Independents haul: After pandemic-marred 2020, more Frontier League players are getting picked up by affiliated teams this season

Pitchers in independent baseball have always been targeted the most because of workload management.

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Tyler Jandron spent the 2020 baseball season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and his outlook on the grueling recovery process was that it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Thousands of players were left searching for opportunities on the field after seasons were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Jandron, the year off allowed him to focus on his return to the mound free of guilt that he’d be missing a season. 

“It benefitted me,” Jandron said. “Once I understood that no teams were playing and things shut down, I took it as an opportunity to get ready for this year.” 

Managers in the independent leagues measure time in dog years. 

In terms of players’ development, 12 months are really like seven years. It might sound like a dramatic comparison, but the point is taking a year off can derail a player’s career. 

When the Frontier League suspended its 2020 season, some teams held local events for players to continue their development. The Joliet Slammers were one of four teams that participated in the Champions Cup in Joliet. The modified schedule gave Frontier League players and free agents from MiLB-affiliated teams an opportunity to play. 

After a year of scrapped seasons and disarray, what’s the explanation for the increase in players getting called up to affiliated ball in 2021? There’s more than one, but the first thing to consider is workload. 

“This year has been very aggressive,” Slammers manager Aaron Nieckula said. “Part of that has to do with the pandemic last year and the way it shut down minor-league baseball.” 

Nieckula, in his first season with the Slammers, estimates that his team and the Frontier League as a whole are ahead of the typical number of players that are pulled into affiliated baseball in a standard year. 

Schaumburg Boomers manager Jamie Bennett, who has been with the organization since 2011, said the league already has reached its yearly total. The Frontier League is a little over halfway through the regular season.

Pitchers in independent baseball have always been targeted the most by affiliated clubs because of workload management. 

Every organization has a different philosophy, but once pitchers reach their set number of innings and starts, they’re shut down. Every year, a pitcher will throw around 15 to 20% more than he did the year before.  

The limited number of reps pitchers in affiliated baseball had in 2020 significantly affected their workload, which has led to more opportunities for independent-leaguers. 

“Coming from affiliated ball, I told them this year is great timing and will be a great opportunity for many of you,” Nieckula said. “Just know there are going to be scouts and evaluators out at most of our games.”  

The three major independent leagues are the American Association, the Atlantic League and the Frontier League.

The Atlantic League is an older league made up mostly of former major-league and Triple-A players. The American Association is in the middle of the pack. The Frontier League is geared more toward young players looking to develop. 

Jandron spent a year in affiliated baseball after signing a minor-league deal with the Diamondbacks in 2018 and getting assigned to the Missoula Osprey. He was released after one season and signed with the Slammers in 2019. 

When MLB cut its farm teams to 120, eliminating 40 cities as affiliates, there was a rush of players and coaches in search of jobs. They turned to the independent leagues. 

Nieckula said 25% of his team is made up of players with affiliated-baseball experience, and that’s fairly standard when looking at rosters across the Frontier League. Many former affiliated players landed in the Atlantic League or the American Association. 

Still, the axing of 40 affiliates led not only to an increase in talent in the leagues but interest from scouts, as well. The pandemic made it easier to be seen by scouts online. 

Jandron didn’t come into the 2021 season feeling prepared. Not many players did, even if they were some of the few who were on the field last year. 

What 2020 taught players is that the opportunity to go from independent baseball to affiliated baseball is more real than ever. 

“I don’t think we had one guy picked up in 2019,” Jandron said. “To see four guys get picked up early off our team, it shows that they’re looking. They’re always going to be looking.”

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