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Nightengale: Without Minor Leagues, Independents Become ‘Life-Savers’

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Photo: Sugar Land Skeeters

By Bob Nightengale |

They were planning to start driving for Uber and Lyft.

They were going to work at their local grocery stores.

They were going to start taking on-line classes.

They had no place to play, no place to pitch.

The minor leagues were shuttered for the summer, and the Arizona Fall League and Instructional Leagues soon will be officially canceled, too.

The Sugarland (Texas) Skeeters, a 10-year independent league team, filled the void, creating a temporary four-team Constellation Energy League, all managed by former major-league players. There’s Roger Clemens and his son, Koby, running Team Texas, Pete Incaviglia managing the Sugar Land Skeeters, Greg Swindell with the Sugar Land Lightning Sloths and Dave Eiland of the Eastern Reyes del Tigre. It was Triple-A caliber competition, all with professional experience, including 25 minor-league players from 15 organizations.

“It was a scary time, but thankfully, they were there for us,’’ said pitcher Jake Latz, 24, who has spent the past three years in the lower levels of the Texas Rangers’ farm system, after rejecting a $1 million signing bonus out of high school from the Toronto Blue Jays to attend LSU. “When you’re a guy in my situation, you can’t afford to take a year off.’’

It certainly wasn’t the paychecks that brought them to Sugarland, with players receiving $1,600 a month for the two-month season (July 10 to Aug. 30). It was hardly the glamour of playing independent baseball in the hot, scorching sun. But, oh, how that exposure proved to be invaluable.

Five players were signed out of the league and put on major-league rosters — Fernando Rodney and Chase De Jong (Astros), Brett Eibner (Marlins), Matt Dermody (Cubs) and Zac Rosscup (Rockies). Two others, Cameron Rupp (Indians) and Brett Sullivan (Rays) were recalled to their team’s alternate site.

And there’s Latz, virtually forgotten in the Rangers’ farm system, who was just informed he’ll be joining the Rangers’ alternate site once he passes his COVID-19 test.

“I couldn’t be happier for the guy,’’ says Incaviglia. “I remember the first time I saw him warming up, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is he doing here?’ I’m shocked he’s pitching in this league. He throws 97 mph, has a great changeup, curveball, slider. I watch the Rangers, too, and I don’t see them running anybody out there who’s better than Jake.

“But this is what this league is for. It’s all about baseball. They’re hungry, and it gives them a chance to be seen. No one dreams of playing independent ball. We’re a means to an end. We’re developing players for other major-league teams.”

The Skeeters have never more valuable to major league baseball. They may not be affiliated with league, but with the minor leagues shut down, stunting the development of players who weren’t working out at their team’s alternate camps, it provided hope.

This is why agent Scott Leventhal of All Bases Covered convinced Latz, and infielder Cullen Large, who played in the Fall League last year for the Toronto Blue Jays, to swallow their pride and play in Indy ball. Once he got their approval, he reached out to the Rangers and Blue Jays, receiving the teams’ permission, even though they risked exposing them to other organizations scouting the leagues.

“Jake and Cullen both recognized this was a vital time in their career,’’ Leventhal said, “both from a developmental and business perspective. Both guys are subject to the Rule 5 draft for the first time in their careers and need to face live competition, simple as that.

“They got out of their comfort zones, and realized they needed to play and showcase themselves.’’

It worked like a charm.

It took just one look for Rangers special assistant Mike Anderson to watch Latz, report back to GM Jon Daniels, and recommend that he be called up to their alternate camp, believing that he could play a pivotal role in their future.

“If he stays healthy,’’ Anderson said, “this guy will be a starter in the big leagues. He’s lean, athletic, great delivery, and has a great mentality. You root for a guy like this.’’

You can’t help but root for the Skeeters and all of the independent leagues, as well, surviving with MLB planning to eliminate about 40 minor-league teams, with their contract with Minor League Baseball expiring on Sept. 30.

Yet, while low-level franchises will be eliminated, teams like the Skeeters and the St. Paul Saints are expected to be absorbed by MLB clubs, and become affiliates. The Houston Astros are expected to bring the Skeeters into their system, the Minnesota Twins acquiring the Saints and the New York Yankees bringing in the Somerset Patriots.

The Constellation League, with a first-class facility, went off without a hitch during their 56-game schedule that ended Sunday. They didn’t have a single game postponed because of a COVID-19 case, and went five consecutive weeks without a single player or staff member testing positive, even with fans.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of what we accomplished,’’ said Deacon Jones, 86, the longtime Orioles’ scout, who is now a special assistant to the Skeeters. “It was safe. It was clean. And the kids were very gracious and thankful.”

Certainly, MLB scouts took full advantage. They may not be permitted in major-league ballparks or their alternate sites, but they were welcomed with open arms by the folks in Sugarland and other independent leagues.

“I probably got to see 500 to 600 guys in the independent leagues,’’ said Minnesota Twins scout Billy Milos, who discovered and signed Twins starter Randy Dobnak out of the independent United Shore Pro League. “It’s huge for us. We never would have gotten to see these kids, and if they missed a whole year, I’m not sure we ever would have seen them.

“In a year like this, teams like Sugar Land were life-savers.’’

Coming along at time when players needed them the most.

“I’m not sure,’’ said Incaviglia, who hit 206 homers in his 12-year career, “we’ve ever been more important.’’

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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