Independent Leagues Top Prospects Chat With J.J. Cooper

J.J. Cooper: Hey everyone. Welcome to our one and only indy chat of the year. I look forward to working on and rolling out the Indy Leagues top prospects list every year and the chat that goes with it, so thanks for coming out.

    Chuck (Wichita): Is Greg Porter going to get another shot at affiliated ball? He was a man amoung boys. Surely the Royals could use him at DH and get a lot more value than they got from Mike Jacobs.

J.J. Cooper: Hi Chuck. Being from Wichita I'm guessing you got to see our Indy Player of the Year a good bit. He was completely dominant in the American Association and showed that he should be in line for another shot at Triple-A. His age will make teams a little more hesitant to sign him, but he's a good fit for a team looking for a veteran corner outfielder who can also play first (and even third).

    Hagan (Charleston, Illinois): Who was the last independent player to make it to the majors and even make some sort of impact, not counting Hochevar?

J.J. Cooper: At least a couple of true indy leaguers (players who were either orginally signed by indy teams or ended up on indy teams because no affiliated club wanted them) make it to the big leagues every year. Brad Ziegler went from indy ball to a pretty dominating year in Oakland in 2008. George Sherrill has gone from indy ball to the all-star game and Josh Kinney has pitched in the World Series. Clay Zavada had a very good rookie year in Arizona this season and catcher Chris Coste has put together nearly 1,000 at-bats as a big league catcher even if he didn't make it to the big leagues until he was 33. And that's leaving off a number of other ex-indy leaguers. They're very rarely impact players, but there is always a smattering of indy leaguers who deserve a shot at affiliated ball.

    Ryan D. (Moorpark, CA): What ever happened to Jeremy Frost (St. Paul Saints, 2006)? I know he signed with the White Sox and played AA, but did he get released?

J.J. Cooper: He wasn't released but he hit six-year minor league free agency and didn't land a new job in affiliated ball.

    Bo (KC): How many scouts did you talk to when putting together this list?

J.J. Cooper: As many as I can find who will talk to me about indy ball, which isn't all that many (usually two or three)—if a scout is following indy ball closely he isn't going to give away the names of players he wants to sign so other teams can see this list and go out and sign his guy. This list is largely put together with the help of the independent league managers. Before it was wrapped up I talked to 20 or so people to put together this list.

    Alex (Atlanta): Are there any players who would have made this list, but who signed with a MLB team before the deadline?

J.J. Cooper: Good question. I really could have put together an entirely separate list of players who have signed. Trent Lockwood, a first baseman in the United League, would have made it for his power potential, but he just signed with the Yankees. Jason James has the best swing in indy ball, but the former Rockford Riverhawk just signed with the Cubs. Daniel Satler, an A's signee, has a good fastball and a hard slider.

    Mitchell (NYC): Are their any Indy prospects that could be on a Top 20 prospects list in a major league system??

J.J. Cooper: No. The best of these prospects would begin as an org player in an affiliated system with the need to prove themselves. The No. 1 prospect on this list two years ago, Daniel Nava, has turned himself into a player with a chance of making it to the majors, but to do that he's had to hit .354/.450/.558 between high Class A and Double-A over the past two seasons. And even with that, he'll be on the back end of the Red Sox Top 30 prospects list I would imagine.

    Richard (Boston): So I see the redsox signed your top rated player. Is he a legitimate prospect, or just roster filler?

J.J. Cooper: Yeah the No. 1 prospect Reynaldo Rodriguez has signed with the Red Sox. He's in between those categories for now. Rodriguez stood out in the Golden League as a hitter with a plan at the plate with plenty of athleticism. He'll have a chance to show what he can do in Columbia this winter and then he'll go to spring training looking to make a full-season roster. If he can find a long-term position (a corner outfield spot perhaps) he has the bat to try to follow in Daniel Nava's footsteps.

    Jon (Peoria): How would you compare the depth of possible affiliated-ball prospects this year with past years? How many this year would you say have a legit chance of reaching the majors if they were signed by somebody?

