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Want to play in the Minors? Here's how

Open tryouts decline, but there are other ways to get noticed

By Danny Wild / MiLB.com

"How do I try out for a Minor League team?"

That's a question we at MiLB.com get almost daily in emails from aspiring players around the country. 

The answer, in short is -- technically you can't, but that doesn't mean that your hopes of becoming a professional ballplayer are through.

Minor League Baseball teams don't hold open tryouts, and the path players take to reach the Minors (and the Majors) isn't always simple. Most players currently in the Minors or Majors were drafted or signed as free agents. Either way, they were all scouted and watched by someone along their journey to the pros.

Those who slipped through the cracks could have, until 2015, attended open tryouts hosted by the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau -- Angels right-hander Dillon Ortman attended one such tryout last year and walked away with a contract, appearing in 16 Minor League games at three levels last summer. The MLB Scouting Bureau annually held tryout camps around the country open to anyone 16 and older who wanted a chance to play. Those open tryouts, according to Scouting Bureau director Bill Bavasi, will no longer be held as of this year. 

The level and amount of talent showing up to camps have dwindled, as has attendance from scouts for Major League teams. Sometimes, the reality of reaching your dream to play in the Majors is a painful one.

"It's easy to say, 'Be realistic,' but it's not that easy to be realistic," said Bavasi. "I don't always want to be realistic. I never wanted to crush anyone's dreams."

Bavasi, who spent more than 10 years as the general manager of the Angels and Mariners, said he's spoken to a countless number of young men over the years who want a chance to play professionally. Some played in school and weren't drafted. Some have overcome injuries and just want to play baseball in general. Some are just flat-out misguided in believing they are good enough to play professionally.

The reality, Bavasi said, is that those good enough to make the cut are going to eventually be scouted and heard about. According to a 2013 study by the NCAA, only two percent of college athletes end up going pro. For high school baseball players, the study found the odds of being drafted out of high school are 200 to 1 -- of roughly 475,000 high school baseball players, 0.50 percent ended up playing professionally, or about 2,375.

Every player in the Minor Leagues is an employee of a Major League organization, and they've all signed a contract with a Major League team and were then assigned to a Minor League affiliate's roster. Thus, Minor League teams have no say on what players fill their rosters, and so they can't -- and don't -- hold tryouts.

Players sign contracts after they've been drafted out of high school or college, or as free agents. It's extremely rare -- think Ichiro or Cuban sensation Jose Abreu -- for a player to not begin his professional career in the Minors.

But what about players who don't get drafted? What options to do they have?

Bavasi said the most important thing an aspiring player can do is to continue playing at whatever level he can find, be it college, in a collegiate wood bat or summer league, or with an independent league team. If you're playing, and you're good enough, someone in baseball will hear about you.

Former Mariners and Angels general manager Bill Bavasi took over the MLB Scouting Bureau last Novemeber. (AP)

"There's no end of showcases or games or independent leagues; there's so many opportunities to play baseball," said Bavasi. "That's besides 30 teams having six or seven of their own teams. There's tons of baseball opportunities. I think the independent leagues are probably the best non-affiliated situation you could get with, no doubt about that."

Independent league teams are not affiliated with MLB or Minor League Baseball, but they can often be a good venue for players to get experience and potentially get noticed by a big league scout. Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava became a memorable success story when he joined an indy club, hit .371 and was ranked by Baseball America as the best prospect in the independent leagues. The Red Sox saw his name on the list and purchased his contract in 2008, leading eventually to a Major League career.

Indy clubs offer open tryouts, and they often feature former college players or Minor Leaguers who were released. Even veteran Major Leaguers like Roger Clemens and Jose Canseco have taken a shot with indy clubs.

"Those are the real, viable options to kind of throw into the mix," said Bavasi. "That's the opportunity I'm talking about."

Though the MLB Scouting Bureau's open tryouts won't be held this year, Bavasi said the Bureau would love to hold open tryouts again in the future if Major League teams were interested in having them. Attendance from scouts over the past few years has dwindled at the Bureau's open tryout camps, so they're now focusing on invitation-only tryouts. The Bureau's role is to evaluate talent and provide information on those players to all 30 Major League clubs -- their open tryouts in the past served as an opportunity for team scouts to come out and see aspiring players.

