Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chasing the Money on a Lazy Sunday

As you’re sitting down with your morning cup of coffee to enjoy this Lazy Sunday, I am currently walking around downtown Washington D.C. with approximately 100,000 of my closest friends, hoping to spot one person in a crowd of 30,000. Why you ask? Well, my 55-year old father is running the Marine Corps Marathon, his first effort at the famed 26.2 mile distance. He’s run a half-marathon before and was up over 20 miles in training, so he expects to finish and finish well. Meanwhile, I spent my “training” period plotting the best way to smuggle a 6-pack of Great Lakes into the city without being noticed. So while I’m feeling extremely lazy this morning watching the old man run farther in 3+ hrs than I’ve run in the last month, I also feel extremely proud. With that said, let’s get to what you really came here for today, and that’s the goings on in and around the Indians this past week…

Like it or not, much of the Indians-related discussion from the fanbase this time of year revolves around the club’s payroll and what pieces might be added in the offseason. As usual, the Indians project to be much more active on the trade front than in free agency due to budget limitations, even with a significant chunk of change coming off the books this winter. Revenue sharing only goes so far, and reports that the LA Dodgers have found a loophole in the system which could generate upwards of $100 million per year in unshared dollars for the franchise that was just purchased for $2.15 billion. The loophole lies within the creation of a regional sports network (RSN) similar to YES, NESN and yes, STO, that the club would decide how to distribute the equity gained from the club-owned RSN. YES and NESN generate hundreds of millions of dollars per season in subscriber fees for their respective teams, even if that’s not reported as actual baseball revenue. STO lags well behind these networks due to the sheer number of subscribers, something that’s not going to change anytime soon. Baseball Prospectus’ Maury Brown breaks it down here far better than I can:
This is a real issue, not only in terms of the Dodgers but others as well. After all, the capacity to really make club-owned RSNs work means a combination of a large market and, more often than not, a storied franchise. Alone, these two things already give a club advantages over smaller market teams. The club-owned “loophole” just adds to it. League officials would never say as much, but if you could get them alone in a room, it’s possible that even they see the flaw.
Focus on this out of the Bloomberg piece: the Dodgers are going to pay revenue-sharing on every penny that comes into their coffers through media rights. They wouldn’t, however, have to pay revenue-sharing on any equity should they start an RSN with a partner such as FOX or TWC. Consider this “proliferation”—another big-market, storied franchise being able to move money from one hand to the other. After all, the Yankees and Red Sox have been doing it for years.
So while the Indians will be collecting significant dollars through MLB’s revenue sharing program, those dollars go to every team around baseball. Meanwhile, “storied franchises” in “large markets” will continue to exploit a growing loophole around these revenue sharing agreements, further widening the gap between the haves and have nots around the game of baseball.In a later article, Brown breaks down the payrolls around baseball and discusses how much of an advantage a big payroll really is. He comes to a similar conclusion that has been alluded to in this space by both Paulie and myself in the past; money helps cover up mistakes, but does not in and of itself assure success.
What money really gives you is flexibility. It allows you a greater chance of being competitive now and sustaining that competitiveness in subsequent years.
The problem has always been the ability of each of the 30 clubs to have a steady flow of revenues to work from. Yes, everyone is pulling in record revenues, but not all at the same rate. The key is "cost certainty." Clubs that have generational fan bases—Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Cubs, etc.—will, for the most part, generate a fairly steady flow of ticket revenues. When you throw in media rights (see recent television deals for the Rangers, Angels, and soon the Dodgers), it becomes a formidable force that the likes of Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City can’t compete with. Those teams have to rely on the draft process, and certainly the Rays have shown that you can actually be competitive for more than a season or two under these constraints, but it isn’t easy and it’s not something to expect from every club. A club has to be smart. A club has to be positioned to spend when it can spend. And for heaven's sake, a club can’t be in a lengthy rebuilding process to do it. In other words, if a club is in the cycle, it can’t make too many mistakes that inhibit its ability to spend what little it may have available in the free agency space when the opportunity presents itself.
Cost certainty is a theme that’s been pushed by the Indians front office since the negotiations with C.C. Sabathia. It’s a theme that was re-enforced after the Hafner contract, and as you’ll see later in this article, it’s a theme that the club continues to stress to this day. It’s something that the Indians just don’t have, because they have neither a large generational fan base nor significant dollars flowing in from media rights. And when you compare the Indians to some of the teams that have both of those inherent advantages, it helps illustrate why the team simply can’t compete in the free agent market. It puts the onus squarely on amateur talent acquisition, and all but requires the team to be leaders in the international market as well as the Rule 4 draft.

ESPN’s Jim Bowden takes a predictably broad look at “how theTigers were built,” focusing on five key personnel moves that helped the Motor City Kittes to the World Series. What’s really interesting is that the Tigers, who are one of the few teams around baseball who are deficit spending and there are some truly special circumstances there, are not a team built on free agency. Prince Fielder was one of the few Tigers contributing to this year’s team who was acquired via free agency. The other four moves Bowden discusses are either shrewd trades or draft picks (Verlander). Now, the Tigers were fortunate that Verlander “fell” to the #2 pick in the draft back in 2004, but still give them credit for making the right pick. The move that really sticks out for me is the trade that netted the Tigers Doug Fister. The Indians of course made a deal for a starting pitcher at that time as well, dealing more than the Tigers gave up for a pitcher who has performed far, far worse than Fister since he made his way to Detroit. The Fister deal is the type of trade the Indians used to make with Seattle. Instead, Ubaldo made his way to the North Shore at the cost of the Indians top two pitching prospects. Pomeranz and White aren’t exactly setting the world on fire out in Colorado just yet, but the reality is that those were the Indians top two trade chips at the time, and there’s nothing to show for them. I agree with the premise behind the Ubaldo deal, as the Indians had a chance to make a push for the playoffs and needed an ace. But the execution was beyond terrible, as the team acquired a player who was and remains broken, for whatever reason(s).  

