By J.J. Cooper/Baseball America
For the eighth year, Baseball America is ranking the top unsigned players in the independent leagues. Several American Association players are among the list of top players:
1. K.C. Serna (pictured), ss, Amarillo (American Assoc.)
Born: Oct. 15, 1989. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 185.
True shortstops don’t end up in indy ball. A shortstop in the independent leagues is usually a second baseman or third baseman in affiliated ball at best, because major league organizations simply don’t release legitimate defenders at short.
Serna is the exception, but with good reason. A three-year starter at Oregon, Serna’s junior year was clouded by a suspension for violating team rules. He fell in the 2011 draft, getting picked by the Indians in the 42nd round. They released him in the spring of 2012 because of makeup issues. Serna bounced around to the Freedom League before landing in Amarillo this spring.
Amarillo manager Bobby Brown told Serna that he was joining the club with two strikes against him because of his previous problems. Brown said he’s now convinced that the shortstop has matured.
“I tell everyone I’m not standing at the table, I’m standing on top of the table for this kid. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. He gave me no problems. He’s been a model citizen,” Brown said.
Serna hit over .300 while playing the best defense in the league.
“His range, arm strength and instincts are second to none,” Brown said.
5. Nathan Kilcrease, rhp, Fargo-Moorhead (American Assoc.)
Born: Aug. 17, 1989. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-6. Wt.: 170.
If Kilcrease were 6-foot-1 instead of 5-foot-6, it’s likely that he would have never ended up in independent ball. Kilcrease was released twice despite never really getting roughed up in two affiliated seasons. Released by the A’s during a season where he was posting a 1.46 ERA, Kilcrease was picked up, then released by the Pirates after going 0-2, 1.22 with low Class A West Virginia. He was then released by Wichita coming out of spring training this year.
The short righthander who goes by the nickname Peanut responded by posting 4-2, 1.67 numbers with Fargo-Moorhead while striking out a batter an inning. Kilcrease has a 90-92 mph fastball and an excellent breaking ball.
8. C.J. Ziegler, 1b, Wichita (American Association)
Born: Nov. 27, 1985. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 245.
A few years ago, Ziegler wouldn’t have qualified for this list because he’ll play next season as a 28-year-old. But Chris Colabello’s quick jump from Independent Leagues Player of the Year in 2011 to the big leagues after signing his first affiliated deal as a 28-year-old is a reminder that even some older hitters can be worthy of a look.
Ziegler was drafted by the Giants in the 16th round of the 2008 draft and made it to high Class A in 2009 before being released. He survived being part of the disastrous North American League team in Lake County that folded, and found his line-drive stroke along the way. Since 2011, he’s belted 74 home runs in three seasons while hitting for average (.297 as an indy leaguer) with fewer strikeouts than you would expect from a slugger (18 percent of plate appearances this year).
“His pitch recognition is now outstanding,” Gary manager Greg Tagert said. “He picks his spots to be aggressive, he works his counts. When I first saw him, with that big swing you wonder if he can catch up to a plus fastball. Over the past few years we’ve tried to beat him with it and he’ll hit that fastball out to center field or right field.”
9. Junior Guerra, rhp, Wichita (American Association)
Born: Jan. 15, 1985. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 215.
A former catcher in the Braves system who moved to the mound because of his excellent arm, Guerra made it to high Class A with the Mets, but was released in 2009 after he was suspended 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Guerra spent the next two years pitching in Italy before coming back to the States in 2011. He was Wichita’s ace this year while showing some of the best stuff of any independent league starter.
“He’s got the best stuff in the league hands down,” Wichita manager Kevin Hooper said. “He’s flat out electric.”
Guerra’s fastball sat 92-95 mph, touching 97, and he showed he could maintain that velocity even when he pitched on short rest, as he did in the playoffs. When he gets ahead of hitters, he turns to a split-finger fastball to put them away. He also throws a biting slider, although he sometimes struggles to stay on top of it, and an improved changeup he tweaked this year.
Guerra’s age and previous suspension works against him, but his kind of stuff could get him another shot at affiliated ball either as a starter or a power reliever.
10. Lucas Irvine, rhp, Kansas City (American Assoc.)
Born: Dec. 1, 1988. B-T: R:R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 200.
A 27th-round pick of the Rays in 2011 who was released after 16 appearances with Rookie-level Princeton that year, Irvine has put in two years of solid work as a starter in the independent leagues. He went 6-5, 2.96 with 94 strikeouts and 21 walks allowed in 122 innings this year.
Irvine works with a 90-93 mph fastball, a solid breaking ball and a good changeup. Manager after manager raved about his ability to use all three pitches, his composure on the mound, his ability to limit the running game, field his position, hit his spots and generally keep hitters off balance.
Best Of The Rest
|11. Brian Ernst, rhp, Fargo-Moorhead (American Assoc.).||Short RHP with good velocity (91-93) and changeup|
|14. Joe Weik, of/1b, Amarillo (American Assoc.).||Can really hit, but lack of plus power or speed hinders him as corner bat|
|15. Patrick Mincey, rhp, Grand Prairie (American Assoc.).||Dominated indy ball with deceptive 87-89 mph fastball, breaking ball|
|16. Eric Draxton, rhp, Amarillo (American Assoc.).||Dominant velocity (94-95) for successful closer|
|22. Joe Harris, lhp, Fargo-Moorhead (American Assoc.).||Deceptive 88-90 lhp lefty with good changeup|
|23. Taylor Stanton, rhp, Fargo-Moorhead (American Assoc.).||Sinker, slider, changeup righty with good deception|
|24. Marshall Schuler, rhp, El Paso||Stuff took a step back this year, but still has solid velocity|
For Baseball America’s complete list of independent baseball’s top prospects, click here.