Independent Leagues Top 20 Prospects

Scouting reports on the top prospects in indy ball

Two years ago, Baseball America decided to rank the top prospects in the independent leagues. We rank about every thing else, so it just made sense to try to look at the indy leagues through the crystal ball as well. The first list had more misses than hits, but the idea really got going last year with a full independent leagues Top 10 Prospects list. All of last year's Top 10 Prospectsended up playing in affiliated ball, with the No. 1 prospect, Daniel Nava, winning the high Class A California League batting title for the Red Sox's Lancaster affiliate.

Please remember that while this list follows the League Top 20 Prospects lists, there are plenty of differences. On the other lists in this issue, it's a disappointment if the players don't become big leaguers. The players on this list are ones who have the potential to play affiliated baseball, with the chance that if everything breaks right, someone on this list could become a major leaguer.

With that in mind, we have two lists this year, one of players who were unsigned at the end of the 2008 season, and another for players who had their contracts purchased by affiliated clubs during the season.

Top 10 Unsigned Prospects

1. Mike LaLuna, rhp
Sussex (Can-Am)

LaLuna is proof that every now and then a legitimate prospect will come walking in off the street. LaLuna was primarily a shortstop at New York Tech, but after he went undrafted this June, he went to a tryout camp run by indy ball scouting consultant Nick Belmonte and fired a 94 mph fastball with his first pitch. It didn't take long for Sussex to sign him and make him a setup man. His low-90s velocity held up, thanks in large part to a free and easy motion, and he was a key part of the Skyhawks' run to a Can-Am League title.

The 22-year-old is still raw, understandable as he threw just 23 innings in college. He shows flashes of a slurve, but he mainly dominated hitters with his heater. He got plenty of swings and misses thanks to a somewhat deceptive delivery. Observers were impressed with his mound presence as he never seemed to get rattled and carried himself with a quiet confidence. While he was unsigned at the end of the season, it didn't take him long to land a team afterward, as the Tigers signed him.

2. Seth Loman, of/1b
St. George (Golden)

If there is a player who could follow in Nava's footsteps, it's probably Loman, a 22-year-old who was among the Golden League's leaders in many categories. Loman hit .323/.462/.606 for the Angels' Rookie-level Arizona League club in 2007, so it's not like he was a slouch at the plate before. But the Angels tired of his resistance to coaching and released him.

It's hard to say whether Loman has fully learned a lesson from his release. With St. George, Loman showed he still has some work to do on improving his mental approach, but it's hard to argue with his results. He showed quick hands and outstanding power to all fields. He was second in the league in slugging percentage (.709) and third in on-base percentage (.460) to go with a .350 batting average, despite an unrefined batting eye.

When he got pull-happy, he was vulnerable to changeups and fastballs away, as he'd lunge at the ball. He was prone to jamming himself, resulting in way too many broken bats. But when he stayed back, took a balanced swing and trusted his hands, he was nearly impossible for Golden League pitchers to retire. Loman was a solid teammate and didn't cause any problems off the field, but a team that signs him will have to be aware he has proven reluctant to let coaches tinker with his swing or otherwise change his approach.

3. Bryan Sabatella, of/1b
Alexandria (United)/Lancaster (Atlantic)

Not many 23-year-olds can handle the graduate level course that is facing Atlantic League pitching, but Sabatella made the jump from the United League to the Atlantic League with no problems.

Sabatella, 23, ranked among the UL's leaders in average (.340) while leading the league with 36 steals in 40 attempts. He's a plus runner (4.0-4.1 seconds from home to first base) who used the entire field while also showing some power—he hit 14 home runs and slugged .517. After the United League season ended, he hit .385/.429/.600 with Lancaster in the Atlantic League, showing that he could handle more advanced pitching.

Bat speed is Sabatella's only conern. A Mariners' ninth-round pick out of Quinnipiac University in 2005, Sabatella hit .237/.310/.341 in two seasons in the Northwest and Midwest leagues with the Mariners before being released in 2006. Some observers wonder if he can get around on a quality fastball. Sabatella played a little bit of everywhere for Alexandria, but in affiliated ball, he would likely be limited to left field.