J.J. Cooper: It's a thinner group this year, something that I kept hearing from scouts and managers throughout the year. In past years the top couple of prospects were pretty easy to pick out. This year there are a lot of prospects who could have slotted anywhere from No. 5 on this list to No. 30. Beyond the 10 more names I listed, there are at least 10 more players who could have just as easily made the list. There's a lot of depth, but less "why is that guy in indy ball" guys than there have been in past years. As far as making it to the majors, if one or two guys from this list ends up making it, I'd be happy with that. You have to remember that anyone who makes this list has had multiple opportunities to be signed by a scout—coming out of the draft, then while playing in the independent leagues. When ranking players for this list it comes down to projecting players who are young enough to still develop in affiliated ball and talented enough to put up numbers once they get to affiliated ball. Even in a good year, most of the top 10 indy prospects will get signed, have some success but then top out at Double-A or so. If one or two of them can show they have the talent to get to the big leagues after being overlooked out of the draft, then overlooked through an entire independent league season that's a pretty big success story.

    Tom (Florida): Is there any Indy that has a lock on promoting eventual major leaguers?

J.J. Cooper: No. If you are looking for the league with the most big leaguers it would be the Atlantic League, but most of those players are ex-big leaguers or ex-Triple-A players who sign with an Atlantic League club as veteran minor leaguers, then sign with an affiliated club to get back into Triple-A. Ruben Sierra, Rickey Henderson, Brendan Donnelly, Curtis Pride and Mike Rivera are just a few of the examples.

    Josh G (Sacto, CA): Of these guys who is the most likely to be signed by an mlb team?

J.J. Cooper: Rodriguez has already signed so that's an easy answer for me. Before it's all done I'd expect at least five to seven of these players will be signed. Of last year's unsigned players No. 1 Mike LaLuna spent the whole year with the Tigers' New York-Penn League club, No. 2 prospect Seth Loman slugged .519 between low Class A and high Class A, No. 5 prospect Jon Hunton went 6-4, 2.92 between high Class A and Double-A, No. 7 prospect Santos Hernandez was 6-2, 2.54 between low Class A and high Class A and honorable mention RHP Paul Phillips made it to Triple-A and is pitching in the Arizona Fall League. So all in all about half of last year's list went on to have success in affiliated ball this year. Every one of the top 10 prospects in 2007 ended up signing with an affiliated club, but of that group, Daniel Nava, Kane Simmons and Travis Risser are the three still having in affiliated ball two years later with Nava clearly the standout of that group.

    JAYPERS (IL): Is Joey Metropoulos anything to get excited about? What's the skinny on him?

J.J. Cooper: What would a BA chat be without Jaypers? Metropoulos has some of the best power in indy ball as he showed by hitting some moonshots at Southern Illinois. He can play a corner outfield spot or first base and he has already had some success in the minors. But there are concerns that despite his power he can be pitched to by good pitching, which makes it hard to project him as a Double-A player right now, which is the logical spot for him as a now 26-year-old.

    Jon (Peoria): I realize this isn't a prospect-related question, but do you foresee much movement among teams this offseason? Are there any leagues in danger of shutting down?

J.J. Cooper: This has definitely been a difficult year for indy ball in general. Attendance was down around minor league baseball, but indy ball may have been affected more than anywhere else. There were a lot of rumors floating around about franchises moving between leagues, but for now it looks like everything has settled down. The American Association has announced it will have the same 10 teams again next year which cools down some of the rumblings that Fort Worth would head to the United League. Rockford has already announced they will join the Northern League next year and the Golden Baseball League has announced its expanding to Hawaii. I'm not going to speculate on any leagues shutting down because a) it could get me sued and b) it's not fair to leagues trying to figure out ways to keep things going in 2010, but there are definitely leagues that are facing difficult offseasons.

    JP (Lou): Risser is a FA I believe...released this appearances in affiliated ball in 09.

J.J. Cooper: Thanks JP you are correct.