Major League teams themselves, however, often host their own open tryout camps -- the dates and locations of those are posted annually on MLB.com around April or May or on team websites; it's literally as easy as Googling "Astros open tryout" to find details. For example, the Atlanta Braves held 15 open tryouts around the country last year, from South Dakota to Texas to Florida, sending scouts to each. The Brewers hosted three tryouts last year, with two of them taking place at nearby Minor League ballparks. The Rangers signed one of more than 400 players who attended their open tryout in 2012. The Tigers held an open tryout this year on March 9 at the Minor League complex in Lakeland.

The Dodgers hosted their annual open tryout last February and signed two players -- they even posted a phone number to their scouting hotline. Four of the Phillies' five open tryouts in 2014 were held at Minor League ballparks. Another success story, former college outfielder Bill Rice went undrafted but signed with the Phils after an open tryout in 2010 and spent three seasons in the Minors.

But for the general open tryout camps held by MLB in the past, things are changing. At one tryout last year, NBC News reported that, of the 400 players who attended, only one was signed by a Major League team. A report by Fusion last August cited Bureau scout Brad Fidler, who said pitchers would need to throw over 90 mph just to get noticed.

"The open tryout is a real tough road, and you're talking to somebody who, back in the day, looked for replacement players. We had 900 players come through in one day, I've seen it all," said Bavasi. "I've seen open tryouts. The problem is they're not good for the young guys trying to hook on unless [the camp is] attended solidly by clubs. If they're not there, it doesn't do any good."

So why aren't Major League scouts coming to open tryouts anymore? In general, scouts haven't found many tryout attendees worth signing, so the tryouts aren't worth their time. Invitational tryouts, Bavasi said, should be more well-attended by team scouts.


 
-- Bill Bavasi

"The invitation-only tryouts that we had, they were attended by big league clubs. And the open tryouts weren't. So that's why we came to this conclusion," he said.

Can a player request an invitation? That's not how it works, for the most part.

"Can you harass yourself onto a tryout list? Probably not," said Bavasi. "Can somebody sponsor you and put a call in for you and get you in? Yeah, that's a possibility; that does happen I'm sure. And those guys are probably a pretty good player anyway who just got overlooked." 

Ortman, Auburn University's ace in 2014, said he was signed by the Angels a week after he threw 15-20 pitches at the Scouting Bureau's open tryout last June.

"They called me -- they said they didn't see me at the tryout, but they were thinking about drafting me, and they never did," Ortman said. "After the Draft they said, 'Hang on for a couple weeks. We'll stay in touch.' But I was looking for a spot to open up. I'm thinking, 'I can wait or go to this tryout and get my name out there a little more,' so I decided to do that."

Ortman said he read about the open tryout online and had also considered trying out for an independent league team if things didn't pan out.

"It was great to be seen by other guys and get my name out there," he said. "I threw 15-20 pitches to show them why they should have drafted me. I showed my best stuff. I had a fellow pitcher out there who went to Auburn with me, Mike O'Neal. There were over 400 people out there, and it was good to see a familiar face I could long toss with."

Dillon Ortman went to a tryout and considered independent ball before signing with the Angels. (Auburn Athletics)

O'Neal, a left-hander, is another example of how high the bar is to break into the Minors. He went 3-6 with a 4.29 ERA in 17 games last year at Auburn -- decent enough numbers in the SEC -- but was not drafted and wasn't signed after his tryout. He ended up with an indy club, the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League, where he went 2-7 with a 7.12 ERA in 11 games last summer.

"I was really hoping to get picked up by an MLB team, and a few teams called me and told me to hang around for a week," Ortman said. "I thought this was the best opportunity to try out and get my name out a little more."

Ortman said the experience wasn't nerve-wracking, since he'd pitched in front of scouts for years. He said the skill level of tryout attendees varied.

"There were all types out there. Some had just watched a movie that inspired them to come out, and there were guys who'd played junior college, guys who threw hard but didn't throw strikes -- all types of people out there, but I thought I was the most well-rounded because of my four years in a Division I college. I had a couple MLB teams at least interested in me."

Wynton Bernard, a Tigers prospect just recently added to Detroit's 40-man roster, found himself looking for an open tryout a year ago. Released by the Padres, the 23-year-old drove to Arizona for the Dodgers' open tryout but didn't make the cut. He met a scout from the Tigers and asked for advice -- the scout, Tim McWilliam, suggested Bernard head to Florida for the Tigers' tryout camp later that week.

