If the Can-Am League had its own Hall of Fame, this would be a perfect souvenir for a player to donate.
Less than a year removed from All-Star status in the league for his play with the Rockland Boulders (Pomona, NY), Stephen Cardullo gave himself an ideal 29th birthday gift two days early when his pinch hit single landed in left field to give the new Colorado Rockies outfielder-first baseman his very first major league hit. “Just a great feeling,” he told ESPN.com. That ball would make a nice treasure, although it apparently is going to Cardullo’s father.
It was Cardullo’s sixth plate appearance for the Rockies (he had an earlier walk), and the Coors Field crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Accolades for Cardullo on his first regular-season major league opportunity have poured in since last Thursday from the likes of coach Mike Martin, Jr. at Florida State, where the Hollywood, FL native went from walk-on status to an offensive power, and both general manager Shawn Reilly and field manager Jamie Keefe of the Boulders had great praise. The right-handed hitter had spent four full seasons in Independent leagues before the Rockies signed him during the offseason, three in the Can-Am League and one in the Frontier (Florence, KY and London). This is what Cardullo had to say to The Denver Post about the opportunity:
“Anyone playing Independent ball always has that slight chance to get a call to make a team and eventually make the major leagues. You have to have that belief deep down that you can make it even given the opportunity, and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity.”
OTHERS GET TO MAJORS, AS WELL
The expansion of rosters on September 1 likely will mean more former Indy players will join major league teams, but it has already been a banner few days. Catcher Rafael Lopez, who played in the Atlantic League (Bridgeport, CT) earlier this season, was summoned to join Cincinnati on Saturday, becoming the 40th player with non-affiliated experience to reach The Show this season.
Southpaw Andrew Albers (Quebec, Can-Am, and Lancaster, PA, Atlantic) has re-joined Minnesota, right-hander Brandon Cunniff (Southern Illinois and River City, Frontier League) went back to Atlanta as did first baseman Brandon Snyder (Southern Maryland, Atlantic), righty Bo Schultz (Grand Prairie, TX, American Association) has returned to Toronto and outfielder Logan Schafer, signed earlier this season out of Lancaster, joined the Twins. Cunniff has since been optioned back to Triple-A.
One constant in writing about Independent Baseball is the never-ending-opportunity to shed the spotlight on players who have not yet reached the major leagues, but are showing impressive strides after being signed out of the non-affiliated leagues and playing in the affiliated minors.
Today’s stories are absolutely juicy.
One year ago Stephen Cardullo was an all-star outfielder in the Can-Am League, hitting .331 for the Rockland Boulders (Pomona, NY). Today, the soon-to-be 29-year-old can boast of hitting .308 with 26 doubles, 5 triples, 17 homers and 72 RBI for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top farm club in Albuquerque.
Omar Bencomo, a 27-year-old who had to fight his way back after gunshot wounds in his native Venezuela that kept him off the diamond for two years, rebounded through Italy and the American Association (Laredo, TX and Wichita, KS), and the right-hander has recently been promoted by Minnesota to the Twins’ Triple-A club in Rochester, NY. He has split his first two starts for the Red Wings. “I’m so proud to be here,” he told The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “A lot of things happened to me to get here. I took a long time to get 100 per cent but I’m here.”
Mike Zouzalik was a strikeout-per-inning reliever for the St. Paul (MN) Saints of the American Association last season (4-1, 2.06 in 39 appearances) before his contract was purchased by Baltimore. He had split this season between Class A Frederick, MD and Double-A Bowie, MD until recently when he was promoted to Norfolk, VA. In his first appearance in Triple-A, the righty escaped one bases loaded jam and worked three scoreless innings. “When I got released (Texas in 2014), I was really kind of relieved,” he told The Norfolk Pilot. “I was throwing, and I had no idea where it was going…I just wasn’t really having fun. When I played with Wichita (his first American Association team later that year) and we won the championship, that reminded me how much fun this game is. That was huge for me.”
Ross Vance got his initial professional opportunity this season in the first-year United Shore League (Utica, MI), but St. Louis came along early on and purchased the 24-year-old lefty. He already has 47 strikeouts in a mere 34 innings for Johnson City, TN of the Appalachian League, winning all three of his decisions and posting a 2.38 earned run average in 13 appearances (two starts).
With more than six weeks remaining in the major league season it seems virtually certain a record is going to be established for the most players with time in Independent leagues reaching baseball’s pinnacle in any one year.