4. Shawn McGill, c
Lincoln (American Association)

McGill has gotten a chance to play in affiliated ball, but 2008 was his first chance to get consistent at-bats. A 23rd-round pick of the Phillies in 2006 out of Boston College, McGill spent his two years in affiliated ball buried on the bench. He was released after playing in just 27 games. Given a first chance in pro ball to play regularly, McGill responded by hitting .299/.424/.454 with six triples, nine home runs and 15 steals in 16 attempts. Although he's a catcher, speed is actually one of McGill's better tools. He runs a 6.8 second 60-yard dash and showed a knack for reading pitchers and getting good jumps.

McGill, 24, was solid behind the plate. He has a good frame and showed 2.0-second pop times on throws to second. Power is McGill's lone concern. He hit just three home runs in four years at Boston College—all of them as a senior—and hasn't shown a history of hitting for power.

5. Jon Hunton, rhp
Fort Worth (American Association)/
Somerset (Atlantic)

Hunton, an 11th-round pick of the Cubs in 2004, has been one of the American Association's most dominant relievers over the past two years, going 1-2, 2.23 with Coastal Bend in 2007, and 5-1, 0.81 with 71 strikeouts and only 26 hits allowed in 56 innings with Fort Worth in 2008.

Hunton gets outstanding downhill plane on his pitches which makes his 90-92 mph fastball even more effective. He also has an above-average split-finger fastball that looks like his fastball coming out of his hand. The 25-year-old had command issues during his time in affiliated ball, but he seems to have fixed those—he walked just 18 batters this year.

6. Isaac Hess, lhp
Windy City (Frontier)

Hess was one of indy ball's best strikeout artists in 2008. He fanned 110 in 90 innings with the Frontier League's Windy City Thunderbolts while holding opponents to a .214 batting average.

Hess' biggest knock is a medical issue. He had hip replacement surgery in college which took away his chance to pitch for Arizona State. He instead ended up at South Mountain (Ariz.) CC, and signed with Windy City in 2007. Since the surgery, he has never missed a turn, and has shown the ability to bounce between being a reliever (where he started the season this year), a spot starter (a role he volunteered for) and a starter (a role he took over at the midpoint of the season). After moving into the rotation, he allowed two runs or fewer in six of his last seven starts. He finished the year with a 3.91 ERA.

Hess struggled some in his pro debut in 2007 because of command issues, but he returned this year with refined stuff. He has an 89-90 mph fastball, an average changeup and a 1-to-7 curveball that has proven unhittable at times for Frontier League hitters. He has struggled to locate the curve at times, but he showed how effective it is when he can locate it with a no-hitter in August.

Hess, 23, still has to show that he can maintain that control—he battled for five innings in the first round of the playoffs, holding Southern Illinois to one run while walking eight. He's shown himself to be durable with effective stuff and enough velocity to likely be worth a look.

7. Santos Hernandez, rhp
Laredo (United)

When it comes to stuff, there have been few concerns about Hernandez for a couple of years. The righthander throws a 90-94 mph fastball, an average slider and an average changeup. His three-pitch mix has been good enough to lead the United League in ERA for three straight seasons, and he's proven very durable. The 24-year-old Dominican was originally signed by the Rockies in 2000, but was released after going 8-1, 3.50 for Rookie-level Casper in 2002. Since then he's played in the Southeastern League and the Central League before joining the UL.

So why is Hernandez still in indy ball? The concerns have always surrounded his makeup. Hernandez kept to himself, did not interact with his teammates and had a tendency to show up teammates and umpires. And if one guy hit a home run off of him, the next guy could count on taking a pitch in the ribs. Managers now say they've seen some improvements in his attitude and he has become a better teammate, which may help get him back to affiliated ball.

