Minors : : General
Thursday, February 02, 2012

Top Prospects: Cleveland Indians

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

General Manager: Chris Antonetti
Farm Director: Ross Atkins
Scouting Director: Brad Grant

Columbus Clippers (International League) 49-23
AA: Akron Aeros (Eastern League) 73-69
Hi A: Carolina Mudcats (Carolina League) 76-62*
Low A: Lake County Captains (Midwest League) 53-86
Rookie Adv.: Mahoning Valley Scrappers (New York-Penn League) 41-34
Rookie: AZL Indians (Arizona League) 30-26
Dominican: DSL Indians (Dominican Summer League) 31-36

Record of the Kinston Indians, who have moved to Zebulon, N.C. to assume the Carolina Mudcats franchise name. The previous Carolina Mudcats organization, a member of the AA Southern League, has moved to Pensacola, Fla. and are now known as the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

System Overview

The Indians got off to a hot start in 2011, going 33-20 over the first two months of the season, and while they didn't maintain that pace, they entered the All-Star break at 47-42, just a half game behind the division leading Detroit Tigers.

Two weeks later, still in the midst of a playoff chase, the Indians made a bold trade at the deadline, sending their two top pitching prospects, Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, to the Rockies in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez didn't fare as well in the Indians rotation over 11 starts to close the year, and his performance was indicative of the Indians' departure from the playoff picture, finishing the season 80-82.

Despite the disappointment after fading from contention down the stretch, it was their best season since 2008 when they went 81-81. After a 65-97 finish in 2009, the Indians selected fifth overall in 2010 when they took Pomeranz, the highest selection the team owned since 1992 when they took Paul Shuey second overall. That in itself is a pretty good indication to just how solid the organization has been over the last two decades.

The team has had difficulty finding the right successful mix ever since the team's incredibly successful run from 1995-2001, when they averaged 93 wins per season and made the playoffs six times in seven years, including two World Series appearances. Those powerhouse teams were dismantled fairly quickly due to financial limitations, and also marked the departure of long-time General Manager John Hart.

Mark Shapiro, who was promoted to the team's President in November, called the shots after Hart left, and oversaw a team that surprised a lot involved in the industry in 2007 when it finished 96-66 and advanced to the ALCS before falling to the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

The Indians have a deep track record promoting from within, and former assistant GM Chris Antonetti took over the reigns as the team's General Manager with Shapiro moving into his new role.

Pitching continues to be the team's biggest weakness, at least their ability to retain the productive arms they have procured from within. Outside of de-facto staff ace Justin Masterson, the players the team received in return for CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee haven't lived up to their initial promise.

In a continued effort to improve the team's starting staff, particularly since Fausto Carmona has been placed on the inactive list due to an investigation surrounding his actual identify, the club traded two projected middle relief prospects for proven big-league starters this offseason. Chris Jones was sent to the Braves in late October for Derek Lowe, while Zach Putnam was recently dealt to the Rockies for Kevin Slowey.

In addition to Jimenez, who the team hopes will rebound this year to regain his status as one of the game's most dynamic young pitchers, they have collected a modest group of arms that at the very least will provide valuable depth, with a few others (Zach McAllister, Jeanmar Gomez, Scott Barnes) knocking at the door. They also have assembled a young and effective bullpen, led by 26-year old Chris Perez, with several other key arms on the cusp of contributing in the late innings, including Nick Hagadone and Chen Lee.

The lineup is also full of youth, as designated hitter Travis Hafner is the only projected starter over the age of 29. The system graduated a pair of infielders a year ago in Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, who are projected to be the team's starters at third and second base for the foreseeable future.

While promoting players from within to assume key roles on the big-league team is something the Indians have done quite well in recent years, those graduations and the number of trades the team made over the last six months have thinned out the impact talent in the system, at least at the upper levels. Their strong 2011 draft and increased scouting and signing activity in Latin America could quickly change the perceived strength of the system.

The Indians will need a lot of things to click for them in 2012 if they hope to once again contend for the postseason, and the Division champion Detroit Tigers continued to get significantly better with the acquisition of Prince Fielder.

2011 Draft

As listed below, the team's top two prospects were also their top two picks from last June's draft. While that typically isn't a good sign for any organization, both Francisco Lindor and Dillon Howard were projected to go higher than where the Indians selected them, and both have impact potential.

Lindor received $2.9 million as the eighth overall pick after rumors circulated just before the draft that he could go high as second overall to the Mariners.  A potential five-tool shortstop, he has perennial Gold Glove defensive skills and shows an advanced approach with surprising power from both sides of the plate as a switch hitter.

Howard signed for well over slot at $1.85 million as the team's second-round pick, money equivalent of where he was expected to be selected in the middle of the first-round. Seventh rounder Eric Haase also got money comparable to his second-round talent grade, while pitchers Cody Anderson (14th
 round), Ryan Merritt (16th), Shawn Armstrong (18th) and Shawn Morimando (19th) all received bonuses in excess of six figures.

