Pitching dominated in the Frontier League during 2019 like never before. While every club had pitchers who threw fastballs in the mid-90s, more than half of the clubs had a team batting average of .247 or worse. A whopping 80 percent of the clubs had a team ERA of less than 4.00.
For a league that carved its reputation on high-scoring slugfests, the lack of offense was alarming. It left many involved in the league asking how more offense can be pumped into games.
There were just as many questions being asked last October when the Frontier League announced it was adding five former Can-Am League franchises for the 2020 season. The most-often asked question was would the expanded league keep its age limit of 27 – something the Can-Am did not have? After all, when the leagues merged, the five former Can-Am clubs included 72 players who were too old to play in the Frontier League. Would the former Can-Am clubs be forced to trade all of their older players before 2020?
Hoping that it has solved both issues with one change, the Frontier League is counting on more experience meaning better baseball and an increase in offense.
For the 2020 season, the Frontier League’s age limit has been increased to 28, and each club can sign as many as four players who are exempt from the age limit and fall into a veteran player classification. That limit will drop to three veteran players in 2021, two in 2022 and one in 2023.
“By far, this is the biggest classification change we’ve ever had,” Frontier League deputy commissioner Steve Tahsler said. “We’ve had the veteran player classification, which allowed one player per team to play up to the age of 30. But having four veterans with no age limit is a drastic shift.”
There has yet to be a rush by clubs to sign players who are older than 30, though the New Jersey Jackals did add former major league pitcher Mat Latos. The 32-year-old Latos pitched in the major leagues for nine years and had a 71-59 record that included three 14-win seasons. He last pitched in the majors in 2017.
“The league was in a position of trying to help the (former Can-Am teams) during a period of transition,” Wild Things general manager Tony Buccilli said. “Typically, Can-Am rosters had only four to six rookies. They had older players who were the faces of the franchise and were with those teams for four or five years. It was important for them not to lose all of those players in one fell swoop.”
Last week, Washington traded for 31-year-old pitcher Tommy Shirley, who spent three seasons at the Class AAA level, posting a 10-10 record. Shirley is a Western Pennsylvania native and played high school baseball at Norwin.
“We’ll probably go after another veteran or two,” Buccilli said. “We want to add a hitter who is 28 to 30 years old. I’m emphasizing daily contributors – if you’re paying a large salary, then you want that player to impact as many games as possible.”
In addition to changing the age limit, the Frontier League increased its salary cap from $75,000 to $85,000 per team. It’s the first cap increase since 2011. While most players will be limited to the same $1,600 per month cap as in recent seasons, those who fall into the veteran category can make significantly more. They can make up to $2,500 per month, and each team’s highest-paid player can make as much as $4,000 each month with only one-third of the salary counting against the cap.
The expectation is that more experienced hitters will produce more offense.
“What it will do is eliminate a lot of the unknown,” Buccilli said. “Last year, to see teams hitting .210 and .212, it was absurd. So many of the rookies have never played a 96-game schedule, have never hit with wood bats.”
“Last year was a very down year for offense,” Tahsler added. “We had to ask, ‘Do we need to level that out?’ Older should mean more competitive.”
During its 27-year history, the Frontier League established a niche as a league for players who went undrafted out of college or had been given a quick release by major league organizations. It should still be that, though the league now requires each team to carry at least 10 players with no more than one full season of pro experience. Last year, that number was 12 players.
“The hope is that we’ll still get the undrafted college guys,” Tahsler said.
The league’s annual open tryout and player draft will be held April 27-29 in Avon, Ohio, home of the Lake Erie Crushers. The regular season begins May 14.