Independent League Top Prospects

For the fourth year, we present our survey of the top talent in the independent leagues. After talking to scouts and independent league commissioners and managers, here is the list of unsigned independent leaguers who may deserve a first or second chance at affiliated ball.
Among the indy Top 10 alumni, 2007 No. 1 prospect Daniel Nava followed up his 2008 California League batting title by hitting .352/.458/.533 between the Red Sox high Class A Salem and Double-A Portland affiliates. Last year's No. 1 signed prospect Clay Zavada jumped all the way from the Frontier League to the Diamondbacks' big league bullpen in one year (going 3-3, 3.35 in 51 big league innings) while fellow Frontier Leaguer Mike Benacka (No. 4 among signed prospects) went 3-1, 2.61 with 90 strikeouts in 79 innings between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento for the Athletics.

It's worth pointing out that these prospects are not prospects in the same sense as the League Top 20 Prospects. While those prospects are projected to be solid big league regulars or potential all-stars, these prospects are players in the independent leagues who are projected as having the talent to move on to affiliated ball with the hope that a couple of them may eventually make it to the majors.

Players who were signed by an affiliated club before the cutoff of Aug. 13 are not eligible for this list.

1. Reynaldo Rodriguez, 1b, Yuma (Golden)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt. 210.

When the Golden Baseball League announced that the Yuma club would be filled completely with players from the Colombia Winter League, the hope was that it would allow some lesser-known Colombian prospects show their stuff in the U.S. No one took advantage of that more than Rodriguez, who was named the Golden League's rookie of the year after holding his own in a league filled with experienced Triple-A and big league veterans.

Rodriguez has already had one shot at affiliated ball. He signed with the Yankees in 2003 as a 17-year-old and over the next four years he had solid success in the Dominican Summer League. He finished sixth in the DSL in batting in 2005 (.335/.400/.415) and followed it up by hitting .361/.411/.660 in the DSL in 2007, but he was released by the Yankees later that year having played less than 10 games in the States.

Rodriguez bounced back from his release by leading the Colombian Winter League in batting (.378) this past winter. He kept right on hitting in the Golden League. He finished 12th in the league in batting (.335) while showing excellent athleticism for a first baseman. Although he showed a good glove at first, the former catcher projects better in affiliated ball as a corner outfielder where his tick above-average speed (18 steals in 21 attempts at Yuma) should play and his lack of plus power will be less of a problem. Rodriguez showed the ability to spray line drives to all fields for doubles and triples, but he does not yet have the pull power that is usually expected out of a first baseman.

2. Adam Frost, ss, Winnipeg (Northern)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 165.

Many of the best independent league finds are standout players at small colleges who go overlooked in the draft. Frost fits part of that bill-he was a standout at Division III St. Norbert (Wis.) College, but he didn't go overlooked. Frost was a 21st-round pick of the Tigers in 2008. But after 41 games with the Tigers' Gulf Coast League and high Class A Lakeland affiliates, he was released this year in spring training. The Goldeyes quickly scooped him up and saw him become one of the league's most athletic players.

Frost played second base and third base in the first part of the season before eventually settling in as Winnipeg's everyday shortstop where he held his own as a 22-year-old in a league filled with veterans. There's some question whether he can stick at shortstop in affiliated ball (he played all around the infield with the Tigers), but his 60-65 speed on the 20-to-80 scouting scale may play as a center fielder, where his solid average and accurate arm would also be a good fit. Frost showed a feel for baserunning and getting jumps in Winnipeg, but he's not a slap-and-dash hitter. He shows the ability to drive the ball to the gaps, although his lack of size means he'll likely never have more than below-average raw power.

3. Cephus Howard, rhp, Schamburg (Northern)
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 240.

He may be 25 (he's had a birthday since the season ended), but Howard is still an extremely raw pitcher with a good reason to be unrefined. Howard was a catcher growing up, and he didn't begin pitching until after a knee injury and ineligibility as a senior ended his career at USC Aiken (because of a knee injury, he never played in a college game). But even though he was new to pitching, the Angels saw enough to draft him in the 37th round in 2007. The Angels gave him two seasons before releasing him after a very brief stint in high Class A Rancho Cucamonga this season.