Getting away from the business side of things and more to the scouting side for a bit, both Let’s Go Tribe and Baseball Prospectus published great articles looking at the Indians Carlos Santana. LGT has been cranking out their usual outstanding postseason looks at the Indians roster, and all of them are well worth your time if you haven’t been keeping up. But being the catcher honk I am, I’ll focus on the Santana piece. They compare Santana’s ugly 1st half of the season with his outstanding 2nd half, pointing out that he tweaked his approach and began making much more productive contact when the rest of the lineup was doing much the opposite down the stretch. Jorge Arangure Jr. from Baseball Prospectus follows on with an outstanding piece on how Dominican-born players are brought up prior to signingcontracts with major league clubs, focusing on how Santana’s selectiveness at the plate is much more the exception than the rule. It’s a great article for any coach or young player to read, and I’d encourage you to read the entire piece and not just the parts pertaining to young Carlos.

Most of you have likely already seen it by now, but FoxSports Ohio’s Pat McManamon published a long interview with Indians team president Mark Shapiro on Thursday. The whole thing really is worth a detailed read, but I’m going to skip the questions about Shapiro’s childhood as an Orioles fan here and post some excerpts that I think you’ll find particularly interesting. First, in an exchange about the Indians teams from the mid-90’s and how those teams were constructed in a radically different economic reality than the Indians are facing today, Shapiro provides some enlightening but depressing notes on attendance and just how much ticket revenues actually drive spending (bold for my emphasis):

That was a decade and a half ago, really. Fifteen years. Do you think people, the general populace still judges in those terms?

A: I think it frames that very guttural reaction, like, "Hey, if you win it's already been shown people will come." That's what you hear all the time.

Q: Do you believe that?

A: I think more people will come. But the challenge is 2.2 million instead of 1.6 million doesn't change the way we operate. Even that extra 500,000, 600,000 people, even if that's $10-to-15 more million in revenue a year . . . one win in free agency is $9 million. So you're not going to change the context. Again, I don't think people want to intellectualize baseball, and I don't believe you should have to intellectualize baseball . . . and we've made a conscious decision in most of our interviews not to get into these topics and just stay positive and talk about what our aspirations are.

But that revenue swing between 1.5 million in attendance and 2.2 million in attendance . . . meaningful dollars but not dollars that will have us plan dramatically different.

Q: It wouldn't change the amount of money spent?

A: It would change the amount of spent to 15 million dollars a year. What does that buy you in free agency? Very little. One and a half wins.

Q: How is that figure determined?

A: Our analysts can put a value on what it costs in free agency to sign a player and what that means in Wins Above Replacement and what those players end up costing in free agency and that changes every year. They measure all the players signed in free agency and what their history has been and what they offer going forward and they place a value. The challenge in free agency is you're often paying for that in the first year of a contract, and in the out years of a contract the players WAR usually goes down because he's usually past his prime. So it becomes a less efficient contract over time. That's why free agency is never the best way to build. It's a good way to supplement but not build.

The Indians drew approximately 1.6 million fans last season. The last time they drew over 2 million was back in 2008, on the heels of 2007’s ALCS collapse. But as Shapiro details, even if the Indians win, and even if that winning translates to a 30-40% increase in ticket sales, that does not give the club resources for a spending bonanza. And I don’t think many of us are predicting a significant bump in attendance next year, let alone another 30%. If and when that attendance bump does occur, it provides revenue to augment the existing roster in the season after the increase in ticket sales, much like we saw in 2008 with the signing of free agent closer Kerry Wood. But it’s never going to result in the club becoming a significant player in the free agent market. By definition, free agents are usually paid more than they are worth because of the bidding process on the open market. Because of that, one bad deal (see Hafner, Travis) can really destroy any ability a club like the Indians has to augment the roster with even medium-sized pieces. And even a deal that’s “fair” when it is signed will generally become an albatross by the end of the deal, which is why the Indians were so reluctant to offer Josh Willingham a third year in free agency. Speaking of Willingham, Shapiro talks about him as well:

Q: This is the hot guy and the topic now, so I'll admit that. But a guy like (Josh) Willingham. Did he over-perform what you expected?

A: Yeah, he had the best year of his career, so he over-performed what anyone expected him to do this year (2012).

Q: You couldn't know because it was a unique year, but had you guessed that would you have been more willing to . . .

A: Well we offered him more than he signed for. We just didn't offer three years.

Q: And what was the thinking in not offering the three years?

A: Just our adversity to risk, probably. Our understanding of what a poor performing contract can do to our ability to operate and maneuver.

