The Frontier League may get pushed to the background at times since other Independent leagues cater more to older, more experienced players, but it is a huge mistake to overlook the oldest Indy circuit--this is Year 26--for its production of major leaguers.
This is the case right now, barely a week before all 30 major league teams start playing for keeps, as another of the Frontier League's pitchers makes major noise with Miami with a second right-hander not far behind, also with the youthful Marlins.
It is not easy for new faces to squeeze their way onto 25-man Opening Day rosters, but this pair among the 51 onetime Independent players in major league spring training camps may be exceptions. Nearly a dozen of the 51 only needed to stay healthy to retain their jobs at baseball's top level while the other three dozen or so really had to impress in spring training to win a position.
The Frontier League already has Cincinnati pitcher Tanner Roark (Southern Illinois) and St. Louis first baseman-outfielder Jose Martinez (Rockford) well established in the bigs. Trevor Richards could easily come next with another hurler, Nick Anderson, in the mix. Like Roark, this pair are especially meaningful to the Independent leagues since they played their very first professional games without benefit of a major league organization behind them.
The 25-year-old Richards broke into the majors last season, only two summers after being signed out of the Frontier League (Gateway), and started 25 times for the youthful Marlins (4-9, 4.42). He has really stepped it up in the past month.
As veteran MLB.com writer Joe Frisaro put it: He (Richards) "has been lined up as the fifth starter. But the way he's thrown in spring training he's making a case to move up to No. 2."
The masterpiece on his Florida log came last Sunday when he threw six no-hit innings against the Cardinals, bringing his spring earned run average to 1.86 with 20 strikeouts while limiting batters to eight hits and four walks in 19.1 innings. The batting average against him is a measly .125.
"It's been happening (for Richards) all spring," manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com. "We've seen adding the (new) pitches and what it can do for him. It's trending in the right direction."
Richards said "we'll go mainly fastball, curveball, changeup, and we're toying with a fourth one, but we'll see how that one comes along." The change has been his bread and butter, with a .165 average against it last season.
Anderson learned the pitching ropes in the Frontier League between 2012 when he came out of North Dakota's Mayville State and 2015, toiling first for Rockford, then for the travel team, the Greys, and climbed the minor league ladder with Minnesota, including 88 strikeouts in only 60 Triple-A innings last season (8-2, 3.30). He moved into the major league picture when he joined Miami and the Marlins added him to their 40-man roster, a feat achieved by zero other Independent players not already at that level during the offseason.
He has done just fine in spring training, striking out nine without walking anyone in 6.1 innings while posting a 4.26 ERA.
The Marlins have still two more onetime Independent hurlers in camp and doing well although it may not be good enough to make the Opening Day roster. They are southpaws Mike Kickham (Kansas City, American Association) and Brian Moran (Bridgeport, Atlantic League). Kickham has a 1.50 ERA after six appearances (6.0 innings) and Moran is at 2.45 after five outings, allowing only one hit in collecting eight outs.
Some Other Hopefuls
Other former Independent players making solid bids for major league jobs include relievers Marcus Walden of Boston and Eric Yardley of San Diego and infielders Emilio Bonifacio of Tampa Bay and Ildemaro Vargas of Arizona. Yardley spent time with Trinidad and Taos of the youth-oriented Pecos League while the others were in the Atlantic League. Walden was at Lancaster, Vargas at Bridgeport and Bonifacio at Long Island, the latter just last season.
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