When bearing down on the Eastern League, scouts are looking to see who will be the all-stars of the future. When surveying the independent Frontier League, scouts have to aim lower. You probably won'™t find a future all-star playing in Rockford, Fargo-Moorhead or Pensacola, but there are future big leaguers to be found. The Padres know that, as they watched former Frontier League lefthander Joe Thatcher allow one run in his first 14 outings. The Yankees saw righthander Edwar Ramirez go from the United League to their big league bullpen in less than a year. Chris Coste turned himself into a catcher in the Northern League and eventually earned a spot on the Phillies roster, where he'™s hit over .300 in each of the past two seasons.
Scouts spend a lot of time on the road for a reason. Not many players fall through the cracks, but occasionally one does. With that in mind, here are the top prospects in independent baseball compiled after surveying managers from around the country. To keep the focus on prospects only players 25 and younger were considered.
1. DANIEL NAVA, OF
Nava has been proving doubters wrong for years. As a walk-on, he was cut during tryouts at Santa Clara in 2003, so he played two seasons in junior college and batted better than .400. Those gaudy statistics convinced Santa Clara to give him a chance, and he responded by leading the West Coast Conference in 2006 in batting (.395) and on-base percentage (.496) and making the all-conference team.
That still wasn'™t enough to get Nava drafted, so he turned to the Chico Outlaws, who added him when two other players failed to show up. The 24-year-old led the league in batting (.371) and on-base percentage (.475) and was among the league leaders in most every offensive category. He ended up leading Chico to the league title and was named the league'™s MVP.
The switch-hitting Nava showed an advanced mindset at the plate with a good two-strike approach. Although his lefthanded swing is a little smoother than his righthanded swing, he has power from both sides. He led the league in outfield assists while playing right field, though his manager Mark Parent said he could play center field.
"He can hit. He has a major league approach to hitting," Parent said. "If you watch batting practice you might wonder what is he doing, but he takes batting practice like Eddie Murray."
2. STEPHEN ARTZ, RHP
San Angelo (United)
After their success with Ramirez, it'™s no surprise the Yankees went back to the United League this year. They landed Artz, who went 1-4, 2.86 in 28 innings with San Angelo. His most impressive stat was a 46-3 strikeout-walk ratio. He went to low Class A Charleston and was just as effective, going 2-1, 2.97 with 27 strikeouts and six walks in 20 innings while holding hitters to a .137 average.
Artz, 23, was signed by San Angelo manager Doc Edwards out of Samford when he was recommended by an ex-teammate. His calling card is a 91-93 mph fastball that he commands to both sides of the plate. His next-best pitch is a cut fastball and he also has a fringe-average breaking ball. He also has a split he'™s working on developing.
Artz has some deception in his delivery, which has made it tough for hitters to pick up his pitches, and he has a reasonably athletic frame.
3. LUIS ALEN, C
Alen, a 22-year-old from Venezuela, spent the 2006 season in Italy after playing four years in the Marlins organization. He was a light-hitting catcher with the Marlins, hitting .230/.289/.280 in 391 career at-bats before being released in 2005.
The Goldeyes weren'™t expecting much offensively, but they knew that he was a solid defensive catcher with an outstanding arm. The arm was just as good as advertised, and he registered consistent 1.8-1.85-second pop times (the time from the catcher'™s mitt to the second baseman'™s glove on a throw) while showing a quick release and accuracy. He gunned out 31 percent of basestealers as one of the youngest players in a league dominated by minor league veterans.
But what was surprising was Alen'™s development as a hitter. He hit .333/.396/.453 to finish eighth in the Northern League in batting. He struck out 20 times in 285 at-bats. His swing is not particularly short, but he does have a plan at the plate and shortens up if he falls behind in the count.
"He has a plan in every at-bat. He gets good wood on the ball," Winnipeg manager Rick Forney said. "The power will come. He hit a hard .330 with a lot of line drives."
4. KANE SIMMONS, OF
The 23-year-old spent the first half of the season finishing up his senior year at Belmont (Tenn.) University, where he hit .323 with a team-high 15 home runs. He still ended up leading the Golden League in home runs (18) and slugging percentage (.628). He also finished in the top 10 in batting (.326).
Simmons showed power to all fields, with a smooth lefty stroke and the ability to drive the ball out to center field. He does need to refine his approach against offspeed pitches, but he made adjustments as the season went along. He'™s an average runner.
Simmons is likely limited to left field. He was recruited by Belmont as a pitcher, and he was clocked at 87-88 mph in high school, but he tore his labrum as a high school senior, which necessitated the move to the outfield. He needs to refine his throwing mechanics and quicken his release to improve his below-average arm.