Lindor and Haase immediately gave the system two potential impact bats at premium defensive positions, and there is no reason to believe at this point in time that either one of them will have to move to another position.

While he has yet to begin his professional careeer, Howard has a power profile with two legitimate strikeout pitches, and the Indians have been wise to carefully monitor the progress of their young arms.

Big-bodied junior college right-handed pitchers Jake Sisco (third) and Anderson, as well as fellow righties Steven Sides (12th) and Armstrong from the college ranks all have power profiles on the mound giving the organization intriguing pitching depth in the lower levels of the system.

The team continued to show its preference for college players after their first two picks, adding catcher Jake Lowery (fourth), outfielder Bryson Myles (sixth), third baseman Jordan Smith (ninth) and second baseman Zack MacPhee (13th
). All four players have enjoyed solid statistical success at the plate at the college level while showing an advanced approach at the plate, and could make up nearly half of the team's everyday lineup at the Low A level to open 2012.

Top 10 Prospects

1. SS Francisco Lindor
- Baseball-reference player profile

Lindor's stock as a high school senior last year had some serious helium, with some reports that he could go second overall to the Mariners after putting on a show in front of the team's front office staff as part of a pre-draft workout. The Indians heavily scouted Lindor all spring, but as the draft approached they never thought they had a chance to take him.

He is the type of player that makes the game look easy, with quick feet and good range at shortstop to go along with a solid arm, as well as a quick bat at the plate with surprising pop given his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame. A switch-hitter, he shows good bat speed and a solid approach from both sides the plate, and can drive the ball to the gaps. While not too much should be put into him winning the home run derby as part of the 2010 PG/Aflac All-American Classic, it is indicative of his ability to hit the ball over the fence.

Lindor signed right at the mid-August deadline like most other first-round picks, and made his professional debut in the New York-Penn League. He showed enough polish there to warrant a full season placement at the team's Low A affiliate in the Midwest League to open the 2012 season, and as long as he continues to hit, his defense at shortstop isn't going to slow down a potentially quick trip up the ladder.

2. RHP Dillon Howard
- Baseball-reference player profile

Howard joined Lindor on the 2010 PG/Aflac All-American squad, as his arm strength has been a known commodity for quite some time, with the ability to reach the mid-90s since his sophomore year in high school. His strong, durable build allows him to routinely sit in the 90-94 range during games, and also should allow his to sustain the rigors of a long, professional season as he continues to build stamina thanks to his natural strength.

In addition to his fastball velocity, he commands the pitch well, and shows good feel for a breaking ball that he's able to add and subtract off of, ranging between a true overhand curveball and a sweeping slider. He hasn't needed a changeup much up to this point of his career, and the development of that pitch is something that should come with professional experience.

Represented by the Boras Corporation, many believed Howard was a candidate to honor his commitment to Arkansas, and when he slipped out of the first round that belief seemed validated. It took the Indians $1.85 million to steer him away from college, which is the equivalent of mid first-round money, which is where he was expected to be selected on talent alone.

It will be interesting to see where the Indians have him make his professional debut to open 2012. Low A Lake County would be a little surprising, but not out of the question.

3. OF Luigi Rodriguez
- Baseball-reference player profile

The Indians sent Rodriguez straight to the Arizona League to begin his professional career in 2010 after signing him the summer before. Depsite his youth and overall need for experience, he has proved to be a quick learner, showing an eagerness to learn and improve, making his athletic tool-set that much more exciting to project.

His speed is the best of those tools, a legitimate threat on the basepaths that also can cover a lot of ground in centerfield. Rodriguez has also shown the ability to make adjustments at the plate as a switch-hitter. There isn't much power in his swing right now, but that should come as he continues to add strength, and his speed allows him to stretch extra-base hits when he drives the ball to the gaps.  After opening the year in the Arizona League, he showed he wasn't completely overmatched when the Indians aggressively moved him up to Low A Lake County to close out the season.

A return to the Midwest League is likely, where he could be poised to establish himself as one of the circuit's more exciting players.

4. SS Ronny Rodriguez
- Baseball-reference player profile

The Indians were even more aggressive with their initial placement of Ronny Rodriguez than they were with Luigi (not related), having him begin his career with Lake County at the Low A level. Although Ronny did so at the age of 19, also out of the Dominican Republic, he too showed that he was not completely overmatched.

What he did show was a reliable glove from the middle infield and strong range to both his left and right. His power output was somewhat surprising, particularly in a league that typically suppresses power, as he hit 28 doubles, seven triples and 11 home runs, slugging .449.

A lot of that power comes from an overly aggressive approached, as he only walked 13 times in just under 400 plate appearances. His bat speed is impressive, and he shows the ability to take the extra base with more quickness than straight-line speed. While he could stand a little more seasoning in Low A, he likely will have to be moved up to make room for not only Francisco Lindor, but also Tony Wolters, and gives the Indians impressive depth at the position.

