a more than $1M contract to pitch in the KBO in 2018, but he broke his hand about half-way through the season and got cut, probably losing roughly the second half of his $1M+ contract.  He currently has a 2.53 ERA after five DWL starts.  If he can keep it up, a KBO team will play him at least $500,000 to pitch in South Korea in 2019.

Tommy Milone was a marginal major leaguer in 2018, his age 31 season.  He’s pitching in the DWL to prove that he’s worth a split AAA/major league contract in 2019.  So far, so good — Milone hasn’t allowed an earned run or a walk in his first four starts, while striking out 19 in 22 IP.  That’s what a soon to be 32 year old player of Milone’s caliber needs to do to show MLB teams he’s worth bringing back for another season as AAA insurance.

 

Winter League Baseball

October 18, 2018

The Winter League seasons in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela started a few days ago, and I’m excited!

I got interested in the Winter Leagues last year, in part because I’ve gradually become more interested in Taiwan’s CPBL.  As far as I can tell, CPBL teams currently base their decisions on which foreign players to sign (each CPBL team can sign three players, all pitchers in recent years, to play at the major league level and a majority of CPBL teams sign a fourth pitcher in case a major leaguer gets hurt or is ineffective), on summer performance, which makes sense.  But they still value Winter League performance, which shows both that the pitcher is healthy enough to at the end of the summer season and that the pitcher is willing to pitch in a foreign league and perform there.

The ability to perform in a foreign league is a bigger factor in pro baseball than most people realize.  Some players can do it, some players can’t, and it matters a great deal if you are trying find the best possible players at your league’s pay scale.

The Winter Leagues are the best pro baseball that people in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and (probably) Mexico get to see, and the best teams in each of these leagues then play in the Caribbean Series, which is major event (and attended and paid for in ticket prices as such) for Latin American baseball fans.  In an era where MLB major league players are enormously compensated, the Winter Leagues aren’t what they once were, since major league players (and top AA and AAA prospects) no longer are allowed to play there, lest they get hurt.  Even so, the Winter Leagues mean a lot to local fan bases, and the baseball played is worth watching.

Players play in the Winter Leagues for a number of reasons, which, aside from domestic players who get to be big stars in their home countries, mostly relate to salaries and a possibility that good performance will be rewarded with a promotion to a better summer league.   For MLB minor league players who have not yet played in the major leagues, the Winter Leagues offer a chance at a living wage playing baseball (at least for the 2.5 months of the Winter League season).  For MLB minor league players over the age of 28 or 29, the Winter Leagues provide a chance to prove the player is still good enough to play in AAA another season and thus be one only step away from the MLB majors.

For native players from the Winter League countries, they can potentially earn enough money in the 2.5 month Winter League season (at least in the Dominican Republic and Venezuala) to support themselves and their families for the whole year.  The Indy-A Atlantic League’s 2018 batting average leaders were dominated by over age 29 Dominican players who, in my opinion, were trying to keep their skills sharp for the Dominican Winter League.

Ayami Sato — World’s Best Female Pitcher?

August 31, 2018

I saw this article linked on japanball.com today describing Ayami Sato, a Japanese female pitcher who has been dominating in international play since 2010.  She stands only 5’5″ and has a fastball that at its best touches about 80 mph, but she has a great curveball.

Sato has played in Japan’s Women’s League, about which I know next to nothing, since 2009.  As far as I am aware, she has not pitched in a men’s pro league, such as Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge (BC) League, where Eri Yoshida played without much on-field success for several seasons in recent years.

Stacy Piagno in 2017 became the first woman to win a professional game in North American men’s professional baseball since Yoshida.  She pitched in 16 games over two seasons for the Sonoma Stompers of the Indy-A Pacific Association, but her career 7.67 ERA suggests Piagno was mainly an Indy-A novelty act.

Independent-A Run-Down

August 21, 2018

Here are some comments on the top prospects at this moment in the Indy-A Leagues.

