See also: Independent Leagues Chat
It’s a pretty bleak year for scouting independent baseball.
The shift to more veteran-laden independent league lineups, a reduced number of independent league teams and an increased number of affiliated teams that scout independent baseball have left the shelves as bare as a Toys-R-Us on Christmas Eve. This year’s list lacks the clear-cut No. 1 prospect of past years when prospects like Daniel Nava or Reynaldo Rodriguez were clearly at the top of the list.
One of the main reasons is a change in the rules. A few years ago, the Frontier League was filled with 22 and 23-year-olds because the roster rules required a large number of young players. Now rules changes have allowed teams to play a lot more 26 and 27-year-olds. In the American Association, relaxed eligibility rules explain how a 26-year-old can be the league’s rookie of the year.
“The young guys are being squeezed out of indy ball. You have less guys getting the opportunity to shine,” said one player procurement director.
The Aug. 15 signing deadline didn’t help either. More college seniors are either being drafted or signed as undrafted free agents to fill out minor league rosters.
But even though that’s the case, there are still a good number of intriguing younger players who meet the 25-year-old cutoff to qualify for this list. It’s worth noting that these are not prospects like the players listed in the affiliated league top 20s that precede this list. But these players are ranked on their potential to make it to affiliated ball, be solid organizational players and, if everything breaks right, maybe make it to the big leagues.
No. 1. Marshall Schuler, rhp, Normal (Frontier)
Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 170. B-T: R-R. Age: 23.
One of the most promising avenue for independent league teams to find young players is to discover small college players who went overlooked in college.
Schuler doesn’t fit that bill, even though he attended the Colorado School of Mines. He posted an ERA above 10.00 in his final two seasons of college, but the Phillies still drafted him in the 37th round in 2010 because they liked his arm—as mentioned above, more college seniors are getting signed.
Schuler actually had some success away from the mile-high elevation he pitched at during college. He went 4-3, 3.09 with 22 strikeouts in 23 innings for the’ Phillies rookie league teams in 2010, but he was released at the end of the season. This year with Normal, Schuler went 1-2, 1.74 with 12 saves in a rather dominating performance as a closer.
Schuler tops out at 94 mph and regularly sits at 91-92. He throws a hard slurve. When he can locate that pitch, he’s very hard to hit.
No. 2. Jake Laber, lhp, Fargo-Moorhead.
Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 185. B-T: L-L. Age: 25.
A graduate of North Dakota State, Laber is a three-year independent leagues veteran who put together his best pro season in 2011—he went 10-7, 3.55 with 100 strikeouts and 62 walks in 142 innings with the RedHawks. Laber isn’t overpowering, but he mixes solid stuff with a good feel for pitching.
Laber’s fastball sits at 88-90, touching 92 mph and he does a good job of keeping it down in the zone. He mixes in a cut fastball, a solid changeup and a slurvy breaking ball. Laber is able to work to both sides of the plate and he maintained his location and velocity deep into starts.
In affiliated ball, Laber would project as a useful lefty out of the pen, or potentially an innings-eating starter, although his lack of a strikeout pitch is a cause for some concern.
No. 3. Ryan Sheldon, rhp, Normal (Frontier)
Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 220. B-T: R-R. Age: 25
Sheldon is a repeat member of the Independent Leagues Top 10 Prospects list. He was also on this list last year after an excellent rookie season with Normal.
After his pitching career was nearly derailed by a fractured elbow, Sheldon recovered to be named the Rocky Mount Athletic Conference pitcher of the year back in 2009 while pitching at Nebraska-Kearney. With Normal, he’s shown a solid if not overwhelming fastball (it sits at 88-90 mph) and an excellent cut fastball. He locates both pitches extremely well.
“I think you could stick him in a Double-A rotation,” Normal pitching coach Brooks Carey said. “That’s how good he is because he spots the ball so well.”
No. 4 Travis Weaver, ss, Lake County (North American)
Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 165. B-T: R-R. Age: 22
Very few independent league observers have seen Weaver play, but he has a couple of tools that stand out because of their rarity in independent ball. Weaver can run—he’s been timed at 6.5 in the 60-yard dash. And he has the actions and range to play shortstop in affiliated ball.
