Well, the labor of love that is my top prospect countdown is finally complete. It’s longer than ever this year, as I have write-ups on the top 61 prospects in the organization coming your way over the next week and a half or so. It took longer than I’d hoped to get the full list written up and edited, but I think that you’ll agree that it was worth the wait. Before we pop the top on the countdown though, let’s take a step back and have a holistic look at the Indians minor league system.
The Indians minor league system remains in the bottom half of MLB, mainly because it is still recovering from a 2011 season that saw the organization lose six of its top 10 prospects to graduation, trades or career-ending injury. That sort of attrition would decimate any system in baseball, and it will take the Indians more than a year and a half to rebound into a top-10 system again. But they’re well on their way, thanks in equal parts to better drafting and some outstanding signings in the Latin American market, as well as a significant trade or two. The organization has three of the top-100 prospects in all of baseball, and while it is a little thin on talent in the upper levels of the system, there are a plethora of youngsters with extremely high upsides that are doing some exciting things in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
In case you're wondering how the Indians went about building the system, 37 of the top 61 were acquired via the MLB draft. Trades were responsible for just 6 of the top 61, while 16 were signed as international free agents, one was acquired via the Rule 5 draft and one was claimed off of another teams 40-man roster when he was designated for assignment.
The thing that sticks out the most about this system right now is the number of athletic, toolsy, middle infielders. Francisco Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez, Dorssys Paulino, Tony Wolters, Jose Ramirez…all of these guys have the potential to be impact starters at the major league level. Lindor and Paulino are top-100 guys in all of baseball, and Ramirez made a couple of the “just missed” lists. Shortstop is one of the most difficult positions to draft and acquire, and the Indians have four legitimate prospects who could play there someday. Very few organizations in baseball can make that claim, and it reflects the priorities of the talent evaluators in the organization. They’re all at least two years away from making their major league debuts, but the potential upside is tantalizing. Not all are going to make it, and even if they did they couldn’t all play in the same infield. But that’s a nice problem to have, as they could at least be attractive trade chips to clubs with far less middle infield depth.
The Indians have also been able to amass an impressive stable of relievers in their minor league system. Cody Allen, Trey Haley, Shawn Armstrong, C.C. Lee, Grant Sides, Scott Barnes…all of those guys are knocking on the door to become members of the Indians vaunted “Bullpen Mafia.” Allen and Barnes have already made their major league debuts for the Tribe, and there are several additional options should injury or ineffectiveness befall one or more members of the Indians bullpen. Power relief arms will never go out of style, and having options at the high levels of the system makes Chris Antonetti’s job that much easier.
The Indians still have issues developing corner bats, both in the infield and outfield. Only one of my top-20 players in the organization currently projects as a corner infielder. First baseman and left fielders are traditionally much easier to acquire and develop than shortstops, but the Indians have it the other way around. In theory, that’s actually a good thing because their potential shortstops should be able to fetch more in a trade, but the club’s lack of ability to develop an impact bat at 1B/3B/LF is concerning. If the Indians had a big bat ready to step up and play 1B or LF, then the offseason spending spree could have been spent on an option for the starting rotation rather than on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
Speaking of starting pitching, with the notable exception of Trevor Bauer there really isn’t any rotation help on the horizon for the Indians. There are several promising arms in the lower levels of the system, guys like Danny Salazar, Mitch Brown, Dylan Baker and Kieran Lovegrove, but the pitchers in the upper levels of the system still have a lot of question marks. Austin Adams, a top-5 guy in 2012, missed the entire season with a shoulder injury and is just now throwing off of a mound again. Southpaw T.J. House was added to the 40-man roster this past offseason, but he’s yet to throw an inning above AA. The biggest question mark for the Indians this year is their starting pitching, and unfortunately that’s not a need that the minor league system is poised to address anytime soon.
The Indians organization is in a similar position this year as they were heading into the 2012 season. Not a lot of proven, ready to contribute talent, but a slew of toolsy, athletic options in the lower levels of the system who could break out in 2013. Lake County and Carolina will again be the most interesting affiliates to follow, but AA Akron will be a pretty fun team as well. Akron’s infield should consist of Jesus Aguilar, Tony Wolters, Gio Urshela and Ronny Rodriguez, and that’s a group that will provide some highlight reel plays in the field and some tape measure HR’s at the plate. Columbus could have the best bullpen in minor league baseball, with Shawn Armstrong, Trey Haley and C.C. Lee shutting down opposing teams in the late innings. It’s going to be another fun and exciting year covering the Indians minor league system, and I hope you’ll get out to as many games as you can. The future of the Indians will be on display daily at a ballpark near you, and no scouting report written by me or anyone else can replace what you see with your own eyes in the ballpark.
Best Defensive Catcher: Roberto Perez
Best Defensive Infielder: Francisco Lindor
Best Defensive Outfielder: Tyler Naquin
Best Outfield Arm: Carlos Moncrief/Tyler Naquin
Best Raw Power: Jesus Aguilar
Best Hit Tool: Dorssys Paulino
Fastest Player: Luigi Rodriguez
Best Fastball: Trey Haley
Best Curveball: Trevor Bauer
Best Control: T.J. House
Breakout Candidate: Dylan Baker
Deepest Position: Bullpen arms
Shallowest Position: Corner infielders