27 year old Bennett Parry signed with the CPBL’s ChinaTrust Brothers as their back-up foreigner more than two weeks ago.  He still leads the Atlantic League in strikeouts as I write this.

Dave Kubiak also escaped the Atlantic League for the warmer climbs of Mexico.  Alas, his brains have been beaten out his first two Mexican League starts.

Blake Gailen is the Atlantic League’s best hitter for the umpteenth time, but at age 33 this year, there is nowhere for him to go except Mexico, where he has played successfully before and thus may not be interested in playing there again.  Otherwise, go to Mexico, Blake.

Former major leaguer David Rollins pitched his way out of the Can-Am League to the AAA Tacoma Rainiers, but, alas, he got bombed in his first Pacific Coast League start.

Just turned 27 year old outfielder David Harris deserves another shot with an MLB organization.  Still 22 year old Martin Figuero also deserves another shot with an MLB organization, although he’s come down to earth since I wrote about him six weeks ago.

In the American Association, 25 year old Dillon Thomas did not go gentle into the good night of his career after the Rockies released him.  He’s leading the AA in with a 1.021 OPS.

Also 25 year old Dylan Tice earned his way back into the Mets’ organization.  Just turned 28 year old Jay Austin has earned his way up to the Mexican League, where so far so good.

28 year old Tommy Collier needs to pitch in the winter leagues this off-season to boost a move up to a better league, but I sure wouldn’t want to pitch in Venezuela again this winter.

The Wichita Wingnuts’ Travis Banwart, now 32, might more properly be pitching in the CPBL for a lot more money, what with his three seasons of KBO experience, but he’s actually from Wichita, which complicates the matter.  Banwart is one of the best American pitchers not to have pitched at all in the majors.

If you want to read more about Indy-A players who recently signed with major league organizations, go to the Atlantic League’s, the Can-Am League’s and the American Association‘s respective websites.  The Indy-A Leagues scream from the rooftops every time one of their boys signs with a major league organization — that’s what gets most of their boys to play for peanuts.

Matt Chavez and Craig Massey

August 1, 2018

Two of the top hitters (in terms of batting average) in the Independent-A Atlantic League this year are a pair of 29 year olds Matt Chavez and Craig Massey.

What makes them interesting to me is that they have both played almost their entire professional careers in the Indy-A leagues.  Matt Chavez got a couple of brief looks from MLB organizations, but I don’t think that either the Giants or the Padres were at all serious about him, and Massey has never gotten even one shot with an MLB organization.  Both started their professional careers at the age of 25, which means no MLB organization would ever consider them prospects.

Both of them have worked their way up from the lowest levels of Indy-A ball to the highest level in the Atlantic League, which says they are not bums.  Neither one has much power, but they get on base: Chavez is slashing .320/.374/.440  and Massey is slashing .353/.436/.420 as I write this.

Both are too old, too power deficient and lack the pedigree to have any realistic expectation of ever getting any real shot from an MLB organization going forward.  So what are their baseball career options?

Their best options are almost certainly playing their summers in the Mexican League and their winters in one of the four top Caribbean Winter Leagues (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela).  There is at least a living to be made this way, and it is pretty much the best that players like Chavez and Massey can aspire to, because Taiwan’s CPBL does not sign foreign position players and South Korea’s KBO and Japan’s NPB are extremely reticent about signing foreign players without any MLB major league experience.

My best guestimate is that approximately one Mexican League player per season gets a shot at playing in either the KBO or NPB, most of the time without success.  The CPBL signed three Mexican Leaguers last off-season, but they were all pitchers.

Unfortunately, neither Chavez nor Massey has yet played abroad, unless they did so in Nicaragua’s, Colombia’s or Panama’s winter leagues, for which Baseball Reference does not provide stats.  Aside from Chavez and Massey, the other current top four Atlantic League batting average leaders are all over age 30 Dominicans who are presumably playing in the Atlantic League mainly to keep themselves sharp for Winter League ball back home, where they make their real money, and to work their way up or back to the Mexican League’s better salaries.

