Of the major independent leagues, play begins earliest in the Atlantic League, which often serves as a halfway house for players who eventually return to affiliated baseball. Making that jump has become increasingly common, with 11 former Atlantic Leaguers logging major league time in 2009. Former stars like Ruben Sierra and Juan Gonzalez have played in the Atlantic League and others, like Nelson Figueroa, have used the league to induce organized baseball to give them second chances.
It is hard to find a group more worthy of fan appreciation than those in the Atlantic League. These players earn small salaries and hope that with enough strong play, they can return to one of the 30 major league organizations.
So with the 2010 Atlantic League season more than 20 games old, let's take a look at some of the players there who could make that jump this year:
- Kennard Jones currently leads the circuit for the Newark Bears with a .403 average, 13 extra-base hits in his first 77 at-bats, and nine walks against ten strikeouts. Jones was a third-round pick of the San Diego Padres back in 2002, and played all three outfield positions in their organization, though he's been primarily in right field with Newark. Just 28, it seems far from impossible to imagine him helping a big league team. Jones' big limitation during his time with the Padres was a lack of power, something he clearly doesn't suffer from in Newark.
- Daryle Ward is a name familiar to many baseball fans, and he is remaking a name for himself with Newark as well, leading the Atlantic League with six home runs. Ward played with six major league teams, most notably with the Houston Astros, and could be a source of power for a team short at first base or designated hitter. Two notes of caution: Ward is turning 35 next month, and has three walks in his first 78 at-bats, a sign he has become an all-or-nothing hitter.
- Rene Rivera, who played briefly with the Seattle Mariners and now plays with the Camden Riversharks, is tied with Ward for the league home run lead. Rivera plays catcher, a position where power is scarce, particularly this season, so he may be the best bet to find his way back to the major leagues. What works against Rivera is that he's never hit with anything close to this kind of power- in 259 plate appearances last season with Triple-A Buffalo, Rivera had nine home runs. Still, Rivera was a second round pick of the Mariners back in 2001, and is just 26. Catchers often develop later offensively, so perhaps Rivera has figured it out.
- Another potential late bloomer is right-hander Ben Fritz, a first round pick of the Athletics back in 2001. The 6'4" hurler has been nothing short of dominant for the Lancaster Barnstormers so far this season, with 23 strikeouts against seven walks in his past three starts. Fritz never put it together for Oakland, but still just 29, perhaps Fritz is ready to shed his first-round bust label once and for all.
Some difference-makers were signed this past winter, and others will be acquired at the trade deadline, but don't discount the possibility that one could come from independent league baseball, either.