When we began ranking independent league prospects back in 2006, we hoped that it would help spotlight players who had shown enough to earn a shot to play in affiliated ball. Daniel Nava did more than that.
The No. 1 prospect on the 2007 list, Nava won a California League batting title in his affiliated debut, moved up to Double-A in 2009 and made his big league debut this season, hitting a grand slam in his first big league at-bat. He stuck with the Red Sox for much of the season as a platoon outfielder, proving that every now and then, a big leaguer can truly go overlooked.
Is there another Nava on this year’s list? It’s unlikely. Teams scout independent leagues more extensively now, so the best players from this year’s crop, such as Kansas City’s Justin James and St. Paul’s Matt Myers were signed during the season. James actually went from the independent leagues to the Oakland A’s bullpen in one year, while Brandon Kintzler (signed by the Brewers at the midpoint of the 2009 season) pitched in the big leagues as well.
But there are still several players who did go unsigned all season who showed reasons to be noticed. Here’s a look at the top 10 independent league prospects who were unsigned by affiliated clubs at the end of the 2010 season. The list was limited to players age 25 and younger.
1. Matty Johnson, of, Gateway (Frontier)
Age: 22. Bats: B-R. Ht. 5-foot-7. Wt.: 170.
Very rarely will you ever find a player in the independent leagues with an 80 tool on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. But depending on the source, Johnson is either a 70 or an 80 runner. And in his first exposure to pro ball, he showed that he can hit enough to take advantage of his fleet feet.
Johnson was a second-team NAIA all-American at Bellevue (Neb.) this season where he hit .427 with 26 steals in 32 attempts. After he went undrafted, he signed up to play in the MINK summer college league. He was second in the league with a .390 average before leaving the league to sign to play at Gateway.
Johnson didn’t slow down much in pro ball. He hit .313/.429/.379 with the Grizzlies while stealing 24 bases in 30 attempts in 42 games.
Johnson’s speed (6.4 in the 60-yard dash) is easily his best tool, but that speed also made him one of the league’s best center fielders with enough arm for the position (it’s a tick-below average). He had been scouted since his sophomore year in college, but concerns about his height (he’s 5-foot-7) and his bat kept him from being drafted.
Johnson’s game is a small-ball game, but unlike many leadoff hitters, he knows that and doesn’t try to hit home runs that turn into fly outs. A switch-hitter, Johnson is an adept bunter, and he takes advantage of his lack of height with an excellent batting eye. He walked 35 times while striking out only 20 times as a pro. The concerns about Johnson are his lack of power may affect his average as well if he gets a shot in affiliated ball. He’ll have to show he can handle good fastballs enough to get the chance to work counts.
In affiliated ball, Johnson has the speed to stick in center field, but he may profile better if he could handle a move to second base.
2. Wes Alsup, rhp, Joliet (Frontier)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt: 205.
Alsup is the kind of player independent league baseball was made for—a relatively raw pitcher who needs innings more than anything.. Alsup pitched less than 50 innings in his college career, so 30 innings this summer with Joliet was the kind of on-the-job training the big righthander needed to refine his game.
He may be raw, but even with a relatively unrefined delivery Alsup was one of the Jackhammers’ best relievers. He had a 2.05 ERA in 26 innings during the regular season while holding opponents to a .161 average against.
After being home schooled for most of his high school career (he played high school ball as a senior), Alsup played briefly for Belmont University as a freshman, transferred to junior college and then missed much of the next two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and the recovery from that surgery.
Alsup finally got on the mound more consistently this year as a redshirt junior. He earned the role of being UT-Martin’s closer and when he was on the mound, he was quite effective. He led the Ohio Valley Conference with seven saves while going 1-0, 4.24 in 22 innings. But he had to be shut down a couple of times with a stress reaction in his arm. Instead of returning for a senior season (he had been granted an extra year by the NCAA because of medical hardship), he opted to go pro, signing with Joliet in late June.
Alsup showed the same plus stuff with Joliet that he had displayed at UT-Martin, but he also reminded observers that he’s still quite raw. Alsup touched 97 at his best in college ball this spring, so he has premium velocity, and he was consistently sitting 92-94 mph day in and day out with Joliet. He also has sharpened his 84-86 mph slider, which proved to be a viable second pitch.
As you would expect with a pitcher with less than so few innings of experience (less than 100 innings in his college career), Alsup struggles to repeat his delivery and maintain a consistent release point. He strained a lat muscle that made it difficult for him to keep the ball down with Joliet, but he pitched through the injury and maintained his effectiveness despite struggles with his command.
The biggest question mark for Alsup is his health. If he can stay healthy and work with a pitching coach to improve the consistency of his delivery, his stuff is good enough to get affiliated hitters out.
