Independent Leagues Top 10 Prospects Chat With JJ Cooper

    Jon (Peoria): Even though this is a prospects chat, what do you think will happen to the four remaining Northern League teams? Will they add a couple of teams or try to join the Frontier League? Are each of them financially stable?

J.J. Cooper: Hey everyone. As someone who loves independent league baseball, this is one of the more enjoyable days of the year for me. All indy questions are on the table, so we can talk league realignment, prospects or the All-Indy Team. That being the case, this is a perfect question to start off with, since the recent news of four Northern League clubs joining the American Association is some of the bigger news in years in indy ball. The Northern League is saying that they plan to go ahead in 2011 and hope to add a couple of teams. That being said, if common sense applies, it would seem more likely that some, or all of the franchises that remain for the Northern League would end up in the Frontier League. In Rockford's case, they were a Frontier League team until last year, so their fans are already very familiar with Frontier League baseball. In Schaumburg and Joliet's cases, they have had financial troubles in recent years and publicly have been on the market to be sold. The reduced costs of the Frontier League would make sense for those markets as would the reduced travel. As far as Lake County, they would also make geographic sense for the Frontier League if they can get their stadium ready to go.

    Karl (Belleville, IL): Does anyone else ever make it out of independent ball? (Coaches, umpires, scouts, etc...)

J.J. Cooper: Yes. Daren Brown, the Mariners manager this season after Don Wakamatsu was fired, spent seven seasons as an independent league coach and manager in Amarillo before he joined the Mariners' organization. Mark Parent was a recent Golden Baseball League manager (he managed current big leaguer Daniel Nava in Chico) before heading to the Phillies organization where he led Lakewood to the South Atlantic League title this year. There are more examples, but those are two off the top of my head.

    David (Nixa, MO): How many scouts do you get to speak to when making the Indy ball list?

J.J. Cooper: Not a whole lot of scouts, largely because in this case anything a scout sees is likely to be info that he and he alone has. If a scout working for a team has a sleeper he finds in an indy league, he's usually going to sign him for his club, not tell me about him which indirectly means that other teams will find out about him. But there are cases where scouts have told me about a player that doesn't fit for their team, but deserves a shot somewhere. Most of this list is put together by talking to league managers as well as other people involved in indy ball. Indy league managers have to serve as scouts in a way—they often are in charge of putting their own teams together—so I've found them to be pretty good judges of talent.

    Bill (Raleigh): JJ, I heard recently that Matty Johnson signed as a free-agent with the Red Sox. I've personally seen him and he can fly and he generates enough bat speed to get himself on base. While he definitely lacks power, for his size, he's just as effective and can be compared to Juan Pierre, and last time I checked Juan was still playing ML baseball with the White Sox and has had a decent career thus far. What do you see in Matty that may limit him rising up the system?

J.J. Cooper: With Johnson you hit on the big thing—he's fast enough and he has a good enough eye for the strike zone to be succeed as a leadoff hitter if he proves he has enough pop to make pitchers pay when they challenge him. If he can't get do something with a good fastball then pitchers won't give him many chances to draw walks. I'm not really that worried about his lack of height, as for an on-base guy that may help him thanks to his tiny strike zone.

    George (Dallas, TX): I'm curious why you like the Indy Leagues so much. Don't they consist of obscure prospects who have almost no chance at ever seeing the Majors?

J.J. Cooper: Generally yes. But there are guys who have been overlooked and deserve a shot at affiliated ball. Like a lot of people, I'm fans of the underdog. When it comes to baseball, indy players are the underdogs. The leagues are also filled with people who love baseball—to play or coach in indy ball ensures lots of long hours for little pay—so the people who do it are people who love the game. And beyond that, indy ball is a very pure form of minor league baseball. A manager/GM put together a team to the best of their ability and then try to win a title, which makes for a fun brand of baseball.

    Petey Pablo (Carrboro): Beyond those mentioned in the write-up, who were the top indy prospects that did land affiliated deals this year? (Also, I see that some of the top 10 have already landed with big league squads - Garcia w/ ATL, for one). Thanks!