    Joe (IL): Stout's name is Ross, not Russ.

J.J. Cooper: Thanks Joe and it has been corrected in the story. Stout is one of the better pitchers in indy ball. He's not overpowering (86-89 mph fastball) with a good curve and changeup but he has a feel for pitching. That's the kind of stuff that has given him a lot of success in indy ball but it also the kind of stuff that struggles to get a contract with affiliated ball. Scouts usually want to see a better fastball before they sign an indy guy, but if anyone can do it based on pitchability, Stout's one of the top candidates.

    mike (sacramento): A's have a ton of depth, but where does mike benacka fit in?More roster filler or could he get an mlb shot next yr?

J.J. Cooper: I'll be interested to see if his name comes up when we're working on the A's Top 30. Benacka was No. 4 on last year's signed indy prospects list. As we noted back then his fastball won't blow anyone away, but his changeup is such a good pitch that he has been able to dominate without dominating velocity. It's hard to argue with the results—he struck out 90 in 79 innings while going 3-1, 2.61 with no home runs allowed between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. It wouldn't completely shock me if he got a shot at some big league time next year, although his command could still use some improvement.

    JAYPERS (IL): Could you give us the rundown for Mr. Cub's namesake? Thanks, JJ.

J.J. Cooper: Ernie Banks (no relation) put together one of the best seasons in indy ball with a dominating year in the Frontier League. But Banks' biggest hurdle to getting back to affiliated ball is his makeup. He was suspended twice by the Wild Things and eventually they traded him away in the middle of a .353-24-75 season. I talked to several managers who said they were offered him for nearly nothing and they turned it down because of their worries about his makeup. That's the kind of thing that will keep an affiliated club from signing a player. On the field Banks has good power and can center the ball, but there were some worries that he has a slider-speed bat that wouldn't succeed against better velocity.

    Steve (Seattle): What do you know about new Florida Winter Baseball League? I hear they open the season Oct 30th.

J.J. Cooper: It's going to be an interesting league because it will be a mix of indy ball players and lower level affiliated players, which is something you very rarely see mix together in the U.S. The financials of making a league work in the baseball-saturated Florida market is tough but the league will be interesting to keep an eye on.

    Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware): From a disadvantaged backround Charlton Jimerson apparently did everything right and developed into a mid-level prospect with the Astros. He hit pretty well last year in the independant league. Any chance he gets back on the organized baseball track?

J.J. Cooper: Jimerson had a very good season in the Atlantic League. He's definitely got a shot at getting back to another club as a Triple-A player. It just comes down to the right opportunity coming along. John Manuel, Chewdini's biggest fan in the BA office, is hoping to see that happen.

    Roy (Phoenix): We can put a man on the moon but we can't figure out a way for Isaac Hess to play Organized Baseball? That just doesn't make sense to me. Can't you people find some do-gooder lawyer out there who can make this happen?

J.J. Cooper: It's tough. In fact there is a lawyer working pro bono to try to help Hess out on this very topic. The concerns teams have revolve around the possibility of Hess making a claim that his hip was injured by pitching. And there appears to be no way that Hess can craft an air-tight waiver that acknowledges he's aware of the risk. The best hope for now seems to be if Hess can get an insurance policy that would cover any potential lawsuit down the road (even if Hess doesn't plan to every sue anybody). On the mound, there's little question that he's shown that he deserves a shot.

    Sean (St. Louis): Former MLB player Mac Suzuki dominated the Golden league as a reliever this year to the tune of a 76/13 K/BB in 49.1 IP how did he not make the All-Indy League team over Bill Simas?

J.J. Cooper: You could definitely make an argument for Suzuki. Simas picked up 27 saves and was very effective in the most veteran indy league, but you make a very good argument Sean.

    Magic Mike (New York, NY): Thanks for taking my question. It is a three part question. How come Bryan Sabatella can make the list as the #3 prospect in 2008, not get signed, and play in the Independent leagues again this year, and not make the list. Why do you think he couldn't get a shot during spring training in affiliated ball this past spring? Is there something someone at BA has heard about him that would make a team not want to at least give him a shot during spring training?

