2013 Independent Leagues Top Prospects Chat With J.J. Cooper

Moderator: J.J. Cooper will answer your independent league questions beginning at 3 p.m. ET.

Jim Goulart (Assonet, MA): The Orioles and Diamondbacks seemed to blow other organizations away in sheer number of signings from the indy ranks in 2013, including several who went on will go on to make their affiliated debuts in 2014. Other organizations, like the Padres and Brewers, with strong histories in this regard, seemed to back off significantly, particularly Milwaukee. Do you have a breakdown of 2013 affiliated purchases by organization? Thanks.
J.J. Cooper: I do not have a complete list of the number of players signed by each organization, but yes, I would put the Orioles (which have long-time indy scout Mal Fichman working for them) and the Diamondbacks (which have long-time indy scout Bill Bryk as well as a team of indy scouts including former indy league manager Chris Carminucci) as among the busiest teams in scouting the independent leagues.

Jim Goulart (Assonet, MA): The Brewers' Brandon Kintzler is a major indy league-to-big league success story. Spending '07-'08 in Winnipeg, he asked for a trade to St. Paul to increase his visibility. Is it safe to say the vast majority of indy league games go unscouted by any MLB organizations, who might wait until indy league All-Star Games to allocate resources? Are the indy leagues "under-scouted" in your opinion?
J.J. Cooper: It’s a cost-benefit analysis. You can say that indy leagues are under-scouted, as no team saturates the indy leagues with scouts who just go to games. Even the teams that scout indy ball do so in a very targeted fashion–a scout will go in to see a certain player or will check out the all-star game. Simply trying to cover every indy ball team would require a lot of scouting for little payoff–you’d probably go 20-40 games without seeing someone you wanted to sign. Usually in indy ball, scouts and teams find out about players they want to go see from a tip from a manager or someone else. Then they fly in (or get a local area scout to drive in) see that player (and the rest of the team) and make a decision to sign him or not.

john (grayson, ga): I thought David Peralta by Arizona was one of the more interesting in-season pick-ups. After pitching in the low minors for St Louis, he was out of baseball for several years before returning as an outfielder in the North American League in 2011. Any reports on him?
J.J. Cooper: I agree. Most in-season pickups are guys filling roles for teams that need a spot filled. Peralta has more upside than the average in-season signing. Peralta was on this list last year (http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/prospects/rankings/league-top-20-prospects/2012/2614194.html). He was one of the better bats in indy ball before signing, and the excellent season he had in Visalia gives him a solid shot to be moving up to Double-A in 2014.

john (grayson, ga): Have you heard anything about the chances of success for the American West League's launching and the Northern League's relaunching in 2014? Do you think the PECOS and Freedom leagues and the Pacific Association make it to 2014?
J.J. Cooper: I’m highly skeptical with any new independent league. Facts are facts. Since 1999, there have been a significant number of new independent leagues (Golden, Pacific Association, Pecos, Freedom, United, Southeastern, Arizona-Mexico just to name a few). None have found long-term stability, with the United League coming closest to that admittedly low bar. The American Association (which really is the Northern League renamed), the Frontier League and the Atlantic League have established themselves as successful long-running entities, and the Can-Am League occupies a level a notch below that. What do these leagues have in common? For one they are largely located in the Midwest and Northeast (with the American Association and now the Atlantic League stretching into Texas). Those areas have proven they can sustain independent leagues. The Southeast and West Coast have had no such track record, although many leagues have tried and failed to disprove that–the West Coast has seen the Western League, Golden League do well-funded tries that failed. At this point, a new independent league has to prove that either a) it can make independent baseball work in an area that has already failed with independent baseball in the past or b) it can find successful markets that the Atlantic League, American Association and Frontier League have overlooked. When it comes to a) there are no new ownership models that lead me to believe a new group of owners can make it work where reasonably well-funded attempts have failed in the past. When it comes to b), it’s hard for a new league to make an argument that a city should pick them instead of an existing league if both are competing for a funded stadium. More importantly, the economics of this decade make it highly unlikely that many government funded stadiums will be built for indy teams, which makes life as a new indy league even tougher. But the real death kneel for many new indy leagues is that the economics of summer league ball has taken over markets that are too small for many indy leagues. Workers’ comp payments are a big expense for independent league teams, one that is nearly as much a factor as the meager payrolls that small indy leagues pay their players. Summer college leagues dodge both of those expenses, which means that they can work in ballparks that can’t sustain indy ball.

Keith H (Syracuse, NY): Besides Riley, Perez and Parmenter, did the Braves sign any other Indy League players this offseason? Thanks
J.J. Cooper: Those are the three that I’ve heard about. Riley intrigues me a lot, as there aren’t a lot of middle infielders in indy ball who seem to have a chance to stay in the middle infield. Riley has a better chance than most to stick up the middle and you can’t help but love his feel for hitting–he was the toughest player in all of the NCAA to strike out in 2011.

john (grayson, ga): Any info on Braves in-season signing Brandon Cunniff, Chris Edmondson, and Ryan Hinson?
J.J. Cooper: All 3 were more needed org players than top prospects, but if you asked me to pick one who has a chance to surprise, I’ll go with Cunniff but there’s reason to be skeptical with all three.

