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
Two Pirates pitchers, both the same age, from the mid-to-late-2000s. Which one is pitching like an All-Star in the big leagues in 2013, and which one is a Duck?
2006 (Age 24)
176 IP, 5.18 FRA, 1.9 WARP
2007 (Age 25)
208 IP, 4.62 FRA, 1.9 WARP
178 IP, 5.78 FRA, 0.4 WARP
2008 (Age 26)
164 IP, 4.95 FRA, 1.5 WARP
208 IP, 5.17 FRA, 1.1 WARP
14. Fernando Perez, Sugar Land Skeeters
Baseball’s most visible poet since Ernest Thayer or maybe Ozzie Guillen, and its most visible Columbia alumnus since Lou Gehrig retired from game in 2012. Not a bad career for a seventh-round pick from hardly a baseball factory to play parts of two seasons in the big leagues and retire to a life of rambling with his creative writing degree, as his former Twitter account @outfieldrambler might suggest.
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
Who in hitting was no Derek Jeter
But he spent his best days
With the World Series Rays
Before he retired a Skeeter
13. Ramon Castro, Long Island Ducks
If the Mets can trade John Buck after his torrid start and Travis d’Arnaud’s injury is serious enough, there is like a 93 percent chance that this 13-year veteran of MLB and long-time Mets backup actually catches at Citi Field at some point this year.
12. Koby Clemens, Sugar Land Skeeters
The Skeeters find themselves a Clemens short of a full deck of Clemenses, as Roger hung ’em up again after pitching to Koby in his circus show last season. Still, even without Dad, Koby is still the everyday catcher for the undefeated 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
Usually the path from a full season in the big leagues into independent ball isn’t so steep, especially not with a player still just 30. Mather was with the Cubs from start to finish last year and set career-highs in pretty much all the counting stats, but the production wasn’t enough to get him a job with the Phillies, who released him in spring training.
10. Luis Montanez, Somerset Patriots
A former no. 3 overall pick of the Cubs way back in 2000, his whole career has been about just hanging on. It took him more than eight years and two different organizations before he first cracked the big leagues. Even then, it was up and down until last season, when he cracked the 5,000 plate appearance barrier in the affiliated minor leagues. But that was the end of the line, en route to Central Jersey at age 31.
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
Remember this guy? He went relatively under the radar when hacking away for three seasons in the Rays organization but picked up a little attention last spring, when the Yankees signed him out of Newark of the Can-Am League.
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
It’s a return trip to Connecticut for Greenberg, who was with the Fish from 2008-2011 and more notably got a call last year from the big-league Fish to get his one at-bat. Greenberg, the well-told story goes, had been hit in the head in his only plate appearance back in 2005, and had a difficult road back not only in the baseball sense.
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
In researching for this list, it was actually surprising that this was Willis’ first foray into the independent world. He’s been in long shot career revival mode for conservatively five or six years now, and he’s finally made it official at the hub of long shot career resuscitations.
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
Even though there’s no real hope of a destination anymore, it’s hard not to root for Penn, who for three straight years in affiliated ball missed 50-plus days with three very different injuries. In 2006, when he was a year removed from a debut at age 20 as a top prospect, Penn missed 60 days with appendicitis. Then it was an elbow in 2007 and a shoulder in 2008, and he wouldn’t pitch 25 more innings in the big leagues.
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
In just a season and a week of operations, the league’s newest club in suburban Houston has become something of a haven for ex-Astros players, from Roger Clemens to Jason Lane to minor leaguers who are cut and land with the Skeeters. Elarton is a little different in that he hasn’t been an Astro in 12 years. He even pitched two years in the Astrodome, he’s been around so long, and he was the only pitcher to handle the move to Enron Field even reasonably well in 2000.
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 looked like he could hang on forever in the majors, and he almost did. But after 14 seasons, 10 teams, and not more than three years at any stop, he was done in the majors after 2011. He’d made a spectacular living for himself out of the unspectacular, pitching 1,816 innings without making an All-Star team.
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 2005: “The best prospect in baseball and a future superstar. As a 20-year-old toiling in the mostly hitter-unfriendly Southern League, Marte hit .269/.364/.525. In only 387 at-bats, he smacked 52 extra-base hits. He's got monstrous power and a broad base of hitting skills. In his prime, expect a few seasons of Adrian Beltre, circa 2004.”
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
Assuming this is the end of the road for Guerrero, and also assuming he ever gets off the inactive list after some personal issues, Guerrero would not be the best player ever to end his career in independent ball, such as it exists today. That would arguably be Roger Clemens. Guerrero wouldn’t even be the best position player to do it. Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson’s five-year waiting period for eligibility was established by his final major league game in 2003, but he played part of that season plus 2004 and 2005 in indy ball.
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
The best part about Daryle Ward’s existence in independent ball is that there is no road back to the majors or to affiliated ball. Set one foot in an organization, and it’s an immediate 50-game suspension—or whatever is negotiated down for time served. Despite being out of the majors since 2008 and having only 28 games in the minors since 2010, he managed to get himself suspended for amphetamine use.
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