2014 Independent League Top Prospects Chat

Keith H (Syracuse NY): Have the Braves signed any Indy players since the end of the season besides Britt Robertshaw? Also can you tell me about Robertshaw? Thanks
J.J. Cooper: Hi Keith and thanks for coming out to our annual indy ball chat. It’s not the chat that gets the most questions, understandably, but it’s one I love all the same. I’ve been covering indy ball for Baseball America for 12 years now, and it’s amazing how much indy ball has changed and developed over those years. Robertshaw is the one player I have the Braves signing since the season ended, joining a long list of players they signed in season (13 other guys by my count). Robertshaw is a big arm at his best, but he has trouble maintaining that velocity consistently. See him one night and you see him sit 94-95, touching 97. See him another night and he’s 88-92 and you wonder if someone else has snuck into his uniform. As a minor aside, Robertshaw had to hit once this year because the team had emptied the bench. He got a hit to start a game-winning rally, so his career batting average is a perfect 1.000.

Don (St. Charles, MO): I can't find anyone to answer this so maybe you will know.Why would a team scout an independent league all the time for years and then quit all of a sudden? I go to Gateway Grizzlies games and River City Rascals games and I have seen this happen.
J.J. Cooper: Some teams have gotten more into scouting indy ball and other teams have gotten away from scouting it as extensively. I know the Frontier League had a guy or two who scouted that league extensively who have not done that in recent years, but most teams scout more on a here-today, somewhere-else tomorrow approach where someone flies in, sees a guy and then flies out. So if a team is thin on signable prospects, you may go a long time between scout signings. In other years, there may be a whole lot more scout appearances. There are few teams who have someone doing indy ball scouting as a full-time job, and the few that do are trying to cover 60+ teams, so they are constantly bouncing from one place to another.

Scott (Philadelphia): Could KC Serna have any kind of big league career?
J.J. Cooper: Wouldn’t say it’s impossible. He’s played in Double-A and he can handle shortstop. But he looks to be more of a solid org player who is capable of playing at the upper levels of the minors. For those guys to make the big leagues, it requires the perfect storm of circumstances to all come together–injuries, positional need and someone in the org who really believes in you. Serna’s close enough to the big leagues to keep working at it and hope that such a combo comes together.

Steve Bathueir (Jackson, Mississippi): Hey JJ. Thanks for doing this been following Indepedant Baseball now that seems to have success to getting players back to affiliated. My question is about Cole Garner, he seemed to have a great season and stayed on the field. Surprised he wasn't the Atlantic League Player of the Year. You think he gets another chance at the big leagues? Thanks!
J.J. Cooper: Cole had a great season. He was one of the keys to the Barnstormers’ Atlantic League title, helped by one of my all-time favorite indy ball players Blake Gailen. A season like that can definitely get him back to affiliated ball if the right situation arises, but to get back to the big leagues is a much, much bigger jump. John Lindsey pulled that off as a good bat who was over 30, but the list of those indy ball success stories, especially for hitters, is pretty small. To go on a tangent, Gailen’s pro career has been absolutely fascinating to me. He’s I believe the only active alumni from the long-defunct South Coast League (most famous for Wally Backman’s tirades saved for posterity on YouTube). He led the league in batting there (.368). That helped him land a job on the expansion Wichita Wingnuts. After a decent season there, he jumped to the Golden League in 2009. Gailen was outstanding in two seasons with Chico, hitting over .350 twice. That led to a jump back to the American Association, where he hit over .400 in half a season, earning his first affiliated job. He went to Arkansas to fill the spot left when Mike Trout was promoted to the big leagues. Released by the Angels after the season, he went to the Atlantic League and was the BA Indy Player of the Year with a .338/.415/.535 season. He was solid for Lancaster again in 2013, got a brief 8-game end of season stint with the Blue Jays’ AAA club, but was released again. This year he had a very solid stint in the Mexican League (he slugged over .500), then returned to Lancaster when that season ended, hitting .350/.460/1.107 in 66 games. If he had done it over a full season he may have become the first repeat indy POY winner ever. Gailen will be 30 next year, so I don’t know if he’ll get another affiliated shot, but he’s been one of the best players in indy ball for much of the past decade. If there was an indy ball HOF, he’d be on my list of inductees.

Brandon (Ohio): What's your opinion on the Frontier League MVP, Shayne Houck and his comeback to affiliated ball?
J.J. Cooper: Very interested to see what he does. His indy ball manager Andy McCauley described him as one of the hardest workers he’s ever coached. As McCauley described it, he liked to get to the ballpark very early to get everything ready for the day. Houck consistently beat McCauley to the ballpark. Very consistent approach and well deserving at another shot at affiliated ball. The Diamondbacks scout indy ball as hard as anyone and they give their indy ball signees a very fair shot to make a club, so he’s in one of the good orgs to end up in for an indy baller.

