The Rookie Experience – Pecos vs. Frontier

With the recent partnership between the California Winter League and the Frontier League, rookies are getting excited for their shot at a Frontier League roster spot. But is it a realistic goal for a rookie, or are they better off trying out for the often dreaded Pecos League?

While the Frontier League has nice stadiums, thousands of fans and $600 a month, the Pecos League has fields that are worse than some high schools, a couple hundred fans and $50 a week. The Frontier League offers opportunities to get noticed by MLB organizations, and the Pecos League offers opportunities to get noticed by other independent organizations.

The Frontier League looks like the clear winner to a rookie, but is it the right move? If you’re a great rookie and recent college grad that is already on the radar of indy ball teams, the Frontier League can be a great move. However, baseball is a game of numbers. The Frontier League has a rule in place that each roster must carry 11 rookies. The only problem with that is just how rookies are classified. Rookies can be classified as both R1s and R2s. The Frontier League eligibility rules explain that:

“The Rookie classification will be split into two sub-classifications, Rookie 1 and Rookie 2. The Rookie 1 sub-classification will be for players who made their professional debut in the current season and therefore have no prior professional experience. The Rookie 2 sub-classification will be for players who held the Rookie 1 sub-classification in the previous year in the Frontier League or began their professional career during the 2014 season.”

This could make it difficult for a true rookie (R1) to earn his spot on a Frontier roster. And what if you’re a true rookie just trying to make it? The Pecos League may be the answer. Their website states that:

The Pecos League is an entry-level league and represents a rookie’s best opportunity to get started in professional baseball. Experience has shown that players who sign with higher independent leagues as rookies have a very high probability of being released. An undrafted player with no professional experience will have a much better chance of getting a successful start in professional baseball with the Pecos League than with any other league.”

The only catch? Any player that has played in a developmental/showcase league is ineligible to sign unless they also attend the Pecos Spring League.

So is playing in the Pecos League for $50 a week in rough conditions really the right thing to do for a rookie or should they aim higher and try to stick with a Frontier League team?

I have interviewed true rookies from the Pecos League as well as the Frontier League to get an idea of what life was like for them during their rookie seasons.

Playing in the Pecos

Each player interviewed had the same general consensus about playing in the Pecos League… it sucks. There’s really no way to sugar coat rough conditions, minimal pay and relatively poor competition.  One player, who was persuaded by his pitching coach to join the Pecos League, described the living and travel arrangements with the Taos Blizzards:

“The owner of our team rented a house and an apartment in Las Vegas, NM for us to use when we weren’t on the road. We jammed 50 guys into these two places. Guys were sleeping on air mattresses on the floors with five to seven guys to a room… We didn’t have a bus or vans.  We stuck five people in cars and drove sometimes 10 hours on game day. When we were on the road, we stuck six guys in each room to save money.”

In addition, the fields in the league are in terrible condition.  The Blizzards even played two games at Taos High School where there were gopher holes in the outfield.

He went on to talk about his overall experience in the league:

“You don’t get a fair shot at moving up at all. The only games scouts come to are the All-Star game and the playoffs… The competition was horrible. Most of the players wouldn’t make the D3 college team I played for, and to top it all off, when I got paid, I noticed I was short half of the money.”

Another player, who played for both Taos and the Bisbee Blue, described the same poor living conditions.  With Bisbee, he wasn’t sure where he would be sleeping. He went from a haunted hotel, his coach’s floor, a host family that took in eight players at once, and finally a place on his own with five other players.

On top of all that, the players were forced to pay for their own food and sometimes the travel.

Even with everything that happened, this player had a better overall experience.  “Despite all the bad conditions, bad umpiring, and bad mascots, we found Bisbee to be our home. We became friendly with some of the locals and embraced the way they lived. When kids asked for autographs, it was an amazing feeling.”

But, unlike the first player, he felt as if they do get a fair look in the league, and that the coaches try hard to fight for their players. However even though he made the All-Star team and put up very good numbers, he was never promoted.

As stated above, the Pecos League does not allow players to sign if they have played previously in an instructional league, which is one rule that this player does not agree with.

“[The rule] isn’t fair in my opinion because if we really want what’s best for each player, the California Winter League is one of the most heavily scouted winter leagues and that hurts a player’s future if he can’t decide to attend the tryout or not… It’s almost a risk if a player is on the edge of getting signed to the Frontier but doesn’t make it – then they can’t even attend the rookie based Pecos League? Doesn’t seem fair.

“I always think players should strive for higher leagues and fall back on the lower ones. If a player is cut from a higher league, there is a a good shot a Pecos League team will see their position and, if there is a need, they have a good shot at being signed, especially coming from higher leagues.”

These are only two stories from two different teams. Keep in mind, there ARE success stories from the Pecos League. They just so happen to be few and far between.

According to the Official Pecos League website, from the beginning of the 2014 season (May 12) to now, there have been 30 players “promoted” from the Pecos League to higher organizations. This includes four to MLB organizations; However, two of those were signed after the season, and one never played with the organization that signed him.

Out of the 24 total players who were signed during the season and did see playing time with their new teams, half were released and did not finish the season with that organization.

Frontier League Rookies

Both players interviewed from the Pecos League had an experience with the Frontier League as well. The first player was invited to tryout for the Gateway Grizzles and the Frontier Greys.  Although he was not signed in the end, he raved about his experience before and after the tryout.

The second player tried out with the Rockford Aviators and was invited to the league-wide tryout a week later. He was there along with 400 other players.  Each team was required to draft two players, but they were only guaranteed spring training invites, not a spot on the roster. The one problem the player had mentioned about the tryout was the live hitting. All players start with a 1-1 count against them. This speeds up the tryouts but doesn’t actually give the players a full at-bat to show their experience. He was also not signed, but has no hard feelings towards the Frontier League.

