Gotta Love Those Independent A Leagues

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IApril 11, 2010

Some interesting signings in the last few days for the Independent A leagues.  Ryan Freel just signed with the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League, Chris Britton just signed with the Lincoln Salt Dogs of the Northern League, and 18 year old Japanese woman/girl (I’m not trying to be demeaning – at 18 years old, you are right on the cusp of adulthood) Eri Yoshida signed a contract with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League.

I’m sure you all remember Ryan Freel as a long-time back-up and occasional starter for the Reds for a number of years.  Freel was an incredible over-achiever, who managed to have an eight year major league career, despite the fact that he was never much of a hitter (career minor league OPS of only .758), mainly because he could play every position behind the pitcher except first base, and he was a good guy to have in the clubhouse.  In Freel’s defense as a hitter, he did have a career major league on-base percentage of .354, which is awfully good for a guy who can play as many positions as he can.

Freel is 34 this year, and his major league career is almost certainly over.  There is slight odor of desperation in signing to play in the Atlantic League at his age, but I can’t bring myself to blame Freel for wanting to keep playing.

Freel has been playing professional baseball since 1995, and thanks particularly to the two-year $7 million contract the Reds gave him in April of 2007, he’s made some real money playing baseball.  He’ll get a substantial pension when he hits 50, and if he wants to continue to live the dream for $3,000 a month in the Atlantic League, he can always begin his career selling cars or insurance, or running a restaurant or tending bar in 2011 at age 35.

Chris Britton was a pitcher who at the end of 2008 looked like a guy who needed to make only a couple of minor adjustments to firmly establish himself as a major league reliever.

In 2006 and 2007, Britton made a total of 63 major league appearances for the Orioles and Yankees and posted a fine 3.39 ERA.  In 2008, he had a poor 5.09 ERA in 15 appearances for the Yankees but had a fine 2.28 ERA at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.  He had some arm problems that year that caused him to miss some time in the middle of the season.

However, it all fell apart for Britton in 2009.  He pitched his way out of the Padres organization with awful performances at AAA and AA.  The Padres didn’t give him much time to right his ship, though, giving him only 15 appearances and 20.2 innings pitched before cutting him.

Britton spent the final two-thirds of the 2009 season pitching in the Atlantic League, and he didn’t do much there either, posting an unimpressive 4.91 ERA in 39 relief appearances with equally unimpressive ratios.

I tend to think there was something wrong with Britton’s arm last year.  The thing is that he’s still only 27 this year, and he looked awfully good from 2006 through 2008.  He may be one of those few guys, who if he can get back to where he was a couple of years ago, can use the Independent A leagues as a spring-board to get back to the majors.

Eri Yoshida is the most intriguing sign of the bunch.  The decision by the Chico Outlaws to sign her may simply be a publicity stunt, like the Independent A career of Ila Borders a decade ago.  For those of you who don’t remember, Borders was the first woman to pitch in a men’s NCAA game, and she had a four year career pitching in the Northern League and the Western Baseball League.  Unfortunately, she was never really effect, except for a brief stint with the no-longer-in-existence Madison Black Wolf where she was used as a three-inning starter.

Borders generated excitement and attendance, which the Independent A leagues always need — the quality of baseball just isn’t that great, so the fans need to be entertained and given a reason to come out, aside from low ticket prices and reasonably priced beer.

Yoshida is a knuckleballer, who is listed as an even five feet tall and 114 lbs.  She pitched last year in Japan’s independent Kansai League for the Kobe Cruise 9, where she went 0-2 with a 4.03 ERA, allowing 7 runs in 10.2 innings pitched.  She won her first professional game earlier this year pitching in the independent Arizona Winter League, pitching four scoreless innings in a game for the Yuma Scorpions.

The thing about Yoshida that makes me think she might have a chance is that she throws a knuckleball.  You don’t have to throw that pitch hard at all.  It’s all about technique and the ability to get movement on it consistently.

It’s hard to say what kind of competition Yoshida faced in the Kansai League.  2009 was the league’s first season, and it fielded only four teams.  However, there should be sufficient baseball talent in Japan to field an independent league of the same caliber as the American Independent A leagues.

NPB fields only a total of 24 teams: twelve major league teams in the Central and Pacific Leagues, and each major league team fields only one farm club in either the Eastern League or the Western League. By way of comparison, the thirty MLB organizations typically have six minor league teams apiece, not including the Dominican and Venezualan Summer Leagues.  The upshot is that there has to be a lot of baseball talent in Japan available for independent league teams, because there aren’t a lot of NPB organization roster spots available.

Needless to say, I hope that Yoshida sticks around long enough to have a chance to play for a major league organization one day.  Her professional experience to date is so limited that it’s hard to know if she’s really got anything.  Still, if she really does have a knuckleball that jumps more often than not, she’s certainly young enough that if she gets another five seasons of professional experience anywhere, she may develop into a real pitcher.  We can only hope.