Coast to Coast: The FWBL Tryouts


“El Duque” Orlando Hernandez (center) watches the Florida Winter Baseball League tryouts Saturday at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium in Sanford, Florida.

 

The Florida Winter Baseball League held its second of two tryouts on Saturday. The first was two weeks ago in Miami. Demand was so high, a second tryout was scheduled.

The FWBL is an attempt to create a viable professional winter league here in the United States so players won’t have to go to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Venezuela. The season begins October 30 and has a 60-game schedule.

League officials tell me they have verbal commitments from 13 of the 30 Major League Baseball organizations to provide players, mostly from the lower minor league levels. The league itself is independent of MLB, so right now it’s scouting and signing players from the independent leagues, or those who have been released.


Space Coast Surge general manager Sean Boudreaux (left) and Global Scouting Bureau president James Gamble evaluate players during Saturday’s workout.

 

Some players have been signed without a tryout, based on past performance or scouting reports. The FWBL has partnered with the Global Scouting Bureau, an independent outfit out of Louisiana, to find and sign players.

Although they’ve been reluctant to tell me who are the investors behind the league, some prominent baseball names have publicly associated themselves with the effort. Ken Griffey Sr. is the league commissioner, and it’s been made very clear to me he’s more than a figurehead. Former Cincinnati Reds slugger George Foster will manage the Lake County team. And former major league star pitcher “El Duque” Orlando Hernandez is apparently one of the investors.

Hernandez was quite actively involved in Saturday’s tryouts. He was all over the field injecting his opinion into how things should be run, offering advice to the tryout players, and acting as a mentor for the Latin players.

I haven’t seen any former Angels minor leaguers yet, although I was told two former players are possible signees.

As for the stadium used for the tryout, it sounded awfully familiar. A visit to the stadium’s web site reminded me that Sanford is the home town of popular former Angels infielder David Eckstein.

Saturday’s tryout was supposed to be limited to 100 players, but about another 20 walked up. They had to wait until everyone who pre-registered showed (or didn’t show), and then they were allowed to sign up. Some guys showed up by prior arrangement. A couple Latin players were referred by Hernandez.

Everyone was fed at lunch time with cheese pizza from a local pizzeria while the scouts made the first round of cuts. An afternoon game was played, nine innings, with 18 pitchers given one inning each. No one scored, as base runners weren’t allowed past third base, and the batting cage was kept in place so the scouts could stand behind it and watch. (The cage was a major buzz killer for photography …)

I’d guess that about a half-dozen players were offered contracts at day’s end. The scouts made it clear that others might be offered contracts later, or might be on a depth list if a player is needed later in the season. I saw a couple pitchers I thought had decent enough stuff, although few came close to, say, Tom Kotchman’s Rookie-A Orem Owlz talent.

If you’re thinking these guys sound like the bottom of the barrel … you’re right. But every once in a while, the independent leagues help to resurrect a player’s career. It’s more common for major league organizations to reach into the independent leagues to acquire players to fill out rosters, especially at the Double-A and Triple-A level, to surround top prospects with experienced players.

If nothing else, I would expect this league to help place some players with major league organizations for the next minor league spring training. After that, their talent will take them as far as it can.


Players stretch at the beginning of Saturday’s workout.

 

Click Here to watch an interview with Jake Leonhardt, an independent player who signed at Saturday’s workout. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection are required. A Houston native, Leonhardt formerly pitched in the Astros system and travelled here from Texas to qualify for the league.

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