One in ten: That’s the approximate number of players in the minor leagues who make it to the major leagues. And that includes plenty of players we commonly think of as “busts” – think Ángel Salomé or Ben Hendrickson, both of whom clawed their way to the major leagues before fizzling out. Their stories are success stories. Can’t-miss prospects fail all the time. Baseball is hard.
Then there are the independent leagues. Situated below affiliated ball, the indy leagues dole out a few hundred dollars to players who play for a couple of months in small, empty stadiums before heading back to the families and day jobs they left behind. Not all of them harbor major league ambitions – there are many more realists in the independent leagues than there are in the minors. But plenty of others dream of getting that ten percent chance. Never mind that independent league coaching is a world away from minor league coaching. Never mind that indy league salaries are so low that players can scarcely afford temporary housing, let alone gym memberships or nutritious food. Never mind that some of these players were passed over in the major league draft, or were released after failing to hit in A-ball. Some combination of a love for the game and belief in themselves motivates them to keep playing.
Sometimes it pays off. Each year, a couple of players on a given independent league team might be scooped up by a big league organization. But what are the odds of those players ever making it to a big league club? The Brewers hope they’re one in four or better. In the last year, the Brewers plucked three players directly from independent teams, and stole another from a division rival via the Rule 5 draft. If everyone loves an underdog, these should be your new favorite prospects.
Pitcher Santos Saldivar kicked off the Milwaukee’s recent string of indy league finds when he signed his free-agent contract last May. Perhaps more than any other Stearns transaction, signing Saldivar cemented the Brewers’ commitment to analytics and statistical analysis. His name may be familiar to long-time devotees of Baseball Prospectus – Saldivar was one of the pitchers signed by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller to play for the Sonoma Stompers in 2015, and he features prominently in their book about the experience, The Only Rule is it Has to Work.
Miller and Lindbergh signed Saldivar using nothing but the data on a spreadsheet. In his senior year at Southern University, Saldivar worked to an even 3.00 ERA, striking out 115 batters over 87 innings for a rate of 11.9 Ks per nine innings. The righty failed to allow a single home run, and his WHIP was a cool 1.17. Yet he was overlooked in the major league draft, perhaps because he’s somewhat easy to overlook in general – Saldivar stands 5’8” and pitched for a small school. But he starred for the Stompers to the tune of a 2.05 ERA and 58 strikeouts against 17 walks in 48.1 innings. That sort of work will generally get you noticed.
His Brewers debut was not without its bumps. Saldivar was sent to the Helena Brewers of the Pioneer League, where he was about one and a half years older than most of his competition. He still struck out a batter per inning, but he also issued 4.5 BB/9, and limped to a 5.73 ERA over 19 relief appearances.
Don’t count him out just yet – Saldivar is nothing if not ambitious (his goal for last season was to finish in A-ball and start 2017 in AA), and the Helena coaching staff took him out of his comfort zone by restricting his ability to throw his two-seam fastball. He throws four other pitches, ranging from the low 60s to the low 90s, all with plenty of movement. And he set his college record for strikeouts, beating out then-teammate (and current Tampa Bay Ray) Jose De Leon. De Leon is six inches taller, but Santos likes his chances to continue to outshine the top prospect. With a strong showing in full-season ball in 2017, he could give himself a chance to do just that.
Evaluating righty Chad Nading is tricky business. This is because Chad Nading is without compare. To start with, he’s from Alaska, and became one of only 20 high school players drafted from that cold-weather state when the Detroit Tigers called his name in the 36th round in 2006. The 6’5” hurler didn’t sign, opting instead to redshirt at Oregon State. His battery mate was dating the daughter of erstwhile Padres manager Bud Black, and the two struck up an acquaintanceship. Nading then transferred to UNLV, where he pitched to a cumulative 9.18 ERA in two seasons. He was drafted again after his junior year in 2009, this time by the Texas Rangers in 37th round. He still didn’t sign.
After his senior year, Nading spent a summer chatting with Black about his mechanics and potential, and scored a contract with the Padres’ Arizona League affiliate to boot. It did not go well. He worked to a 14.29 ERA as a submariner, coughing up 13 hits and 9 earned runs in only 5.2 innings. He walked two and struck out three. The next two seasons – 2011 and 2012 – saw Nading laboring in independent leagues. He didn’t get much work, pitching a combined 12.1 innings with a ghastly 20.83 ERA and 15.62 BB/9.
