The Path From Indy Ball To The Majors

Two Red Sox players are joking about their respective agents.

“Mine takes me out for dinner,” one says. “With my own money!”

“At least he buys you champagne,” another responds, gesturing towards an expensive bottle in his teammate’s locker.

Their conversation continues, and before long it turns to Daniel Nava, who is sitting nearby. You’ve heard of him by now. He’s the 27-year-old rookie who hit a grand slam on his first major league swing. The former indy leaguer who’s now hitting .300 at the highest level. Nava takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, because he doesn’t even have an agent. When the Red Sox signed him for $1 in 2008, he simply didn’t need one.

“There really wasn’t much to negotiate,” Nava told MLBTR. “It was just 'here – here’s the standard protocol for what you sign – here’s the contract.' So I was in no position to negotiate anything anyways … I just took what was given to me.”

Not a whole lot of leverage.

“Zero leverage,” Nava said. “I’m sure they just would have said ‘well, we can grab someone else.’”

Nava didn’t have an agent when the Red Sox purchased his contract from the Golden Baseball League’s Chico Outlaws, but he and other independent leaguers do have some support. Golden League commissioner Kevin Outcalt actively tries to show off his league’s best players to MLB organizations. Sometimes that means making a sales pitch.

“We’ll take our player of the week or player of the month and almost do a mini-Heisman campaign on them where we’re sending out a bio on them, what they’ve done lately, what have they done in the past,” Outcalt said. “I’ll blast that out to all of the [major league] farm directors.”

If MLB teams like what they see, they can call the Golden League and make a deal. But even players who do join big league organizations have to work their way through the minors, so Nava’s two-year ascent from complete obscurity to minor celebrity stands out.

“That’s a New York rise,” Outcalt said. “But given the kind of experience someone like him gained in independent ball, he knew he had the ability to hit pitchers at almost any level and he was able to take that and work his way up very quickly.”

Nava has hit at every level, never posting an OPS below .856 for any of his teams, including the Red Sox. He says he is still adapting to the speed of the game, but that’s just part of the adjustment process.

“Your first time going on a road trip or a homestand it’s all new and once you’ve done it once or twice it’s like ‘OK that’s how it works,’” Nava said. “Just basic stuff like that that you’ve done for years in the minors, all of a sudden it’s all new up here.”

Every time a player like Nava graduates to a major league organization, an independent team loses one of its top players. But that doesn't bother Golden League officials. Outcalt compares the league to a trampoline that helps independent leaguers find jobs in MLB organizations. Every time the league bounces a player back into affiliated baseball, it becomes a more appealing destination for others looking to prolong their pro careers.

Outcalt generally fields three types of calls from MLB teams. Sometimes, clubs will ask about a specific player, like Nava. In that case, the league works out an agreement with an MLB organization for a standard purchase price. These deals can be in place within an hour.

Sometimes, teams are looking for a specific type of player, like someone who has caught at Triple A or a left-handed reliever. And sometimes MLB executives inquire about the league’s best players, regardless of position. Outcalt estimates that 20 or more players make the leap from the Golden League to affiliated baseball each season, most recently Gilbert De La Vara.

Not all teams comb through independent leagues aggressively. The Golden League, for example, hears regularly from the Tigers, Brewers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners, Padres, Phillies, Astros and Dodgers. 

“Some other teams you never hear from,” Outcalt said.

Tonight, scouts from many organizations gathered to search for the next Daniel Nava, when the Golden League’s All-Stars faced off against the Northern League’s top players in Tucson. The All-Star Game is an informal filter for scouts, who regularly sign players soon after the contest.

Back in April of 2009, when Nava was still playing for the Salem Red Sox, another Golden League alum was emerging as the poster boy for former independent leaguers. Scott Richmond had pitched his way from the Edmonton Cracker-Cats to the Toronto Blue Jays and become the AL Rookie of the Month.

Richmond’s story shows that scouts and front office types are willing to listen when independent leagues come calling. Rob Ducey, a 13-year MLB veteran who now scouts for the Rays, was scouting for the Blue Jays in 2007 when two of his former teammates recommended that Ducey consider Richmond. The right-hander was pitching well and Ducey thought he could produce in affiliated ball.

“You know what, I kind of expected him to pitch well,” Ducey recalled. “He wasn’t a spring chicken. It wasn’t like he was 20 years old and immature. He had a lot of weapons as far as pitches and he threw strikes.”

Richmond, now 30, pitched to a 3.69 ERA in the first half last year, striking out 71 and walking just 30. He has struggled since, but last year's hot start helps explain why teams scout independent leagues: talent can turn up in unexpected places. Ducey can think of another reason.

“Some players, when they get back to professional baseball, not only is their attitude a whole lot better, but they work a whole lot harder because they know what’s on the other side of the fence,” Ducey said.

Richmond encountered shoulder problems in the second half of 2009 and his ERA ballooned to 5.52. He’s now pitching in the minor leagues, but his major league future is largely uncertain. Like Richmond, Nava could find himself in the minors once again. In fact, that reality helps motivate him.

“You’re never going to sit there and say you’ve got it all figured out,” Nava said. “And if you do, usually something’s coming the other way so you don’t have it all figured out.” 

Nava may not have enough job security to seek out an agent, but he sure doesn’t mind playing baseball for a living, whether it’s in front of Fenway Park's Green Monster or back in Chico, California.

“There’s plenty of time to get a nine to five job,” he said. “So you may as well enjoy the chance to do something you love.”

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