The count has already reached 38, based on records maintained by IndyBaseballChatter.com, only three below the high-water mark reached two years ago. The final count last season was 37.
The confidence that a new mark will be established stems from the fact several more players could easily get the call. And there is always the chance of another Rich Hill situation of a player still laboring in an Indy circuit in August who could have his contract purchased and he could land at the game’s highest level days later.
Here are some of the top candidates to reach active major league status this year.
Rehabbing veteran Tanner Scheppers seems likely to join the Texas Rangers when rosters expand September 1, and another possibility is RHP Aaron Wilkerson, now working in Triple-A for Milwaukee. Veteran lefty Joe Thatcher could join his new parent, the Chicago Cubs.
THE DISABLED LIST GROWS
With Tim Adleman (New Jersey, Can-Am League, and El Paso and Lincoln, American Association) back in the majors with Cincinnati, 16 onetime Independent players are active on major league rosters. The unusual aspect is that another nine, very likely a high-water mark, are on major league disabled lists. Seven of those are pitchers.
WILKERSON BENEFITTED FROM INDEPENDENT PLAY
On paper, Aaron Wilkerson seemed to have benefitted from the trade last month when he went from Boston’s Triple-A Pawtucket farm club to the corresponding level in the Milwaukee chain at Colorado Springs. And, he knows he owes his second chance at reaching the major leagues to time he spent in Independent Baseball after being out of the game for a couple of years and moving on with his life outside of the game.
“Independent ball was my way of doing a self-evaluation,” the 27-year-old told The Colorado Springs Gazette recently. “I was able to put up good numbers (at Florence, KY of the Frontier League and Grand Prairie, TX of the American Association) and another opportunity came my way.”
The right-hander has struggled since joining Colorado Springs (1-5, 6.69 in eight starts) after a strong start to the season with Boston’s top two farm clubs (6-3, 2.14) led to talk of a major league call-up, but he had an encouraging no-decision start Wednesday when he struck out 10 El Paso batters in six innings of three-run work.
It finally happened!
Strikeout machine James Hoyt, who pitched for three Independent Baseball teams before getting his first chance with a major league organization, has made his long-awaited major league debut with the postseason-hopeful Houston Astros.
The 29-year-old right-hander is the first player who started in a non-affiliated league to reach the majors since Ian Thomas did so. Both players were in Independent play as recently as 2012, and are the 42nd and 43rd players who started their pro career in an Indy circuit to climb all the way to the majors. Thirty of them have been pitchers.
The 6-foot-5 Hoyt was plagued by wildness during his last collegiate season at Centenary College, but after working on a sailboat in San Diego for a time the next year (2011) he hooked up with the Jose Canseco-managed Yuma (AZ) Scorpions of the North American League, then Edinburg, TX of the same league and finally the Wichita (KS) Wingnuts of the American Association in 2012.
He struck out 248 hitters in only 191 innings in the Atlanta and Houston farm systems between 2013 and last season, and he was enjoying a banner season with the Astros’ Triple-A club in Fresno, striking out batters at a rate of 15.1 for every nine innings. He had 84 whiffs in 50 innings, a 1.62 ERA and his 28 saves ranked as the second highest total in all of the affiliated minors. Baseball America tabbed him the top reliever in the Pacific Coast League in its recent “best tools” issue.
Hoyt has been in three games in the last five days since being called up, allowing one hit (an Edwin Encarnacion solo home run) while walking one and collecting four strikeouts in 2.2 major league innings.
Wichita Now Has Indy-Leading Four in Majors
The Wichita Wingnuts have a great deal to boast about these days. The American Association franchise has an Independent Baseball-leading four former players in the major leagues now that James Hoyt and changeup specialist Chris Smith of Oakland have been called up.
The ‘Nuts already had slugging Arizona outfielder David Peralta (disabled list) and the surprising Milwaukee starting pitcher Junior Guerra in the majors.
Smith, 35, is back in the majors for the first time since making 20 starts (8-4, 3.55) for Wichita in ’13 and 12 appearances (eight starts) for Sugar Land, TX of the Atlantic League the next season before San Diego purchased the right-hander’s contract and sent him to their top farm club in El Paso, TX. He won all six of his decisions and compiled a 2.15 ERA with Sugar Land.
The onetime University of California-Riverside hurler had 50 previous major league relief opportunities with Boston and Milwaukee between 2008 and 2010. Baseball America named Smith the pitcher with the best changeup in the Pacific Coast League for his work with the Athletics’ Nashville club this season.