5. DENNIS BLACKMON, C
You don'™t often find catchers in independent baseball who grade out as above-average defensively. Major league clubs hang onto catching prospects for years because every team needs at least two backstops who can handle quality pitching, no matter what they hit. But the Northern League was blessed with a pair of catching prospects this year in Alen and Blackmon.
Blackmon rattled off 1.8-second pop times during a Northern League tryout and has consistently rung up similar times in games, better than many catchers around the affiliated minor leagues. He blocked pitches in the dirt well, showed the ability to frame pitches and had two errors in 98 games. Blackmon has a slightly stronger arm than Alen'™s, although Alen'™s is more accurate, which explains why Blackmon threw out 28 percent of baserunners compared to Alen'™s 31 percent.
Blackmon also showed an improved bat this season. The 24-year-old hit .289/.352/.426 with gap power while proving difficult to strikeout (37 Ks in 289 at-bats).
6. DANE DE LA ROSA, RHP
Long Beach (Golden)
De la Rosa was indy ball'™s biggest flamethrower this season, touching 96 mph and consistently sitting at 91-92 mph. He paired that with a solid slider that gave him an additional out pitch. He finished second in the league with 16 saves, as he went 2-4, 3.69 with 53 strikeouts and 16 walks in 47 innings. In addition to having a blazing fastball, his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame made him an intimidating presence on the mound. He'™ll have to polish up his command as he struggles to hit his spots at time.
A 24th-round pick of the Yankees out of Riverside (Calif.) Community College in 2003, de la Rosa put up good numbers in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, but was released because of concerns about his makeup. He has bounced around the Golden League since then before the Brewers signed him late in the season.
7. SCOTT HOUIN, OF
Anderson (South Coast)
Like Artz, Houin has already showed his potential in affiliated ball, after the Brewers signed him in August and sent him to Rookie-level Helena, where he hit .326/.367/.587 in 46 at-bats. That wasn'™t a big surprise for Aiken Foxhounds fans, who watched Houin lead the league in hitting with a .359 average before the Brewers signed him.
Houin was drafted in the 44th round of the 2003 draft by the Orioles out of high school, then wasn'™t drafted again despite strong stints with Seward County (Kansas) CC and Mount Olive (N.C.) College. Unlike many independent league mashers, Houin has an athletic body and runs well. He can play all three outfield positions, has an above-average arm and hits for power and average. He has good bat speed, but he'™ll have to make some swing adjustments to hit quality breaking balls.
8. TRAVIS RISSER, RHP
Risser struggled through his senior year with Coastal Carolina while adjusting his release point to a high three-quarters delivery. He went back to his natural low three-quarters delivery at the end of the season, which paid off as he allowed one run in his final 6 1⁄3 innings in the postseason for Coastal Carolina.
The 22-year-old stuck with his natural delivery after signing with Washington. He dominated the league as a reliever, going 4-2, 1.09 with six saves in 50 innings. Opponents hit .243, while he struck out 42 and walked 17.
Risser has a live 87-91 mph fastball that he commands well and a tight 85-86 mph slider. "He also has poise and composure," Washington manager John Massarelli said. "He could go to high Class A now and sneak into the big leagues down the road."
9. RON GAINES, OF
San Angelo (United)
Gaines hit .417 with 27 steals at Division II Angelo (Texas) State as a senior, but he didn'™t attract any interest from scouts, so he wandered across the street to play for the San Angelo Colts. The 24-year-old hit .334/.386/.589 this year to be named the league'™s rookie of the year. In addition to showing the ability to hit for average and power (19 home runs), he used his blazing speed to hit 10 triples and steal 29 bases in 38 tries.
According to his manager Doc Edwards, Gaines has been timed at 3.9 seconds from home to first from the right side, which would grade out at 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. His swing is long, but he did show the ability to make adjustments and shortened up his swing as the season progressed. He'™s solid defensively in center field.
10. CHRIS DEMONS, OF
Albany/Anderson (South Coast)
Demons has only one plus tool, but it'™s the best tool in indy ball. Kash Beauchamp, the South Coast League'™s director of player development, said he timed Demons at 6.3 and 6.36 seconds in a pair of 60-yard dashes, though he ran a still-scorching 6.6 in a tryout with the Blue Jays at the end of the season with a strained hamstring. Beauchamp said he could run 3.8s to first base from the left side without even running hard.
"The only guy I'™ve seen as fast as him in 23 years in the pro game is Vince Coleman," Beauchamp said.
The rest of Demons'™ game is well behind his speed. Demons hit .252/.363/.382 in 123 at-bats with 26 steals in 29 attempts. His lefthanded swing is smoother than his righthanded stroke, and he might be best off hitting lefthanded at all times.
Demons has an average arm, and his speed allows him to run down balls in the outfield, although he could polish up his routes to the ball. He signed with the Blue Jays after the season wrapped up.