That understanding was earned the hard way, through the free agent signings of Hafner and Westbrook, two guys who promptly went out and hurt themselves significantly after signing their guaranteed contracts. Not to beat the free agent horse to death, but there’s one more section of the interview that I found particularly illuminating with respect to how this front office is going to operate for the foreseeable future:

Q: From my point of view the perception that the team may be fighting is created as much by trading Cy Young winners two years in a row. That generates feelings of, "Geez they can't keep these guys, they can't compete." More so than almost the ‘90s thing

A: We're not going to be able to sign these guys to extensions. We're not trying to hide from that. That creates circumstances where we have to make decisions about when the right juncture is to either let them walk away or to trade them. It doesn't mean we won't continue to try to sign guys. Periodically it doesn't mean that occasionally we won't be able to do it. It's going to take always some sharing of the risk and some desire for a guy to want to be here and placing a premium on that. If a guy places a premium on wanting to be here and we feel it's the right kind of guy, it's still a possibility. But as a general premise when guys reach free agent years it's going to be a challenge. We're not running from that. We're going to have him for six years at a minimum, maybe longer, and we have to have more talent coming up.

As soon as a player makes it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, that clock starts ticking. The club has a 1-3 year window to make a decision on whether or not they want to try and buy out a player’s arbitration years, usually with a year or three of free agency as well. But if that doesn’t happen, and if the player develops into the star everyone wants him to be, the Indians are going to have to trade or lose the player to free agency. That is a harsh admission for the team president to make, and it’s a difficult reality for most fans to accept. It really drives home the “cheering for laundry” philosophy, and that hurts fans attachment to the players and the organization, which in turn lowers revenue from ticket and merchandise sales which makes it less likely for the organization to be able to keep the next free agent. It’s a vicious circle, one that I just don’t see changing without radical alterations in revenue sharing and/or the implementation of a salary cap. Also, it's tough to read that response without thinking about one S.S. Choo, who may not be long for this organization as the Boras client is all but assured to "test the waters" in free agency.

Moving on from free agency, the interview looks at talent acquisition in both the trade market, international signings and of course the amateur draft:

Q: Are you satisfied with the way player evaluation has gone, for the past five years, let's say.

A: You know, the context for evaluating those things is very difficult. It's very hard to do in one moment in time. You've almost got to take a business look. And you can't ask that question so broadly.

For example, I think the last three years, our drafts based on the expected value of our picks have been very good. The prior five to six years before that, certainly we did not have good drafts. And we're suffering for that now to some extent.

Yet you evaluate our trades compared to other trades, we were very successful in our trades. Among the more successful teams. Internationally we've done well.

We need to do very well on every side of player acquisition. We can't do well in two out of three.

I think we've made adjustments to the way we draft, the way we strategize. And I think we've had more successful drafts the last three years. If our drafts continue to be as successful and productive and we get players from those drafts playing in the big leagues as quick as the guys we have right now contributing, and we continue to do that, then we'll be in much better shape going forward.

Shapiro’s assessment that the team’s Rule 4 drafts were pretty bad, but have picked up in the past three years pretty much mirrors the assessment that I put forth back in August. I think that the club did a terrible job acquiring amateur talent when Doug Mirabelli ran the show, and think they’ve done a much, much better job since Brad Grant took over. Unfortunately, even as the drafts were getting better, the trades were getting worse. Instead of flipping less-significant pieces for major building blocks (Benuardo for Choo and Asdrubal, Blake for Santana etc), the club got less than full value for two Cy Young Award winners, and then of course made the well-intentioned but ill-fated Ubaldo Jiminez deal. As Shapiro himself says (and it bears repeating), “We need to do very well on every side of player acquisition. We can't do well in two out of three.” Also significant is the number Shapiro used…three. As he sees it, there are only three real options for player acquisition, and one of them is not free agency.

Much as we started on a personal note, I’m going to close on one as well. I have a late-Sunday night flight out of DC to London-Heathrow where I will spend the next 3 or so weeks on a work trip. I’d like to promise you a Lazy Sunday for those three weeks, but the facts are I just don’t know how much free time I’m going to have to write. So while I’ll do my best to get something up every week, there’s a possibility that one or more of those Sundays won’t have the usual post. Please stick with me either way, as I’ll be back in mid-November and be on a much more regular schedule at that time. And if there’s anything I can pick up for you in the UK, drop me a line!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Prospect Stock Watch

For this iteration of the mid-week prospect report, I thought we’d take a look at five guys who exceeded my pre-season rankings in 2012 as well as five guys who fell short of expectations. I’m not talking about a guy who’s going to move from 11th to 9th this offseason, but guys who really had boom-or-bust seasons this year. I haven’t done my traditional offseason top-51 countdown yet, so this will serve as a primer for where you can expect certain players to end up on that list when it comes out closer to spring training. So here are ten (or so) guys that I was wrong about for one reason or another. We’ll start with the five guys who improved their prospect standing this season, and then move to five (or so) who are sliding backwards.