Jim G. (Assonet, MA): My beloved Brewers seemingly have dropped out of the indy ball signing spree the past couple of seasons after having been very active there during the early years of the Doug Melvin era. I'm fascinated by the Diamondbacks' approach (big hit on David Peralta), as they've been well into annual double-digit signings for several years now. Do you think that will continue under Tony LaRussa / Dave Stewart?
J.J. Cooper: I believe it will continue for Arizona. The Diamondbacks devote as much resources to scouting indy ball as anyone. Chris Carminucci, a former independent league manager, is on the road all year scouting indy ball players. I think he racked up 140+ days on the road this year to track down leads, tips and guys to sign. But it’s not just Carminucci. Long-time scout Bill Bryk has been following indy ball for years, so he has a very good sense of what’s going on as well. And probably just as important Mike Bell and the Diamondbacks front office are willing to sign guys, willing to give them fair shots to make teams and willing to treat them equally to drafted players. That’s not always the case in affiliated ball. So far I haven’t seen or heard any sign that the Diamondbacks are going to shift away from this extensive coverage of indy ball.

Anton J. (Houston, TX): Is there any particular reason that the Padres and Diamondbacks sign more players from independent ball than other teams?
J.J. Cooper: Bill Bryk used to be a Padres scout and he’s now a Diamondback. That’s a big part of it. The Diamondbacks sign WAY more guys than anyone else. They had 21 signings this year the last time I updated my lists. Atlanta (14) was the only other club in double digits. The Padres had five signings this year, so while they still scout the indy ranks, it’s not something where they are signing more than other teams. All but five teams signed at least one indy baller this year.

Doug (Genoa, IL): What are your thoughts on Frontier League Rookie of the Year, Tanner Witt? Do you see an organization picking him up or letting him return to Rockford and see what kind of numbers he will put up?
J.J. Cooper: He’s on the top indy prospect list. Usually most of the guys on the list do end up getting a shot at affiliated ball. I hope he gets that shot and the move to second base can’t hurt because it makes him more appealing.

Rick Kane (California): I know there are teams that are very big in indy and have big success. How long do you think until more teams recognize this?
J.J. Cooper: It’s been recognized. If you asked this question 6-7 years ago, I’d argue that teams were missing out. Daniel Nava spent the entire year in the Golden League in 2007, was rookie of the year, league MVP and was doing everything you could possibly hope to see in a young indy ball player. He lasted the whole year, was still unsigned when I put together my indy top prospects list. I remember telling him “I can’t explain how you’re still unsigned at this point.” Finally he got a job a few weeks later. Nowadays, there is no way that would happen. In fact, nowadays it is WAY harder for me to put together an unsigned list–the same list that had Nava on it also had future big leaguer Dane De La Rosa. The best guys are generally snapped up in season now. With 90+ guys being signed in season, there just aren’t many indy ball guys that are truly overlooked nowadays.

Jeff (Kansas City): There are lots of good players in all of the various indy leagues around. How would you rank the overall indy leagues from best to worst? Are some leagues better than others for guys to get signed? Are some better baseball than other leagues?
J.J. Cooper: There are leagues that serve different purposes, which makes an overall ranking tough to do. The Atlantic League is the gold standard when it comes to having names fans recognize, guys with lots of big league time, and the most consistent level of talent. But the Frontier League is a better trip for scouts looking to find overlooked young players, because the rules of the league ensure that most of the players are going to be undrafted college players or recently released minor leagues who are 23-27 years old. The American Association/Can-Am League (which play a joint schedule) are a mixture of the Frontier League and Atlantic League’s approach with more vets than the Frontier League and more youngsters than the Atlantic League. Beyond that you have the United League/Pacific Association/Pecos League where the overall talent level isn’t going to be as high because of the pay scale, but you still do find the occasional gem.

Matt (Madison): With more Indy ball players being signed do you see the possibility of affiliated ball expanding or a growth of Indy ball as alternate path?
J.J. Cooper: I think as it is now is actually a very good symbiotic relationship for indy ball and affiliated ball. Teams are drafting a few less solid college players with good but not great tools. Indy ball LOVES having those kind of guys. Most will not turn into anything more than solid org guys, but a few will. If teams then scout indy ball well, they can find the few that would have slipped through the cracks. In some cases, I’d argue that those players are better served by going the indy ball route as well. Instead of being a 6th-7th inning reliever or utility infielder in rookie ball, they get more innings/at bats in a larger role which allows them to develop.

Mark (Newark, NJ): Any good storylines out of the Atlantic League this year?
J.J. Cooper: Lot of em. The quick development of Sugar Land into an indy ball cornerstone has been awesome to watch. Lancaster’s run was fascinating to me. See the above answer for a lot about Blake Gailen’s awesome career.

Mike (NYC): Alex Burnett was lights out for Sioux City after his first couple of outings with the team. I know he has had some success in the majors - was there any excitement about him?
J.J. Cooper: His name didn’t pop up much, but he had a great year, has big league time in the not-to-distant past and was actually pretty good in Triple-A in 2013. Wouldn’t be shocked to see him get a minor league contract somewhere.

J.J. Cooper: Thanks everyone for coming out as always. It’s always fun to talk indy ball with other indy ball fans. If you have further questions, Tweet them to me @jjcoop36.