8. Kyle Wells, c,
Bay Area (Continental)

If there's anything to be learned from last year's top 10 list, it's that the jump from catching in the independent leagues to the minor leagues is massive. Neither Dennis Blackmon or Luis Alen, the two catchers on last year's list, were able to make an impact in affiliated ball. While they may have been dominant defensive catchers in the Northern League, the increased speed of affiliated ball was too much for both of them—Blackmon threw out only three of 32 basestealers (nine percent) at high Class A Lancaster while Alen threw out two of eight (25 percent) at high Class A St. Lucie. There are very few above-average runners in indy ball, so catchers can get by with habits that get eaten up in affiliated ball.

But despite that, Wells, a 2007 graduate of Rio Grande (Texas) University, is on this list because of his bat and athleticism. Wells was an honorable mention NAIA All-American at Rio Grande, and quickly became one of the best hitters in the Continental Baseball League. Wells was named the CBL MVP after hitting .315/.399/.376 for Bay Area. He was second in the league in batting average, third in slugging percentage and second in on-base percentage.

At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Wells' frame is more slender than you would like for a catcher, and there's some thought that he could end up as a second baseman in affiliated ball. But he did hold up through a Texas summer, and he showed solid hands, good footwork and a developing ability to call pitches behind the plate. He's an average runner. At the plate he showed a good batting eye and a knack for putting the bat on the ball, although he lacks power at this point, and with his frame, his ability to develop more power down the road may be limited.

9. Daryl Jones, 1b,
Edinburg (United)

A fourth-round pick of the Padres in 2004, Jones struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness that eventually led to his release after the 2007 season. Jones had been a Midwest League all-star at the midway point of the 2006 season, but he slumped over the second half, and showed little improvement in a return trip to low Class A Fort Wayne in 2007.

Jones, 22, showed some refinements in his stint in the UL. Jones came to Edinburg with an upper-cut swing, but manager Vince Moore helped change it with plenty of work in the cage, and now Jones has a flatter swing that gives the ball some backspin that helps it carry further. He showed the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark from foul pole to foul pole.

At 6-foot-4 with some nimbleness around the bag, Jones is very solid defensively and gives infielders a big target to aim for. He also runs well for a big man (4.2 seconds to first base), and he was second in the United League with 32 steals. But as you would expect for a first baseman, it will be his power potential that could get him back to affiliated ball.

There understandably should be some healthy skepticism about Jones, especially as he hit only .288 in the United League, but managers say his improved approach as the season went along was apparent, which should help him make the adjustment back to affiliated ball. Jones was a toolsy player whose production didn't always match his tools in affiliated ball; the same could still be said a year later.

10. Greg Lemon, 2b
St. George (Golden)

Lemon is both a coach and a player—he spent the 2008 college season as a volunteer assistant coach at Georgetown, and he's now been hired as an assistant coach at Temple, but with his sweet lefty swing, it might be worth putting his coaching plans on hold for a while.

Lemon, 24, was a Division III All-American at Salisbury (Md.), where hit .410 during his senior season and .372 for his career. He hit a robust .386/.463/.542 with seven home runs, 90 runs scored and 22 steals in 26 attempts for St. George this season. His picture-perfect lefthanded stroke is his best attribute, but he also has average speed and a very good feel for the game. What is more questionable is his ability to stick at second base in affiliated ball. He has to prove that he can stay there, as his profile as a high average and on-base percentage top-of-the-order hitter doesn't profile as well if he has to move to another position.

Others worthy of note.

Patrick Breen, of, Orange County (Golden): GBL Triple Crown winner and BA Indy Player of the Year also hit in Class A before one bad season in Double-A led to his release. Retooled swing has helped the 26-year-old speed up his bat. He would have made the top 10 if not for him being older than the cutoff of 25.

Trevor Caughey, lhp, Chico (Golden): Former Orioles lefty doesn't top 90, but has an effective three-pitch mix. His 2.51 ERA in the Golden League (where no team had a sub 5.00 ERA) shows he knows how to pitch.

Luany Sanchez, c, Laredo (United): Sanchez showed plenty of power, as the former Padres backstop hit .319 with 18 home runs in the United League, and at 23, he's still young enough to get back to affiliated ball. He's still raw despite his age, but he has a . Sanchez has a strong arm behind the plate, but he needs to work on his footwork and blocking pitches in the dirt.