Jordan Smith, OF/INF: Drafted out of Division II St. Cloud State in Minnesota, Smith had a solid debut with the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers in 2011 with a .300 batting average in 65 games. His power really never manifested itself in game conditions though, as Smith didn’t hit a single HR and posted just a .391 SLG in 243 AB with the Scrappers. The lack of power combined with his uncertain future defensively combined to have me rank him as the #43 prospect in the Indians system. The Indians decided that as third basemen go, Smith is a nice RF so he was transitioned full-time to the OF this season, but his bat took a big step forward in the difficult offensive environment of the low-A Midwest League. Playing in 116 games for the Lake County Captains, Smith put up a line of .316/.367/.453 with 9 HR, 23 2B, 7 3B and 74 RBI. He walked 35 times while striking out just 52, and played a respectable RF to boot. His smooth lefthanded swing is a thing of beauty, and looks remarkably similar to Lonnie Chisenhall’s when The Chiz was in Kinston. It still doesn’t generate a ton of loft, but he does a nice job barreling up the baseball and has developed at least gap power. His 9 HR were good for 3rd on the team (just 3 behind team leader Alex Lavisky), which helps put his seeming low power output into better context. In fact, only one player in the entire Midwest League hit more than 19 HR on the season, and Smith’s .820 OPS was good for 9th in the league. His bat should play, and he has the arm and athleticism for RF. He’ll rank much higher than #43 in a few months.

T.J. House, LHP: Coming off of a disappointing 2011 when he went 6-12 with a 5.19 ERA repeating high-A Kinston, I ranked House all the way down at the #49 spot in the organization. He had trouble repeating his mechanics and his command suffered, and everything just snowballed from there. I noted that House was reportedly in the best shape of his career heading into spring training in 2012, and that he was a prime candidate to bounce back with a strong performance. Well, House came through in a big way, as he went a combined 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA, 116 K and 50 BB in 149 1/3 IP between Carolina and Akron this year. House lost over 20lbs heading into spring training in 2012, and went back to more of a ¾ delivery similar to the one he used in high school down in Mississippi. His walk rate dropped, his K rate went up, his GO/AO ratio improved and he kept the ball in the ballpark, giving up 3 less HR in 19 1/3 more IP than in 2011. All in all, it was an impressive season for the young lefty, who turned 23 just a few weeks ago. House is pitching well in the elite Arizona Fall League right now, and will definitely rank at least 30 spots higher in my countdown this offseason.

Danny Salazar, RHP: Salazar pitched just 14 innings in 2011 after his 2010 was cut short by an elbow sprain that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery. It’s always tough to rank a pitcher coming off a serious injury, and based on his limited track record and the fact that he’d just had TJ, I ended up ranking Salazar as the #44 prospect in the organization. The Indians played it extremely carefully with Salazar this year, having hin throw a total of 87 2/3 IP between Carolina and Akron. When he was on the mound though, Salazar was nothing short of outstanding. Running his fastball as high as 98 MPH, Salazar went 5-2 with a 2.36 ERA, recording 76 K and issuing 27 BB. The command for a young player coming off TJ is especially encouraging, as was his showing in AA Akron. Salazar was the best pitcher down the stretch for the Eastern League Champion Aeros, going 40- with a 1.85 ERA in his 6 starts in AA (34 IP). The kid gloves should be off for Salazar in 2013, and I’m really excited to see what he can do with a full season’s worth of starts. Salazar won’t turn 23 until January, and could be a badly-needed power righthanded arm who should stick in the rotation.

Tim Fedroff, OF: Looking at Fedroff’s 2011, I still saw a guy who was likely to be a 4th OF in the major leagues. He hit .308/.385/.408, but with just 3 HR in 132 games between Akron and Columbus. He was more of a “tweener,” not quite fast enough to play CF, not quite powerful enough for an OF corner. All the 25-year old OF did in 2012 was go out and have his best season as a professional, putting up an eye-popping .325/.393/.517 line with 9 HR and 32 RBI in 69 games for AAA Columbus after being promoted from AA Akron mid-season. Fedroff’s previous season high in HR was 4, so the 12 he hit between Akron and Columbus last season tripled that mark. Fedroff finished just short of the number of AB needed to qualify for the league leaders in the International League, but his .910 OPS would have been 2nd, .517 SLG would have been 3rd, and his .325 AVG would have led the entire league. Those numbers are impressive any way you slice it, and his road batting line was as good or better than his numbers in cozy Huntington Park. Fedroff couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career year, as the 25-year old is getting towards the age where he is going to have to produce at the major league level or be faced with the prospect of becoming a career minor league player. Fedroff should be in the mix for an OF job in spring training this year, and I really hope his stellar 2012 can carry over to Goodyear in 2013 and he can win a spot on the 25-man roster at the outset of the season.

Dorssys Paulino, SS: I didn’t really know what to expect out of Dorssys Paulino in 2012. He was the Indians big $$ signing out of the Dominican Republic last fall, commanding a $1.1 million bonus as a 16-year old infielder, and played the entire 2012 season at age 17. My budget here does not include scouting trips to the Dominican (unfortunately), so I had obviously never seen Paulino play baseball with my own eyes until after my rankings came out last March. I slotted him in at #17 based on some glowing scouting reports, but was uncomfortable ranking him any higher based on the simple fact that I’d never seen him even so much as pick up a baseball. Well, it turned out that the ranking was way too conservative, as Paulino put up video-game numbers as a 17-year old in the Arizona Summer League and is a no-doubt top 5 player in the organization right now. In 41 Arizona games this summer, Paulino hit a robust .355/.404/.610 with 6 HR, 14 2B, 6 3B and 9 stolen bases. Most impressively, he walked 15 times while striking out just 31, a pretty good ratio for a Dominican-born player in his first stateside action. Paulino moved up to Mahoning Valley at the end of 2012, and hit a respectable .271/.306/.407 with a HR and 8 RBI in 15 games with the Scrappers. There’s some doubt as to whether Paulino’s glove will play at SS long-term, but that’s a potential superstar with the bat no matter where he plays in the field. A lot can happen between Arizona and Cleveland, but Paulino’s success at such a young age is an extremely encouraging sign for his future in the organization.

