Indy Teams Earn Titles With Spring Roster Work

When do you call?

Anyone who has ever asked someone out on a date knows the age-old dilemma. Call too soon and you worry you seem to eager. Wait too long and you might accidentally signal that you’re not all that interested.

Caleb Thielbar

Caleb Thielbar’s stop in St. Paul helped pave the way to his spot in the Twins big league bullpen. (Photo by Mike Janes)

Independent league managers—usually the people most responsible for building rosters in indy ball—face that same questions time and time again in the silly season of roster construction during March and April.

They see a name come across the transaction wire. It’s a power-hitting first baseman, a catcher or a righthander who could slide into the front of a rotation, just released by a team in Organized Ball.

Ideally, the manager knows someone who played with the guy, or he knows a coach or a scout in the organization. The manager is looking for someone who can give him a sense of the player’s makeup and how he’ll fit in the clubhouse, as well as confirm what the statistics seem to indicate about the kind of player he is.

Those are easy calls. If the player has an agent, the next call is easy as well. Talk to the agent, feel him out for the player’s interest in independent ball, make a pitch and then follow up if necessary.

But if the player doesn’t have an agent, that’s when it gets tricky. The manager will be calling a player whose life has just been upended. In most cases, he’s surprised he was released. He’s holding out hope that another affiliated club will swoop in and pick him up.

Call too soon and he comes across as a vulture who has interrupted the mourning period of a career derailed. Call too late and he may be behind five or 10 other managers who have already called.

“In most cases when the guy is released, guys are not happy about it,” St. Paul Saints (American Association) manager George Tsamis said. “You don’t want to be calling right when they get released, but you do want them to know there is an opportunity.”

So managers usually call quickly. And they slip into the college recruiter part of their job. They sell the opportunity while also working to help the player come to grips with being released and to let him know that someone wants him.

“You have to call them, pump them up,” Grand Prairie Airhogs (American Association) manager Ricky Van Asselberg said. “It’s not the end of the road. Indy ball is the best thing that happened because otherwise you’d be getting a job. You’re in the game. As long as you have a uniform on, you have a chance. At the house on your couch, you don’t have a chance.

“Indy ball teaches you baseball is fun again. It’s not as much pressure as when you’re in Double-A and you’re worried about the guy hitting .330 in high Class A who might be coming up. Here they get refreshed.”

Combing Transactions

About two weeks before spring training ends for affiliated clubs, the indy ball silly season begins. Managers and player personnel directors have their phones with them at all times. Spring training for them may be weeks away, but no one is sneaking in one last vacation.

“It’s a six-week period that starts around St. Patrick’s Day,” Kansas City T-Bones (American Association) manager John Massarelli said. “If you don’t have a plan, you will get inundated. From Friday to Monday, there will be 50 names to go through. And there are 10 phone calls you make before you call the player.”

An independent league manager is part coach, part psychologist, part recruiter and part scavenger, picking through Organized Baseball’s leftovers

Local ties are often key. Tsamis signed Caleb Thielbar after the Brewers released him following the 2010 season because he was a Minnesota native who could play close to home. In one year in St. Paul, Thielbar went 3-3, 2.54 as a reliever. The Twins signed him after the 2011 season, and two years later he made his major league debut. He has become an important part of Minnesota’s bullpen.

First comes the waiting, though. When a player is released by an affiliated team, he often holds out hope that another organization will sign him. For most players, that’s an impossible dream.

“When you get released in spring training, look, they are getting rid of people. They aren’t signing people. If you were with Boston and they released you, why do you think Baltimore is going to pick you up? You might be signed in a month if someone gets hurt, but not now,” Van Asselberg said.

And here’s where the player’s timing can be just as crucial as the manager’s. If the player waits too long, the roster spot with your name on it may be gone, and in leagues with just a few higher-paying veteran spots, that money could be going into someone else’s pocket.

“That’s what hurts the player the most,” Van Asselberg said. “They’ll wait and wait, then it gets to May and then they think ‘I haven’t gotten picked up, I better sign.’ Now we’ve signed someone else. When they wait, a lot of time it’s too late.”

So managers work hard to sell the benefits of indy ball, and their particular version of it. A manager with a team in a great stadium will sell facilities. A team that does a good job of getting players signed to affiliated teams makes that the centerpiece of the pitch. A team that is a perennial title contender sells the winning experience.

A team that doesn’t have any of those things often has to offer a little more money than anyone else (not that it’s going to be a lot) or seek out players with ties to the region.

The Atlantic League has a number of trump cards when it comes to landing the top available players. Atlantic League teams pay more for veterans. Its season begins earlier and lasts longer, which means more paychecks. And teams generally play in excellent stadiums. Add it up and it’s a strong sales pitch.

So teams in other leagues even sell opportunity compared to other leagues. Atlantic League clubs begin with 27 players and cut down to 25 on May 31. That can leave a lot of players languishing on the bench.

“Someone who could start for me may be the 12th pitcher for them. What good does it do to be the 12th pitcher?” Massarelli said.

At the end of the day, making the right connection makes all the difference for the teams and the players. Van Asselberg remembers seeing Bo Schultz’s name when the Athletics released him at the end of spring training in 2011. He remembered that Schultz had a good arm, brought him in and moved him back to his original arm slot. Schultz was a solid reliever Grand Prairie and impressed the Diamondbacks enough that they signed him. He made his big league debut earlier this year.

“I always try to leave five or six spots for signing players at the end of March/first of April,” Van Asselberg said. “You can sign some big names. And you know they’re ready to play because they had a month or six weeks of spring training under their belt.”