Scot Drucker and Jon Hunton each spent last season only a heartbeat away from the big leagues in Triple-A, but now both find themselves on the outside looking in, playing in the independent American Association for the Grand Prairie AirHogs. While their focus is on the task at hand as part of the AirHogs' pitching staff, both are hopeful that their stay in Grand Prairie is just a temporary stop on their journey back to affiliated baseball.
Drucker and Hunton have followed similar paths throughout their baseball careers. The right-handed pitchers first met in college when they were playing summer baseball and they have remained good friends ever since, keeping in touch even when they went years in between seeing one another. Both pitchers were draft picks out of college in 2004: Drucker went in the 13th round to the Oakland A's and Hunton was taken in the 11th round by the Chicago Cubs.
The two pitchers also shared the commonality of being released early on in their professional careers. For Hunton, the release from Chicago came before the 2007 season after two plus seasons in the lower levels of the Cubs' system. That release began a two-year journey for the 6'9'' reliever to land with another major league organization. During that time, Hunton suited up for five different independent league teams in three different leagues (the American Association, the Atlantic League and the CanAm League), posting impressive numbers along the way. Eventually he was noticed by the A's, who signed him to a minor league deal before the 2009 season.
Drucker was given his release by the A's during the spring of 2008. He had missed the entire 2007 season after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. After failing to latch on with another big league organization that spring, Drucker eventually signed with the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association after a recommendation from former Cincinnati Reds first-round pick David Espinosa.
Drucker spent the better part of the 2008 season with the AirHogs before he was signed by the Detroit Tigers. When Drucker first signed with Grand Prairie, he assumed that there would be plenty of opportunities to be seen by scouts from big league organizations, but it wasn't until late in the season that he saw his first scout at a game.
"Of all places, we end up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I saw my first scout. And then the next day was the All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Al Avila, I believe, was there and some of the other Tigers front office guys," Drucker said.
"On my way home [from the All-Star game], [then-Grand Prairie manager and former big leaguer Pete] Incaviglia just told me, that was your last game pitching with us, you're going to Detroit. I didn't see any scouts and didn't hear anything. It was just sort of out of the blue."
But he was back in affiliated baseball and that was all that mattered. "Getting back into affiliated baseball" is the calling cry for most players in the independent leagues. Spread-out throughout the United States and Canada, there are currently six independent baseball leagues. These leagues, in many ways, operate in a similar fashion to the affiliated minor leagues, but with one major exception – none of the teams are associated with a major league organization.
Player development isn't a priority for independent league clubs, as players filter in and out of their rosters throughout the season. Some are signed by big league clubs, others are traded to different independent clubs – sometimes in different leagues – to help stock rosters for a playoff run.
The rules that govern independent leagues are different than in affiliated baseball, as well. In the American Association, where Drucker and Hunton are currently plying their trade, rosters are limited to 22 players, rather than the 24 or 25 players an affiliated minor league club is allowed. Players are assigned classifications based on the number of games played in professional baseball and teams are required to carry a certain number of players within the various classifications. The American Association also has a salary cap for its teams.
The level of play in the independent leagues can vary, but it is generally along the lines of Double-A baseball. The players who suit up for "indy ball" teams range from major league veterans such as former A's and Rockies left-hander Greg Smith, who is a current teammate of Drucker and Hunton, to players who have never been signed by a major league organization.
"We have a lot of talented players here who have never played affiliated baseball. It's a crazy game. There are guys out there who are better than guys I've seen on my affiliated teams but they just weren't given a shot whatever the reason may be," Drucker said.
"It is great to have the Greg Smiths, Kevin Thompsons and Greg Porters who have had some big league time just share some stories. I played against Smith when he was in college and I knew him when he was with the Diamondbacks and we have similar roots with Oakland. It's fun to pick his brain about his big league experience and what things were like for him. There is some good leadership and some good stories to be shared."
While the majority of independent league players will never play affiliated baseball again, there are a number of players who are signed out of the independent leagues throughout the season by major league clubs looking to fill roster spots within their organizations, often opened up by injuries.
The A's have been one organization that has consistently dipped into the independent league ranks to sign players, often with success. A's set-up man Brad Ziegler was signed out of the independent leagues in 2004. Last season, the A's inked Matt Watson out of the independent Atlantic League. Watson hit so well once joining Triple-A Sacramento that he was called up to the big leagues a few weeks after signing with Oakland. Bobby Cramer, who was on the A's Opening Day roster, has also spent time in the independent leagues.
