Blake Gailen has seen all that independent baseball can offer.
Through six seasons, Gailen has played in a league that went under. He played in another that has since changed its name. One year he was summarily released at the end of spring training along with all of his teammates when his team was sold.
He has manned center field behind the knuckleball princess, Eri Yoshida, and has been pulled off the field to the cheers of the crowd when it was announced that his contract had been sold to the Los Angeles Angels.
"Sometimes, I think adversity is my middle name," Gailen said.
But wherever he's gone, Gailen has always hit. He proved that once again in 2012, making the jump to the Atlantic League's Lancaster Barnstormers, where he hit .338/.415/.534 with a career-high 22 home runs and 25 stolen bases. That actually lowered his career independent league batting average to .348. For his consistent success, the 27-year-old Gailen is our 2012 Independent Leagues Player of the Year.
Coming out of Nevada-Las Vegas back in 2007, Gailen wasn't known as a wizard at the plate. At El Camino Real High in Woodlands, Calif., he had been known more for his pitching than his hitting. He had not hit better than .300 in his two years with the Rebels. Add in the fact that he's a 5-foot-8 outfielder, and it wasn't a surprise that the draft came and went without his name getting called.
Not a whole lot of independent league clubs were calling either, so Gailen latched on with the fledgling South Coast League—a first-year league that ended up not having a second year. On the lowest rung of independent ball, Gailen was signed largely because of his versatility and good attitude.
"He wasn't the hitter then that he is now. In 2007, he was a guy that I thought, 'I have to have this guy on my team because of the attitude he sets,' " former Anderson Joes manager Kash Beauchamp said. "He has leadership ability without opening his mouth. He's valuable. He can run a little, he can throw. He won't get you beat by doing stupid things."
Beauchamp got the leadership he expected—on a team with almost no one over the age of 25, a 23-year-old could be a leader. But he also got a better hitter than he expected. Gailen hit .368/.455/.526 that season, good enough that when Beauchamp got a job as the manager of the American Association's Wichita Wingnuts the next season, he brought Gailen along with him.
Gailen has had to pack lightly. He's been moving around ever since.
After a year in the American Association, Gailen was traded to Yuma of the Golden Baseball League, which gave him a chance to get closer to his California home. But just days before the 2009 season began, the league announced that Yuma was being sold to the Colombian Baseball Federation, which would stock the team with Colombian players. Gailen isn't Colombian, so along with all of his teammates, he was out of work just days before the season began.
It didn't last long, as he was picked up by another Golden League team in Chico. That proved to be a fortuitous move, as Chico is where Gailen established himself as one of the better hitters in indy ball. He hit over .350 in both of his two seasons in Chico. He then asked and received a trade back to the American Association, hoping that a change of scenery would help him get noticed by more scouts.
In The Footsteps Of Mike Trout
It worked, and it didn't hurt that he hit .406 with a 1.100 on-base plus slugging percentage in 69 games with the Lincoln Saltdogs. Once known most for his do-anything-for-the-team attitude, Gailen was now known as one of the toughest outs in independent ball. The Angels, who had brought Gailen to a tryout camp before the season, purchased his contract on July 29, 2011, and assigned him to Double-A Arkansas, where he would replace a teenager who had just been promoted to the big leagues: Mike Trout.
When he got to his new clubhouse, his jersey was in his locker. No. 23. Several of his new teammates gathered around.
"23, huh?" they said. "Those are some pretty big shoes to fill."
Gailen didn't realize that he had been given Trout's old jersey. In addition having big shoes to fill, the 5-foot-8 Gailen didn't really fill out Trout's XXL jersey all that well either. A couple of days later, he gave it back when the Angels sent the phenom back to Arkansas.
As he had in jumps to higher levels of indy ball, Gailen quickly found he needed to make adjustments to the speed of Double-A ball.
"I'm looking at the radar gun and it seems everyone's throwing 95 (mph). I'm used to facing 86-88," Gailen said. "I found that anything over 96 mph was when I noticed I had to simplify everything with my swing. As soon as (the pitcher) releases the ball, you don't have a lot of time. The good thing is a 98 mph fastball is usually pretty straight. If it has a lot of movement, you're probably not going to hit it."
Gailen hit .208/.322/.366 in 101 at-bats with the Travelers before the season ended. For a top prospect, a bad 100 at-bat stretch would be written off as adjusting to a new league or a small sample size. For Gailen, it would prove to be his only taste of affiliated ball up to now. After the season, he was released.
But that time in Double-A did help him get to the Atlantic League this year, as it beefed up his resume to jump to the most veteran-heavy independent league of them all. Coming to Lancaster, the longtime leadoff hitter expected to continue to be a spark plug, but when the season began, he found himself hitting fifth. Before long, he was the No. 3 hitter on the Barnstormers team that set an Atlantic League record for most wins in a season.
"Blake's got some power. He's a very smart baseball player. He's a workaholic," Lancaster manager Butch Hobson said. "He's a big player in a small package."
Gailen's size has been a hurdle he's had to overcome in the eyes of scouts. He's made it to affiliated ball, briefly, one time. Now he wants one more shot to show he can make it to the big leagues, especially now that he has the experience of a year in the Atlantic League under his belt.
"I'm up to the challenge, no matter who's offering . . . There is no doubt in my mind I'm a better player now. I knew I could play in any league if I'm given a chance," Gailen said. "I knew this league was good. I started off slow this year. I had to figure out the approach of the league."
|2012 INDEPENDENT LEAGUE ALL-STAR TEAM|
|C||Chris McMurray, Grand Prairie/Lincoln||A-A||283||49||86||18||53||32||43||1||.304||.380||.604|
|1B||Chris Nowak, York||Atl.||463||81||132||34||107||71||87||10||.285||.391||.570|
|2B||Andres Perez, York||Atl.||512||86||161||23||86||45||55||4||.314||.373||.529|
|3B||Nick Giarraputo, New Jersey||C-A||358||62||113||22||71||19||76||0||.316||.366||.567|
|SS||Angel Berroa, New Jersey||C-A||342||63||106||18||62||36||35||5||.310||.398||.544|
|OF||Nic Jackson, Fargo-Moorhead||A-A||404||77||125||17||89||43||72||19||.309||.377||.522|
|OF||Blake Gailen, Lancaster||Atl.||500||94||169||22||89||68||75||25||.338||.415||.534|
|OF||Ryan Harvey, Lancaster||Atl.||398||65||120||27||79||23||128||3||.302||.342||.563|
|DH||Joe Weik, Edinburg/Abilene||NABL||356||67||121||12||67||34||33||9||.340||.403||.520|
|SP||Josh Lowey, Wichita||A-A||15||4||3.57||0||23||20||134||126||43||96|
|SP||Mike Recchia, Windy City||FL||11||3||2.51||1||24||20||150||107||56||177|
|SP||Jeff Duda, Quebec||C-A||15||1||2.09||1||20||17||116||90||26||120|
|SP||Dwayne Pollok, Lancaster||Atl.||14||4||2.30||0||34||20||145||127||29||113|
|RP||Jonathan Kountis, Lake Erie||FL||6||2||1.06||18||40||0||60||31||19||68|