Weaver played his college ball as Bluefield (Va.) College, where he helped lead the team to the National Christian College Athletic Association title in 2009. In 2011 as a senior, he hit .292/.343/.359.
Signed by the Lake County Fielders after the majority of the team was released or traded away at the midseason, Weaver played in five games in Lake County before the team announced it was not going to play the remainder of its NAL schedule. Weaver left the team at that point, but quickly latched on in Lincoln, where he played in three games before the season ended.
Weaver’s hit tool is the big question. He has very little power, and there are concerns he might get the bat knocked out of his hands in Organized Baseball. He needs to add weight and strength, but his ability to be a solid defender at shortstop or second base could fit as a utility player in affiliated ball. Weaver may need some additional time in independent baseball to mature and gain strength.
No. 5 Kevin Fuqua, rhp, Fargo-Moorhead (American Association)
B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 205. Age: 22.
Much like Weaver, Fuqua may not be ready for a spot in affiliated ball, but his stuff is intriguing enough that he could be one of the better prospects in independent ball with a little more seasoning.
The rare 2011 undrafted senior who stepped into a solid role with an indy league club, Fuqua holds the school records at Division I LaSalle for innings pitched (331.0), strikeouts (222) and games started (46).
Fuqua was 1-2, 1.60 as a reliever for the RedHawks this year while showcasing a 91-93 mph fastball. He also showed a hard slurve, although he struggles to locate it consistently. Fuqua’s command wavers at times and his delivery isn’t always consistent, which will be an emphasis for RedHawks pitching coach Steve Montgomery if he returns to Fargo-Moorhead.
No. 6 Jake Rife, of, Chico (North American)
Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 205. B-T: L-L. Age: 24.
Rife has already had one taste of affiliated ball. He was a 48th-round pick of the Angels in 2009 after four years as a starting outfielder at Washington. Rife hit .301/.365/.441 in two years with the Angels, but most of his success came in Rookie leagues while he struggled in two brief stints in high Class A Rancho Cucamonga.
Rife had no such problems in the North American League. He hit .343/.436/.583 for Chico in 2011 while showing speed, good defense and a good arm in the outfield.
No. 7 Bobby Pritchett, rhp, Normal (Frontier)
Ht.: 5-9. Wt. 160. B-T: R-R. Age: 23.
If Pritchett was 6-foot-2, he’d likely be in affiliated ball. Instead he’s making a second consecutive appearance on the independent leagues top prospects list.
A four-year starter at Central Arkansas, Pritchett followed up an excellent rookie season in the Frontier League in 2010 with a solid, but less spectacular 2011 season. Pritchett went 9-5, 3.57 with 109 strikeouts in 124 innings this season. He walked 45 and allowed 110 hits.
Pritchett’s fastball stands out because of the general lack of good velocity in indy ball. He can touch 94 and sits at 91-92. He also throws an adequate changeup and curveball and has shown solid command. He finished the season with a flourish, striking out 16 in a complete-game one-hitter in an August start against Rockford.
In affiliated ball, Pritchett’s lack of size might lead to a move to the bullpen, where his fastball might gain another tick of velocity. However, he has shown his durability in the Frontier League as a starter.
No. 8 Landon Camp, 3b, San Angelo (North American)
Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 220. B-T: R-R. Age: 24.
Camp has baseball bloodlines, as his father Michael was a righthanded pitcher who was drafted 14th overall by the Tigers in the 1979 draft. Unlike a number of independent league stars who ended up in indy ball because they lack the prototype size and strength, Camp looks the part. He’s one of the bigger third baseman in indy ball, but he has shown solid athleticism to go with a strong arm. Camp’s San Angelo manager Doc Edwards says that he can handle second base, first base and even a little shortstop if needed. He’s also an average runner.
But Camp’s biggest calling card is his power at the plate. Camp hit .319/.390/.681 for San Angelo this year with 24 home runs, tied for third best in the league. It is worth noting that the power numbers for the players in what used to be the United League were generally better than those for former Golden League clubs, and Camp is one of four Colts to hit 24 or more home runs.