The league-wide tryout does produce some talent. In all, the 2014 tryout helped sixteen true rookies sign with a team.  Out of those sixteen, nine players went on to play with a team during the regular season, and one was signed by the Diamondbacks before playing a game in the Frontier.

So, what happens if you are a rookie that does land a roster spot in the Frontier League? What is the rookie experience like?

Despite putting up great numbers throughout college and even leading division II in home runs and RBIs his senior year, Connor Lewis was overlooked in the MLB draft last summer.  After the disappointment, he went to an open tryout for the Kansas City Royals. During the tryout, he received a call from Washington Wild Things manager, Bart Zeller. When the tryout was over, he also received a call from the manager for the Florence Freedom.

After going over the pros and cons, Lewis decided to sign with the Wild Things in the Frontier League. A week later, he showed up in Washington, PA.

“I became acclimated to the environment and met the team, knowing I was a rookie at the bottom of the totem pole.  It was cool looking around the locker room at all the different players who got drafted and ended up playing independent baseball. It was a great feeling knowing I was finally a professional, even if I was only making $600 a month.  That was more than I have ever made playing a game that I loved.”

Lewis wasted no time in showing his abilities.  He got his first hit in only his second professional at-bat. The next night, he came in to pinch-hit with the team down a run and a man on second.  He swung at the second pitch, sending it over the right field wall for his first professional home run and walk-off hit.

For the rest of his time in Washington, he was only given spot starts.  During a long road trip that started in Southern Illinois, he was called into the manager’s office and given the news, he had been released.

“They told me that I have been released and that I needed to clean out my locker because I couldn’t participate with the team any longer. They were over salary and needed to cut some expenses. I didn’t know why it was me because I was only an R1 and made the minimum pay. How would cutting me make such a drastic change?”

Lewis was also asked if he wanted to stay with the team for the remainder of the road trip, but he chose to pay his own way back to Washington.

“I couldn’t stand traveling with the team and not even being allowed to cheer them on from the dugout.  I jumped on a greyhound the next morning and spent 18 hours traveling all day to Pittsburgh, where I caught a ride back to Washington. That was the longest trip of my life, not knowing anyone and having a lot of time to think about what I was going to do next.”

Lewis is currently finishing up his degree and working to get back into playing shape again.  He is open to returning to the Frontier League if he cannot land with an affiliated team, but stated that he would never go to somewhere such as the Pecos League due to the low pay, costs involved, and distance from home.

Like Lewis, Stewart Ijames’ journey to the Frontier League started because of the MLB Draft. The standout from the University of Louisville was drafted two times (once after high school and once after his junior year) but ultimately decided to finish college first.  However after his senior year, he was not selected in the draft. He landed in Washington in the summer of 2013 as a rookie with no professional experience.

Ijames became a breakout star in Washington, playing in 90 of 96 games and earning a spot on the mid-season All-Star team.  He found his place as a rookie in the Frontier League and enjoyed his team, his host family, and the fans in Washington. He gladly returned to the Wild Things for the 2014 season where he was once again named to the All-Star team and participated in the Home Run Derby.

Halfway through the season, he was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Just then, he realized how much his time in Washington and in the Frontier League meant to him.  “It didn’t hit home until I was standing for the national anthem in my uniform [for the last time.] I can’t express what this baseball team means to me. I’m walking away from family.”

He went on to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks rookie affiliate in Arizona and in Missoula, as well as helping the Class A Hillsboro Hops win the championship. He is currently playing for the Leones in the Colombian Professional Baseball League for winter ball and was named to their mid-season All-Star team as well as the Home Run Derby.

Best (and Worst) of Both Worlds

I did interview one player who used his time in the Pecos League to propel him to a spot in the Frontier League. After college, he landed a spot with the Santa Fe Fuego and does credit the Pecos League for helping him get signed to the Frontier.

“The numbers I put up in Santa Fe made it really easy to talk to teams just because I can show them ‘this is what I did in 67 games.'”

Being a rookie didn’t bother him in either league. However, it was easier in the Pecos since the majority of the team are rookies.  In the Frontier League, rookies are way more expendable than veterans, so it becomes a bit nerve racking if you aren’t performing well.

“The hardest part of sticking with the Frontier League was being transplanted into a group of guys that had been playing together for an extended period of time and expecting replicated numbers of what I did in Santa Fe… It just goes to show you that if it’s a battle between me with a Pecos background or a guy with an affiliated background, the Pecos guy is going home.”

It was easy for him to compare the Pecos with the Frontier League.  There are glaring differences between the two, but both did have their bright spots.

The Frontier League is way ahead in professionalism (better conditions, transportation, food, pay, stadiums and crowds), but fan interaction and the bond between players was stronger in the Pecos League.

“In the Pecos League, there are no clubhouses, you wash your own uniforms, drive yourself on road trips, and there’s a very wide strike zone… The only reason I was able to feed myself in Santa Fe was because we had a little boy take a hat around the bleachers and people put money in it when we hit home runs.  We were very close with our fan base in Santa Fe. The best thing about the Pecos was that everyone was there because of their love of baseball, which made it a brotherhood.  The city of Santa Fe adopted us as their own, and I’m grateful for that part. The Frontier League obviously had more talent as a whole, but there was a barrier between us and the fans.”

After batting .194 in only nine games, he was released from his team in the Frontier League and did not return to the Pecos League.

Playing the in the Pecos League or attempting to play in the Frontier League is big decision for a rookie.  The Pecos League isn’t for everyone, and as with everything, a promotion and a better life isn’t promised.

Stay tuned for my next article that shows what life is REALLY like in the Pecos League with stories straight from the players who experienced it.

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