Another success story is Daniel Nava, who made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox last season. He began his professional career in the independent leagues before signing with Boston in 2008. Former Yankees and A's reliever Edwar Ramirez is another player who spent more than one season playing independent league baseball before signing with a major league organization and eventually reaching the big leagues. But these success stories are generally the exception to the rule.
Drucker and Hunton are both acutely aware that the struggle to get back into affiliated baseball is only the first part of a long battle to reach the big leagues. After getting back into affiliated baseball the first time, both Drucker and Hunton had to prove they belonged there.
Both found success early on and they both reached Triple-A, with Drucker getting to Triple-A in 2009 and 2010 and Hunton pitching there for all of the 2010 season. Drucker went 8-3 with a 4.78 ERA in 113 innings for the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo in 2009 and was sent that off-season to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, which is a league that MLB teams use to showcase top prospects. Hunton saved 10 games in 2009 with High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland and posted a 3.57 ERA in 63 relief innings for the Triple-A Sacramento in 2010.
Still, despite those successes, both Drucker and Hunton entered this year's spring training with the understanding that they were "on the bubble" to make it out of camp on a minor league roster. Drucker was actually a free agent during the off-season, but he spent much of the winter unsigned before the Tigers approached him a few weeks before camp and signed him to a minor league deal.
"I didn't have a great season last year by any means. I started strong but I didn't end strong by any measure, so I did the winter ball thing. I was hoping to get some calls during that and to get my name out there during winter ball, but I didn't really get that many innings," Drucker said.
"Luckily I was able to sign back with Detroit, but there weren't really any other teams that were interested and once they released me, it was bittersweet. I had a great time with them and I appreciated them bringing me back for really my free agency year. But it was a trickledown effect. That was the hardest part because we weren't getting calls in the off-season and it was very unlikely that we were going to get calls during spring cuts."
Hunton was under contract with the A's all winter, but he got the inkling that he was in danger of losing his spot in the organization when he saw the A's sign several major league and Triple-A veterans to minor league contracts and when he wasn't invited to big league spring training.
" It was a little frustrating, but since I didn't get invited to [big league] camp, going to [minor league] camp I knew that I had to come into camp ready to go," Hunton said.
"They told me that I was a good kid. That I worked hard. That all of the players like me and the coaches like me and the trainers like me. That I've never been a problem for them. They were telling me all of these good things and it was like, ‘ok, but why are you releasing me?' But it sounded sincere and I understand the business.
"It was something that I just had to swallow and when it was over, put it past me and move on to the next step and get into indy ball because I knew I wasn't going to get signed [by a big league organization] if I wasn't pitching."
Having gone through the motions of being released once before, Hunton and Drucker jumped right into the process of finding themselves employment for the 2011 season. Hunton quickly assessed that the independent leagues were going to offer him the best opportunity at the start of the 2011 season and he signed quickly with Grand Prairie.
"My goal this year is obviously that I want to get signed. I want to get back into affiliated ball. I still think I can pitch in the big leagues. I still have those goals and those aspirations. Stuff happens and obviously you work from that. I've been released before and that didn't stop me from getting picked up again," Hunton said.
"Being in this league once before, I saw that I could get picked up from this league. I wanted to put myself in a situation with the best team that I could and be surrounded by players that I knew who played well and who I would enjoy playing with as teammates. Grand Prairie seemed to be the best fit at the time."
Drucker left his options open for a while longer before signing with the AirHogs a couple weeks before the start of the American Association season.
"There was just a waiting period. We were hoping for some sort of player movement such as a high-tiered free agent getting released or something along those lines, but that didn't happen," Drucker said.
"That was the toughest part, trying to figure out how long to hold out for a major league team."
Drucker held out for as long as he could to see if a major league organization would contact him in part because he knew that once he signed with an independent league team, he would instantly be a more expensive investment for any organization. Independent leagues, in order to make a profit, require major league organizations to buyout their players' contracts before signing them to minor league contracts. The buyouts range from $3,000 to $5,000.
"It can be a hindrance. You would think it wouldn't be given the financial situation [for MLB clubs], but it is a hindrance. They are taking a chance on a guy they might have seen only a little in the indy ball leagues and they are already paying $3,000 for him and now they have to pay him on top of that his salary as a free agent."