"I booked the flight, hotel and the rental car -- probably $700 total," Bernard told MLB.com. "And I just said, 'You know what, it's worth it. I just don't want to give up on my dream.'"

Bernard beat out 120 other players and was the lone player to walk away from the tryout with an invitation to Tigers Minor League camp, where he'd again need to earn a job. 

Wynton Bernard hit .323 with six homers, 47 RBIs and 45 steals last year after attending a Tigers open tryout. (Emily Jones/MiLB.com)

"We just ask them to stick around and try to make the club -- no guarantees," Tigers vice president of amateur scouting David Chadd told MLB.com. "He ran with it."

Bernard literally ran with it -- he signed a Minor League contract and was assigned to Class A West Michigan, where he stole 45 bases en route to being named Midwest League MVP last year.

"My parents always taught me -- no matter what, stay faithful," Bernard said. "I think that was kind of the feeling. I kept the faith. All that hard work and determination is just paying off."

Players can also explore wood bat leagues. Wooden bat leagues can vary in terms of skill and age -- some may be aging local players just playing for fun, while some are filled with legit Draft prospects and talented players. The Cape Cod League is generally considered the cream of the crop when it comes to wood bat circuits, but any league would be a good option for someone looking to stay in shape and get noticed by scouts -- dominate and someone will hear your name.

Consider the story of Twins reliever Brandon Poulson, who just last year was discovered throwing 100 mph while pitching for the Heraldsburg Prune Packers in the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League. Scouts from the Yankees, Phillies, Braves, A's, Giants and Twins were among those who looked in on Poulson, who later made his Minor League debut in Minnesota's farm system. Poulson had been driving a truck for his father's excavating business before signing.

Bavasi said one of the best resources for aspiring players is their coaches, many of whom may have relationships with regional scouts or Major League farm directors. Having a coach make a phone call to vouch for a player can be the foot in the door that many kids are looking for.

Bavasi also said that high school and college players can literally just approach a scout at a game and ask him or her for an evaluation. It could be that easy.

"When you are a guy looking to hook on -- when I was with a club, sometimes if players were playing in high school or college and they knew they were playing in a league or a school that gets scouted, they'd make sure the scouts there got a look at them," Bavasi said. "A scout might be there to see one player, but if there is a young guy who wants to talk to the scout, they'll look at him and give them feedback. They're interested in young players; they like baseball. When players are on good teams and they alert the scouts to be evaluated, they get looked at. That's real effective, especially for a college senior who can be a good organizational player." 

Playing in high school or college is clearly the best option for aspiring players, but what about those who are older, out of school, trying a comeback or just looking for a second chance? What about Minor Leaguers who have been released and want to sign with another club? We asked:

MiLB.com: For a Minor Leaguer released by his team, what can he do to find another club?

Bavasi: For the player who's looking to get back in and back on a team, the most effective resource is his former farm director, to ask for help. He'll make a few calls for him to clubs who may be looking for somebody. The next best resource would be to go back to his signing scout and say, "Hey, I'm out of a job. I'd like to keep playing." Those guys make a call. They'll call their own club, say, "I really like him. Is there a chance we can take a chance on him at Spring Training?'"

MiLB.com: How about guys who are a year or two or three removed from playing ball in school? We get a lot of emails from guys like that, who love playing but don't know where to go.

Bavasi: It's a rough road. It's not easy to latch on if you've been passed over. No matter what anyone says, there's not a whole lot of secrets out there. A lot of players are seen and seen a lot. Scouts do a good job of scouring their areas; they use every resource they have to make sure they don't miss a name in the area. The guy having never played and now he's in a beer league and the light goes on, and he's throwing whatever he's throwing and he gets signed? That's an Angels in the Outfield kind of story. I've spent a lot of years as a scout and many, many hours talking to guys like that, and you get a phone call, and it's some guy who got through to you -- everybody wants to do that.

MiLB.com: Is there an age cutoff for someone like that, when someone is just fighting an uphill battle?

Bavasi: I think it's a case-by-case basis. The farther you get from college senior age, the more difficult it's going to be. That's the harsh reality of what happens to our bodies. If they're playing high school and they go to college, that's good. They're going to be playing some baseball and developing and they can go to college and into pro baseball. If you do the math, if they're coming out at 21 and 22 and people expect them to move fast, I guess 24, 25, 26, they start to dwindle -- if they're not in the [Minor League] system. There's an investment in them, so age is not as much a factor if you're in the system.