Sugar Land ranks second among all Independent teams with three major leaguers, including the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Scott Kazmir and another southpaw, Hunter Cervenka, a rookie just obtained by Miami from the Atlanta Braves.
Fortunes can change quickly in Independent Baseball. Just ask Matt Reynolds and Jose Sermo, both enjoying triumphant returns to major league organizations.
From Lancaster to SF Giants in a Month
Matt Reynolds suddenly finds himself involved in the National League West pennant chase only a month and a few days removed from the Lancaster (PA) Barnstormers’ bullpen in the Atlantic League. The 31-year-old southpaw had relieved in 213 major league games for Colorado and Arizona between 2010 and 2015 when he suddenly found himself needing a new opportunity after the Diamondbacks released him in the last week of spring training.
“It’s kind of been an interesting journey,” the 6-foot-5 hurler admitted to KNBR.com, shortly after being promoted from Triple-A to the San Francisco Giants, for whom he made two appearances (1.0, 1 hit, 1 walk, 1 strikeout) over the weekend during their series against another division leader, Washington. “I certainly wasn’t expecting any of this.”
Reynolds described his time with Lancaster, which only ended after a June 21 appearance, as a “fun opportunity”, and the onetime Austin Peay starter shared one funny experience during his time with the Barnstormers, which included 26 relief outings and 32 strikeouts in 22 Atlantic League innings (1-0, 1.63). He was getting ready to warm up for his first appearance, he told KNBR.com, when teammates told him to slow it up because the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs do a mid-game fireworks show. “I was a little shocked and blown away,” he mused.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy says he plans to use Reynolds as a situational reliever for now.
Three-Homer Game Launches Sermo
Jose Sermo played half of last season and 29 games earlier in ’16 with Gary, IN of the American Association before Boston purchased the infielder’s contract and gave him a second opportunity in affiliated baseball following three years in the Milwaukee farm system.
He had shown some power early this summer at Gary, whacking five homers while hitting .311 with a sparkling .425 on-base percentage and 24 runs driven in. Sermo admits things were not going that good for Salem, VA in the Carolina League until last Tuesday (July 26) when the switch-hitter recorded his first three-homer game. He hit two right-handed and the last one as a lefty.
“I was struggling a little bit, but I kind of tried to relax,” Sermo told MiLB.com. “(Coach Angel) Berroa was talking to me like ‘just relax. You look like you just want to hit already and you’re not even close to being in the box. Just relax.'” Berroa may have been thinking back to when he was a star in the Independent game himself, mainly for Bridgeport, CT of the Atlantic League, where his number has been retired.
Sermo, 25, has been hot since that night, going 8-for-18 to lift his season average (29 games) to .245.
One can only hope that Josh Smoker will not become the latest Independent Baseball grad to spend a brief (usually one day) time on a major league roster and never get into a game. But even if it turns out that way, the 27-year-old southpaw pitcher admitted to MLB.com it is “one I won’t forget.”
Smoker, who spent 2014 with Rockford, IL in the Frontier League before getting a second affiliated opportunity in the New York Mets organization, was added to the roster as the 26th man for the second game of their doubleheader against St. Louis Tuesday, and arrived in the sixth inning after flying with his Las Vegas 51s teammates to Fresno, CA, where he was told to fly to New York.
“That was a good wakeup call, definitely a good wakeup call,” Smoker told MLB.com after watching the final three innings of the 3-1 Mets win from the bullpen.
Chances are the Georgia native, who was Washington’s first round draft choice nine years ago, will get more opportunities in the majors since he already was on New York’s 40-man roster and had gotten 4.2 innings of experience during spring training. He had impressed Mets brass with 15 strikeouts and a 0.90 earned run average in his last 10 Pacific Coast League innings. He has an overall 4.73 ERA for 43 appearances this season.
IndyBaseballChatter.com maintains a list of Independent players who have gone on to reach the major leagues (Smoker is No. 218) with pitchers Tim Bausher (Boston), Tom Cochran (Cincinnati), Julio DePaula (Baltimore) and Brian Mazone (Philadelphia) and catcher Jose Yepez (Seattle) the only others never to appear in a big-league contest.
(The entire list of 218 is available for a fee, with details available on this blog.)
JEROME WILLIAMS RETURNS
Righty Jerome Williams, whose lengthy resume includes Independent stops with Long Beach, CA in the Golden League and Lancaster, PA in the Atlantic League, has joined the St. Louis Cardinals after making nine starts (5-3, 4.89) with Triple-A Memphis. The 34-year-old averaged more than six innings each time out.