So that's it for the good news. Now for some of the players who took a step backwards in 2012: 

Jake Lowery, C: I had high hopes for Lowery heading into 2012, and not just because of my well-documented affinity for catchers. Lowery won the Johnny Bench Award in college while at James Madison in 2011, given to the nation’s top collegiate catcher. The Indians snagged him in the 4th round of the draft that year, then sent him straight to the New York-Penn League to get his feet wet as a professional. Lowery got off to a hot start with the Scrappers and was named to the NYPL All-Star team, and finished with a .245/.377/.415 line with 6 HR in 29 games. I expected Lowery to build on that after an offseason to rest and recuperate, and ranked him as the #16 prospect in the Indians organization. The 2012 season was not kind to Lowery however, as he put up just a .640 OPS in 59 games with the high-A Carolina Mudcats before being sent down to low-A Lake County to try and rediscover his swing. Lowery continued to struggle in low-A initially, but got hot in the last month of the season to finish with a .248/.358/.504 line with 7 HR in 29 Midwest League games. Overall, he posted a .730 OPS between the two leagues, and caught 24 of 82 (29%) of would-be basestealers. Lowery turned 22 in July, and has both the talent and the mental toughness to bounce back from his sub-par 2012. But he’s not going to rank in the top-20 prospects in the organization again until he can prove that he can get it done both at and behind the plate for a full season and not just a month or two.

Felix Sterling, RHP: Sterling was one of the guys on my “must see” list coming into 2012. I was tantalized by the reports of a 6’3”, 18-year old righthander throwing consistently in the mid-90’s and ranked him as my #11 prospect in the org, saying that I thought he could develop into at least a #2 at the big-league level down the road. Sterling spent most of 2012 in low-A Lake County, where he struggled to an overall record of 4-8 with an ugly 6.58 ERA in 93 innings with the Captains. He struck out 71, but walked 40 and ended up allowing more than 1.5 baserunners per inning on average. Sent down to the complex leagues to find himself, Sterling pitched well, going 3-0 with a 1.66 ERA while striking out 31 and walking just 7 in 21 2/3 IP. Any hope that he’d turned a corner was dampened back in Lake County though, as Sterling gave up 13 hits and 8 ER in his final two appearances (4 IP) with the Captains. A National League scout that I talked to in June said that Sterling didn’t really impress him from a scouting standpoint either, remarking that he really didn’t have an effective secondary pitch to rely on so hitters were able to just sit on his fastball. The scout said that he had Sterling graded as a future reliever, and that plus the poor performance will leave him well short of the top-20 prospects in the organization this year.

Robel Garcia, INF: I ranked Garcia in the #12 spot on my list last year, thinking that his 2011 showing in the Arizona Summer League was a harbinger of an infielder with prodigious power and an advance approach. As a 17-year old in AZ, he hit 6 HR and drew 23 BB on his way to a .910 OPS in the complex leagues, and the Indians aggressively started him in the low-A Midwest League in 2012. His time with Lake County was rocky at best, as he hit just .210/.298/.309 with 3 HR in 63 games. Demoted to Mahoning Valley when the NYPL started up, Garcia fared little better, hitting .227/.312/.293 with no homers in 56 games for the Scrappers. I wasn’t the only one fooled by Garcia’s potential in 2012, as the lead minor league writer for Baseball Prospectus, Jason Parks, sums up his own feelings on Garcia here: 
 2012 was a disaster for the young prospect, first bombing in his full-season debut and then bombing after getting demoted to the short-season New York-Penn League. His bat was just very weak, both in the ability to make contact and in the ability to make hard contact. He still showed a plan at the plate, which is a positive we can take away from his season, but it’s hard to find many positives outside of the basic developmental steps that can occur in the face of poor production. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m still a fan of the hands and the juice in the bat, but I was clearly too quick on the prospect gun, and Garcia’s disappointing campaign left my prognostication exposed. Was I wrong? I’m not sure. But I wasn’t right about his immediate progression. Whoops.
Whoops is right. Hopefully he can bounce back in a big way in 2013, but 2012 was all but a lost season for the young Dominican infielder.
Dillon Howard, RHP: The Indians 2nd round pick in 2011 was paid like a 1st rounder, as the Indians signed Howard to a well-over slot bonus of $1.85 million. Showing a maturity beyond his years, the 19-year old Howard donated a portion of that bonus to the Milestones Autism Organization in Cleveland in honor of his younger brother, who has autism. He was seen as one of the more advanced prep arms in the 2011 draft, and projected by many as a 1st round pick. I tabbed him as the #2 prospect in the organization based on near-universal glowing scouting reports. Howard signed too late to pitch in 2011, and was expected to make his debut in the Midwest League sometime in early 2012. A couple of nagging spring training injuries slowed his timetable considerably, as the Indians were understandably cautions with their big $$ arm. Howard didn’t pitch in game situations until the complex leagues started up in 2012, and when he did finally get into game action, the results weren’t pretty. Howard appeared in 12 games in Arizona, going 1-7 with a 7.90(!) ERA. He recorded 35 strikeouts and issued 18 walks in 41 IP. Worse even than the numbers were the discouraging scouting reports, with ESPN’s Keith Law remarking that Howard, “was very disappointing, working at 87-90 mph, and his arm looked slow or tired. He was substantially better than that as an amateur.”  Time will tell whether Howard can bounce back, as talent like his does not simply vanish over the course of several months. A healthy spring training should catapult Howard to the Midwest League in early 2013, but 2012 was essentially a lost year for the young righthander.

