Two years ago, Patrick Breen thought he was just one good season away from the big leagues. A year later, he was released.
But you won’t find Breen moping or complaining about being cut loose. Breen may be the only independent leagues player who’s actually happy he was in an independent league this year.
“I am big believer that everything happens for a reason. The year I had offensively is a tribute to (Orange County hitting coach) Darrell Evans. He completely changed how I looked at hitting,” Breen said. “He completely changed my swing. He simplified everything. If I had never been released by Tampa Bay, I never would have done that.”
It sure worked this year. With his retooled approach, Breen broke the Golden Baseball League records for home runs (28), on-base percentage (.509), slugging percentage (.825), total bases (227) and extra-base hits (56). The center fielder also won the batting title thanks to his .396 average, and finished three RBIs short of a Triple Crown.
For his impressive season, plus his leadership role in driving Orange County to the Golden Baseball League title, Breen is the 2008 Independent Leagues Player of the Year.
It’s a nice turnaround for the Rays’ 2004 21st-round pick. Coming out of Houston, Breen struggled through his debut, hitting .222 as he recovered from a broken wrist. But once the wrist healed, Breen was a very productive player for the next two seasons. He hit .302/.383/.502 in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League the next season, and followed it up by hitting 21 home runs in only 94 games at high Class A Visalia in 2006. He got a late-season promotion to Double-A Montgomery and seemed to be establishing himself as a late-round find. As Breen saw it, he was one more good year away from getting a shot at the major leagues.
But all of that fell apart in 2007. He was beaned during a spring training game against the Yankees. In hindsight, it may have been a good idea to take a little time to recover and get over the effects of the concussion, but he worried that he would be washed up if he was kept back in extended spring, so Breen was back on the field and in the Montgomery lineup when the season started.
He may have been in the lineup, but he had lost his stroke. Breen struggled all year, hitting only .194/.284/.344.
“I thought I was in the best shape I had ever been and I thought I was just a step away from the big leagues,” Breen said. “Dealing with post-concussion syndrome, I realized how little being physically ready compares to being mentally ready.”
By the time he was told during spring training this year that he was being released, Breen was expecting it. Not many guys see their release coming. But “not many guys hit .194 the year before,” Breen explained.
Breen, 26, figured that his career might be over, but then he got a call from former teammate Josh Arhart, who was joining the Golden League’s Orange County Flyers. The chance to play for a pair of big league stars in manager Gary Carter and hitting coach Darrell Evans helped induce Breen to give it another shot.
Within a couple of weeks, he was happy he did. Pretty quickly, Evans and Breen decided to retool his entire approach. Breen had gotten into the habit of diving at the plate to try to hit the ball to the opposite field. His somewhat mechanical swing was also making it hard for him to turn around good fastballs. Once he was overmatched by fastballs, he started cheating to try to catch up to them, which left him helpless against breaking balls and changeups.
In other words, he was a hopeless wreck at the plate.
So Evans and Breen got to work. They moved him closer to the plate, simplified his swing and got him to stand more upright. In doing so, they freed Breen up to tap into his raw power.
“He was pretty stiff and wrapped. The wrap meant he couldn’t get around on a mid-90s fastball,” Evans said. “We got him to straighten up to get his hands more forward.”
The results were pretty impressive. Breen started putting on shows in batting practice, launching moon shots. And since he could get around on any fastball a Golden League pitcher could throw him, it became easier to hit breaking balls and changeups as well.
The results were a season-long power binge. Breen averaged a home run every 9.8 at-bats. He had 32 multi-hit games (in 80 games played), and hit better than .400 in three of the four months of the season. The Golden League had inflated offensive numbers this year, with no team finishing with an ERA below 5.00, but even in a league with huge offensive numbers, Breen’s slugging percentage was more than 100 points better than the league’s second best. His on-base percentage was 40 points better than anyone else.
“I’ve never seen anyone have a better year,” Evans said. “Everything he hit was a bullet.”
The Flyers rode Breen to a playoff appearance, but when the playoffs rolled around, it didn’t look like Breen would be around to enjoy them. In the second game of the first round of the playoffs, he ran full speed into the concrete outfield wall at Long Beach’s Blair Field and was knocked out. The resulting inside-the-park home run was the game-winner, but the celebration was muted as both teams rushed out to center field to check on the motionless Breen.
Breen broke three ribs, bruised his shoulder, suffered a gash under one of his pair of black eyes and busted his nose. It was a gallant end to a pretty amazing season for Breen, or so everyone thought.