Pitching with the Flyers, Howard showed that he's a work in progress with an unrefined delivery but he already has shown control and should continue to improve as he gets more accustomed to pitching. His fastball sits between 88-91, touching 93 mph and he also throws a cutter, a tight slider and an inconsistent 12-to-6 curveball. Howard's stuff was good enough to blow away a lot of Northern League hitters especially as the season went along. He allowed only one hit in his final 7 2/3 innings of work while striking out six. For the season he struck out more than a batter an inning (47 Ks in 42 IP) and had an excellent 1.71 ERA.

4. Ben Paxton, rhp, Evansville (Frontier)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.

Coming into his final outing of the season, Paxton had a too small to see 0.23 ERA. A rough final outing (four runs in 1 2/3 innings) ballooned his final ERA to a still amazing 1.12. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Paxton may have been a poor fit in Evansville. An extreme groundball pitcher who relies on his defense (28 of his 34 hits allowed were singles), Paxton was pitching in front of the second-worst defense in the league (146 errors in 94 games) for a team that finished the season 28-66—no other pitcher on the team had an ERA below 4.60.

But Paxton's stuff stood out as a diamond among rhinestones. Paxton went 4-1, 3.62 as a sophomore in 2007 and 1-1, 3.41 as a junior in 2008 and seemed to be a potential senior sign as a later-round draft pick. But Paxton, who had converted to a sidearm delivery as a sophomore, struggled with his release point as a senior to slump to 1-1, 6.06.

Paxton adoped a higher low three-quarters delivery at Evansville. The new release point allowed him to add some velocity (he touched some 92s) and helped give his slider some newfound bite that made him more effective against lefties. Paxton found that his stuff actually plays better in pro ball. His 88-89 mph fastball has a natural boring action that can break wooden bats on pitches that were jam-job singles against metal.

5. Tim Brown, RHP, Lincoln (American Association)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200.

A lot of players grouse that they didn't get noticed in college because the team they played for didn't get much attention. In about 99 percent of the cases, it's not true, but in Tim Brown's case, there may be some truth to the old cliche. Brown went 8-4, 3.71 for a Division II Pittsburg State (Kan.) team that went 7-34 in games he didn't pitch. No other pitcher on the Gorillas roster had an ERA below 5.62.

Understandably, Brown didn't get noticed in the draft, and it doesn't help that he doesn't have a fastball that can blow hitters away. Instead he pitches to contact which means his strikeout numbers are extremely unimpressive. But what he does have is four pitches with excellent command, which he showed by making the rather large leap from Division II to the American Association. He walked only nine batters in 63 innings this season while going 5-1, 2.59 in 63 inning. Along the way he showed he could throw his 88-90 mph fastball, curveball, changeup and slider for strikes. Brown's fastball is a heavy sinker that is hard to hit in the air, but he does lack a putaway pitch (he only struck out 27 batters), which could be more of a problem in affiliated ball.

6. Isaac Hess, lhp, Calgary (Golden)
Age: 24. B-T. L-L. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 185.

At this point Issac Hess may be the most "known" independent league prospect out there. A member of the top 10 list last year, he's been signed by affiliated clubs twice in the past year (by the Padres and Red Sox), but both times concerns about his artificial hip (a result of a childhood condition) meant he never threw a pitch in affiliated ball.

There's little doubt about his stuff—he has an 89-91 mph fastball, a solid breaking ball and an excellent changeup. In affiliated ball he profiles more as a lefty arm out of the bullpen where his changeup would give him the ability to retire both lefties and righthanded hitters.

Hess this year managed to go three-for-three on independent league championships. After winning back-to-back Frontier League titles with Windy City, a midseason trade to Calgary helped him win his third ring in three years with a Golden League title. Along the way, he did everything he could to eliminate any concerns about his durability. He led the Golden League in strikeouts and finished second in the league in innings pitched. He also threw an inning in the Golden League all-star game on one-day's rest in an attempt to prove that his hip isn't a hindrance. That paid off in a contract with the Red Sox, but it also may have played a part in his diminished numbers over the second half of the season—he gave up five or more runs in five of his last eight starts after not giving up that many runs in any of his first 11 starts.

7. Joe Agreste, 1b, Gateway (Frontier)
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht. 6-4. Wt. 190.

Agreste was drafted by the Mariners in the 32nd round in 2008 on the heels of an outstanding junior year at West Virginia (.369/.426/.620). But he didn't sign and his senior year was a disaster (.264/.368/.437) that ensured he went undrafted this year. Signed by Gateway midway through the Frontier League season, Agreste quickly put his senioritis behind him, showing good hands and a plan at the plate.

