Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Gulf Roast League - Baseball's Basement

   If a home run is hit in the Gulf Coast League, does anyone hear it ?
   The Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues are on the lowest rung of baseball's minor leagues.
Also known as the complex leagues, these loops house the youngest and newest prospects in most team's organizations.
   Originally called the Sarasota Rookie League, the GCL was founded in 1964 as an extension of teams' instructional camps, where their most raw recruits would receive the first lessons of their pro baseball education.  The league expanded across Florida to become the Gulf Coast League, but it's not always necessarily for rookies.  Some players repeat the level, and the occasional rehabbing major leaguer stops by for a few innings of work before they begin their climb back to the majors.  There are some limits, though: you can't play more than 3 years in the league if you are under 20 years old, and if you're over 20, you can't play for more than 2.
   Gulf Coast teams are populated mostly by high school and low college players taken in the annual Major League player draft, which takes place about 2 weeks before the GCL season starts.  Latin players who need some time to adjust to the language, food, and customs of the U.S. dominate many GCL rosters.
The Gulf Coast League is something of a paradox.  It's been called both baseball's toughest and least competitive league.
   Playing in the GCL is a grind.  Players report to the team complex at about 10 am, where they work on fundamentals and receive instruction, then play a game around noon.  In the full Florida sun.  In June, July, and August. All of the reports and blogs about the GCL I've read mention the intense heat.  Many players call it the Gulf Roast League as a result.
   In order not to compete and draw fans away from Florida State League teams, the GCL doesn't charge admission.  As a result, the few bodies in attendance tend to be scouts, girlfriends, and some parents from time to time. The players report really enjoying having parents showing up, even if the parents aren't their own.  It's just nice to have someone in the stands cheering for you.
   The players in the GCL are there to learn the game, and not to entertain or draw fans.  Even though there is a 60 game schedule and a brief playoff to determine a league champion, there is little pressure on managers in the league to win.  Development is the name of this game.
   The GCL plays day games mostly because they are played on the back fields of the teams' complexes, which usually don't have lights.  Players who have been promoted to higher leagues breathe a huge sigh of relief when they get to play night games in front of actual fans.
   There are a couple of blogs written by GCL players that give great insight into the day-to-day grind these young men go through as they chase their major league dreams (less than 10% of any GCL player will play even 1 MLB game). Brian Gump played college ball at UC Santa Barbara, and was drafted by the Phillies in 2009, and was released by them in 2011 without advancing past High A ball.
   His post about life in the GCL can be found here.  Todd Van Steesel is an Australian who pitched in the Twins and Phillies system before returning to pitch in his homeland.  His account of his time in the GCL was a great read.
    The Jays have had an entry in the GCL, based at their Dunedin complex, off and on since 1981. Players such as Alex Gonzalez, Kelvim Escobar, and Henderson Alvarez started their careers in the GCL.
  This year, the Jays' top prospects in the GCL include shortstop Franklin Barreto, and pitchers Tyler Gonzales, and Matt Smoral.

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