Metro (NYC): JJ, with the Mets so thin at SS at the upper levels, does K.C. Serna have any chance to be a big league SS?
J.J. Cooper: With any of these guys, you’d be stretching to project a big league career. It does happen (Daniel Nava, for example), but really, anyone on this list who ends up with the career of 2009 No. 1 prospect Reynaldo Rodriguez is doing well. Rodriguez has had four productive years as a minor leaguer with the Red Sox and Twins. He hit 21 home runs in Double-A this past year and if everything goes great, he could fall into a cup of coffee in the big leagues, but it’s more likely that he’ll have a reasonably lengthy minor league career. I think Serna could help a team in need of middle infield depth in the minors. If he does better than that, it’s a bonus.

Erik (Carbondale): If a player does not get drafted, how does he find his way into independent ball?
J.J. Cooper: Connections matter a lot. If an old college teammate plays for an indy league team, that kind of recommendation to the manager can be the foot in the door. Indy league managers are always looking for talent, but credentials do matter. If a player seriously wants to play legit indy ball (i.e. not a pay to play league), you need to either have some solid college baseball stats, time in the affiliated minors or some tools that help you stand out (a 90+ mph fastball, or a great secondary pitch, or legit power or speed for example). If a player has solid college numbers, it’s worth asking a local area scout who’s seen you play if he has any recommendations for a team to play for. Area scouts and college coaches will often help point a player to an indy team if that’s a realistic option. If none of those avenues work, there are always the open tryouts teams hold in early spring.

john (grayson, ga): The 2008 Brewers 2nd rounder Seth Lintz was recently picked up by the Diamondbacks after pitching poorly for four teams across the Pacific Association, Frontier League, and American Association. Is he a guy, like Wes Alsup, who will keep getting chances because of arm strength?
J.J. Cooper: Yes. You can’t teach arm strength. An indy pitcher with a 95 mph fastball, poor stats and questionable control will have a much easier time getting signed than an 85-mph pitcher with impeccable control and a sub 1.00 ERA. Generally when teams call to ask me about potential indy players to sign, they aren’t interested in any one who doesn’t sit at least 90 mph with their fastball. And if said pitcher throws 95+, they are willing to overlook a lot more flaws.

ScottAZ (Phx, AZ): What were the scouts take on former 1st round pick CJ Henry's return to baseball? Will he get another go with affiliated ball?
J.J. Cooper: It was a solid return, as he has an excellent season in the Frontier League. That very well may help him to have several more years in indy ball, but he’s a soon-to-be 28-year-old who is now limited to a corner outfield spot. That’s a very tough way to get back to affiliated ball. If Henry had gone straight to indy ball after being released by the Phillies, maybe he could have gotten back to affiliated ball, but after spending several years playing college basketball, it will be hard to ever get back to affiliated ball. It’s not impossible, but the odds are long.

mick (chicago): could you tell me about cohl walla he played for the frontier greys this year
J.J. Cooper: Walla is the kind of player who can benefit from indy ball. Much like No. 1 indy prospect K.C. Serna, Walla had a history of some D-I success (in Walla’s case, he was a Freshman All-American at Texas), but scouts are understandably going to be leery after he was kicked off the team at Texas. Walla needs to put in a full season in indy ball where he’s productive and even more importantly where he’s a model citizen with his team so that his manager and other managers can vouch for his makeup.

john (grayson, ga): Thanks for the chat and the indy coverage in general! A pretty decent percentage of players on your list are picked up each year. How often do players (or agents) pitch themselves to you for consideration?
J.J. Cooper: Interesting question. Not often. I put this list together by talking to lots of indy ball managers since they are seeing these guys day in and day out. There are a significant number of indy ball managers who have very good eyes and realistic understandings of what the ceilings of these guys are. When you hear “this guy can play in the majors today,” I get quite skeptical. But when you hear, “this pitcher could probably succeed in Double-A next year” then we’re talking. This list couldn’t be put together without managers help. Thanks to them for taking the time.

Adam (Greensboro, NC): Could we ever get a write up for top prospects from the Mexican league? I know the Astros just scooped up two players from the Diablos Rojos
J.J. Cooper: Interesting question, but I’ll have to defer to others for that. I barely have time to work up the indy ball list as a wonderful hobby of mine, much less add a Mexican League list to the workload. When I first proposed doing an indy league top prospects list, my bosses were understandably a little skeptical that it could be done. I’m thrilled that eight years later, it’s still going strong.

J.J. Cooper: Interesting question, but I’ll have to defer to others for that. I barely have time to work up the indy ball list as a wonderful hobby of mine, much less add a Mexican League list to the workload. When I first proposed doing an indy league top prospects list, my bosses were understandably a little skeptical that it could be done. I’m thrilled that eight years later, it’s still going strong.

J.J. Cooper: I’ve got to wrap this one up after almost an hour of good questions. Thanks for reading and good luck to the players on the indy top prospects list. Hopefully we’ll see a large number of them on affiliated teams next year.