CATCHING UP WITH COLABELLO, BRESLOW AND THATCHER
First baseman-outfielder Chris Colabello, whose climb to the major leagues after seven seasons in the Can-Am League has been well documented, is back in action with Toronto’s top farm club in Buffalo after sitting out his lengthy suspension, but one cannot help wondering if his path back to the majors this season became more difficult when the Blue Jays obtained another right-handed bat in veteran outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. from San Diego.
Like Colabello, Joe Thatcher started his professional career in Independent play (Frontier League). The veteran left-handed reliever came off the free agent list recently when American League Central leader Cleveland signed him. One more longtime major league southpaw, Craig Breslow (New Jersey Jackals), also has a new home, signing with Texas after Miami released him.
Since pitchers often dominate when onetime Independent Baseball stars break through–or even are on the verge of breaking through to the majors–it is refreshing to see what onetime Somerset, NJ (Atlantic League) first baseman-outfielder Chris Marrero is doing for Boston’s top farm club in Pawtucket, RI.
It probably will be tough for the 28-year-old to break through to the Red Sox this season because of their big offensive roster, but he not only homered in the Triple-A All-Star Game but has 18 regular-season bombs for a share of second in the International League. Marrero, who spent part of last season with the Patriots, also has 46 RBI and a .294/.352/.521 log.
The American Association’s Wichita Wingnuts have gotten considerable attention this year because of Junior Guerra’s terrific breakthrough with Milwaukee, and they also have potent (when healthy) outfielder David Peralta with Arizona. Now the Kansans have a trio of other pitching alums putting up big numbers.
Josh Lowey, who went 15-4 for the Wingnuts in 2012 (one of Guerra’s years), is 13-3 with a 1.65 ERA in the Mexican League. The 31-year-old, who came out of Mercer University in ’08 and started a lengthy Independent run, has an amazing 61-21 record in the non-affiliated leagues without a sniff from the majors. The right-hander also had a 14-8 year for Somerset and has spent considerable time with Windy City and River City in the Frontier League.
In bullpen duty, James Hoyt, another 2012 pitcher for part of the year at Wichita, leads the Pacific Coast League with 23 saves (4-3, 1.81) and continues to pile up strikeouts (78 in 44.2 innings) without getting called up by the parent Houston Astros. He also worked in the North American League for Yuma, AZ and Edinburg, TX. Derek Eitel, who pitched briefly for the Wingnuts last season, is 4-0, 2.91 with 52 strikeouts in 46.1 innings as a reliever for San Diego’s top minor league team in El Paso, TX.
Lefty Andrew Albers (Quebec, Can-Am League, and Lancaster, PA, Atlantic) continues to do well at Rochester, NY, Minnesota’s Triple-A affiliate, where his 8-3 record shares second for wins in the International League. He has a 3.36 ERA. And longtime Independent hurler Dustin Crenshaw is 8-2, 2.20 in Mexico. Crenshaw won 14 of 16 decisions for the St. Paul (MN) Saints of the American Association last season. The 6-foot-5 South Alabama product also has pitched for Sonoma County in the Pacific Association, Quebec and Gary, IN of the American Association.
Buoyed by the success of the three-week visit by the Cuban National Team to all of its six stadiums, the Can-Am League is hoping the experience can be repeated next year.
The league saw a “pretty significant” attendance increase everywhere, commissioner Miles Wolff pointed out. “We are talking about trying to do it again next year”, he added, while admitting a considerable amount of work goes into such an undertaking, including the obtaining of visas.
Rockland (Pomona, NY) had the largest single crowd for a game against the Cubans, Wolff said, and he used Ottawa as an example of the attendance jump with three consecutive crowds of more than 5,000 (a total of 16,386) compared to the Champions’ season average up to now of less than half that amount (2,483).
The Cuban team started slowly when it won only three of 10 games in the league’s three Canadian cities, but reeled off eight consecutive wins during its games in the three United States stadiums to finish 11-9 overall. (Shikoku Island from Japan went 8-12 at the same time.)
Speculation about the reason for the Cuban turnaround included the need to get accustomed to playing most every day as compared to only a few games a week when on its home island.
AARON WILKERSON COULD BECOME NEXT WITH BREWERS
Aaron Hill drew most of the immediate attention in the recent Boston-Milwaukee trade because of how the veteran infielder could improve the Red Sox’s postseason hopes, but another Aaron in the deal also may benefit.
