BILLINGS — A reformatted Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft is less than two weeks away, and there’s a chance the proceedings could have a trickle-down effect on independent clubs, particularly those in the Pioneer League.
The draft has been shortened to 20 rounds — half of the customary 40 of previous, non-pandemic years. That, coupled with MLB’s newly imposed roster limits across affiliated baseball, should leave a plethora of otherwise draftable high school and college talent unclaimed and looking for a place to play.
Thus, the Pioneer League is hosting a tryout July 24-25 at Lindquist Field in Ogden, Utah, home of the PL’s Ogden Raptors. All nine of the league’s clubs will be represented, along with teams from other independent circuits as well as MLB scouts.
Per rule, each Pioneer League team is required to sign at least one player from the tryout.
Though it’s yet to be determined the quality of players that will show up in Ogden, Billings Mustangs manager Joe Kruzel said it could provide a chance for PL clubs to bolster their rosters halfway through the league’s first year as an independent partner league of MLB.
“It’s hard to understand what exactly will happen for the mere fact that it’s such a new entity. I would envision that after the draft that there will be some players who maybe felt like they were going to be drafted or would have been drafted in years past that will be available,” said Kruzel, whose Mustangs were 12-22 and in last place in the Pioneer League’s Northern division entering Thursday.
“The tryout will give teams an opportunity of seeing those guys that weren’t drafted or didn’t sign as free agents after the draft. It will be an opportunity for those guys to showcase their abilities in front of these teams.”
Billings has already gone through its share of roster turnover as Kruzel and his coaches have worked to find the right mix. Seven players made their Mustangs debuts Wednesday in a 4-3 loss to Great Falls at Dehler Park.
One such player was infielder Tristen Carranza. In what is a prime example of the potential for roster volatility in the Pioneer League, Carranza began this season playing for the Missoula PaddleHeads, where he hit .307 with three homers, 16 RBIs and 20 runs scored in 24 games.
Carranza previously played in Missoula in 2019 as a Diamondbacks farmhand, when the PaddleHeads were still an affiliate of the major league club in Arizona.
“I don’t think it’s anything you didn’t anticipate. You’re constantly learning and adjusting,” Kruzel said. “It’s just a constant situation where you’re trying to improve your ball club, no different than it would be if you were an affiliated team where they promote guys or release guys and give guys more opportunities to showcase what they’re doing.
“After the game, what you’re doing is you’re looking at your text messages or your emails and seeing who’s available. If you like a kid or if you have some association with him in years past, you’re looking for ways to make it fit. There’s a lot more involved than just making a roster move. You’re always making a move where you’re making your club better. You’re not being stagnant. You’re hoping the guys you bring in are going to make your club a little better.”
As of last week, six Pioneer League players had been signed by affiliated clubs. Billings shortstop Jordan Hovey, for one, was signed by the Kansas City Royals.
Kruzel said he has had discussions with separate MLB organizations about other Mustangs players, as well.
“He was excited and everybody associated with him was excited,” Kruzel said of Hovey. “He’s a good kid and a good player. You always hope the best for everybody. And the opportunity to go with an affiliated team, hopefully he’ll make the most of that opportunity and have the chance to play for a long time.”
The Pioneer League’s tryout in July could produce an influx of players looking for a similar result.
One of the Mustangs’ most consistent players has been local product Jalen Garcia.
Garcia, a centerfielder, brought a 10-game hitting streak into Thursday’s game against Great Falls at Dehler Park. He had at least one hit in 19 of his past 23 games, raising his average from .167 on June 5 to .315 entering Thursday.
Garcia was leading the team in hits (39), doubles (11), triples (3), RBIs (24), runs (27), and had 13 stolen bases on 20 attempts. He had a .418 on-base percentage. Garcia hit .395 (17 for 43) during his 10-game streak.
Garcia graduated high school from Billings Christian and was a standout player at the American Legion level with the Billings Scarlets and later in college at Montana State Billings, where he hit a combined .346 with 23 homers, 122 RBIs and a school-record 46 stolen bases in three seasons.