No. 9. Zach Woods, rhp, Brockton (Can-Am)
Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 200. B-T: R-R. Age: 23.
No one can doubt Woods desire to play pro ball—he latched on with the New York Federals travel team during the first half of the Can-Am season and pitched well enough to move up to a more steady job with Brockton at the season’s midpoint. Overall, Woods was 2-2, 1.95 as a reliever, with 38 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37 innings.
Woods generally sat at 88-90 for the Rox with a across-the-body delivery that adds deception. He also throws a relatively sharp-breaking curveball, but his bread-and-butter was to pound the bottom of the zone with his fastball.
After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Woods spent two years as a member of East Carolina’s rotation, posting solid numbers (2-3, 4.28 as a senior).
No. 10. Jimmer Kennedy, rhp, Brockton (Can-Am)
Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 215. B-T: R-R. Age: 24.
Kennedy made a stop with the New York State League playing for free just for the chance to get into indy ball after going unsigned after a four-year career at Rider. Kennedy has been well-traveled since then as well—he pitched in Brockton and Sussex in 2010, started the 2011 season in Brockton, was traded to the American Association’s Fort Worth club in a salary cap related move, then was brought back to Brockton.
Despite all those travels, he has good stuff. He sits at 88-91 and touches 93 while also throwing an effective cut fastball. He shows solid athleticism and had the ability to make adjustments when his delivery gets out of whack.
Ever since we started putting together independent league prospect lists back in 2006, we’ve set 25 as the age cutoff to make the list. By that standard, neither of the two power righthanders who follow qualify, but they’re worth noting as a pair of intriguing, if older, arms.
Santos Luis, rhp, Lincoln (American Association)
Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 220. B-T: R-R. Age: 27.
You can’t call Luis an unknown quantity. He’s pitched in Triple-A, and he’s already been a minor league Rule 5 pick. But the former Red Sox and White Sox farmhand had maybe the best arm in independent ball.
Luis has a true plus fastball. It consistently sits at 92-94 mph, and he pairs it with a short slider and a split. His delivery has a lot of effort to it, which explains why he’s had trouble with consistency throughout his affiliated minor league career. But at his best, Luis can be dominating, and he’s struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings for his minor league career.
With Lincoln, Luis was dominating as you would expect. He struck out 30 while allowing only 12 hits and nine walks in 22 innings.
Kyle Dahman, rhp, Kansas City
Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 180. Age: 27.
If Luis has the best arm in indy ball, Dahman isn’t far behind.
A Nebraska-Omaha product, Dahman is athletic—he was one of the best high school wrestlers in Missouri history and wrestled at Central Missouri State back in 2003. He joined independent ball in 2009, struggling with the Frontier League’s Evansville Otters (8.15 ERA). He was little better in the Northern League in 2010, but he did show some improvement this year with the T-Bones, going 2-3, 4.63 in 58 innings.
Dahman has a 92-95 mph fastball, but he doesn’t really have a solid second pitch. He throws a very fringy slider but it lacks depth or bite. That explains why he allowed more than a hit an inning. Dahman will spend the 2012 season as a 27-year-old, so he’ll have to move quickly if he makes it to affiliated ball, and there are legitimate questions whether he has the aptitude to handle that move, but guys with arms like Dahman get more chances than a pitcher who sits at 86-88 mph and knows how to pitch.
Ruben Flores, rhp, Lake Erie
Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 175. B-T: R-R. Age: 27.
Like Luis, Flores has a pretty lengthy track record already. He was once traded straight up for third baseman Bill Hall, and he spent nine years in the minors after being a Marlins’ 12th-round pick in 2003.
His injury history is somewhat lengthy. He’s twice missed the entire season recovering from shoulder surgery. He’s also missed time in the past with elbow soreness and fractured wrist.
But he was healthy in 2011, and showed improved command of his breaking ball.
“He has all the tools to pitch in the big leagues,” his Lake Erie manager John Massarelli said. “He always has. He has two plus pitches, he always has. But he finally put it together. (Pitching coach) Chris Steinborn did a good job of getting him to get behind the ball. Now he can throw his breaking ball in fastball counts.”
Flores has already been picked up as the Red Sox signed him after the season.