Their Last, Best Chance

When the final pick of the 50th round of the draft has been called out and more than 1,500 players have been selected, there are still hundreds of players left disappointed.

Last year Mike LaLuna was one of them. The shortstop at New York Tech headed into his senior season knowing that he needed to build on a .317/.377/.427 junior season. Instead he slumped to .268/.360/.411 as a senior and watched whatever hopes he had of being drafted disappear.

It’s too early to say who if anyone out of this year’s Indy Pro Showcase will end up making it to affiliate ball, but here are three who impressed.
Greg Lane, rhp, Sussex
Lane went undrafted out of Binghamton University despite a solid career that saw him set an American East conference record with 11 saves as part of a 3-2, 1.97 junior season. He slumped to 5-2, 4.85 as a senior, which didn’t help his draft chances. But at the showcase Lane showed an 88-92 mph fastball and a solid changeup with a clean delivery. He’s headed to Sussex where he’ll try to follow in LaLuna’s footsteps.
Tim Brown, rhp, Lincoln
To say that Brown was the ace of the Pittsburgh (Kan.) State staff was an understatement. He had a 3.71 ERA while no other pitcher on the team had an ERA under 5.60. His 8-4 record was more than half of the Gorilla’s 15 wins. At the showcase he showed an 88-91 mph fastball, a solid 73-75 mph changeup and a slurvy slider.
Chris Piotrowski, lhp
Piotrowski was the ace at Division II Dowling (N.Y.) College as he went 6-3, 2.35 in 2009, but he went undrafted and unsigned last year. At the showcase, he showed an 86-88 mph fastball from the left side with a good slider and excellent mechanics.

But LaLuna had also toyed with pitching in college—he threw 24 innings during his four-year career. It wasn’t enough to get any scouts interested, partly because scouts aren’t exactly flocking to every New York Tech game, but it did give him another possible avenue to pro ball. So LaLuna packed up his glove and headed to the Indy Pro Showcase in Detroit. From the minute LaLuna pumped his first 93 mph fastball off the mound at the showcase, his days as a shortstop were over. The independent Cam-Am League’s Sussex Skyhawks signed him that same day, installed him in their bullpen as the team’s main set-up man and watched him help lead them to the Can-Am League title. The Detroit Tigers signed him in the offseason and he is now pitching for the Tigers’ short-season Oneonta affiliate.

“I needed to go to that independent showcase. It was the best thing I could ever do for my baseball career,” LaLuna said.

LaLuna isn’t the only success story from last year’s camp. Righthander Chris Cullen failed to convince anyone to draft him after a four-year career at Michigan State, but he did impress the Edmonton CrackerCats of the Golden Baseball League at the showcase. He signed with the Pirates in the offseason and has proven to be a solid member of the high Class A Lynchburg bullpen this year.

That’s what Indy Pro Showcase founders Nick Belmonte and Dave Marcon were hoping for when they started the first showcase back in 2007. Belmonte has been involved with independent league baseball since 1993, when he was the Northern League’s first director of baseball operations. For years he ran showcases for independent leagues, but a couple of years ago, leagues started to shut down their own showcases for cost considerations.That’s where Belmonte decided to step in. He had run showcases for leagues, now he’d run one himself.

“That left a void for all these kids who needed to be seen,” Belmonte said.

So Belmonte and Marcon formed Indy Pro Showcases to fill the void. Players pay for the right to attend the showcase (which funds the showcases), but they also have to apply, as not everyone is accepted. The typical participant is a 22- or 23-year-old who has either just graduated from college or is a released minor leaguer.

Not all of them are overlooked gems. For more than half of the participants, this is the end of the road, as they don’t show enough tools to garner a contract.

But it is a foot in the door for 40 percent or so of the showcase candidates. It’s hard to say yet if any of the 2009 Indy Pro Showcase class will prove as successful as last year’s best, but 36 of the 94 players at the showcase did land independent league contracts out of the showcase, with a few more expected to be signed over the next month or so.

“The key to this thing is to find a guy who wasn’t a weekend starter or was a guy like LaLuna who threw only a few innings,” Belmonte said. “We send these guys to six different independent leagues, so we are able to slot a guy in a league where we believe he will be successful.”

That’s part of the reason that one of the showcases is held in Detroit, as there are more small schools that don’t get scouted that heavily in the Northeast and Midwest than there are in the Southeast or West. And the hope for every showcase is that a player like LaLuna or Cullen will show up.

“The showcase always gives the opportunity to the kid who went to the school you never heard of,” Belmonte said. “The rest is up to them. We tell them, you impress, we’ll get you a job, but after that, there are no excuses. But these kids are hungry.”