MiLB.com: We all know agents help Major Leaguers score big-money contracts, but can an unsigned, aspiring player hire an agent to help facilitate private workouts with teams or get noticed?

Bavasi: No, but I'm sure sometimes an agent might sign one of his big client's brothers, something like that. That probably does happen, but they're up-front with their client and say, "I'm not sure this is going to work, but I'll make a few phone calls for you." As a farm director, if an agent had done good work, he might call and say, "I have a player with something left, can you take a look?" I'll always take a look at that guy. I'll let the guy take batting practice somewhere and see what he's got. If someone gets hurt, he's a guy I can sign. And that does happen, but it's not very common. That it happens with a guy two or three years out of college and who hasn't played pro ball? Not very common.

MiLB.com: Will MLB bring back open tryouts in the future?

Bavasi: They could. Whether I'm here or not, the Bureau will always serve its client and help the clubs, so if clubs say to them, "We're getting a ton of requests for open tryouts and we don't want to hold them," we'll say "Absolutely." I've seen the tryouts, [we] know how to put on a tryout -- that's not a problem. We're happy to put them on, and if clubs want it, they'll show up. Maybe we'd do them regionally. If clubs would prefer we do it, it wouldn't be a problem. It's all about who's attending, not about the players. It's about who is watching and making sure the players are seen by people who can sign them. 

MiLB.com: Why do you think scouts stopped coming out to open tryouts?

Bavasi: There's a real strong proliferation of showcases and events and there's no real shortage of venues to see and evaluate talent, so a scout can't miss those. A lot of days you might think you'll have an open tryout, but [the scout is] somewhere looking at somebody, watching an event. That might be why they weren't showing up like they have in the distant past. Guys not showing up has been part of the reality for a few years now -- this didn't just happen this past year. We came to grips with the idea of, hey, we're holding tryouts for people and putting them in situations and they're trying out for nobody. We don't want to be leading guys astray. Those guys could put their energy into getting to tryouts with clubs. If clubs have interest in open tryouts, then that's where [players] should be going. They should be going where they could be signed.

MiLB.com: How many players typically got signed from each tryout in the past?

Bavasi: I can't tell you -- I can tell you with the Dodgers, we had two tryouts -- we never had them with the Angels or Reds or Mariners, but the Dodgers signed one guy. We released him pretty fast. His tools were there, though.

MiLB.com: What specifically are scouts looking for? What kind of things in a tryout would make a player stand out or get noticed?

Bavasi: They're going to have to run a 60 in a passable time. Is it 7.2 [seconds] now? I don't know.

MiLB.com: The Major League average for a 60-yard dash is 6.8 seconds. Bureau scout Tim Osborne said last summer that a 7.5-8.0 wouldn't cut it at an open tryout.

Bavasi: They run the 60, take infield, outfield; we judge the arms, arm strength and speed. After that, you let them take a short BP and there really isn't much more beyond that. Does somebody have adequate run speed and arm strength? And if they show some power, should we roll the dice and see if he can learn how to hit and go from there? Generally, the scouts are looking at something more detailed -- swing paths, hands, things that are detailed. Every scout has his own tricks. The other guys, we just put them on a mound and see what comes out of their hand.

MiLB.com: When teams hold open tryouts, are they realistically expecting to find a prospect?

Bavasi: When I was a farm director in LA, we did them in Vero Beach, and the first year we signed a guy out of there. We valued [the tryouts] in the community of Vero Beach; we didn't believe we'd get a player out of them, but we felt it was part of our tradition and connection with the city of Vero Beach. It was as much a part of that as anything else. If we a got player -- great. But we never planned to get a player. I was there two years, and they might have gotten players, but that wasn't the most important part -- it was their chance to connect with the community.

MiLB.com: The Disney movies out there like Million Dollar Arm and The Rookie are true stories about unlikely guys who sort of emerge from nowhere and got a chance at their dreams.

Bavasi: In The Rookie, he's a high school teacher and a coach and his team encourages him to give it a try and he ended up in the big leagues, but that's a crazy story. I mean, that's not that nuts. He was still young enough, he laid off his shoulder and was able to go to a club, say, 'I was a former player,' and the gun hits 91 or whatever, and they said, 'Wait a minute, maybe this guy is back.' That story isn't that whacked out -- it's not that nuts.