This morning, I was scouring some minor league news feeds over my morning coffee (doesn’t everyone do that?), and I came across some long forgotten names who have wound up in the Indy Leagues, specifically, the American Association. In looking at some of the numbers here, it boggles my mind how fine a line there is between making it to the majors and toiling in obscurity for eternity. Leagues like this are littered with players who, for one reason or another, never quite got that break.
Hardcore fans of Canadian baseball will recognize the name of Ben Van Iderstine. After his career at Iowa State University which includes two seasons starting (.306, six homers, 46 RBI as a junior; 311 four homers, 43 RBI as a senior), the Regina native spent two years in the Frontier League, making the all-star team in 2001 with London and finishing in the top five in the league with a .338 BA. In 2003, he was exactly what the fledgling Canadian Baseball League was seeking — a homegrown boy looking for a chance at something bigger. He made the All-Star team as a member of the Saskatoon Legends, and ranked second in the league with a .401 BA when the CBL suffered a quick death.
The now 29-year-old outfielder recovered from that catostrophe quite nicely, landing with the Northern League’s Schaumberg Flyers for the remainder of the 2003 season. He returned the following year, and his .400 BA with five homers and 21 RBI through 40 games finally got him a notice, as the Milwaukee Brewers penned him to a minor league deal in June.
In just 45 games with High-A High Desert, Van Iderstine hit over .370, earning player of the month honours for July, before a promotion the following month to Double-A, where he held his own.
In 2005, he again started out at High-A, but spent the majority of the year at Double-A. However, a lowly .655 OPS sealed Van Iderstine’s fate, and he returned to Schaumberg in 2006, putting up another .300+ BA.
He was a member of the World Cup for Team Canada in Amsterdam, starting all eight games, and batting .400 with one homer and four RBI. Van Iderstine also represented the nation in the Pre-Olympic Qualifier in Phoenix, Arizona, appeared in four of the five games, and going 4-for-11 with an RBI.
This season, Van Iderstine has switched over to the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association, and is again putting up numbers worthy of attention with a .326 BA through 129 at-bats. He’s scored 19 runs, and shown some pop with five doubles, a triple and four homers good for 25 RBI.
Shorstop Angelo Fermin spent four seasons in the Twins organization after they signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2000. He played 189 games in the minor leagues, displaying good top-of-the-order skills with 44 steals and 104 walks against just 136 strikeouts, but Fermin topped out at High-A in 2005. Missing the entire 2004 season, when he was on the restricted list because of a visa problem, definitely set back Fermin’s development.
However, we’re talking about a still-just-23-year-old switch-hitter, so time remains on his side. Of course, that only matters if he does something with it. In his first season of Indy ball last year with Sioux Falls, Fermin hit just .250 with only 25 walks and six steals. This season, he’s shown modest improvements in his speed game, and is getting on base at a .344 clip, but his sub-.250 BA and 15 errors are hardly going to inspire another organized ball team to give Fermin a shot.
James Shanks lasted much longer in organized ball before winding up in the Indies. Originally a 21st round pick by Kansas City in 1998, the now 28-year-old outfielder spent five seasons in the Royals organization, topping out at High-A and missing the entire 2000 season because he was on the suspended list. The speedster was released in April 2004, and signed by the Marlins’ organization the following month. He spent three years in the Florida system, reaching Triple-A in both 2005 and 2006 and batting .299 with five homers and nine steals in 66 Triple-A games in 2006. That’s as close as he got.
Shanks spent the remainder of the 2006 season with Reno of the Golden League, and now he’s with Sioux Falls, trying to find his way back to organized ball. He’s hitting over .280 with 25 runs, 11 doubles, five homers, 25 RBI and 11 steals, certainly good enough to garner some attention. Shanks’ problem this season has been in getting on base (.320 OBP). It’s never been an issue before (career mark of .355 in the minors), but he’ll need to address that if he hopes to get another shot.
How about first baseman Abner Arroyo? He’s been toiling in the Independent leagues since 2003, but when he was 21 in 2001, he hit almost .340 for Low-A Fort Wayne of the Midwest League as a Padre farmhand. Just over a year later, San Diego released him. Now, Arroyo’s in his third season in Sioux Falls, batting .330 last year and .321 the season before. He’s 27 years old and is unlikely to ever get another sniff with a MLB team.
Finally, there is Will Smith, a one-time good looking prospect in the Marlins and then Rangers’ systems. A sixth-round pick by Florida in 2000, Smith immediately put himself on the map with all-star seasons in the GCL in 2000, in the Midwest League in 2001 and in the FSL in 2002. He struggled early in the season in his return to the FSL in 2003 and was promptly dealt to Texas in the Ugueth Urbina deal. He stalled somewhat at Double-A, but looked headed for a career as no worse than a fourth outfielder.
In 2005, at the age of 23, Smith recorded an OPS of almost 1000 in his first, albeit brief, taste of Triple-A (169 at-bats). By mid-season 2006, Smith was playing for the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the Northern League and now he’s with Sioux Falls. Still just 25, based on his play this year, Smith will get another shot. He’s fifth in the American Association in slugging (.569), tied for fifth with five homers and ninth in batting at .341. In 29 games, he has 21 runs, 11 doubles and 14 RBI.