California Winter League Puts Players In Front Of MLB Scouts

If not for the California Winter League, recent Rangers signee Brett Anderson might never have received a second chance in affiliated ball.

The erstwhile shortstop flamed out as a position player, batting .197 in three years in the Tigers system and drawing his release at age 20 just prior to a second engagement in the short-season New York-Penn League in 2011. Anderson’s 6-foot-3 frame and arm strength, however, made a conversion to the mound seem like an avenue worth pursuing given his youth.

Anderson’s initial forays into pitching proved to be about as cursed as his Tigers career. He blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery just three pitches into a workout for the Mariners in 2011. Following an 18-month recovery he got back on the mound in the CWL, making six appearances for the Bombers and earning a minor league contract with Texas.

Rangers pro scouting director Josh Boyd said that Anderson topped out near 94 mph this winter and showed a feel for a hard cutter.

“With Brett, it almost comes down to the simple factors,” Boyd said, “He’s a good athlete with a good arm and a repeatable delivery. He has a fresh arm because he hasn’t pitched much, but he also has the intriguing middle-field athleticism that we like.”

Acting on a tip from CWL president Andrew Starke, Boyd recommended that Rangers area scout Steve Flores pay a visit to the developmental league, which this season features eight teams and about 160 players looking for a shot—in many cases, another shot—in professional baseball. The league plays all its games at Palm Springs (Calif.) Stadium, the spring training home of the Angels through 1992.

Starke, who grew up in Houston and played NCAA Division I ball at Mercer, established the CWL in fall 2009 and debuted the league with four teams and 54 players the following January. He had previously served as president of the Palm Springs entrant in the Arizona Winter League, a now defunct offshoot of the North American League.

“My goals in starting the CWL,” Starke said, “were to provide opportunity for players to showcase themselves in front of independent league managers and MLB scouts to move them forward in their careers.”

Starke said he chose Palm Springs as a home base because of the city’s favorable weather conditions in January and February, when the league plays its schedule, the presence of suite housing for players and a downtown atmosphere with entertainment options. Players pay an upfront fee for access to food, lodging, gym memberships and, most importantly, instruction from independent league managers and coaches. Only those players with college or professional baseball experience may apply to the CWL, though that requirement can be waived with a recommendation from a pro scout.

Starke said that 20 major league organizations have scouted the CWL, saying, “We’ve had all different types of scouts check us out: assistant general managers, directors of pro scouting, pro scouts, area scouts, national crosscheckers.”

In years past, about half of CWL players signed contracts with pro teams, most of them independent clubs whose managers they’ve played in front of all season. With more players this season, a smaller percentage have earned pro contracts, with 15 latching on in the American Association, 14 in the Frontier League, 13 in the fledgling America West League and one each in the Atlantic and Can-Am leagues.

In rare cases, a CWL player earns a shot in affiliated ball, as was the case with Anderson signing with the Rangers this month. In addition to Anderson, two other players will head to spring training with major league organizations after playing in the CWL.

The Phillies signed Troy Marks, a 6-foot-5 righty who went undrafted as a Nevada-Las Vegas senior in 2012, while the Diamondbacks agreed to terms with righthander Bobby Hillier, a product of Thiel (Pa.) College who played for Normal of the Frontier League last season.

A fourth player might land with an affiliated club this spring if it requires additional catching depth. Free agent Koby Clemens, who reached Triple-A with the Astros in 2011 and played in the Blue Jays system last year, joined in the CWL this season in an effort to stay sharp for spring training while he sifted through job offers. The Diamondbacks offered Clemens a chance to play multiple positions—including third base and corner outfield—but the 26-year-old wants to catch exclusively.  

Boyd lauded the CWL for carrying through with exactly what it purports to do. The league fills a niche for the Rangers, an organization that works out individual players based on word of mouth and recommendations but does not hold mass tryouts for players trying to get into pro ball.

“For teams that haven’t scouted the (CWL) yet, I think it’s an easy league to watch timing wise,” Boyd said, “because area guys are getting into their college coverage and pro guys are off the road.

“From a credibility standpoint, if any one of these (recent CWL signees) succeeds, then that puts the league on map. It’s a great opportunity for these guys, because for someone like Anderson (a 12th-round pick in 2008 out Bristol, Conn., High) you just don’t know for sure that you’ll ever be seen by scouts from major league clubs.”

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