J.J. Cooper: Yeah, the top three from this list have already signed: Johnson has signed with Boston while Alsup and Garcia have signed with Atlanta. I'd expect a few more will be signed in the next couple of weeks. As far as guys who signed earlier, Jason Lowey has good stuff as he showed the Braves in Myrtle Beach. Matt Meyer was absolutely dominant in the American Association before the Angels signed him. But the best player I heard of all year in indy ball was Justin James, who bounced back from some arm problems to show dominating stuff with the Kansas City T-Bones. Oakland signed him and saw him make it all the way to the big leagues by the end of the season.

    Dave (Atlanta): The Braves signed several interesting indy leaguers in McGill, Lowey, and Aslup. Do you see them having an increased presence like the Phillies or Red Sox?

J.J. Cooper: I think Atlanta keeps a pretty close eye on indy ball. Tampa also seems to be paying plenty of attention in addition to some of the teams that always do a good job of signing indy players like Oakland, the Yankees and the teams you mentioned.

    Tim (Pittsburgh, PA): Chris Sidick (washington wild things) longer a prospect?

J.J. Cooper: Interesting player, but as a 27-year-old the window of time to make it to affiliated ball is getting pretty small. That's not to say it can't happen, but it would have been easier when he was tearing up the Frontier League as a 23-year-old, and unfortunately for Sidick it didn't happen back then.

    Jason (Walnut Creek, CA): The Oakland A's have a penchant for signing Indy Leaguers, especially recently. Bobby Cramer made a couple of starts in the big leagues at teh end of the year and pitchers like Kyle Middlebrook, Michael Benacka, and Jon Hunton are knocking on the door. Have they signed any of these current Top 20 Prospects?

J.J. Cooper: They haven't as of yet signed anyone from this current list (although Hunton and Benacka were guys that made previous lists), but as I mentioned earlier they have already signed Justin James who is probably the best arm in indy ball this year.

    Mike (Fort Wayne): Whats the latest on Larry Bigbie? Sounds like he's making a comback to MLB. I did see that he made your All Indy-Team with solid numbers. As an older guy in the league with big league experience, will he sign somewhere?

J.J. Cooper: I could definitely see him ending up back in Triple-A at some point, but for guys like Bigbie it seems to come down to being in the right place at the right time to make the jump back to affiliated ball. The numbers he put up in the GBL this year can't hurt.

    Dave (Atlanta): Jason Lowey had a strong debut for Myrtle Beach after the Braves acquired him, pitching eight scoreless innings with 16 strikeouts and getting a Mexican winter league assignment. Where would he have ranked on your list?

J.J. Cooper: If we were including everyone who signed during the season he would have been near the top of the list (although behind Justin James). He has good velocity and is still a relatively fresh arm as he was primarily a position player in college.

    Jon (Peoria): Were there any players from the Atlantic League that were young enough to be considered?

J.J. Cooper: There were some, especially at the end of the season when players from other leagues often are added to rosters, but the Atlantic League is a very tough place for a 22 or 23-year-old to play.

    Zeebs (Palo Alto, CA.): David Harris went from unknown to GBL star. What are his chances of making an impact in organized ball? And what do you make of his skill-set?

J.J. Cooper: Here's the scouting report I got on him. 6-1, 185, 23 years old. True rookie out of Pepperdine University where he was a starting corner outfielder for two seasons after being recruited out of Santa Barbara City College where he was a Junior College All-American. Played as a freshman for the University of San Diego where he hit .318. Earned a spot in the starting lineup after beginning the season as a reserve. Showed good speed and an excellent batting eye to go with a solid stroke.

    Joe R (Newport News, VA): Do you get to see many independent games yourself?

J.J. Cooper: Very few. We're located in Durham, N.C. which is hundreds of miles from the nearest indy parks. I've been fortunate enough to get to a couple of indy parks while traveling over the last couple of years, but 99 percent of what you see hear comes from working the phones.

    Chris (KC): How about Northern League Triple Crown winner Jacob Blackwood? Does he not make the list because he was picked up by the Giants last week?