I have definitely noticed a trend that more players in the top three Indy-A Leagues (the Atlantic League, the American Association and the Can-Am League) are playing in the top four Winter Leagues each winter.  MLB organizations are increasingly less willing to allow even their better AA and AAA players to play in the Winter Leagues (unless the player has been hurt and needs to playing time), so the top Indy-A Leagues’ best players can now compete successfully at this level.

The 10 Best Major League Players Who Started Their Pro Careers in the Independent-A Leagues

July 31, 2018

I’ve been following the Independent-A Leagues closely the last few years, and I recently wondered who the best major league players were who started their pro careers in an Indy-A League.  I couldn’t find a decent list, so I decided I’d make one.

One of the things I learned in compiling this list is just how incredibly difficult it is to have a major league career amounting to more than a couple of brief cups of coffee for players who don’t start their professional careers in the MLB-system.  MLB hoovers up just about every player with any shot of ever having a major league career that anyone besides the players themselves would typically remember.  Only a tiny number of players gets overlooked.

That said, it is within the realm of possibility that a player can start his pro career in an Indy-A league and still amount to a successful major league player.  That’s what keeps the dream alive.

Without further ado, here’s the list of the 11 best major league players who started their pro careers in an independent-A league.  Be sure to let me know if I’ve missed anyone who should be included.

1.  J.D. Drew.  J.D. Drew is really an Independent-A league ringer.  He was drafted with the second overall pick of the 1997 Draft by the Phillies.  Before the Draft, Drew and his agent Scott Boras let if be known that Drew was demanding a $10 million signing bonus.  The Phillies called Drew’s bluff, drafted him and offered him $2.6M.

Drew wasn’t bluffing.  When the Phillies refused to come up significantly from their initial offer, Drew refused to sign.  Instead, he spent parts of two seasons thumping the ball for the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League (now the American Association).

I haven’t always been a fan of Boras inspired holdouts, but it sure worked for Drew.  The Cardinals drafted Drew with the 5th overall pick in 1998 and signed him for $7 million.  Refusing to sign in 1997 did not significantly delay Drew’s career, as the Cardinals gave him a cup of coffee at the end of the 1998 season, and he was in the majors for good (except for injury rehab assignments) by 1999.

Drew would not be the last early round draft pick to elect to start his career in the Indy-A’s when he couldn’t reach an agreement with his drafting team, as you will see below.  A couple of Cuban defectors, Ariel Prieto and Eddy Oropesa, used the Indy-A Leagues as a means to boost their draft stock — one can argue whether Cuba’s Serie Nacional is an amateur or pro league, but it is effectively amateur in name only, since the players are essentially professionals who are compensated for their performance, although perhaps not in cash.

2.  Kevin Millar.  Millar is in my opinion the best undrafted, unsigned player independent-A league product in major league history.  Every year, many undrafted players are nevertheless signed by major league organizations.  As I understand it, each major league team makes a list shortly before Draft Day of the 500 or 600 players who the team believes are the best amatuer players available.  Each team’s scouts and front offices grade the nation of prospects differently, and every team has at least a few players who aren’t on any other team’s list.  If any of those players go undrafted, then the team that had the player listed will typically sign them up.

Playing for small college Lamar in Texas, Millar went undrafted and unsigned, and thus started his pro career at age 21 with the St. Paul Saints in 1993, the Northern League’s maiden season.  Millar never made an All-Star team or received an MVP vote, but he was a star on the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years.  Millar was also never allowed to join the MLB Players’ Association, because he crossed the picket line during the 1994-1995 strike.

3-5.  George Sherrill, Joe Thatcher and Kerry Ligtenberg.  A trio of relief pitchers who all pitched in between 386 and 442 major league games.  George Sherrill was the Orioles’ closer in 2008 and the first four months of 2009 before being traded to the Dodgers.  He finished his career with a 3.77 ERA, 56 saves and 320 Ks in 324.1 IP.  He started his pro career with Evansville of the Frontier League in 1999.