Austin Adams/CC Lee/Jason Knapp, RHPs: These three are kind of a cop-out, as all three fell due to the same reason; injury to their respective throwing arms. Knapp hasn’t thrown a pitch in anger since 2010, but his elite potential still had me ranking him as the #20 guy in the org. The Indians an Knapp parted ways in 2012, and he’s an extreme long shot to ever pitch again. C.C. Lee went down with an elbow injury in spring training last year, so my #8 prospect never threw an official pitch in 2012. He still has potential as an elite reliever, especially against fellow righthanders, but who knows what he’ll be able to do in 2012. Austin Adams was my #4 guy last year, but a myriad of shoulder injuries kept him from even pitching in spring training. He’s recovering from surgery and will attempt to pitch in 2013, but shoulder injuries in pitchers terrify me, much more so than elbow injuries. If he can return to anything like his 2011 form, he’s still a top-5 guy in the org. But until I see evidence that he’s back pumping triple-digit heat, it will be tough to rank him in the top-10. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Slow Start, Big Finish in 2012 for Tony Wolters

With their third round pick in the 2010 MLB draft, the Indians selected shortstop Tony Wolters out of Rancho Buena Vista High School in California. Wolters signed late in the process, and reported to Arizona where he managed to get just 5 games in during the Rookie League that year. Expected to begin 2011 in Lake County, Wolters broke a bone in his hand during spring training and ended up missing the beginning of the year, so the Indians sent the 19-year old to short-season Mahoning Valley. Wolters hit .292/.385/.363 with a HR, 20 RBI, 50 runs scored and 19 stolen bases in 69 games for the Scrappers and seemed primed for a breakout in 2012. Based on his strong 2011 performance as well as the presence of 2011 first round draft pick Francisco Lindor in Lake County, the Indians decided to aggressively push Wolters straight to the high-A Carolina Mudcats for opening day 2012.

To say that Wolters’ 2012 got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement. In 18 games during the month of April, the 19-year old hit just .130/.231/.159, managing just 9 hits in 69 at bats. Young players generally struggle to adjust from the short-season New York-Penn League to the low-A Midwest League. But to skip low-A altogether is an enormous challenge. It’s understandable that Wolters struggled to adjust to the better pitching in the Carolina League, especially the advanced secondary stuff that hitters start to see at that level. “The month of April was one of the longest months of my life,” said Wolters. “Each day felt like a month. But every day I learned something, I kept on learning and learning…I made some good decisions about my swing and they never gave up on me. That long month of April really helped out; I think it’s going to be one of the most important parts of my career.” That was Wolters looking back on his April when I caught up with him in August, so it was a lot easier for him go see that month as part of the learning process. Wolters rebounded to hit .291/.360/.408 in May on his way to a final line of .260/.320/.404 in 125 games for the Mudcats. While April was a rough month, it really did help him become a better player in the long run, both mentally and physically. “I knew I could get myself out of what I was doing in April. It was tough, there were nights where it was hard to go to sleep. I talked to my parents, prayed to God every night, but I knew I could get through it. You just have to step back and realize, you’re playing a kids game. You’re going to have those weeks, those months…every baseball player goes through that. You’re only going to get better, and I’m glad the Indians are pushing me to things I’m not used to in order to get better.”

That line isn’t overly impressive alone, but when you consider his age (turned 20 in June), the fact that he was playing above-average defense at both SS and 2B, and the hole that he had to climb out of after his poor April, you realize that Wolters’ season cannot be summed up just from looking at his triple-slash line. He was 8th in the league with 30 doubles, led the league with 8 triples, and even managed to finish in the top-20 in the league with his .724 OPS. Oh, and he was the youngest player on the Mudcats roster. Wolters had a steep learning curve to deal with in the Carolina League, and after April he not only survived, but thrived in a league notorious for being one of the toughest offensive environments in minor league baseball. His season peaked with an extremely impressive month of July, when he hit .343/.396/.505 with a pair of HR in 25 games.

Wolters was given high marks for his work ethic and intangibles prior to the draft, and that scouting report has held true for the infielder as a professional as well. Wolters is one of the hardest working players in the organization, and a guy that leads by example on and off the field. I had an opportunity to watch Wolters’ pre-game routine before a mid-August game in Potomac, and came away impressed. To start, Wolters takes a round of BP with his group. He then moves out to either 2B or SS and takes a round of grounders from one of the coaches while the 2nd group hits. When the third group is in the cage, Wolters stays out in the field and takes grounders from whoever is hitting. After that, when everyone else heads into the clubhouse to rest and grab a bite before the game, Wolters had manager Edwin Rodriguez hit him grounders while he’s on his knees to improve his hands and his reaction time. Again, this is all before the game even begins.

