April 23, 2013
Staying Alive in the Independent Leagues
Apologies for the belated greetings of happy Opening Day, but the Atlantic League opener really snuck up on us last week.
It shouldn’t have. The Atlantic League, and its fellow independent circuits, are among the best things about baseball. There are guys who will be scouted and signed into the 30 major league organizations, a few of whom may even make the big leagues. There are those on the way down from major league or minor league careers. There are combinations of the two, like Scott Kazmir, who started for the Indians Saturday after salvaging his career in the Atlantic League last season.
And then there are those who are just trying to squeeze out one more opening day before embarking on a reality without any more opening days.
That’s true of all the independent leagues, but the great thing about the Atlantic League—seven teams in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic and a geographic sore thumb and architectural gem in Sugar Land, Texas—is how many recognizable names there are either trying to get back or just trying to hang on.
Dozens of ex-big leaguers dot the rosters this year, including All-Stars, prospects-turned busts, and a potential Hall-of-Famer.
So with apologies to Lenny DiNardo and Brian Tallet (Lancaster), Michael Wuertz, Eric Patterson, and Jason Repko (York), Gary Majewski, Sean Gallagher, and Jason Bergmann (Sugar Land), Jeff Fulchino (Bridgeport), Jake Fox (Somerset), Brian Barton (Southern Maryland) and Josh Barfield (Long Island), my 15 favorite names on the fascinating rosters of the Atlantic League.
15. Ian Snell, Long Island Ducks
14. Fernando Perez, Sugar Land Skeeters
But the account is now gone, and the baseball career is back. Even if he doesn’t make it back to affiliated life, he still has a bio on the Poetry Foundation’s website, which is more than Albert Pujols can say. And then he can write things like this:
There once was an 80-grade reader
13. Ramon Castro, Long Island Ducks
12. Koby Clemens, Sugar Land Skeeters
While his selection was roundly mocked in Astros territory for being a publicity stunt and/or favor to his father, then an Astro in 2005, Koby had a 1.055 OPS in Lancaster in 2009 and, in a slightly lesser hitting environment, hit 26 home runs in Double-A in 2010. He probably never had a shot at the big leagues without a position—his catching wasn’t good enough, and he was moved all over the field—but the Astros haven’t had an eighth-round pick contribute anything since Chris Sampson (1999), so why complain about that one?
11. Joe Mather, Lancaster Barnstormers
10. Luis Montanez, Somerset Patriots
Before last year, you’d have said he was a good enough Triple-A hitter to get welcomed back somewhere for depth when the need inevitably arose, but after a .241/.337/.293 season with the Cardinals’ and Phillies’ affiliates last year, this might have really been it.
9. Burt Reynolds, Camden Riversharks
Well, Reynolds never made the Yankees, but he did return to Newark and is this year making his Atlantic League debut on the other side of the state.
8. Adam Greenberg, Bridgeport Bluefish
He got a tryout with the Orioles this spring, but he didn’t stick. Now the “one hit” campaign relaunches in Bridgeport, and we fear this this may be a little tougher.
7. Dontrelle Willis, Long Island Ducks
If you’re going to do this right, do it with the Ducks, whose alumni include Juan Gonzalez, John Rocker, Armando Benitez, Henry Rodriguez (the Expos one) and Carl Everett among others in need of revival at a late stage of their careers.
6. Hayden Penn, Bridgeport Bluefish
In fact, of players who debuted this century at age 20 or younger and who seem to be done, Penn has the fourth-fewest career innings.
Penn finished with a 9.51 career ERA but had some success in limited action in a three-year run in Japan before trying the U.S. independent circuit.
5. Scott Elarton, Sugar Land Skeeters
Elarton, who signed a minor league deal with the Twins this offseason, told the Houston Chronicle that unlike most of the Atlantic League, he isn’t playing to make the majors. He mostly just wants his son to be able to watch him pitch some more. And who wouldn’t like that?
4. Brett Tomko, York Revolution
He earned better than $20 million in the game, but he still started 17 games in the minors trying to work his way back and has an even longer climb now.
Now 40, he still knows what to do on the mound and took it to the kids in his York debut, throwing seven shutout innings and giving up two hits.
3. Andy Marte, York Revolution
Baseball Prospectus 2011: “Once among the top offensive prospects in baseball, Marte was given five years to prove everyone was right about him when he was in the minors, but he's gained far more weight than he has fans in the scouting community. Now slow and stiff, Marte's bat speed leaves him unable to catch up to better fastballs, and he's no longer an adequate third baseman. Released at the end of the year, Marte hooked on with the Pirates early in the free agency period, the perfect marriage of thwarted hopes and low expectations.”
I’m hoping to use “Thwarted Hopes and Low Expectations” as the title of my memoirs in a few years. Anyway, it’s good to see a troubled ex-prospect back in baseball after a year away.
2. Vladimir Guerrero, Long Island Ducks
And he was awesome.
Henderson had a .493 on-base percentage in 53 games for Newark in 2003. Then the following year at age 45, he just decided to be a basestealer again and swiped 37 in 39 chances. He finished up at 46 with a .456 OBP and went 16-for-18 on the bases for San Diego of the Golden Baseball League.
Here’s hoping that Guerrero knocks a few out of the yard from his ankles before we start arguing about his Hall case.
1. Daryle Ward, Lancaster Barnstormers
So here he remains, in independent ball in the Northeast for the fourth season minus a short stint with Arizona’s Double-A club. But really, indy ball is the perfect home for him. All he’s known for is standing up at the plate and hitting long home runs, and what’s to say he can’t do that in the Atlantic League for the next 10 years?
Bring Jim Thome along too, and we’ve got ourselves a ballclub.
Sources: Atlantic League team rosters, Baseball-Reference.com