J.J. Cooper: He was close to making the list, but as a 25-year-old we opted to go with some younger players. Here's a scouting report on him: Good bat who was locked in from day one to the end of the season. Always a tough out with an ability to center the ball on the bat. Defensively he can play multiple positions, but he'll have to hit as he isn't really a standout at any spot.

    Bill (Chicago): With a lot of these top Indy prospects already signing, what is the typical timeline that MLB clubs look to sign them by? Is it before the minor league free agent date or after?

J.J. Cooper: Right around now is when a lot of them sign. The funny thing though is for the player, the best time to sign, I believe, is during the season. Making it out of spring training as an independent league signee is very, very tough. You're joining a club that will be looking to release dozens of players before the end of spring training, so there are more players than roster spots. If it comes down to an indy player (who cost almost nothing to sign) or a former high round draft pick who cost a lot to sign, teams will often give the former pick one more chance. Now if you're an independent league player, you can't turn down the opportunity to report to spring training, it's too good of a chance, but a lot of those guys can have good springs and still find themselves back in indy ball come April. If you sign during the season, you know you're going to get some at-bats or innings in games that count. And because a manager and coaching staff will get to know you, by the next spring training, you will seem more familiar to the decision makers than a guy who just came in during the offseason. But guys to make it to affiliated clubs after signing during the offseason every year, so it can be done.

    Jim (Lancaster, PA): Aaron Herr had a very good season at 3B in the Atlantic League with impressive power numbers. Is he someone that could get a spring training invitation?

J.J. Cooper: Absolutely. It really depends on a team having the need for a veteran corner bat.

    Bill (Raleigh): Hi again JJ, I have seen many Indy games and I agree with you on how much fun it is to the guys who have to act as not only Manager but GM in evaluating talent to make their team etc. Chris Coste, Nava, former All-Star with Texas, Zimmerman, former Brave - Kerry Leichtenberg, all made impacts in the Majors and formerly played Indy ball. Who do you feel in your opinion will come out of this year's group of prospects to make an impact at the ML Level?

J.J. Cooper: From the top 10, Wes Alsup has very good stuff if he can stay healthy—but that's a big if as he's struggled with his health and his delivery isn't particularly clean. Matty Johnson's ceiling is limited by his size, but he's the rare leadoff hitter who fully embraces being a leadoff hitter. He's not trying to do more than he can do.

    boyd (llos angeles): IS the Can AM league scouted?

J.J. Cooper: Yes. That doesn't mean there are scouts in the stands every night, but there are scouts that check in on tips or see a game every now and then. But also a lot of teams "stat scout" where they'll keep an eye on the stats from the leagues, see a name or two to check up on and then send an area scout or make some calls to see if a guy is worth pursuing. That happens for pretty much all of the leagues including the Can-Am League. There have been future big leaguers who have been signed by clubs without ever seeing him in person until he shows up at his first affiliated game.

    Joe LeCates (Easton, MD): When does the steel cage match take place between you and John for the right to do an hour long Indy podcast?

J.J. Cooper: As much as I would enjoy doing it, I don't think that an hour-long indy podcast is in the cards. That being said, we did talk indy ball briefly on the podcast that will be posted tomorrow morning.

    JAYPERS (IL): What are you hearing on James Paxton? Will he likely sign with the M's before next year's draft?

J.J. Cooper: I don't have any first-hand knowledge, but as I would see it there's too much harm to Paxton to putting his career on hold to wait for another year. He's already missed nearly a year of development right now, getting a couple of showcase starts in an indy league before next year's draft isn't the same as spending a year in pro ball.

    Bryce (TX): Is there one team that dominates coverage on any particular league?

J.J. Cooper: I don't know what you mean by dominating coverage, but there are teams that stand out. Sioux Falls had an excellent lineup this year with a lot of names Baseball America readers would be familiar with—like Brandon Sing and Reggie Abercrombie. You know year in and year our Doug Simunic will have Fargo-Moorhead near the top of the standings. Normal put a pair of interesting prospects on the Top 10 list.

J.J. Cooper: Thanks for all the questions. We'll be back with another indy chat at this time next year.