Wolters was primarily a SS in high school and then in his first professional season in Mahoning Valley, but was asked to play 2B last year to increase his versatility and value to the organization. I asked him about switching back and forth between two pretty demanding defensive positions, and Wolters said “For me, 2B is a hard position. The angles are so much different, you have to like the cut of the grass and be able to take balls off the grass, and that’s something I’m not used to yet. At 2B, you’re using your backhand a lot more than at SS. It’s a different rhythm, and I’m still getting used to it, but I’m making progress. Give me this offseason, and I’ll be completely fine with it.” He made 16 errors in 63 games at 2B, and just 8 errors in 61 games at SS. He’s clearly more comfortable at SS, but with the amount of talent the Indians have at that position in the minors they really need Wolters to be able to play both middle infield positions going forward.

I talked to Wolters about the adjustments he made in the Carolina League, and also about how the league adjusted to him once he started hitting. One thing he really noticed was that he was seeing fewer and fewer fastballs and more and more breaking balls. “If you miss a fastball, that’s the last fastball you’re going to see. You see pitchers almost twice a week sometimes, so they learn how to get you out pretty quickly. You just have to be able to recognize mistakes and make them pay for those mistakes.” By the end of the season, the left-handed hitting Wolters actually ended up hitting for a higher average (.264) off of lefties than righties (.259). That’s a pretty remarkable achievement for a kid his age and experience level. He didn’t make any huge mechanical changes, but really worked to start his swing earlier and softer to help stay back on breaking pitches. Every at bat was a learning experience, and Wolters’ never-ending desire to improve helped him to become a much better baseball player in September than he was in April.

The Indians farm system is loaded with middle infield prospects right now. Francisco Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez, Dorssys Paulino and Wolters will all be top-10 prospects in the organization this offseason. All four of them will start the 2013 season prior to their 21st birthdays. While the Indians system as a whole is down right now, that up the middle talent represents a chance for the system to work its way back in a hurry, as those guys all have the potential to be solid major leaguers (or more) down the road. Whether he ends up at shortstop or 2B long-term, Wolters is going to be an important part of this organization. He’s a talented defender with the ability to hit at the top of a batting order, and really has off the charts makeup and intangibles. If Wolters doesn’t have a successful major league career, it will definitely not be for lack of effort on his part. He’s one of my favorite players in the organization, a lot of fun to watch on the field, and will be a joy for AA Akron fans next season. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Managing Expectations on a Lazy Sunday

How do you replace a legend? How does one go about replacing the best Indians writer in the business? I was wracking my brain for longer than I’d care to admit trying to come up with the best comparison for me taking over the DiaTribe from Paul Cousineau. Earle Bruce stepping in for Woody Hayes came to mind, but that wasn’t quite right, even if it did conjure up a pretty funny image of Pauly punching a Clemson football player. After quite a bit of deliberation, I decided that I’d rely on the somewhat obscure movie “Rock Star,” featuring none other than Mark Wahlberg himself. If you’ve never seen the movie (and I’m assuming most of you haven’t), Marky Mark is a huge fan of a rock band, and is the lead singer in a tribute band. In a very Judas Priest twist, the lead singer for the real band is replaced by Marky Mark for some reason. That’s the best way to describe the way I feel; I was and remain a huge fan of Pauly’s work, and no one want’s him back at the keyboard more than I do. To be given the chance to step into his shoes is both an honor and a pretty awesome responsibility, because the last thing I want to do is not live up to his impressive standards. I did briefly entertain trying to “tank” my columns to try and infuriate Paul to the point that he was forced to come back to save the DT, but ultimately decided against it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know Paul over the past several years, and really enjoy trading e-mails, sharing links and the Indians games that we’ve attended together. The outpouring of support on both the DiaTribe, Cleveland Fan and elsewhere across the interwebs from his devoted fans has been both well-deserved and great to see, and I’m really glad you all appreciate his work as much as I do. I’ll do my best to replace him, and thanks for sticking with me here on another Lazy Sunday.

With all that said, new Indians manager Terry Francona has the luxury of stepping into much smaller shoes than I as he takes over for departed skipper Manny Acta. From the moment the season ended, it became clear that not only was Francona a candidate for the position but the frontrunner for the job. Many of the Cleveland media seemed almost reluctant to believe it was possible until it actually happened, continually insisting that Sandy Alomar was the likely 2013 manager. Alomar did of course interview for the job and was offered a position on Francona’s staff, but he’s also considered in the running for the Rockies job and even for Boston’s vacant managerial seat, so he may have a better opportunity than to remain a bench coach in Cleveland. If Alomar does remain on as a part of the Indians coaching staff, it would likely be a short-term stint as when a guy starts getting to the final interview stage for numerous managerial openings it’s really only a matter of time until he gets a shot to captain a team of his own. Francona signed a four-year deal, and I’d be surprised if Alomar is around in the Indians dugout at the end of that original contract. If Sandy does jump ship this offseason, the recently-fired Brad Mills is a candidate to join Francona’s staff as bench coach.