He hit .303/.402/.537 for the Grizzlies in 175 at-bats while showing a good glove at first base and enough speed (6.7 in the 60-yard dash) and enough arm to be adequate as a corner outfielder.

"He was here early and here late. He had a good lefthanded swing and a good approach—a lot better then most kids you see his age," Gateway manager Phil Warren said.

Agreste uses the whole field well and doesn't sell out for power—his home runs came from line drives that carried and the ball makes a different sound coming off of his bat. His natural swing allowed him to make an easy transition to wood bats, but he does need to learn to pull the ball when pitchers try to bust him inside. At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds he also needs to add some weight and strength to unlock his full power potential.

8. Amadeo Zazueta, ss, Coastal Bend (United)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 160.

Zazueta is looking for a second chance in affiliated ball, as he spent two years in the Venezuelan Summer League and got a 28-game cameo in the Appalachian League in 2006 before being released after hitting .171 with Greeneville.

There are still concerns about his bat, but Zazueta's glove is good enough that he might get a second chance with an affiliated club. After playing in the Mexican Pacific League during the offseason, Zazueta tried to make the jump to the Atlantic League this year, but quickly discovered that he was over his head as a 23-year-old in the veteran-laden league.

Zazueta was quickly traded to the United League's Coastal Bend Thunder. He found the United League much more his speed, as he hit .308 in 299 at-bats. More importantly, he was easily the best glove in the league showing a plus arm and excellent range.

"He can flat play shortstop," San Angelo manager Doc Edwards said. "Put him with a manager who can work with him and he's got a chance to be a big league shortstop."

Zazueta will still have to prove that he can hit at higher levels. He showed he could make contact in the United League, but he struggled in his short stint in the Atlantic League. His glove should earn him a shot in affiliated ball, but his bat will determine whether he can stick around.

9. Stephen Fox, rhp, Sussex (Cam-Am)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 225.

If indy ball tries to give overlooked players a second chance, Fox is a prime example of the kind of players the leagues can dig up. Fox signed with Hofstra coming out of high school but was never eligible to play. He ended up pitching in a men's league until he decided to attend a Indy Pro Showcase tryout camp with a former Hofstra teammate. At the tryout he showed a 91-92 mph fastball with natural arm-side run the first day, then maintained his velocity and movement the next day, which was enough to earn him a contract with the Skyhawks.

As you would expect for a pitcher with no college experience and little coaching, Fox was not a refined product when he arrived in Sussex. A month into the season he had a 9.72 ERA. But Skyhawks pitching coach Brooks Carey worked at getting Fox to stop opening up so early in his delivery (which caused him to leave the ball up) and to stop falling off to first base on his follow-through. Once he got his delivery closed up and started striding towards home plate, Fox didn't allow an earned run in his final nine innings of work (while striking out nine) and he had a 1.90 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 24 innings over the final two months of the season.

"When he did get going he progressed into a pitcher from being a thrower," Sussex manager Hal Lanier said. "Everyone knew what we had. You could see it from the arm. Not many guys you pick up at a tryout camp throw 91-92 with natural movement."

Fox also throws a 11-to-5 curveball and started to develop a changeup this season.

10. Mikael Ryder, rhp, Chico (Golden)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht. 6-0. Wt. 180.

Indy ball never lacks for command specialists who survive with guile and less than stellar stuff. Ryder's command is impeccable, but he also showed that he has solid stuff.

The Golden Baseball League rookie pitcher of the year led the league in ERA (3.27 in a league where six of nine team's had ERAs above 5.00). He also walked only seven batters in 77 innings while striking out 60. The ace starter at Menlo College (an NAIA school) in 2008, Ryder earned a spot in the Golden League by pitching well in the Arizona Winter League. While he started the season, he eventually moved to the rotation, showing he belonged by shutting out league champion Calgary with a four-hitter.

Ryder worked with an 88-91 mph fastball and a plus curveball although it was his ability to paint the corners that kept hitters off balance all season.

Others to watch: Greg Lane, rhp, Sussex (Can-Am); Albert Ayala, rhp, Amarillo (United); Bryan Frichter, 3b, San Angelo (United); Blake Gailen, of, Chico (Golden); Ross Stout, Windy City (Frontier); Eddie Tisdale, 1b, Lake Erie (Frontier); Alberto Rolon, rhp, Lake Erie (Frontier); Josh Short, Kalamazoo (Frontier).