Still, given the option of not having a place to play and signing onto a situation where his contract would require a buyout, the choice was easy for Drucker.
"It got to the point where some of these teams were getting set and I was like ‘listen, no one was calling when we were just sitting around. No one was calling me right out of spring training'," Drucker said.
"I'm not going to get any calls playing in the couch potato league at my house, so we need to get to work."
Hunton was the person who most encouraged Drucker to sign with Grand Prairie. Because of his experience in the different leagues and his connections in independent ball, Hunton has frequently served as a placement agent, of sorts, for former teammates who were released by their affiliated organization and were entering the unchartered waters of the independent leagues for the first time. Last season when the A's released right-hander Jason Fernandez midseason, Hunton represented Fernandez – who didn't have an agent – in his negotiations with the Fort Worth RailCats.
"I've made my way around the different [independent] leagues and I've kind of got a good feel for it," Hunton said.
"When I was still with the A's, if guys got released, I'd let them know that I know a lot of people in indy ball. I kind of know the good situations and the good fits. Anyone who I could vouch for who wouldn't hurt my reputation or hurt my name or make me look bad, I did it. There have been numerous guys where I have called the teams for them."
In addition to his role in bringing Drucker to Grand Prairie, Hunton helped recruit former A's minor leaguers Bo Schultz and David Thomas to the club.
"When Grand Prairie called this time, it was Jon Hunton who called me," Drucker said. "He's trying to be a player procurement guy, bringing in guys who he wanted to be around and who would be fun to play with. He is still calling guys from the A's who are still playing, but may be on the way out or are having a weird feeling about what is going on with them.
"He's gone out and gotten some good guys. You want to do that. You want to go out and get guys who are fun and who will play well behind you."
Both Hunton and Drucker share a gregarious nature and have become fan favorites wherever they have played. Not surprisingly, both have taken to social media to interact with fans. Hunton and Drucker are active on Twitter (@Big_Jon_Hunton and @UTBaseball30, respectively) and Drucker writes a blog on MLBlogs network (http://druckerscot.mlblogs.com/).
Social media have also given Hunton and Drucker a different avenue through which they can keep their names out there in the baseball consciousness, so to speak. Both utilized Twitter when they were looking for jobs, although they acknowledge that they have little idea whether their online presence will have any impact with MLB front office personnel.
"I don't really know how much Twitter affects anyone who makes the decisions. One day, jokingly, I just wrote on there ‘MLB get me a job' and all of a sudden I had a couple of people sending me questionnaires about me doing that, like I was a pioneer," Hunton said.
"I was like, ‘oh my god, this is way out of hand.' But at that point I was at home and on Twitter and I had really just learned how to do the Twitter thing in spring training. I really wasn't big on it before. But I figured ‘why not? I can't hurt me. It can only help.' It became a bit of a story. I don't know if it really helped. Obviously my numbers are going to have to help me. We'll see if it works. I'm going to keep doing it."
Drucker has seen social media as a good way to interact with fans while also keeping his name out there.
"I think [Twitter and his blog] have helped keep me in the game. I'd rather have my pitching or athleticism keep me in the game, but I love doing that and giving back and I have received some good feedback from it. It's a fun outlet for me to do and I guess I am my own salesman with it," Drucker said.
Despite their setbacks this season, they aren't letting go of their dreams of making the major leagues. They are both realistic about the road in front of them, knowing that it will likely take the misfortune of another player for them to get another crack at affiliated baseball. They also know that they will have to take any opportunity that comes their way, whether it is to play for a club with an opening in Triple-A or Single-A. Still, they remain steadfast in their beliefs that they have the ability to pitch in the major leagues and they aren't going to give up on that dream lightly.
"My agent and I were talking right after I got released and he was saying ‘in all seriousness, would you mind going to Double-A or even Single-A?' I said, ‘no, I just want to get back into affiliated'," Drucker said.
"That's really the goal. I want to play this game. I want to a last shot or two or however more years I can do this. Definitely my goal is to get back to affiliated and get that opportunity to live that childhood dream."
For Hunton, who would like to have a career in a baseball front office after he retires, the dream of playing in the big leagues will live as long as he can stay on the field.
"Honestly, baseball is my life. It's not something that I want to give up. My thing is that I am going to play until they take that jersey away from me," Hunton said.
"I'm going to play until nobody wants me to play anymore, or my body can't handle it. I just want to keep playing and know that I gave it everything that I've got for as long as I could."
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