Another spring training is in the books as the Indians head northward to open the season in Toronto tomorrow night. Between the exciting additions to the team this offseason and the early start due to the World Baseball Classic, this spring has seemed to drag on for longer than any in recent memory. The excitement surrounding the team for opening day is higher than at any time in the recent past, as the improvements in the starting lineup have people whispering about playoff possibilities for a club that finished 68-94 last season. That talk may well be premature, especially considering the question marks in the starting rotation, but the mere fact that talking about the playoffs isn’t completely insane is encouraging in and of itself.
I made the trip down to Goodyear for the fourth year in a row last week, and the trip gets better and better every year. I watched anywhere from two to four baseball games each day, and with the minor league fields being adjacent to each other I often found myself watching two games at once. Getting to see the players in the organization up close is a great experience, as there’s only so much you can learn from the stat line of a player. I left with a ton of great pictures and a notebook overflowing with observations. So as a pre-season treat, I’m going to share some of my notes on 20 or so players in the Indians organization that I was able to see this spring. There will be plenty more to come later in the season and in greater detail, but hopefully you enjoy this broad look at every level of the Indians system.
Some of the biggest news on the minor league front occurred a couple of days after I left Goodyear (of course). I was set to write about how much more comfortable Tony Wolters looked at 2B than at this time last year, and how excited I was to see him in AA Akron this season. Then on Friday, the Indians announced that they’re moving Wolters behind the plate. He was the club’s 3rd round draft pick in 2010, and posted a .724 OPS for high-A Carolina last year as a 20-year old. Wolters caught some in high school, and he definitely has the physical and mental tools to stick behind the plate. He’s a tireless worker, a plus athlete and a leader. But catcher is the most difficult position on the field, and there are guys who have caught their entire lives and still can’t perfect the intricacies of the position. The real question for me here is whether the Indians felt they needed to move Wolters off middle infield because of the organizational depth there, or if they truly see this as an opportunity to us an above-average bat behind the plate. Wolters did nothing to show the Indians that he couldn’t play 2B/SS, so I have to lean towards the latter explanation. Wolters will spend a couple of weeks in extended spring training working on the new position, and then rejoin the high-A Carolina Mudcats. I should get to see Wolters in action behind the plate at the end of April when the Mudcats travel to Potomac to play the P-Nats, and I can’t wait to talk to Wotlers and get his thoughts on the new position.
Flamethrowing righthanded reliever Trey Haley was experiencing some minor discomfort in his right shoulder, so the Indians had him on the shelf while I was down there. It wasn’t considered to be serious at all, and Haley was still throwing on the side. As one player told me though, when you have a guy who throws triple digits, you tend to be a little over-cautious with his arm. Haley is expected to be ready to start the 2013 regular season, but the situation bears monitoring nonetheless.
Trevor Bauer was optioned to minor league camp while I was in Arizona, and I got to see him start a game against the Dodgers AAA affiliate. Bauer threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing four hits while striking out two and walking two. Of the four hits he allowed, one was a bloop single over the infield and another was a swinging bunt that no one could make a play on. The Dodger hitters have a lot of trouble squaring the ball up against him, but Bauer also had a little trouble putting them away. His pitch count got up a little higher than the Indians would have liked, and they had to roll the 5th inning with two on and two out because Bauer had thrown more pitches than the Indians coaching staff was comfortable with. It was easy to see why the Indians acquired Bauer, as his fastball sat between 92-96 MPH and he showcased a plus-plus curveball and a plus changeup. His changeup in particular generated a lot of silly-looking swings, and I think it’s going to be a real weapon for him going forward. Bauer is going to start the 2013 season in the rotation for AAA Columbus, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be in Cleveland at some point, likely before the all-star break. Bauer is the most talented pitcher in the Indians organization with true front-line potential, and for the Indians to contend for the playoffs in 2013 or beyond, Bauer will have to mature into that #1 starter that the Indians front office believes that he can be. He’s still just 22 years old and is going to be a lot of fun to watch in Cleveland for the next 6 (or more) seasons.
I saw righthander Jordan Cooper pitch twice for Carolina last year, and both times he was excellent. That streak continued in Goodyear, as I watched him throw 4 outstanding innings for Akron, striking out 5 and not allowing an earned run. He’s a bit of an under the radar guy in the system right now, but that could change this year. He’s one of those guys who just goes out and gets results every time he’s on the bump.
I got to see the Indians 3rd round pick from last year, Kieran Lovergove, in action on Monday. He surprised me a little with his fastball velocity, sitting consistently between 92-95 and touching 97 once in his three innings of work. That’s a big leap from where he was as an amateur, and increases Lovegrove’s ceiling considerably. He credits the Indians coaching staff with teaching him to use his lower half more in his delivery, helping him to add a couple of ticks on his fastball.