5. LHP Nick Hagadone
- Baseball-reference player profile

Acquired from the Red Sox along with Justin Masterson in exchange for Victor Martinez in 2009, the 26-year old Hagadone has progressed slowly but surely toward the big leagues. Once a starter, short relief was always believed to be in his future, a permanent move the Indians made with him in 2011. He took to the switch well, improving his control while maintaining the velocity on his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.

He benefits from not having to pace himself, and could eventually mature into the Indians closer. He finished last season with the big league Indians, although could return to AAA to gain a little more seasoning before making the final jump. The Indians already have quite a few arms competing for a job in the bullpen, so Hagadone's own development may benefit from a return to Columbus where he at least can receive regular innings.

6. SS Tony Wolters
- Baseball-reference player profile

Wolters personifies leadership on the baseball field, and that attribute alone could place him on the Indians top prospect list. A very good defensive player who received the Rawlings Gold Glove Award as part of the 2009 PG/Aflac All-American Classic, he shows very polished actions up the middle of the baseball diamond. While his arm strength may necessitate a move to second base down the road, his range and quick release allow him to get to more balls to throw out baserunners than most.

He was also named the MVP of the Classic, showing an equally quick swing at the plate to go along with a patient, line drive approach in which he looks to go up the middle and the other way. While power isn't a significant part of Wolters' game, he can surprise you from time to time by his ability to drive the ball. He's at his best working the count and getting on base, where he has enough speed to serve as a base-running threat.

Lindor's addition to the franchise will make Wolters' placement to open the 2012 interesting, as they could find themselves as an exciting double-play combo up the middle for Lake County if Wolters is shifted to second.

7. RHP Chen Lee
- Baseball-reference player profile

Lee's situation is similar to Hagadone's in that he split 2011 between AA and AAA (although didn't get a late season call-up to Cleveland) and projects as a reliever. In fact, every appearance Lee has made since signing out of Taiwan in 2008 has been out of the bullpen.

He has a sinker/slider profile, with the ability to run his fastball up to the mid-90s, but typically throws in the 89-91 range. His fastball has good sink as he throws from a low three-quarters delivery, which also makes him especially tough on right-handed hitters. His slider allows him to keep left-handed hitters honest as well.

Again like Hagadone, cracking the Indians' bullpen out of spring training may be difficult, and he doesn't have the added benefit of being left-handed. He's yet another short relief arm in a system that shouldn't have too many bullpen concerns over the next few years.

8. RHP Felix Sterling
- Baseball-reference player profile

Sterling is another example of the team's newfound dedication to their scouting and player development efforts in Latin America, and after spending all of 2010 with the team's Arizona League team, he was bumped up to Low A after continuing to show promise in Arizona to open 2011.

With a strong and sturdy, compact build at 6-foot-3, 200-pounds, Sterling has a power profile with a knack for missing bats. Over his first 119 professional innings, he has struck out 123 batters, showing solid control by walking 53 batters during that same time. His fastball is his best pitch, sitting comfortably in the low-90s with the ability to touch 94-96. His breaking ball and changeup both show promise, although he needs to improve both the break and location of both pitches as he progresses.

The Indians will likely be patient with Sterling's development, who should return to Lake County at 19-years of age to open the 2012 season.

9. LHP Elvis Araujo
- Baseball-reference player profile

Araujo made a successful return to pitching in 2011 after missing all of 2009 and 2010 after having Tommy John surgery. He went 9-1 with a 2.86 ERA in 13 appearances in the Arizona League prior to receiving a late season promotion to the New York-Penn League, where he could return to open the 2012 season.

There's plenty to like with Araujo as a 6-foot-6, 215-pound lefty who sits in the low-90s and the ability to touch a few ticks higher. Both his breaking ball and changeup need to be refined, but both pitches show enough promise to give him one of the higher ceilings in the Indians' system.

The further Araujo distances himself from Tommy John surgery the more scouts will feel comfortable with his development and his future potential. The Indians could aggressively place him in the Midwest League to open 2012, where he could join most of the organization's top prospects, giving them an impressive wave of talent to watch over the next two to three years.

10. LHP Scott Barnes
- Baseball-reference player profile

In a system full of projected relievers but short on Major League ready starters, Barnes could provide valuable depth at the AAA level in 2012. The jury is still out on Barnes' eventual role, as he still needs to consistently throw his slider for strikes while honing his changeup to become a reliable option every fifth day at the big league level. However, he enjoyed a successful 2011 season in a starting role spent mostly at the team's AAA team in Columbus after struggling for two seasons at Cleveland's AA Akron affiliate.

He does have the ability to sit in the upper-80s to low-90s with his fastball, approaching the mid-90s at times in the early innings of games when he's at his best. A lanky 6-foot-4 lefty, repeating his mechanics hasn't been easy for Barnes in the past, but things seemed to come together for him last year. At 24-years old, he will benefit from more refinement at the AAA level, and like many of the other players listed above, could provide stability to a big league team that has playoff aspirations in 2012.

Others in the conversation:
RHP Austin Adams, C Eric Haase, SS Jorge Martinez, RHP Zach McAllister, SS Dorssys Paulino, RHP Jake Sisco.

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