While Uncertainty Prevails for Many Free Agents, Kris Johnson Has a Date in Major League Camp
Kris Johnson was playing video games in the basement of his home outside Kansas City when he picked up the phone to hear a voice say he would like to talk to him about his latest news as well as his days pitching in an Independent league little more than one year ago.
While he might have preferred sticking with the video activity a while longer, the tone of voice said it all when the caller congratulated the left-hander, who only recently turned 28, on being invited to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training camp three months from now.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” echoed Tim Doherty, who managed Johnson at nearby Kansas City, KS in the American Association the second half of 2011 after a five and a half-year run in the Boston farm system had ended at the Triple-A level (Pawtucket, RI). That was the only organization Johnson had known since he left Wichita State as a decorated, first-round sandwich draft choice. He had been the 40th selection in the entire country in the ’06 draft.
Johnson has every right to be happy. He is one of probably less than half a dozen out of more than 80 players who have toiled in the Independent leagues and reached the top level of a minor league farm system recently who knows for certain he will be in a major league spring training camp.
Johnson has one other step before spring training as he keeps his fastball (up to 94), curve and change sharp and continues to work on developing a slider. That will be to pitch for Escogido in the Dominican Republic after Thanksgiving.
Greg Burke, Lew Ford Also Get Major League Invites
Right-handed reliever Greg Burke and 2012 headliner Lew Ford are two others with major league spring training invitations in their back pocket although one of them had to leave Baltimore to be certain.
Burke, who started his professional career in ’05 when Atlantic City, NJ was in the Atlantic League, got his invitation from the New York Mets. The 30-year-old had a solid major league season with San Diego in ’09 (3-3, two saves, 4.14 in 48 games), but has been in the minors the last three years, including 21 saves and three wins (3-1) plus a sparkling 1.53 ERA at Norfolk, VA without getting a call from the Orioles.
Ford drew lots of attention for Independent Baseball last summer when he went from hitting .333 in 19 games for the Long Island (NY) Ducks (Atlantic) to spending the last two months and postseason with Baltimore, often playing the outfield or serving as DH against southpaws (.183-3-4 in 71 at-bats). At 36, he had been out of the majors for more than four years, with three stints at Long Island. He was removed from the 40-man roster when 2012 ended, and settled for a new minor league contract.
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New Zealand Manager a Vet in Indy Circles
Andy Skeels was not terribly distinguished when he was an Independent Baseball player between 1994 and 2001, hitting only .250 in 217 games for six different teams, but his long term fortunes have gotten much better by managing in the San Francisco chain the last five seasons (San Jose, CA this summer) and he is leading underdog New Zealand in one of the final two World Baseball Classic qualifiers that started today (Thursday).
Indy Stars Making Mark in Winter Leagues
Independent players (past and present) are not only getting great playing time in winter leagues, but several of them are lighting up the leader boards.
Free agent outfielder Cory Aldridge, who once played in the Atlantic League (Newark, NJ), has a league-leading 12 home runs and shares the top spot in runs batted in with 26 in 28 games in Mexico. The 2011 Atlantic League batting champion, Kraig Binick (Long Island, NY), is showing he deserves another affiliated opportunity because of the fifth best batting average (.336) in Mexico, one spot ahead of former Can-Am League (Worcester, MA) star Chris Colabello (.327).
Free agent Seth Etherton, who played briefly at Long Beach, CA (Golden League) and onetime Southern Maryland (Atlantic League) hurler Jarrett Grube rank second and third, respectively, with 1.48 and 1.71 earned run averages in Venezuela and are among the strikeout leaders. Grube plays in the Los Angeles Angels farm system.
(This is an excerpt from the column Bob Wirz writes year round on Independent Baseball. Fans may subscribe for 2012 at reduced rates at www.WirzandAssociates.com, enjoy his blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com, or comment to RWirz@aol.com. The author has 16 years of major league baseball public relations experience with Kansas City and as spokesman for two Commissioners and lives in Stratford, CT.)