Some years are better than others.
In many ways 2014 was the year of the independent league prospect. John Holdzkom went from indy ball in May to the big leagues in September. David Peralta started to establish himself as a fixture in the Arizona lineup. And throughout the independent leagues, players were signed at record rates. All told, major league organizations signed 90 players out of independent leagues in 2014, including a record 40 Frontier Leaguers.
Indy ball alumni continued to provide highlights in 2015. Peralta, a former independent league top prospect honorable mention, and Chris Colabello, Baseball America's 2011 Independent League Player of the Year, posted two of the best big league seasons ever for former indy leaguers. Balbino Fuenmayor, last season's Independent League Player of the Year, played in the Futures Game and ranked among minor league leaders in multiple offensive categories before tearing a knee ligament in July.
But even as more teams scout the indy leagues, fewer independent players caught the fancy of scouts in 2015, with just 65 players signed by affiliated clubs this year. The difference was most glaring in the Frontier League, which had 20 players signed this year, half of last year's number.
Our prospect list is limited to players who were unsigned when their league's season ended, though it does include several players who have since signed with Organized Baseball.
1. Austin Wright, lhp Windy City (Frontier)
Born: Sept. 26, 1989. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 235.
An eighth-round pick of the Phillies in 2011, Wright has never excelled statistically. He posted a 4.26 ERA in his time with Philadelphia and his 5-11, 4.46 numbers at Windy City this season were even worse. But he's always had arm strength, which is why he ranked among Baseball America's Phillies Top 30 Prospects on three occasions.
Wright's stuff is still excellent. There's reason to think that if he can focus on throwing his 94-97 mph fastball and mid-80s curveball he'll fit in a return trip to affiliated ball as a reliever.
Windy City manager Ron Biga said Wright realized this season that he needed to work harder and tune out off-field distractions. He also firmed up his curveball, turning it from a loopy 77-79 mph pitch to a harder 82-84 mph breaker. And possibly most important, he slowed down the tempo of his delivery which helped him repeat more consistently.
Wright will have to consolidate the control improvements he showed this year, but he projects as a potential power lefty reliever. The Diamondbacks signed him after the season wrapped up.
2. John Brebbia, rhp, Laredo (American Association)
Born: May 30, 1990. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 185.
The best closer in the American Association has already had a stint with the Yankees in pro ball, but his stuff took a step forward this year in Laredo. Brebbia was 93-97 mph at his best this season. He'll likely sit at 92-94 mph more consistently over the length of a long season but he showed this year that he can maintain his stuff in back-to-back outings. He also showed that he could work multiple innings in an outing while maintaining his stuff.
Brebbia's power slider gives him an out pitch to go with the fastball, as evidenced by his 79 strikeouts in 64 innings.
Like Wright, Brebbia was signed by the Diamondbacks after the season. In his case, Arizona waited until he helped wrap up the American Association title and then immediately snapped him up.
3. Joe Maloney, c/of, Rockland (Can-Am)
Born: July 27, 1990. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 210.
A 10th-round pick of the Rangers in 2011 out of Limestone (S.C.), Maloney has spent two seasons in Rockland since being released.
In his Can-Am League debut, Maloney was a solid contributor with some versatility (he plays catcher, first base and left field) and a little bit of power.
This year he turned into the best player in the league by a large margin. The difference according to managers was a vastly improved approach. Where he would get caught hunting for a pitch early in the count last year on occasion, in 2015 he was willing to wait out a pitcher and be more selective. Maloney set a league record with 91 runs scored. He led the league with a .559 slugging percentage and finished in the top five in the league in batting average (.337), hits (123), RBIs (83), doubles (33) and home runs (14).
“He almost never had a bad at-bat this season. He's able to go deep into his at-bats and seem to get the pitch he's looking for sooner than later," said Quebec manager Patrick Scalabrini.
The Twins signed Maloney after the season. The last time they signed a Can-Am League player of the year, it was Chris Colabello, who made it to the big leagues with them before becoming a part of Toronto's lineup this year.
4. Noah Perio, ss, Sioux City (American Association)
Born: Nov. 14, 1991. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 170.
A 39th-round pick of the Marlins in 2009 out of high school, Perio ranked as the Marlins' No. 8 prospect heading into 2012. But he struggled in the heat of the Florida State League with scouts saying he needed to get stronger.
Perio was released by the Marlins in spring training this year and immediately became one of the best shortstops in the American Association. He hit .316/.345/.458 for the Explorers while playing a reliable shortstop. Because he was drafted as a 17-year-old, he's still relatively youthful (23-years-old) as he wrapped up his seventh year of pro ball.
Like most independent league shortstops Perio probably best projects back at second base in affiliated ball. He has good range but his arm better fits at second.
Perio was a tough at-bat for pitchers as he has a short stroke and is very difficult to strike out. He whiffed in only 6 percent of his plate appearances this season.
5. Patrick Johnson, rhp, Sioux City (American Association)
Born: Aug. 14, 1988. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 175.