He was down, but he wasn’t out. After three seasons away, Nading came roaring back into the independent leagues in 2016 with the Wichita Wingnuts (whose recent alums include David Peralta and Junior Guerra). Featuring a 94-97 mph fastball and a new over-the-top delivery, Nading found the strike zone and posted a 1.83 ERA, accompanied by a 30:17 K/BB ration in 39 innings. His turnaround was impressive enough for Baseball America to rank him the fourth-best independent league prospect available at the start of the offseason, despite the fact that 2017 will be his age-29 season. He caught the eye of Brewers evaluators, too, who bought his rights in late October. Look for Nading to get a look out of the bullpen down on the farm in 2017.
Sometimes, you’re just unlucky. That would certainly explain why 6’4” right-hander and Greg Maddux fan Luke Barker was passed over in the 2015 MLB draft. In four years at Chico State, Barker posted a 2.91 ERA over 72 appearances, including 26 starts and 18 saves. He throws five pitches, headlined by a four-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s. That pitch pairs well with his upper-70s slider and mid-80s splitter. He’ll also mix in a two-seamer and a changeup to keep hitters guessing.
Sensing an opportunity, the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Frontier League signed Barker for 2016, and he responded by posting a heroic 1.44 ERA with 12.0 strikeouts per nine against only 1.4 walks. His WHIP for the season was 0.802. If ever there was a golden ticket out of the independent leagues, those numbers are it. The Brewers snatched his rights in mid-November, and may develop him as a starter next year. He’ll turn 25 in March, so a strong showing this spring could push him as high as Class-A Carolina.
If pitching doesn’t work out, Barker could still offer the Brewers significant value. Before being signed, he planned to pursue a PhD in biomechanics and a career in coaching. It’s safe to say that sports are in his blood – his mother is Chico State’s Athletic Director, and his father is the head trainer. Guys like that are good to have around.
The Toronto Blue Jays selected lefty first baseman Art Charles in the 20th round of the 2010 draft, on the heels of a monster sophomore season at Bakersfield College (.317/.405/.514). Last March, he was released by the Philadelphia Phillies after limping to a .229 average (albeit with 25 doubles, four triples, and 19 home runs) in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. In December, the Brewers selected him from the Cincinnati Reds in the AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft. So it’s safe to say he’s been around.
Charles stands 6’6” and weighs in at 260 pounds. He has long arms and a smooth swing that allows him to access his plus power. He’s not bad with the glove, either – he can dig out a low throw, and he’s big enough to catch anything within six or seven feet of the bag that comes in between the ground and, oh, about ten feet in the air. He’s also a gregarious personality with great makeup on and off the field – for Charles, being released and playing in indy ball was a powerful motivator. There’s a lot about him to like.
There have also been a lot of strikeouts, which prevented him from ever eclipsing a .251 average in the minor leagues. He was cut loose by a good Phillies system, but quickly got a call from the Laredo Lemurs of the independent American Association. The New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League liked him even better, and swung a trade for Charles before the season started.
It was a savvy move. Charles ran away with the Can-Am Triple Crown after putting up Eric-Thames-in-Korea numbers. His triple slash for the season was a ludicrous .352/.461/.699, which went nicely with his 29 home runs and 101 RBIs. Encouragingly, he drew 66 walks and struck out just 92 times over 355 ABs – hardly elite, but much better than he fared in affiliated ball. Baseball America named him their Independent Leagues Player of the Year, and ranked him as the second-best indy league prospect this offseason. On the heels of this success, he was signed by the Reds, left unprotected, and claimed by the Brewers. Now he’ll have a chance to make his mark in an organization thin on upper-level corner talent. Still just 25 years old, watch for Charles to wreak havoc in the hitter’s paradise that is Colorado Springs.
Of course, his odds of becoming an impactful player at the major league level are still vanishingly slim. All four of these players are facing a steep climb to Milwaukee. But it’s also worth remembering that David Peralta, Junior Guerra, and Rich Hill were all playing independent ball a few years ago. In indy league baseball, there’s an awful lot of “rough.” But there are plenty of diamonds, too. Here’s hoping the Brewers strike rich.