By Bob Wirz
Infielders seem to have a major challenge in trying to climb their way from an Independent league such as the American Association all the way to the major leagues. Rey Ordonez was a rare exception when the Cuban made his way from St. Paul when it was in the Northern League to a nice career at shortstop with the New York Mets and Tampa Bay.
(Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
While they still have some rugged steps ahead of them to become exceptions, shortstops Ryan Fitzgerald and Taylor Featherston, both taken out of the American Association in the last two seasons, are off to strong starts.
Fitzgerald is only 24 after starting his professional career at Gary two years ago, and he is turning some heads in the Boston Red Sox farm system, currently with their Advanced Class A team in Salem, VA of the Carolina League.
Featherston is trying to use some time spent with the eventual champion Kansas City T-Bones last summer to work his way back to the majors through the Kansas City Royals. While he is 29, the fact the Katy, TX native and Texas Christian product has lots of experience at both second and third base in addition to shortstop and he already has 137 games of major league experience with the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay works to his favor with a re-building franchise.
The 6-foot-1 Featherston has been on a whirlwind the last 13 months from getting into 23 major league exhibitions with Minnesota last March to playing in 55 games for the Twins’ top farm club (Rochester, NY), to 25 games with the T-Bones, and 36 at Double-A Pensacola after Cincinnati purchased his contract to electing free agency and signing with the Kansas City Royals in January.
He is off to a blazing start with the Royals’ Class AA club (Northwest Arkansas in Springdale), playing shortstop and hitting .429 (12-for-28) with a .448 on-base percentage and six runs batted in during the first seven games. Only one hitter in the Texas League has a better average. Featherston also had a home run during five Cactus League exhibition games with the parent Royals.
Fitzgerald came out of Creighton University to break into the professional ranks as an everyday player at Gary, hitting .239 with seven homers and 20 RBI for Greg Tagert’s Southshore RailCats in ’17 followed by .274-8-38 numbers at Greenville, SC for Boston last season. He went 2-for-4 with three RBI in three spring training appearances for the World Champion Red Sox and has had five multi-hit games in the first seven contests for Salem. He has hit .458 (11-for-24), which is tied for third best in the Carolina League, with six extra-base-hits and a team-leading eight RBI.
Pesky Gailen Gets to Triple-A
It is difficult to say Blake Gailen is a legitimate major league prospect since he has been playing professionally for 13 years and recently turned 34, but the well-traveled outfielder, whose lengthy resume includes two seasons in the American Association, has finally advanced to Triple-A although he currently is on the injured list for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top farm club in Oklahoma City.
The pesky left-hander, who only stands 5-foot-9, earned his second stint with the Dodgers by slamming 28 homers and driving in 91 runs, both career bests, at Lancaster, PA of the Independent Atlantic League last year. Gailen has 167 career homers although he hit only 11 combined for his time in the American Association. He played a full season at Wichita in 2008 and reached another career high with a .406 batting average in 69 games for Lincoln three years later.
Previously the chief spokesman for Baseball Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Bob Wirz has been writing extensively about Independent Baseball since 2003. He is a frequent contributor to this site, has a blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com, and a book about his life, “The Passion of Baseball”, is available at Amazon.com or at www.WirzandAssociates.com.