J.J. Cooper: I haven't heard anything in particular, although Satabella's lack of power this year (two home runs in 400 at-bats) probably played a part in him staying in indy ball. Last year he was a plus runner who also showed some pop. Back when I ranked him in 2008 there were a couple of concerns that his bat was solid but not special because of his bat speed. This year he has a solid but unspectacular year that helped feed into those concerns, which is why he wasn't back on the list.

    brett (vestal,ny): Do the mlb scouts pay real attention to this list?

J.J. Cooper: Teams will at least take a glance at it. Some teams don't spend much time scouting indy ball, so the list is a quick way to get some names to check out.

    Sean (St. Louis): Alberto Rolon looks like he has some pretty bad numbers, can you tell us what he throws that allowed him to get a honorable mention on the prospect list?

J.J. Cooper: Yeah, his numbers kept him from being a top 10 guy, but I got reports he showed an 89-90 fastball that touched 92 mph and showed good life and a tight slider. He probably needs to stay in indy ball and keep refining his command but his stuff is pretty good.

    Alex Byrne (Depere): Do you think a team will sign Adam Frost and if so, what level do you think he would be assigned or reach?

J.J. Cooper: I'd expect to see him signed and he's young enough to still be sent to Class A. The big question with him is where would he play? He could stick at shortstop or be a utility infielder but there's some thought that his speed would play best in center field.

    Sean (St. Louis): Former BA Indy League "prospect list maker" Shawn McGill had a very solid season in the AMAS (slightly above average power and contact rates and great walking ability), although his slash lines don't stand out, is he a definite to stick at catcher? Do you think he'll get/deserve another chance after I believe the Cubs signed him at the beginning of 2009 although he never officially played a game with them.

J.J. Cooper: McGill is one of the most athletic catchers in indy ball and one that multiple people have told me wouldn't be out of place with another spring training invite. McGill was at spring training last year but did not make it through the final roster cuts. He doesn't have the power scouts would like to see, but his athleticism and solid work behind the plate would make him a solid signing for a club looking for a catcher.

    Stephen (St. Paul): Aside from players like J.D. Drew, who is the most successful modern indy ball alumnus (i.e., a player who was first discovered playing in an independent league)?

J.J. Cooper: I think Kevin Millar earns the title of best true indy player. George Sherrill has an all-star appearance, but Millar's decade of big league success puts him in a class of his own.

    Petey Pablo (Carrboro): If you would be so kind so as to mention other indy guys of interest who signed before the deadline, I'd appreciate it...

J.J. Cooper: I've thrown out some names, but here's some more. Dylan Axlerod has solid stuff. Brandon Kintzler combined a good cutter with a feel for pitching. Austin Bibens-Dirx showed nasty stuff before getting signed by the Cubs. James Allbury has a fastball that's up to 93 mph but is somewhat flat. Edwin Walker (Yankees) showed he was one of the best lefties in the Northern League before signing.

    Joe (Newport News, VA): How would a team composed of the 20 or so best independent league prospects on your list fare in the NY-Penn lor Northwest leagues? The Midwest or Sally Leagues?

J.J. Cooper: I really like this question. I get asked all the time "what level is indy ball" which is a hard one to answer, but this is a much better way of looking at it. If you put together a team of the 25 best independent league players they should win a Sally League or Midwest League title because you'd have so many veterans who are just much more experienced than Class A players. You could have Jose Lima, Mac Suzuki, Armando Benitez and Bill Simas toying with 18-year-olds. If you took a team of "indy league prospects" I'd say they'd struggle because the indy league's 21-to-24 year olds are not nearly as deep as indy ball's depth of 26-to-30-year-old minor league veterans.

J.J. Cooper: Well I better wrap this up to start working on formatting the Draft Report Cards that will be on the site beginning next week. Thanks for all the really good questions about the independent leagues.