Southern Illinois Miners manager Mike Pinto promises players when he signs them that he'll do everything he can to help them advance their careers. He only has one request in return. If a player signs with an affiliated club, he asks the player to send back signed hats from the teams he plays for as he moves up the ladder.
In the Miners' brand new clubhouse this spring, there will be a hat rack with caps from Pinto's former players who are playing affiliated ball. There's a sign above it that says "You Could Be The Next One."
Baseball's most famous Little Leaguer is hoping to add to Pinto's cap collection.
After being skipped over in last year's draft, Danny Almonte, the star of the 2001 Dominican Little League team who was later proven to be two years too old, has signed with the independent Frontier League team.
"Under Frontier League rules, 12 of 24 players have to be rookies," Pinto said. "I thought about it, it could be worse than to be the guy to get Danny Almonte into pro baseball."
If the reports on Almonte are accurate, he could prove to be one the better arms in the league. According to a scout who called Pinto last October, the lefthander showed a 91-93 mph fastball, an 83-85 mph slider with good tilt and depth, some feel for a changeup and a quick arm action. Another scout who has seen him recently told Pinto that he was sitting at 87-88 mph this winter, several ticks off the 91-93 of the first report, but still enough to give a more than adequate fastball for a lefty.
"It wasn't a game situation, but I'll still take a 87-88 mph lefty," Pinto said.
When Pinto first heard about Almonte last October, there was talk that he would sign with a junior college, but Pinto placed a call to feel him out. He found that Almonte wasn't sure what he was going to do, so Pinto told him he'd check back later. When January rolled around, Almonte didn't sign with a junior college, so Pinto stepped up his phone calls. He wasn't the only independent league manager who was checking in with Almonte, but he did have an advantage.
"I had Danny's direct number and no one else did," Pinto said. "In light of everything that had gone on, I wanted to talk to Danny the person. If I had a hard time communicating with him, if he sounded like a punk, I didn't need that. But he's a nice kid."
So Pinto signed him sight unseen.
Almonte will report with a chance to win a spot in the Miners rotation. While the Frontier League emphasizes development and does not allow any players older than 27, Almonte will be one of the youngest and least experienced players in the league; most Frontier Leaguers sign after college careers.
"Lets face it, there aren't a ton of 19-year-old lefties with that kind of live arm," Pinto said. "As a result, if he were to come in and do well, what it would show some scouts is that he has the ability to get older guys out. He's facing guys with a little more experience."
Because he was not drafted last year, Almonte is eligible to sign at any time without having to back through the draft.