Right-hander Aaron Wilkerson had been picking up support for his first major league opportunity since the Independent Baseball grad had a combined 6-3, 2.14 record this season between Boston’s top two farm clubs in Portland, ME and Pawtucket, RI. In fact, the 27-year-old had gone 22-7 with a 2.52 ERA in 54 appearances (44 starts) since Boston purchased his contract from the American Association (Grand Prairie, TX) in 2014.
“In Aaron Wilkerson, we are adding a starting pitcher who has had tremendous success in the minor leagues and could be an asset to the major league team in the near future,” Brewers general manager David Stearns told FoxSports.com. “He’s just never given up (after Tommy John surgery in 2011), Stearns added to MLB.com. “The Red Sox did a good job of finding him and he’s really flown through that system since he signed.”
Wilkerson, who also pitched for Florence, KY in the Frontier League and Fort Worth in the United League, did not hurt his chances of getting called up in his first start for Triple-A Colorado Springs Sunday. He blanked Iowa (Cubs) on two hits and a walk in a four-inning stint.
It also may help that Milwaukee has seen recent success from another American Association grad, Junior Guerra. The onetime Wichita hurler has won six of eight decisions and posted a 3.06 ERA in 13 starts for the team that is 11 games under .500.
While the track record over the past two decades shows it is going to happen, the pace of Independent Baseball players having their contracts purchased by major league organizations has been at a torrid pace this season.
Records maintained by the Independent Baseball Insider, believed to be the most complete anywhere, have recorded 42 such transactions since the end of major league spring training with 25 of them in the second half of June, probably in part to help fill out rosters after the free agent draft.
Two impressive facets of these signings are that 10 of the players started their professional career in an Indy league and some of them have come from the newer non-affiliated circuits, including the Pacific Association and the first-year United Shore League.
In no particular order, the native Independent players who have had their contracts picked up for a price by MLB organizations include RHP (and former infielder) Max Duval to Arizona, SS Josh Gardiner and RHP Tim Holmes to the New York Yankees, INF Christian Ibarra to Minnesota, RHP Trey Lambert to Washington, RHP Santos Saldivar to Milwaukee, INF Josh Silver to the Chicago Cubs, RHP Matt Solter to San Francisco, OF Boo Vazquez to Kansas City and LHP Ross Vance to St. Louis.
Vance came out of the three-team United Shore League which started its initial season on May 30.
In addition to the 42 players sold to major league organizations, numerous others have gone to leagues in Mexico, Taiwan and Japan.
COURT MOVES TO TRIPLE-A
Some of the recent signees, largely from the Atlantic League, went straight to Triple-A teams. One player recently promoted to the top minor league level is infielder-outfielder Ryan Court, who was taken from Sioux City in the American Association. Boston promoted him from Double-A Portland, ME to its top affiliate in Pawtucket, RI.
Court, 28, hit .331 with Sioux City’s potent team last season, and followed that up by hitting .319 in 40 games for Portland. He is at .300 (9-for-30) after eight appearances for Pawtucket.
Brad Ziegler’s numbers are getting insane with a 0.61 ERA in save situations this season and 43 consecutive saves overall, but I also tip my hat very high among the new products out of the Independent leagues to Washington’s Tanner Roark (Southern Illinois, Frontier League) and Junior Guerra (Wichita, American Association) of Milwaukee.
Ziegler (Schaumburg, then in the Northern League) has been around for a while, in fact long enough that the Arizona side-armer’s 564 career appearances are the most in the majors since 2008.
The Washington Post credits Roark’s improved command of his two-seam fastball as the biggest reason the right-hander now owns one of the lowest earned run averages (3.14) on the potent Nationals’ starting rotation and is now striking out nearly 8.1 hitters every nine innings. He has a 6-4 record for 14 starts this season.
Guerra, the onetime catcher who really started getting pitching notice when he went 18-7 while working for Wichita in 2011 and 2013, had only three major league appearances–a non-descript four innings in relief for the Chicago White Sox last season–until the Brewers called him up from Triple-A Colorado Springs the first week of May.
The 31-year-old seems to have become a steady starter for Milwaukee with a 3-1 record and a 3.81 ERA for nine outings. He has allowed only 46 hits in 54.1 innings and has 45 punchouts.
“He’s certainly done his job,” manager Craig Counsell told FoxSports.com. “He’s (gotten better as the game goes on) in a bunch of his starts. He’s getting to 90-100 pitches and still going strong, still going really good.”