When it comes to talent on the field, the average United League team would have trouble matching up with its counterparts from more established leagues. Leagues like the Atlantic League and American Association have more longtime veterans and larger salary caps that pay off in polish.
But partly because of that, there’s a hidden advantage. When it comes to young talent—players either overlooked or worthy of a second shot at affiliated ball—the United League matches up pretty favorably with the older leagues.
It was evident last year when Edwar Ramirez made the jump from the United League to the big leagues in less than two years. And it showed when our 2007 Independent League Top 10 Prospects included a pair of United League players compared to zero Can-Am or American Association prospects.
One of the main reasons is that raw young pitchers who might find themselves over their heads facing American Association hitters get the chance to develop and grow in a United League rotation.
That’s exactly what’s happening with Harlingen’s Kenny Evoniuk, who has one of the best arms in the United League. He has a 91-92 mph fastball and little else. But that velocity could make him an interesting prospect if he can clean up his delivery and improve his hard slider.
With a lot of 25-year-olds, an awkward delivery would be a sign that they can’t convert instruction into aciton. But in Evoniuk’s case, it’s proof that he’s still learning. An outfielder in high school, he signed with Cal Poly and redshirted there. He transferred to Cuesta (Calif.) Community College, where they looked at his 55-60 arm (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) and converted him to pitching. He went 2-0, 4.13 as a freshman and 3-6, 4.29 as a sophomore, but he admits that at the time, he really didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
“I just got on the mound and started hurling it,” Evoniuk said.
That may have been enough to get junior college hitters out, but when he transferred to Oral Roberts as a junior, he quickly found that it wouldn’t work against Division I batters. Oral Roberts coach Rob Walton emphasizes being able to command the fastball, while Evoniuk was still just rearing back and firing away. The result was that while he got plenty of instruction in bullpen sessions, he threw only one inning as a junior, giving up three runs for an ugly 27.00 ERA. When he was declared academically ineligible as a senior, it appeared that his baseball career might over—after only 67 innings as a pitcher.
But Evoniuk knew that he had potential in his arm, if he could only get innings to develop. He went to various tryout camps, eventually catching the eye of Golden Baseball League manager Les Lancaster. Lancaster didn’t have a spot on his Reno team, but he was able to recommend him to the WhiteWings.
There was one problem, Harlingen didn’t have a pitching coach in 2007. So while Evoniuk learned by doing, and with a little advice from his fellow pitchers, his mechanics were just as ugly as they had been when he left Oral Roberts. He went 3-3, 4.97 with 36 walks and 40 strikeouts in 42 innings.
This year, manager Al Gallagher and pitching coach Caleb Balbuena are working at fixing some bad habits.
“What we’re trying to do is get him to drive downhill,” said Gallagher, a longtime independent league skipper. “Right now he’s throwing 91-92 mph with a recoil. If he gets that weight distribution going with the ball instead of against the ball he could really progress.”
Gallagher said he thinks Evoniuk could have as many as five more mph in his arm if he can fix his mechanics. He also said that his secondary stuff should sharpen up as he learns how to consistently repeat his delivery.
The early returns have been mixed. Evoniuk went 0-1, 6.10 in his first two starts (in a league where the average ERA sits around 6.00). But after throwing 105 pitches in his second start, he found that he still felt good the next morning, a sign that he’s learning to use his whole body instead of just relying on his arm.
It’s a matter of taking small steps. Balbuena is just working on the delivery right now, but once Evoniuk has perfected that, they’ll start tweaking the timing of bringing the ball out of his glove and other mechanical issues. He is not nearly ready to latch on with an affiliated club, but with an arm like his, the Whitewings and other United League coaches believe he may eventually have a chance. For now, it’s just a matter of getting the innings in that will allow him to learn how to pitch.
“All of the stuff I learned at Oral Roberts and all, I hadn’t had a chance to put it into game situations. I need innings,” Evoniuk said. “I’ve been trying to figure it out, and it seems to be working.”
• It wouldn’t be the independent leagues without some wackiness. The Laredo Broncos (United League) traded 10 bats to the Calgary Vipers (Golden League) in exchange for righthander John Odom. Odom had trouble getting into Canada because of visa issues, so a swap was worked out with the Broncos for 10 maple bats. Odom is not the first player to be traded for an odd form of compensation. In 2006, Nigel Thatch was traded from the Schaumburg Flyers (Northern League) to the Golden League’s Fullerton Flyers for 60 cases of beer. It was a fitting deal considering Thatch had gained some notoriety for playing the brash athlete Leon in several Budweiser commercials.
• Players aren’t the only ones hoping to get back to affiliated ball. The Nashua Pride (Can-Am League) lost their hitting coach when Richie Hebner was hired by the Orioles to become the team’s new high Class A Frederick manager. Hebner replaced Tommy Thompson.