The lineups of independent league teams are filled with damaged goods.
At some point, every player in indy ball has been rejected, told he wasn't good enough to be drafted or that he no longer fit into an organization's plans. Whether it was during a phone call or a meeting with the farm director or manager, the player was told, “Sorry, you're not good enough."
In a sport where confidence can sometimes be the difference between a successful, aggressive stroke and a late, defensive swing, indy ball is often a last chance at restoration.
Most hitters in the independent leagues are never going anywhere else. Even many of the better indy ball hitters have a fatal flaw that dooms them to never fulfilling their major league dream. For those hitters, indy ball is the final stop before they go on to their next career.
For a select few, however, an independent league opportunity has restorative powers.
Joe Maloney, Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year, spent time in affiliated ball as a 10th-round pick of the Rangers in 2011 before getting released (twice). Joining the Can-Am League's Rockland Boulders in 2014, he went to work on rebuilding his confidence, his health and his approach.
After hitting .200/.244/.330 at high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2013, Maloney looked like a player who had found a level too fast for him. The Rangers released him after that season, and the Rockies signed him but then released him out of spring training.
But when Rockland manager Jamie Keefe looked at Maloney, he saw a still relatively inexperienced 22-year-old hitter who needed a new approach.
“He's matured so much in these past two seasons," Keefe said. “He had too many strikeouts. That was his biggest flaw. He was able to cut down on those strikeouts the last two years, but the biggest thing was understanding it's OK to strike out. You are a guy that's a game changer. So it's OK, you'll strikeout at times."
After a solid but unspectacular debut in Rockland in 2014, Maloney also had surgery to clean up a nagging left shoulder injury. He came into 2015 the healthiest he had been in years.
Maloney was expected to be a solid part of the Boulders lineup, but he wasn't expected to be the star. Several line drives and home runs later, Keefe moved him into the cleanup spot and left him alone. He set a Can-Am League record with 93 runs. He hit .337/.432/.559. He hit for power (50 extra-base hits in 97 games). He played first base, left field and catcher.
Maloney had played through the shoulder injury for a few years, but with a healthy shoulder he said he felt like he could finish his swing with more authority. He went from a one-handed finish to a two-handed finish in deference to his repaired shoulder and quickly found that it helped him stay on the ball better as well.
“Maybe I needed the surgery earlier," Maloney said. “It made me more confident. It gave me a consistent pull through the zone."
Maloney signed with the Minnesota Twins after the season. He attended instructional league in Florida and will head to spring training for his second chance in affiliated ball, with a better approach and a healthy amount of confidence.
“That's probably the biggest thing I took from my indy ball experience," he said. “I had the time of my life these past two years. We won a title in 2014. We were regular season champs this year. You lose that pressure of 'I need to move up.' You find that love of the game again. It's fun . . . You fall back in love with the game. I had the best time of my life in Rockland."
Twins scout Billy Milos also signed Chris Colabello out of the Can-Am League and watched him become a big league regular. The Twins hope to have similar success with Maloney.
“I consider it more karma than comparison. Both are Cam-League MVPs. Both drive the ball to right-center field," Milos said. “The advantage for Colabello is he never struck out much. But Joe does things Colabello can't do. He's way more versatile and a better athlete."