Steve Brook’s phone has never rung like this before.
The River City manager in the Frontier League sent a couple of players to affiliated ball last year—catcher Danny Canela has hit seven home runs as a Cubs’ farmhand this season. That had been the normal rate of signings Brook has seen in his four years as the Rascals’ manager. River City had three players signed in 2012 and two in 2011.
This year, with some season left to go, River City has sent six players to affiliated ball. Based on the Frontier League’s official transactions, it equals the most players any Frontier League team has sent to affiliated ball in the past four years.
Independent league managers are executives with two jobs that are always in tension. On one hand, a manager’s job security and paycheck depends on winning baseball games. Don’t win enough, and you’ll be looking for work.
But at the same time, an independent league manager’s second vital responsibility is to his players. Players in indy ball want to get (or return) to affiliated ball. So when the phone rings with an affiliated club looking to sign a player, a manager helping his player reach his dreams may be messing with his own security.
So when the A’s called to see about purchasing the contracts of catcher Josh Ludy (.362-16-50 in 51 games) and righthander Ben Bracewell (a less successful 1-0, 7.56), Brook was soon calling them into his office to give them the good news. The same was true when the Diamondbacks called about Taylor Ard (.338-9-33 in 50 games) and when the Rays inquired about Dane Stone (3-1, 0.93 in 5 starts). It was the same story with new Angels’ righthander Ray Hanson (4-1, 3.53 with River City).
River City has lost its slugging catcher who was among the league leaders in batting average and home runs, it’s No. 1 (Stone) and No. 2 starters (Hanson) and its third baseman (Ard) as well as Bracewell and infielder Matt Reida. It’s great for the players, but it’s sure tough for a manager looking to win.
“It’s great but it’s really put you in a tough spot as a team. You can’t replace the best players on the team,” Brook said.
Like every other independent league manager, Brook keeps a running list of potential additions to check on if he needs to fill a roster spot. As the summer wears on, the first question to ask an undrafted college player is whether he’s stayed in shape since his season ended. Even if they have, the new addition will generally step in at a lesser role than the player who left.
And no one on that list is going to match the production of a Ludy, an eighth-round pick of the Phillies in 2012 out of Baylor who was released after reaching high Class A in 2013. “Josh Ludy was the best player I have ever seen at this level in 11 years,” Brook said.
So far though, Brook has managed to pull off the tricky balance of winning and getting players to affiliated ball. In addition to having six players signed to affiliated clubs, River City was first in its division at 50-31, two games up on Schaumburg.
A Delicate Balance
Brook’s problem is one that is happening more and more in independent ball. A minor aspect of the newest draft rules has benefitted independent ball. In 2012, Major League Baseball cut back the draft from 50 rounds to 40.
While not every 41st to 50th round pick would sign under the old rules, there were numbers of college players who would have been drafted before who now are potential independent league players. Those players are the perfect profile to fit in with a Frontier League club. And they are part of the reason more players are now signing with affiliated clubs.
The Frontier League sold contracts of 20 players to affiliated clubs in 2011 (the last year of the 50-round draft). They have had at least 30 players go to affiliated clubs every year since.
“It’s the major conference guys with marginal numbers,” Brook said. “The kid who got picked up out by the A’s—Ben Bracewell. He’s a 88-91 mph, standard righthander. He would have been a 40th-to-50th-round pick if they still had those rounds.”
There’s one other factor at play. Nowadays, every affiliated club is at least somewhat involved in scouting independent ball. Over the past four seasons, all 30 teams have signed at least one independent player.
“It’s so wonderful to see major league organizations giving us a lot more respect,” Brook said. “It used to be a few teams: the Braves, the White Sox, the Orioles. Now you’re seeing a widespread group. They are filling their spots.
“What’s cool is players are getting good opportunities and they are performing.”