But when backup center fielder Trayvon Jackson was injured in a play at the plate a couple of games later, Breen decided to talk his way back into the lineup. With Jackson out, the Flyers didn’t have another center fielder on the roster. So Breen figured that even if his bad shoulder and ribs would affect him at the plate, he still could help the team by playing defense.
“I told those guys all year, there is nothing I care about but winning a championship,” he said. “We didn’t have any other outfielders. It was time to give it up for the greater good.”
In his first game back, Breen went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. He wasn’t himself throughout the championship series at the plate, but he did get the single that started the Flyers two-run ninth that gave them a come-from-behind 10-9 win in the deciding game of the championship series.
“We won that championship. That’s three seasons in a row for me (Montgomery won back-to-back titles when Breen was there),” he said. “I feel it totally made it worth it.”
Now Breen is hoping that he’ll get to try his new swing in a return trip to affiliated ball. As of late September no team had called, but Evans figures someone will. As the hitting coach for the Yankees in 1990, Evans watched Kevin Maas hit 21 home runs in 79 games as a rookie. He thinks Breen has more power and more potential.
“Breen hits the ball further. I think this guy is better,” he said.
From Worst To First
The Flyers’ title was part of a trend around in the independent leagues this year, as teams that struggled in 2007 became champs in 2008. The Flyers were a game under .500 in 2007, but under new manager Gary Carter and a retooled lineup, they were the dominant team in the league this year, finishing with a league-best 51-35 record.
The Sussex Skyhawks, the new Can-Am League champs, made a more dramatic rise to the top. Sussex was easily the worst team in the league in 2007, going 33-60. But new manager Hal Lanier and player personnel director Nick Belmote rebuilt the roster with dramatic results. Sussex tied for the league’s best record during the second half, beat Worcester in the first round of the playoffs and then swept Quebec for the team’s first title.
The trend didn’t carry over to the Atlantic League, where catcher Travis Anderson hit a walk-off home run in ninth inning of Game Four to clinch Somerset’s fourth title in 11 years. Somerset topped Camden 3-1 in the best-of-five series. The Patriots are the only Atlantic League club with four titles.
American Association champion Sioux City won its first title in 15 tries. The Canaries got the clinching win when Patrick Reilly singled in Beau Torbert in the bottom of the 12th inning to beat Grand Prairie.
Rain played havoc with the Northern League and Frontier League championship series. After three postponements, the Kansas City T-Bones won three straight games to beat Gary 3-1 in the best-of-five Northern League championship series for the T-Bones’ first title. In the Frontier League, flooding at Kalmazoo forced the entire championship series to be played at Windy City. The Thunderbolts responded by sweeping the Kings in three games for a second consecutive FL title.
And in the United League Amarillo denied Alexandria’s bid for a third-straight league title.
Prospects At Firesale Prices
When the independent leagues seasons wrap up, it usually leads to a slew of additional player signings. The cost of purchasing a player in the offseason is less expensive than it is during the season, and in some cases the player is a free agent who can be acquired for nothing.
This year has been no different, as several independent league standouts have latched on with affiliated clubs.
Michael LaLuna, the No. 1 unsigned prospect on last issue’s Top 10 independent leagues prospects list is unsigned no more. The Tigers purchased his contract shortly after the season ended and will bring him to spring training.
LaLuna, 22, actually didn’t focus on pitching until joining Sussex in June—he had been a shortstop at New York Tech. But he quickly showed a feel for pitching to go with his 92-94 mph velocity. He went 2-1, 2.79 as the Skyhawks setup man, but his best work came in the playoffs, where he went 1-0, 1.17 with 12 strikeouts in 72â"3 innings.
The Mets signed Can-Am player of the year Scott Grimes after he hit .365/.442/.626 with 21 home runs and 57 RBIs. Grimes, 24, spent four years in the Can-Am League, beginning his career with the travel team in 2005 before playing for Sussex (2006 and 207) and Worcester (2008).
The Tigers were very busy in the first weeks of the offseason. Detroit also signed two of the American Association’s best players.
Sioux Falls righthander Kris Regas dominated the league, going 1-0, 1.29 with 72 strikeouts and eight walks in 42 innings. The 28-year-old Regas has spent seven years in the independent leagues. He’ll be joined by Sioux Falls teammate Beau Torbert, who hit .324/.382/.568 for the Canaries.