In the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, the roster rules state that each team must carry at least five rookie classification players on their 23-man active roster at all times. The rule is designed to help players attempting to break into the game at the professional level, providing exposure to those who may have gone overlooked in the MLB Draft and a place for those men to showcase their talents and maybe even land an affiliated contract.
A “rookie” in the American Association is defined as someone who has less than two “years of service” — fewer than 30 innings pitched or 75 at-bats — in short-season affiliated ball or any of the major independent leagues (AA, Frontier/Can-Am, or Atlantic). But if a player accrues 30+ innings or 75+ at-bats in a full-season affiliated league, then their rookie eligibility is exhausted. On average, the pool of rookie players in the American Association is generally around replacement-level as a group. With the rookie minimums currently in place, that means that arguably the greatest competitive advantage that a club can achieve is becoming skilled at identifying rookies who will be able to come into the league and immediately compete at a high level.
Over this offseason, the Milwaukee Milkmen appear to have added three such rookie arms to their pitching staff, all hailing from very different backgrounds.
First is right-hander Jeremy Ovalle. Only recently turned 23, the Dominican Republic native began his professional career back in the summer of 2013 when he signed with the Marlins at the tender age of 16. He debuted the following season in the Dominican Summer League, piling up 77.0 innings across 16 outings (nine starts) with a 3.04 ERA and earning a spot on the circuit’s All-Star team. But his progress was set halted the following season by a UCL tear, which cost him nearly all of the 2015 season.
Ovalle returned from Tommy John surgery in June of 2016 but pitched more strictly in a relief role, which lowered the ceiling for the amount of innings he would pitch. He posted a sparkling 1.27 ERA in 28.1 innings in the Gulf Coast League that summer, then, as he got further away from his procedure, saw his strikeout rate spike in subsequent seasons. From 2017-2019, Ovalle worked 58.0 innings between short-season and Class-A ball before becoming a free agent. His 4.81 ERA in that time may not jump off the page, but 77 strikeouts and a nearly 12.0 K/9 rate surely do. Ovalle was stung by a .386 BABIP during that span, too, suggesting a good amount of misfortune involved in his higher ERA.
Ovalle has pitched professionally in parts of six seasons and has logged 165.0 career innings with a 3.38 ERA, but because he only threw more than 30.0 innings once at the short-season level in any of those individual campaigns, he still qualifies as a rookie. Finding that type of experience at that classification level is obviously rare, which makes Ovalle someone to keep a close watch on in 2020. His fastball typically sits in the low-90s and can touch 95 MPH, but his best pitch is a mid-70s curveball. He also throws a slider and changeup, and creates deception from a funky delivery and a low arm slot. Depending on any more additions that the team might make before the start of Spring Training in May, Ovalle could find himself in competition for a spot in the starting rotation for the Milkmen. Otherwise he profiles as someone who could be a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen within Milwaukee’s 27-out system.
The next rookie arm brought into the fold by the Milkmen is right-hander Jackson Maynard. His time as a pro began after a successful collegiate career at UNC Greensboro, where he posted a 2.13 ERA and nine saves in 29 appearances and 63.1 innings as a senior while helping his team earn a spot in the College World Series. Maynard showed a penchant for missing bats (11.5 K/9) and avoiding free passes (1.6 BB/9) and brought those skills with him to the professional ranks after getting selected in the 25th round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox.
Maynard was immediately assigned to the Pioneer League, an extremely difficult environment for pitchers to succeed in because of the high altitudes. Though the league average ERA was 5.06, Maynard managed to put together an outstanding 3.00 earned run average across 39.0 frames for the Great Falls Voyagers as a 21 year old, covering 20 appearances. He struck out 42 batters against just 12 walks, and he allowed only two home runs due in large part to keeping the ball on the ground more than 53% of the time. Great Falls would go on to win the league title that season.
Maynard returned to Great Falls to begin the 2019 season but injury issues and a numbers game wound up leading to his release from the White Sox after four appearances. He hooked on with the Lake Erie Crushers to finish out the summer and even though he was pitching with a fatigued arm, he managed to strike out 23 batters in 13.0 innings. After a full offseason of rest and recovery, Maynard should be ready to go for 2020. The rookie hurler typically fires his fastball into the catcher in the 91-93 MPH range, but his best pitch is a plus changeup in the mid-to-upper 70s. Maynard’s track record in relief at both the collegiate and professional levels could give him a chance to earn some high-leverage opportunities in manager Anthony Barone’s bullpen this upcoming summer.
The Milkmen added one more rookie hurler to the mix with the recent signing of right-hander Spencer Backstrom. Unlike Ovalle and Maynard, Backstrom does not have a track record in affiliated baseball and at age 28, he is quite a bit older than the other two rookies that have been discussed so far. A Washington native, Backstrom’s baseball career got derailed early on by ulnar nerve surgery that cost took him more than two years to fully recover from. He eventually landed at Division III Pacific University in Oregon, and as a senior, he appeared in 14 games, starting seven and saving four others, while authoring a 1.95 ERA across 60.0 innings pitched. He struck out 85 batters against 22 walks, but because of his advanced age, he didn’t generate any interest coming out of the draft.
That led Backstrom to the begin his professional career in the lower independent leagues in 2019, splitting the season between the Bakersfield Train Robbers of the Pecos League and Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association. Simply put, Spencer was nothing short of dominant during his debut season. He made 30 appearances between the two stops, tossing 44.0 frames with a 1.02 ERA — which is extremely difficult considering that teams in both leagues averaged around seven runs per game. Only 24 hits were recorded off Backstom, including zero home runs, and he walked a mere 17 batters for a WHIP of 0.932. Most impressive, however, is the rate at which Spencer missed bats. Of the 179 batters that he faced in 2019, Backstrom struck out 91 of them, a rate of 18.6 K/9. Among all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings, taking into consideration all levels of domestic professional baseball, both affiliated an independent, Backstrom’s strikeout rate was the highest that anyone recorded.
With nothing left to prove in the lower levels of independent baseball, Backstom was “called up” to the American Association by signing with the Milkmen. He throws from a low arm-slot with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s along with a sinker, splitter, and his best pitch, a hammer curveball. If he can translate his bat-missing abilities to the higher level, Backstom is another candidate to earn some high-leverage outs during the upcoming season. And because service time from the lower leagues (Pecos, Pacific, USPBL, Empire) does not count in the American Association, Backstrom would be a rookie classification player for Milwaukee in both 2020 and 2021.
Don’t let Spencer Backstrom get hot!— Allie (@alliebackstromm) August 18, 2019
93-95 mph fastball, insane curve and slider with a 1.05 ERA in 42.2 innings, 92 k’s, 13 walks, 20 hits pic.twitter.com/bxt7IfjXI7
Ovalle, Maynard, and Backstrom are set to join holdover Colby Morris in competition for spots on the pitching staff this upcoming spring. Morris is a spin-rate darling who logged 30.2 innings between three independent ball stops in 2019, including a 4.50 ERA and 12 punchouts in 10.0 innings for the Milkmen after stints with the AA’s Gary-SouthShore and Trois-Rivieres of the former Can-Am League (now merged with the Frontier League). Each hurler possesses undeniable upside, which should give the south-side Franklin Nine plenty of options when it comes to finalizing the roster before Opening Day on the road against the Gary-SouthShore Railcats on May 22nd.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs