FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks recently transferred the contracts of three key players to Major League Baseball organizations, including two of their top starting pitchers and their lead-off hitter. The independent franchise moved all three players less than 10 games into its 100-game regular season.

That player movement is similar to what other teams are experiencing around the American Association. Heading into this past weekend, there have been more than 40 players from the league transferred to Major League organizations since Jan. 1. Since April 1, that number is in the mid-30s.

“That’s an extraordinarily high number,” said Josh Buchholz, the league’s deputy commissioner.

“It’s definitely a league-wide situation,” said RedHawks manager Chris Coste. “Even in the first week of training camp, you could see a trend coming.”

The RedHawks transferred the contracts of infielder Trace Loehr to the Texas Rangers and left-handed starter Tyler Pike to the St. Louis Cardinals near the end of last week. A few days earlier, the contract of right-handed starter Kevin Herget was transferred to the Cleveland Indians. All three have been placed on Double-A or Triple-A teams.

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Pike had a 2.25 ERA in two starts this season, while Herget had a 1.28 ERA in his lone start for the RedHawks. Loehr batted .258 and scored two runs in seven games with F-M.

“You’re never going to replace the quality of the guy that left,” said RedHawks manager Matt Rau. “You’re hoping that you’re able to find players that fill roles and can compete at this level.”

Buchholz theorizes multiple factors have played into the higher demand for American Association players this summer. First, after the minor league season was canceled last summer due to COVID-19, more than 1,000 players were released. Buchholz said many of those players decided to quit playing after they were released.

And while the minor leagues contracted teams, those were primarily for short season and rookie leagues, Buchholz said.

“So what they cut were short season and rookie, which doesn’t really affect us," he said.

In addition, Class Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A affiliates expanded rosters so that created more than 400 new jobs at those higher levels.

“You combine that with the fact they released over a 1,000 players last spring because of COVID, how do they fill that?” Buchholz said. “They need to fill it somehow. It’s coming from our league because our players are playing.”

Other independent leagues, like the Atlantic League, have also seen higher-than-usual numbers of player contracts transferred to Major League organizations. The Atlantic League announced last week that 20 players were moved to MLB affiliates before the league started playing games this season.

“This is unprecedented even for us,” Atlantic League president Rick White said in a release.

The RedHawks have lost three starting pitchers since the start of May, including right-hander Frank Duncan, whose contract was transferred to the Colorado Rockies right at the start of F-M’s training camp. Duncan is pitching in Double-A for the Rockies.

“When we acquired Frank Duncan, we acquired him to be an ace-type starter,” Coste said.

Counting Pike and Herget, that's three high-end starters the RedHawks are looking to replace.

“Those three guys cannot be replaced. Pretty much every team in the league is dealing with the same scenario,” Coste said. “It’s now more important than ever to give younger pitchers an opportunity, whether that be college pitchers who weren’t drafted and things like that.”

The RedHawks started right-hander Brent Jones, primarily a reliever in his recent pro seasons, Friday, May 28, against the Houston Apollos in a game that Pike was slated to start. F-M rookie right-hander Austin Ver Steeg, who played at Concordia, made his first pro start Saturday, May 29, against Houston. The RedHawks also recently added rookie outfielder Will Zimmerman, who recently completed his college career at Minnesota-Crookston. Zimmerman was a key contributor in a three-game home sweep against the Apollos.

The MLB amateur draft, which was 40 rounds, was trimmed to five rounds last summer due to the pandemic. The draft is slated for 20 rounds this summer and has been moved from early June to mid-July.

“A lot of it has to do with the limited draft and fewer minor league players in each organization,” Coste said. “Combine that with the injuries that minor league and major league organizations have and had, and then finally innings and pitch limitations (for pitchers) in organized professional baseball. There’s now more of a need than ever for independent ballplayers.”

Coste said it’s a mix of emotions. He’s excited to see F-M players headed to MLB affiliates, but on the flip side, it's difficult to find viable replacements. In the past, Coste said you could call other independent leagues to find players, but that's harder now with the number of players being moved to organized baseball.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the reasons why independent baseball is so awesome,” Coste said. “It’s because of the Tyler Pikes who get that shot. … For me to tell Tyler Pike the news was absolutely incredible.”

Coste said it’s likely independent teams will have to add less experienced players to replace players like Pike, Herget, Loehr and Duncan.

“You might see more of an influx of really, really good college graduates who are just going to miss out on the draft.” Coste said. ”In some ways, that’s a good thing because those guys need a shot and in the past we maybe didn’t have room for those guys.”

Coste said RedHawks player personnel consultant Jeff Bittiger has been invaluable with his connections and ability to find players.

On average, each club in the 12-team American Association has transferred contracts of around 3-1/2 players to MLB organizations since Jan. 1.

“It’s great for the players,” Buchholz said. “It’s tough on our clubs because when you lose a guy there’s not really anything out there to replace him with other than really young players. You’re going to see a lot of rookie signings right now.”

Coste said he doesn’t see the amount of player movement changing "anytime soon." Buchholz said contract transfers could stabilize next season.

“We’ve never seen this before,” Buchholz said. “I don’t think it’s a trend, I think it’s kind of an anomaly. I would say quite a lot of it is going to reset next year and be a little bit more normal, but I can’t guarantee that.”