Austin Adams missed all of 2012 due to shoulder issues, finally having surgery after exhausting all other options. After working tirelessly to rehab in Arizona this winter, Adams finally got back on the mound in game action this Monday. I was concerned with whether Adams’ velocity would be effected with after the procedure, as he was a guy who touched triple digits prior to the shoulder issues. Well, he was between 94-96 in his two innings of work earlier this week, an extremely encouraging sign for the young righthander. Adams will stick around in Goodyear in extended spring training and likely make his debut back with Akron at some point this summer. It was great to see him back on the mound again, both for the Indians and for Adams himself.
Dorssys Paulino is the real deal. He’s a very advanced hitter, showcasing exceptional bat to ball ability. He consistently barrels the baseball, and uses the whole field. He has a smooth, level swing that generates plenty of line drives, and has some pop too. As he continues to add strength to his frame, I could see him hitting 20+ HR’s in a season down the road. Defensively, he handled every chance that I saw in the field, making a couple of tough plays on slow rollers that he had to come in on and then make strong throws on the run. Small sample size, but he definitely has the raw athleticism to remain at shortstop.
The Indians invited 2B Jose Ramirez to major league camp this spring, and he spent a lot of time up with the big club. Ramirez is just 20 years old, and he’s appeared in just 70 games outside of the complex leagues. The fact that the Indians felt that he could step in and compete with big league players says a lot about how talented Ramirez is, and it bodes well for his future. In fact, the club is so high on Ramirez that they’re going to have him skip high-A Carolina entirely and debut with the AA Akron Aeros to begin the 2013 season. Ramirez will be one of the youngest players in the Eastern League, and it will be very interesting to see how he handles the aggressive assignment. If Ramirez can hold his own at Akron this year, then his overall ceiling will be considerably higher than it was at this time last season.
The Indians first round draft pick and 15th overall selection in 2013, CF Tyler Naquin also spent some time in big league camp. His arm came as advertised, as he had an opportunity to uncork a few throws from his plus-plus cannon of a right arm. His bat impressed as well, going 2-10 with 2 RBI and a stolen base in big league camp. Scouts are still unconvinced about his eventual power output, but there’s little doubt that he has the type of swing that will consistently generate a high batting average. Combine that with an advanced approach at the plate that will provide plenty of walks, and Naquin profiles as a classic top of the order CF. The Indians believe he can stick in CF, and if he can remain there then his power profile isn’t as big of an issue than if he were to have to move to an OF corner.
Indians fans writ large got an opportunity to watch Francisco Lindor, and the young shortstop didn’t disappoint. Lindor appeared in 10 games this spring, going 7-24 with a double, a triple and a stolen base. Perhaps most impressively, he struck out just twice in 25 plate appearances against big league pitching. He made some nice plays in the field, and provided Tribe fans with a glimpse of why he’s the consensus #1 prospect in the Indians organization. That the 19-year old switch-hitter is already comfortable playing with and against big leaguers is a pretty good sign for the youngster’s career. Lindor has future all-star written all over him, and he’s going to be a treat for fans who get to see him play with the Carolina Mudcats in 2013.
Lefthanded starter T.J. House was a key member of the Aeros 2012 Eastern League Championship run, and because of the logjam of starters slated to pitch for AAA Columbus, he’ll be back in Akron to begin the 2013 season. House was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and has the potential to be a solid middle of the rotation starter. He’s a command and control lefty that relies on location and movement more than pure stuff. He’s a smart pitcher who knows how to attack hitters, often pitching backwards and generating a lot of weak contact. He’s a fun guy to watch pitch, and should wind up in Columbus at some point in 2013.
I got a chance to talk with Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez who was fresh off of his 2nd place finish in the World Baseball Classic. When I asked Rodriguez what it was like managing the Puerto Rican team in the WBC, he said that “it was like the World Series for those guys. In March!” It’s great to have such an experienced and respected manager in the Indians system, and Rodriguez is great at working with the young players in the minor leagues.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Bo Greenwell is hurt again. When they went in to repair his torn ACL, they also fixed his meniscus. Unfortunately, the meniscus “fix” didn’t take, and he had to have it scoped this offseason. Greenwell is back taking try hacks and will be hitting soft toss and getting tee work in pretty soon. He’ll likely start the season in extended spring training, then move up to a full-season league at or near the beginning of May. When he’s healthy, Greenwell has been productive. He had an .813 OPS in 46 games with high-A Carolina last year. But it’s been one injury after another for Greenwell, as he’s appeared in just 115 games over the last two seasons.
Speaking of injuries, OF LeVon Washington has been dealing with a strained glute in camp and missed several days of game action. I did see him play in one game, during which he walked twice and was hit by a pitch in his three plate appearances. Washington is an immense talent, but has played just 95 games since being selected in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. If he’s healthy, Washington should play most of the season in Carolina for the Mudcats.