Paul Phillips, rhp, Pensacola (American Association): Released by the Blue Jays after struggling in the Florida State League, Phillips, 24, still has a 55 fastball (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) and a 55 slider, but he doesn't command either particularly well. He has a smooth delivery and the stuff to get back to affiliated ball, but he needs to prove he can use his above-average stuff.

Top Prospects Who Signed With Affiliated Clubs

1. Clay Zavada    lhp
Southern Illinois (Frontier)
Signed with Diamondbacks

Zavada briefly made national news as he was the prospect involved in the affiliated-indy ball trade in June. Major League Baseball ended up forcing the teams to do a more traditional sign and release deal, but whatever the price, Zavada has turned into an outstanding pickup for the Diamondbacks.

Zavada had originally signed with the Diamondbacks as a 30th-round pick in 2006. But he was granted his release when he decided to head home in 2007 after his father died. Zavada features an 87-88 mph fastball that touches 91 and an extremely effective plus changeup. He also throws a cutter, but it is well behind his other two pitches. He went 2-1, 1.72 with Southern Illinois, allowing seven hits and four walks while striking out 22 in 152⁄3 innings.

He was actually much more effective after joining low Class A South Bend. Zavada gave up runs in two of his first three appearances, but the run he allowed on June 26 was the last he allowed all year. He threw 30 1⁄3 consecutive scoreless innings to finish the year, allowing six hits and five walks in 35 1⁄3 innings overall. He finished the year 3-1, 0.51 with eight saves.

2. Brandon Sisk    lhp
Bay Area (Continental)
Signed with Royals

The Continental Baseball League offered up the hardest thrower independent baseball has seen in years in J.T. Tilghman, who signed with the Astros but is not the circuit's most promising prospect. That honor goes to Sisk. The No. 1 pick in the CBL's initial draft in 2007 out of Azuza Pacific (Calif.), Sisk went 0-6, 7.93 in '07. When the season ended, Sisk asked Bay Area general manager Mike Pede what he needed to do to turn around his career. Pede told him to come back next year 25 pounds lighter. He did, with obvious results.

Sisk went 3-3, 1.65 before signing with the Royals in July. Unlike 2007, Sisk was able to maintain his velocity deep in games, and by being in better shape, he added a couple of ticks to his fastball, which sat at 89-90 mph this year, touching 93. He also improved his 76-78 mph changeup. The Royals used him primarily as a reliever, and he went 1-1, 1.60 with 45 strikeouts and 13 walks in 33 2⁄3 innings between Rookie-level Idaho Falls and low Class A Burlington.

3. Mitch Liveley    rhp
San Angelo (United)
Signed with Giants

If you were looking for one position that stood out among the indy class of 2008, it would have to be the relievers. That makes a lot of sense, since relievers traditionally have the highest success rate for making the jump from independent baseball to the big leagues. Lively was one of the best of that crop, as the former Rockies 16th-rounder showed a 93-95 mph fastball in San Angelo.

Liveley, 23, had a 1.35 ERA with Rookie-level Casper in 2007, but he pitched just six innings before being shut down with an arm injury. The Rockies released him over the offseason, but a scout recommended him to San Angelo manager Doc Edwards. Lively started out throwing in the high 80s, but before long he was back throwing in the low to mid-90s with a relatively free and easy delivery. He also has a splitter that was effective as well, but with San Angelo, he was able to rely almost entirely on his fastball. He continued his effectiveness after signing with the Giants, going 1-0, 1.22 with 22 strikeouts in 15 innings, primarily with low Class A Augusta.

4. Mike Benacka    rhp
River City (Frontier)
Signed with Athletics

Benacka was a pitcher whose stats finally could no longer be denied. The righthander had dominated the Frontier League like no one before, as he went 3-0, 0.35 with 51 strikeouts in 26 innings. So why did it take nearly three months before an affiliated club signed him? It's because Benacka dominated thanks to a yo-yo changeup that left batters baffled.