“I think he’ll pitch in the big leagues someday,” Joliet manager Chad Parker said.
3. Chris Garcia, 1b, Shreveport-Bossier (American Association)
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 235.
If Garcia could run a little or play a solid outfield, there’s little chance he’d been in independent ball. But Garcia’s inside-out swing doesn’t hit for the kind of power teams usually look for in a first baseman, which explains why he spent the entire season in Shreveport after finishing second in the American Association by hitting .361 as a 21-year-old in 2009.
Playing in a league filled with veteran pitchers, Garcia once again finished second in the league in batting, this hitting .383/.501/.597 as he led the Captains to the league title. Garcia isn’t a slap hitter by any means, but he goes the other way with most everything, leading to lots of doubles (31 this year) to left-center. When he does pull the ball, he has enough pop to make pitchers pay (14 home runs this year). He just doesn’t do it as much as he should, at least yet.
“He’s a pure hitter,” Shreveport manager Ricky Van Asselberg said. “He doesn’t get fooled much. He’s a very mature hitter. We’ve worked on pulling the ball more, but he’s a natural opposite-field hitter. When he learns to pull, his power will spike.”
This season Garcia showed a better approach to the game, taking plenty of ground balls at first base to improve his defense after seeming to be only focused on hitting in the past.
4. Ryan Sheldon, rhp, Normal (Frontier)
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 210.
Sheldon was the ace of the Division II Nebraska-Kearney staff and was the two-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference pitcher of the year. That wasn’t enough to get him drafted, but it was enough to help him jump straight from college to the American Association in 2009. He returned to the more age-appropriate Frontier League in 2010 and after a slow start quickly turned into one of the best pitchers in the league.
Sheldon had a 0.49 ERA from Aug. 1 on. He carried a no-hitter into the ninth in one start and followed it up by taking a no-hitter into the seventh in his next outing. He finished second in the Frontier League with a 2.21 ERA.
“Of all the pitchers I’ve had in independent ball he had better command of four pitches than any pitcher I’ve had,” Normal manager Hal Lanier said.
Sheldon’s fastball sits in the high 80s, although he’s touched 91-92 mph at times. But he has excellent downhill plane on his fastball thanks to his 6-foot-6 frame. He also has an average slider, but it’s his boring cutter that caused hitters the most problems. He was as nasty on lefthanders as he was on righties because the cutter could run in on their hands like a termite.
“He cost me a fortune in bats,” Southern Illinois manager Mike Pinto said.
5. Bobby Pritchett, rhp, Normal (Frontier)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-9. Wt.: 160.
There are very few players in the independent leagues who are truly overlooked. They may not have gotten a good look because they played at a small school or because they missed time with injuries, but in most cases there is some reason that a scout at first glance decided to move on.
In Pritchett’s case, the reason is quite apparent as soon as he steps onto the mound—he’s 5-foot-9. But when Pritchett steps onto the mound, his stuff looks a lot bigger than his size would indicate. At Central Arkansas, Pritchett was a four-year starter on the mound and is the program’s all-time leader in innings pitched. He also started two years at shortstop, but given a chance to focus solely on pitching, he proved to be one of the Frontier League’s best starters as a rookie. He went 2-2, 2.86 with 79 strikeouts in 72 innings.
Pritchett’s fastball tops out at 94 mph, although he more often sits between 91-92. Unlike most independent league pitchers with a plus fastball, the athletic Pritchett shows solid command. He also throws a decent changeup and curveball with some bite.
6. Josh Short, of, Lake County (Northern)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.
Unlike most players on this list, Short has had a chance to play in affiliated ball. But it’s hard to say that one season in the Gulf Coast League as a 20-year-old really sums up his ability to play the game.
Short was released at the end of spring training in 2008. He didn’t play again until that year, but latched on with manager Fran Riordan and the Kalamazoo Kings as a midseason replacement in 2009. He hit .360/.443/.560 for the Kings last year, then jumped to the Northern League when Riordan took over the expansion Lake County franchise this year. The use-the-whole-field approach that worked in the Frontier League paid off in the Northern League as well. He was named the league’s rookie of the year after hitting .326/.419/.594 for the Fielders.
“He’s something special,” Riordan said. “He’s got the rare ability to hit for average and hit with power to all fields.”
Short’s swing stays in the zone for a long time. He has learned to pull pitches when pitchers try to bust him in, but he’s just as comfortable staying inside the ball when pitchers try to work the outer half. Short’s biggest hurdle is that he’s limited to first base or left field with a tick below average arm.
7. Donald Brandt, lhp, Maui (Golden)
Age: 24. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210.
Brandt has already gotten one shot at affiliated ball-he signed with Milwaukee last year after a strong showing at the Golden League all-star game. On the surface, that stint with the Brewers didn’t go well as Brandt 2-1, 5.96 in 25 innings with Helena (Pioneer). But he did strike out 33 and walk five for Helena, showing that he had strikeout stuff when he wasn’t leaving the ball over the plate.