Joe Thatcher had a nine year career as a left-handed relief specialist.  He was effective in the role, finishing his major league career with a 3.38 ERA and striking out 270 batters in 260.2 innings pitched.  Thatcher began his pro career with River City in the Frontier League in 2004.

Kerry Ligtenberg was the Braves’ closer in 1998 before hurting his arm.  He came back from it, but never pitched as well as he did in 1998.  He finished his major league career with a 3.82 ERA and 357 Ks in 390.2 IP.  He started his pro career in the short-lived North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1994 and 1995.

6.  David Peralta.∗  David Peralta gets an asterisk because he started his professional career as an 18 year old pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization.  He pitched ineffectively for two seasons in the Rookie Appalachian League and was unceremoniously dumped.  He came back four years later as a 23 year old outfielder for the Rio Grand Valley WhiteWings of the short-lived North American Baseball League, and gradually worked his way up the majors three years later in 2014.  He’s still active and having a solid season at age 30, so he could well move up this list in the future.

7.  Aaron Crow.  Another high first round draft pick who refused to sign a contract with the Nationals, Crow made four appearances (three starts) with the Ft. Worth Cats of the American Association in 2008 and 2009 in order to prove he was still worth a high 1st round draft pick by the Royals in 2009.

Crow had four strong seasons as a set-up man in the Royals bullpen from 2011-2014 before his arm gave out.  He compiled a 3.43 career major league ERA and struct out 208 batters in 233.2 IP while recording six saves.

Crow is attempting a comeback in the Mexican League this summer at age 31.  While he is pitching effectively (2.33 ERA in 19 relief appearances so far), his peripheral numbers don’t suggest he’ll make it back to the majors in the near future.

8.  Daniel Nava.  Nava started his professional career at the advanced age of 24 with the Chico Outlaws of the long since defunct Golden Baseball League.  He hit a grand slam in his first major league game in 2010 (as I recall, the outfielder may have actually tipped the ball over the wall with the end of his glove), and he was a star for the 2013 World Champion Red Sox when he slashed .303/.385/.445 as an every day outfielder who split his time between right field and left field.

Nava has managed to play parts of seven major league seasons, and at age 35 he’s still listed as part of the Pirates’ AAA team, although he has yet to play a game this season because of injury.

9.  Jeff Zimmerman.  Zimmerman finished his three year major league career as the closer for the Rangers before injuries, including two Tommy John surgeries, ruined his career.  He started with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League in 1997.

10T.  Matt Miller and Chris Coste.  Miller was a relief pitcher who pitched in an even 100 major league games with a career 2.72 ERA with 95 Ks in 106 IP.  He was a 31 year old rookie for the Rockies in 2003, but enjoyed most of his major league success starting with the Indians in 2004.  His professional career began with Greenville of the short-lived Big South League in 1996.

Chris Coste was the Phillies’ primary back-up catcher for four seasons starting with his age 33 season in 2006.  He began his pro career in the North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1995 and then spent four seasons with his home town Fargo-Moorehead Red Hawks of the Northern League before being signed by the Indians’ organization.  The North Central and Prairie Leagues may not have lasted long, but in Coste and Kerry Ligtenberg, these leagues gave first shots to two young Minnesota ballplayers who eventually made the big time and proved they belonged there.

Other players who had more than brief major league cups of coffee who began their pro careers in the independent A leagues are Chris Colabello, Brian Tollberg, James Hoyt, Chris Jakubauskas, Scott Richmond, Brian Sweeney, Chris Martin, Trevor Richards and Bobby Hill.  Hoyt, Martin and Richards are all still active and have at least a reasonable shot at adding to their career major league numbers.

Bobby Hill was drafted in the second round in consecutive seasons and presumably started his career in the Atlantic League in 2000 because he refused to sign after the White Sox drafted him the year before.  Scott Richmond started his professional career in the Northern League in 2005 at the age of 25, which makes him the oldest rookie professional baseball player I found to eventually make the majors after starting in the Indy-A leagues (MLB organizations never or almost never sign any amateur over the age of 23).