His pedestrian 86-88 mph fastball and short, 6-foot frame left scouts distinctly unexcited. There's also his slow delivery and high leg kick that leaves him helpless against basestealers. But once the A's gave him a chance, he passed his first test in affiliated ball. Benacka struck out 37 in 26 innings with high Class A Stockton, going 4-2, 2.39. Benacka's command may allow him to survive as he climbs the ladder. With a below-average fastball, Benacka will have to prove he can survive as a changeup specialist against more advanced hitters.

5. Derrick Loop    lhp
Chico (Golden)
Signed with the Red Sox

Loop is proof of how long-tossing can help a pitcher's career. A 23rd-round pick of the Indians in 2006, Loop was released after the '06 season partly due to his lack of velocity. He took up long-tossing after an 8-6, 3.82 season with Chico in 2007, and the extra work paid off, as Loop saw his velocity jump a couple of ticks. He now sits at 87-88 and has touched 92, which makes his cutter more effective. Loop also has shown flashes of a promising curveball, but he profiles best as a lefty reliever.

The cut fastball is his best pitch—it was deadly in the Golden League, where he went 2-0, 0.81 with 26 strikeouts in 22 innings this year. He was effective in the pitcher's nightmare that is high Class A Lancaster as well, as he went 6-0, 3.04 in 53 innings after signing with the Red Sox.

6. Javier Garcia, rhp, Sioux Falls (American Association)
Signed with the Red Sox

Garcia didn't have much time to unpack in Sioux City before the Red Sox signed him—he struck out 11 of the 22 batters he faced in Sioux City, which earned him a quick trip to affiliated ball.

The Canaries had signed Garcia on the recommendation of fellow Canaries pitcher Ben Moore, who had pitched with him in the Columbian winter league. The 24-year-old Venezuelan had originally pitched in the Dodgers organization, but was released after going 2-3, 9.20 with Rookie-level Ogden in 2004.

Garcia, 24, has long arms and an athletic build to go with his 92-94 mph fastball. He simply dominated American Association hitters, although he had more trouble once he joined low Class A Greenville. With the Drive, Garcia went 3-1, 5.06 with 45 strikeouts and 13 walks in 43 innings. Opponents hit .313 against him, partly because he doesn't yet have a solid second pitch to rely on.

7. Robert Cuello, rhp, Edmonton (Golden Baseball)
Signed with the Red Sox

Cuello was a 20th-round pick of the Reds in 2004 as a catcher out of Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) JC, but he was released after spending the entire 2005 season on the disabled list. Coello's frame (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) was never really ideal for catching, and there were concerns about his bat, but the Angels liked his arm so they signed him and moved him to the mound in 2007. He was very effective, going 1-1, 1.37 in the Rookie-level Arizona League, but was released after the season anyway. The Red Sox gave him another chance at affiliated ball after he struck out 47 in 41 innings in the Golden League thanks to a 90-94 mph fastball and an above-average split-fingered fastball.

8. J.T. Tilghman, rhp,
Texarkana (Continental)

Signed with the Astros

If you're looking for a raw prospect who could flame out in Class A or turn into a major leaguer, feast your eyes on Tilghman, indy ball's answer to Nuke Laloosh. Tilghman was drafted by the Braves out of Walters (Tenn) State CC in the 16th round in 2006 but didn't sign. He returned to college, but went undrafted in 2007. The Phillies signed him and he pitched effectively in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, going 1-0, 2.63 in 13 innings, but he was released this spring because of off-the-field issues, although exactly what led to the release is unclear.

Tilghman signed with Texarkana, where he showed a solid work ethic and a dominating fastball. He consistently sat at 94-96 mph while touching 98, although his command was sometimes shaky and his secondary stuff could use some work. He didn't need it in the Continental League where he went 3-2, 1.30 with 57 strikeouts in 42 innings. Astros scout Rusty Pendergrass saw the velocity and his pitcher's frame and quickly signed him.

He had more trouble after joining low Class A Lexington, where he went 1-0, 2.70 with 14 hits, nine walks and five strikeouts in 13 innings. Tilghman has the arm strength to be a major league reliever, but he'll need to improve his command, develop his secondary stuff and most importantly prove that he has the makeup to make it as a pro.