One of the few disappointing things about my Arizona trip was that I didn’t get to see high-profile international signee Anthony Santander in action. The Venezuelan-born outfielder was nursing some minor injuries, and didn’t appear in game action while I was in Goodyear. Santander is still just 18 years old, and once he’s healthy will stick around in Arizona for extended spring training until the short season New York-Penn League starts up in June. He’ll likely spend some time with Mahoning Valley this year, with an eye towards Lake County in 2014. Santander is an advance hitter for his age though, and there’s a chance that he could see some time as a Captain as early as this season
Justin Toole gained fame by playing all nine positions on the diamond in a game last year, and decided to write a book on the experience. Toole was a sports psychology major at Iowa, and teaches and coaches youth baseball players during the offseason. His book looks at the “playing the field” game, and uses his experience at each position to reflect on a life lesson. He’s currently exploring options for how to publish the book, and it will likely come out sometime after the 2013 season. Toole isn’t an elite prospect, but he’s the kind of guy that every team needs. He’s a leader on and off the field, a player who goes out and plays hard on every play. He does all of the little things, and is a guy who is always at the right place at the right time. An example from one of the spring training games; Toole comes up with the bases loaded and one out after the opposing pitcher throws 8 straight balls. He takes a first-pitch strike, then fouls off the 2nd pitch to put him down 0-2. He fouls off a couple of tough pitches and works the count to 2-2 before grounding a pitch up the middle. It’s a made to order double-play ball, but Toole hustles out of the box and beats the throw to first. After the run-scoring fielder’s choice, Toole reads a ball in the dirt and advances to 2nd base on a ball that gets just far enough away from the catcher. He then scores from 2nd on a 2-out single. All the box score shows from that inning is an 0-1 with a run scored, but Toole did so much more to impact that inning besides a fielder’s choice and a run scored.
Nelson Rodriguez is a big guy. Not quite Jesus Aguilar big, but a big, solid guy with impressive power. He hit a ball off the scoreboard on the back fields in an intersquad game, and there’s a chance that the ball would still be rolling right now if the scoreboard didn’t get in the way. He probably won’t get his season underway until June with Mahoning Valley, but watching him put on a show in batting practice is a lot of fun.
No article would be complete without a mention of my guy Roberto Perez. But this time, we’re going to talk about his offense! Perez hit a pair of deep home runs in an intersquad game, and looks much more comfortable at the plate this year than in the past. Small sample size of course, but he seemed to be seeing the ball better this spring. He put together some really solid at bats, and if he can take even a small step forward with the bat it would mean big things for his prospect standing. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but Perez is an elite defender behind the plate, so much so that the Indians considered rostering him this offseason to ensure they didn’t lose his catch and throw ability.
I got to see outfielder D’Vone McClure for the first time, and he did not disappoint. McClure was the Indians 4th round pick in 2012, and signed for an overslot bonus to disappoint the University of Arkansas. McClure is an outstanding athlete, and everything he does on a baseball field just looks fluid and easy. He has a smooth, line-drive swing with plus bat speed. He’s a plus runner with an above-average arm, and he just looks like a baseball player. McClure will primarily play CF, and will stick around Goodyear in extended spring training until the short-season leagues start up in June.
Infielder Joe Wendle was a 6th round selection out of Division II West Chester College last year, and it was seen at the time as a signability pick to save money for elsewhere in the top 10. No one told Wendle though, as the 22-year old went out and hit .327/.375/.469 with 4 HR and 37 RBI for Mahoning Valley in 61 games last season. Wendle was a little old for the level so his numbers have to be taken in context, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. Wendle has a smooth, level swing from the left side, and hits without batting gloves. What you see is what you get with the 2B/3B, and while he’s not a top prospect he’s certainly an intriguing guy to watch in the Indians system.
Logan Vick made one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen at the minor league level, robbing D’Vone McClure of extra bases with an incredible diving catch in center field. McClure smoked a ball into the left-center field gap, and I was already taking out my phone to tweet about how impressive McClure’s swing was. But Vick came out of nowhere to lay out at a full run and catch the ball just before it fell to the turf, drawing cheers from both dugouts in the intersquad contest. And considering Vick didn’t play a single game in CF last year just makes it all the more impressive. He was an 11th round pick out of Baylor last year, and the 22-year old should open in the Captains outfield this season in Eastlake.
Finally, Baseball Prospectus has come out with their annual minor league organizational rankings. The Indians rank 19th in baseball, up from the 24th position at this time last year. It’s definitely still a system on its way up, as most of the talent is still young and unproven. Not all of the young talent will improve in 2013, but they’re also not going to lose many top prospects to graduation this year. Add to that the #5 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and the Indians system has the potential to be back in the top-10 in all of baseball by next offseason. And when you look at where the Indians big-payroll AL Central Division opponents rank (Tigers 29, White Sox 28), you can’t help but be encouraged about the future.