As a short righthander who is 27 years old, Johnson faces longer odds on getting back to affiliated ball, but he did seem to take a step forward in his second year of independent ball. Johnson has always had solid stuff, and he was a Top 200 draft prospect coming out of high school. He mixes a 90-94 mph fastball with a solid average breaking ball and changeup.
But for most of his career, Johnson just hasn't had fine enough control and command to take advantage of his stuff. He worked his way into the Friday starter role at North Carolina. As a 25th-round pick of the Rockies, he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings but he also walked more than 4.5 batters per nine innings in his three years in affiliated ball.
Those control problems finally cleared up this year as he showed an ability to repeatedly hit his spots. Johnson located well to both sides of the plate and should better ability to repeat. He'll turn 28 late next season and he lacks the upside of a 95-98 mph indy flamethrower, but Johnson was as reliable as they come in indy ball this year and he has solid stuff.
6. Taylor Ard, 3b, River City (Frontier)
Born: Jan. 31, 1990. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 230.
At this point, Ard is a known quantity. He was drafted three times before signing with the Mariners as a seventh-round pick out of Washington State in 2012. Released after two years with the Mariners, Ard signed with River City and put up monstrous numbers (.338/.404/.544) last year, getting signed by the Diamondbacks.
Ard helped Rookie-level Missoula win a league title last year, but the Diamondbacks still released him after the season. He returned to River City and was even better this year. Ard hit .313/.385/.616 with 30 home runs to win Frontier League player of the year honors.
River City is a good park for home runs, but Ard's power will play most anywhere. He's big for a third baseman and limited in range. The Marlins have signed him, giving him another chance to prove his approach and power can play at higher levels.
7. Logan Vick, OF, Amarillo (American Association)
Born: Oct. 22, 1990. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 185.
Vick has a tick above-average speed, plays an excellent right field with an above-average arm and draws walks at a furious rate. But he was released by the Indians after he hit .183/.333/.285 at high Class A Carolina, thanks in part to a woeful average on balls in play.
Given a second chance in independent ball, Vick responded by showing the same excellent batting eye and did a better job of driving the ball to the gaps. He hit .308/.410/.420 for Amarillo.
Since he got on base more, Vick got to take advantage of his speed more and he showed solid basestealing instincts on his way to 38 steals in 47 attempts. He can slide over to center field if needed.
8. Connor Little, rhp, Evansville (Frontier)
Born: Aug. 1, 1990. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 220.
After struggling in 2013 in high Class A, Terance Marin landed in Evansville after being released by the White Sox. During his time in Evansville, Marin perfected a cutter. It was impressive enough that the White Sox's re-signed him just a couple of months after releasing him. On the strength of that cutter Marin had a successful season in Triple-A this year, going 3-4, 2.93 in 77 innings.
Little is a long and lanky righthander who came to Evansville late in 2014. This year he figured out how to throw a cutter and it gave him the weapon he lacked before. He sits at 90-92 mph, but it's his cutter with late movement that has given him a swing-and-miss weapon. Little struck out 12 batters per nine innings in the Frontier League while showing excellent control.
9. Kevin Cravey, RHP, St. Paul (American Association)
Born: Aug. 15, 1997. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 180.
Cravey missed time at Texas A&M because of bone spurs and lost his scholarship but stayed at the school to get his degree. A nondrafted free agent signing of the Marlins, he made it to high Class A before being released. He didn't return to the mound until this year in a late-season stint in St. Paul.
The stuff is still there. Cravey sat 90-92 mph with one of the best curveballs in indy ball. Teams have to dig deep to find Cravey considering how little he pitched this year. But for the one-time non-drafted free agent that's nothing new.
10. Daniel Bick, SS, Ottawa (Can-AM)
Born: Feb. 4, 1992. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 185.
One of the few first-year pros to get noticed this year, Bick hit .358/.459/.488 for Division II Georgia College & State in 2014 as the team's cleanup hitter and shortstop. When that didn't attract scouts' attention, Bick hit the independent league tryouts this spring, landed a job in Ottawa and proceeded to hit .259/.331/.321. After a slow start he hit .314 over the final month of the season.
Bick is an above-average runner with an above-average arm and solid hands and range. It's hard to ever project an independent league shortstop to remain at the position in affiliated ball but Bick is one of the few who at least has a chance to stick there. If not, he has the potential to be an above-average second baseman.
OTHERS TO WATCH: RHP Mike Zouzalik, St. Paul; RHP Matt Nevarez, Wichita; LHP Lucas Laster, River City, RHP Rob Wort, Sioux City; SS Anthony Phillips, St. Paul; RHP Tony Amenzcua, Sussex County; 3B Christian Ibarra, Amarillo; RHP Matt Larkins, Amarillo; OF Brian Hansen, River City; OF Michael Lang, Sioux City; OF Dexter Kjerstad, Amarillo; RHP Jordan Krause, Frontier Greys; RHP Victor Cappelen, Joplin; RHP Matt Gorgen, Camden; RHP Marcus Walden, Lancaster; LHP Buddy Boshers, Somerset; 2B/SS Mikey Reynolds, York; C John Nester, Wichita; OF Delta Cleary, Long Island; OF Zach Collier, Lancaster.