In a return to the Golden League, Brandt was just as impressive. He went 15-0, 2.58 for Maui, finishing second in the ERA race to teammate Wes Etheridge while averaging a strikeout an inning (100 Ks in 101 IP).
Brandt throws an 88-90 mph fastball that tops out at 92, although it could play up a little if he moved to the pen. He also throws a cutter and a solid changeup, but his best pitch is a sharp curveball.
In affiliated ball, Brandt’s most likely role would be as a reliever, but his stuff is good enough to be more than just a lefty-on-lefty reliever.
8. Blake Gailen, of, Chico (Golden)
Age: 25. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-9. Wt.: 175.
Opposing managers around the Golden Baseball League would like to see Gailen finally get a shot at affiliated ball, partly because he’s earned it but also to not have to worry about facing him anymore.
Gailen’s swing is one of the prettiest in independent ball. He finished second in the Golden League with a .387 average this season (.387/.480/.603 overall) after hitting .355 last year. He moved to center field this year, and proved comfortable in the new role, making a number of highlight-caliber catches while showing good jumps and adequate range. Unfortunately for Gailen, one of the highlights turned into a problem. While making a catch in the alley against Edmonton, Gailen slammed into the wall. While his head didn’t hit the wall, the whiplash effect gave him a concussion. He missed more than a month recovering. Once he finally returned, Gaillen helped lead Chico to the league title—he hit .571 in the playoffs to be named the playoff’s MVP.
As a prospect, Gailen’s age works against him (he finished his career at UNLV in 2007) and his hit tool is his best tool, but there are few weaknesses in his game. He runs pretty well (4.15-4.2 from home to first), plays solid defense in the outfield with an adequate arm and enough power to serve as a leadoff/two-hole hitter, where his on-base abilities are best utilized.
“He bunts for hits. He plays a heck of a center field, he can steal and he hits for power. You see a short guy up there and then you see him hit it 400 feet,” said one opposing manager.
9. Pat Trettel, c, Lincoln (American Association)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 240.
When the Saltdogs lost catcher Shawn McGill to the Braves during the season, they were understandably left scrambling. After all, catching is one of the hardest positions to fill in independent ball.
Little did the Saltdogs know that they already had an answer on the roster. Trettel hit 11 home runs in only 131 at-bats for Lincoln, an impressive performance for a player who was making the jump from Division II to the American Association in one summer.
Trettel isn’t a polished catcher with a cannon of an arm, but then if he was, he wouldn’t be in independent ball. He has a 2.1 pop time from home to second base. He needs to improve blocking the ball and receiving, but he shows some potential behind the plate and the work ethic to smooth out some of the rougher aspects of his game.
His power is reason enough for teams to give Trettel some time to improve behind the plate. An all-American at Division II Seton Hill (Pa.) College, Trittell holds the school record for single-season home runs (16) and career (37). He averaged an extra-base hit every six at-bats with Lincoln.
Trettel’s swing is somewhat of an all-or-nothing approach, which explains his 57 strikeouts in 141 at-bats. Like most catchers, Trettel doesn’t run well, although he has enough mobility to play first base.
10. Mark Samuelson, 1b, Chico/Yuma/Tijuana (Golden).
Age: 23. B-T: R-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 230.
Baseball is filled with righthanders who learned to bat lefthanded. There aren’t nearly as many players who throw lefthanded but bat as a righty. But the weird split is working for Samuleson.
A former UC Riverside product, Samuelson broke Daniel Nava’s Golden League rookie record for batting average by hitting .376 this season.
Samuelson ended up being traded around all season, not because of concerns about his play, but because he started out on some teams on shaky ground financially. He went unpaid in Yuma (the owners eventually defaulted), then was dealt to Tijuana, which ended up in the same boat. After a trade back to Yuma, Samuelson finally landed on a more stable team with a trade to the eventual champion Chico club.
Samuelson has a solid batting eye, although he has less in-game power than you would expect for such a big man. In batting practice he’ll hit some mammoth home runs, but in the game he’s more of a gap-to-gap guy. Over at first base he’s pretty nimble for his size.
Others To Note: LHP Andrew Albers (Quebec); RHP Joe Augustine (Southern Illinois); MIF Landon Camp (San Angelo); RHP Josh Dew (Chico); RHP Wes Etheridge (Maui); 3B Bryan Frichter (Shreveport); OF David Harris (Orange County); SS Josh Horn (Wichita); LHP Todd Privett (Joliet); RHP Goman Romero (San Angelo); RHP Steven Stewart (Kansas City); LHP Ian Thomas (Winnipeg).