Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the mainstream fundamentals of the Twins, versus the hipster indie-ball scouting of the Diamondbacks.
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The first time I went to an independent league game, last summer in San Rafael, CA, I overheard the name Daniel Nava twice in the first 10 minutes. Nava, an indie-league escapee who has succeeded with the Red Sox, is the proof of concept for both players—who see in him a model for their careers—and for fans, who see in him evidence that the game they paid $10 to watch isn't that far removed from the highest levels.
There’s another name, though, that you start to hear if you keep hanging around the indie leagues: Chris Carminucci. A .183/.329/.225 hitter in a single season of indie ball, Carminucci is a different kind of saint for these players to pray to: He’s the scout, and the guy most likely to make their dreams come true.
In the past few years, Carminucci has signed, by his estimate, more than 40 independent-league players for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s not the only scout who patrols this beat—he estimates there are about 10 teams with scouts like him, and J.J. Cooper has written about how much more indie-ball scouting there is today, compared to five years ago—but he might be the most effective, the most active. He doesn’t just scout the bigger leagues, the Atlantics and the Frontiers. He even made it out to San Rafael to see games in the tiny Pacific Association, out of which exactly one player was signed last year. Carminucci was the guy who signed him.
It’s been at least a half century since a scout could find so much talent out of unorganized American baseball. Over the past two decades, independent leagues have become far more professionalized, playing in bigger stadiums and run by well-connected managers. And over the past five years, in particular, these leagues’ ranks have been swelled by talented ballplayers squeezed out of affiliated baseball. The draft used to go 50, 60, in some cases nearly 100 rounds. It’s now capped at 40, and all those undrafted players are looking for jobs. “They only way to continue to get a chance is to put on a uniform and turn somebody’s head, like me,” Carminucci says.
The result is a level of play that is far higher than it was when Carminucci was playing in 1997; he says now he’d never have been signed if he was playing today. After that lone year as a no-hit utility man (he also pitched six innings, with an ERA over 15), he went on to manage at the independent level, then briefly owned an independent-league team. He’s not the only Diamondbacks employee who brings a personal history in the unaffiliated ball with him: Bill Bryk, a special assistant to the GM in Arizona, is another former manager in independent ball.
But enough of the narrative stuff. Does any of this lead to Step Three, Profit? First, let’s compare the Diamondbacks efforts to another team. We picked the Dodgers, mostly as a random control group, partly because the Dodgers are the sort of deep-pockets team that can afford to scout every inch of this planet if they want to.
Last year, near as we* can tell, the Dodgers found two players in independent ball: Anthony Slama, a 30-year-old pitcher who threw six innings in Double-A; and Angel Sanchez, a 30-year-old infielder who batted 200 times in Double-A. Both had been playing for Southern Maryland in the Atlantic League. (Other players in the organization had indie-ball experience in 2013 or earlier, but for simplicity we’re limiting this to players found last season, in-season, who also appeared for the big-league club's affiliate.)
Now the Diamondbacks:
- Taylor Ard, a 24-year-old first baseman who was playing for the River City Rascals in the Frontier League
- Stewart Ijames, a 25-year-old right fielder from the Washington WildThings in the Frontier League
- Eric Brooks, a 23-year-old righty pitching for the Lincoln Saltdogs in the American Association
- Markus Solbach, a 22-year-old righty pitching for the Windy City Thunderbolts in the Frontier League
- Kyle Anderson, a 24-year-old lefty pitching for the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the American Association
- Gabriel Perez, a 23-year-old righty pitching for the New Jersey Jackals in the Canadian-American Association
- Zak Wasserman, a 23-year-old lefty pitching for the Windy City Thunderbolts in the Frontier League
- Steve Nyisztor, a 23-year-old infielder from the Rockland Boulders in the Canadian-American Association
- Rob Wort, a 25-year-old righty pitching for the Sioux City Exporers in the American Association
- Nick Sarianides, a 24-year-old righty pitching for the Trois-Rivieras Aigles in the Canadian-American Association
- Josh Slaats, a 25-year-old righty pitching for the Rockford Aviators in the Frontier League
- Dustin Martin, a 30-year-old outfielder from the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Atlantic League
- Nate Sampson, a 26-year-old infielder from the Sioux City Explorers in the American Association
The sheer volume is impressive, particularly considering that most of these guys are still young enough to count as prospects. But, one might argue, if this list represents little more than org filler, then what’s the real gain?
The response to that is simple: David Peralta. A better story than most of us even realize, Peralta was a rookie-ball pitcher who blew out his shoulder, went home to Venezuela, and spent four years working on his swing by himself. He reappeared in 2011 as a hitter, baseball’s very own version of the woodshedding myth. As Jon Morosi recounted last year, Carminucci spotted him playing in the now-defunct North American League, then saw him a year later in the American Association. (Carminucci's scouting was assisted by a pitching instructor who had competed against Peralta that year: Bill Bryk, Jr.) In 2013, he signed Peralta. At 26, Peralta debuted last year, played all three outfield positions, hit .286/.320/.450 and produced 1.7 wins, by Baseball-Reference’s model. He was, in essence, the best-case scenario that the Diamondbacks hoped for when they signed Cody Ross for three years and $25 million. But all Peralta cost was the thousand or so bucks they paid the Amarillo Sox for his rights, and a hefty mileage bill from Carminucci.
Most of these guys don’t turn into Peralta, of course. A bunch of the players on that list up there will be back in indie ball this year, trying to convince another team’s scout to take a chance. But some do. It’s not impossible to imagine Wasserman, a 6-foot-6, beating the odds and turning into a useful left-handed reliever. (He struck out 20 and walked two after joining Arizona’s organization, though it was only rookie ball.) You can squint and see something in Markus Solbach’s future: He’s 6-foot-5 (and Dutch!) and held his own as a strike-thrower in the Midwest League last year.
But the point isn’t that any of these guys is a great bet. It’s that there’s some strength in numbers, and if you drive around enough you’ll eventually pass something cool, like the world’s largest ball of twine—or its baseball equivalent, David Peralta.
* Many thanks to Ian Frazer for helping pick through these rosters for indie experience.