With or without Sandy, there’s little doubt that the Indians hit a home run with this hire. Francona spent eight years at the helm of the Boston Red Sox, making the playoffs five times and of course winning two World Series titles, the first in Boston since 1918. Maybe you’d heard something about that on a certain 4-letter national sports network. His worst record as Sox manager was a very respectable 86-76 in 2006. Before you point out the Red Sox payrolls and tell me that an idiot could have gotten 80+ wins out of that club, take a look at what happened to the (still very expensive) Red Sox this season while Francona was in the broadcast booth. There has been a lot of talk about the type of players and the roster that Francona had at his disposal in Boston, and folks are wondering how he will respond to managing a much younger, cheaper team in Cleveland in 2013 and beyond. While it’s true that Francona’s Boston teams had veterans like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Bill Mueller and others on those successful teams, he also successfully worked youngsters like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Paplebon, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamaccia into the fold, and saw the likes of Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Josh Reddick and other youngsters begin careers that have varying degrees of success today. So while it was pretty easy to tell Pedro and Schilling to go out and dominate every 5th day, Francona was still responsible for shepherding the development of plenty of young, (and some) homegrown talent as they came up through the ranks in the Red Sox organization. Did the veteran presence and massive payroll help? Of course. But Francona probably doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did in Boston, managing the massive expectations that went along with the massive payroll, a usually-hostile media, set-in-their-ways veterans and still bringing along the talented youngsters to keep Boston at or near the top of the baseball world throughout his stint as manager. Bottom line, Francona has a better resume than any coach hired to take over in Cleveland…well, maybe ever.

Prior to his very successful stint in Boston, Francona managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000, never winning more than 77 games in his four years in the City of Brotherly Love. Francona’s Philly rosters were far less talented that his Sox teams, with a couple of stars (Rolen, Abreu, Schilling) mixed with a couple of solid contributors (Lieberthal, Glanville, Byrd) mixed with a whole bunch of JAGs. This mostly reveals what we all already knew (or at least suspected); that a manager is really only as good as his players. Matthew Kory of Baseball Prospectus penned an article that talks about that, with a token “Francona could have done better, what was he thinking?” Cleveland reference thrown in. 

The difference between Francona’s average Phillies team and Francona’s average Red Sox team is 22 wins. While I wouldn’t argue if you said Francona was a more effective and smarter manager in Boston than he was in Philadelphia, did those accumulated managing smarts make a 22 game difference? I suppose you can’t know with total certainty, but it’s worth pointing out that major-league front offices don’t think so. If they did, Francona would be paid $20 million a season instead of just taking a job with the lowly Indians.


That all means, unless the Indians invent a new way to acquire talent, they’re probably looking at some leaner seasons on the horizon. Those seasons are likely going to be lean whether or not Terry Francona is the manager. That’s fine for the Indians, but it makes Cleveland an odd choice for Francona. Maybe he thinks he can coach ‘em up, or maybe he’s been assured the team is going to buy on the free agent market, or maybe he just wants to work. There’s nothing wrong with that, and picking a place he wants to be over one where winning is more easily attainable is admirable. But I’m surprised Francona isn’t able to do better. With his experience he should see the Indians job for what it is. In three or four years Francona will probably be back in the same boat he was in when he worked in Philadelphia, which is to say, not working there anymore.

I’m not quite as down on the Indians future as Kory, who is likely spending this weekend writing the outline for his article that will be posted upon Francona’s firing, I do agree that the team is going to need more talent to contend, especially starting pitching. Jordan Bastain posted a nice piece about Masterson reuniting with Francona that included this gem from Terry; "When you talk about pitching, you're going to hear me say this: 'When you think you've got enough, you go get more, or you try to.' You try to have depth, because no team has enough pitching." That’s his way of saying the Indians need at least 6 or 7 starters to get through the season, and they really don’t have even 5 to rely on at this point. Carlos Carrasco can hopefully provide some measure of relief when he returns to the rotation next year, but he’ll be just one year removed from Tommy John surgery at that point so it’s premature to count on him for too much. So barring a trade or free agent signing, the club will need some combination of Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Gomez, Slowey, Huff and maybe Roberto Hernandez to cobble together a rotation. Just typing that sentence mad my fingers, eyes, and heart hurt a little. If Francona can patch together a viable major league rotation out of those guys, he’ll have earned every dollar the Indians pay him and more.  

ESPN’s Buster Olney got some attention earlier this week when he tweeted that Francona has an “out clause” in his contract if certain members of the front office are relieved of their duties. The club has no official comment on the clause, and I’ve yet to see a local writer confirm the existence of it, but I have a hard time thinking Buster would just make it up. No details have been released as to just who those front office personalities are, but one can logically deduce that it refers to either Shapiro, Antonetti or both. Francona must have been the one to request this clause, as it wouldn’t make any sense for the Indians to have insisted on it. For now, I’ll just say that it speaks to Francona’s close personal ties with members of the front office, and not assume that it makes any sort of statement about the job security of his superiors. Francona’s dad, Tito, played for the Indians, and was so happy during his son’s press conference that he was actually in tears. Francona came to Cleveland after his stint in Philly to work in the Indians front office, and Shapiro and Antonetti actually helped him prep for his interview when he was gunning for the Boston job. As Anthony Castrovice detailed, Francona’s close ties to the Indians front office are what really made this deal happen. As always, he cuts straight to the heart of the issue with respect to what will really make the Indians a better ballclub (hint…it’s more than just $$):

What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department -- and that's not going to happen in one of the game's smallest markets, unless there's some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I'm completely unaware -- means nothing if it's not backed by solid baseball decisions.
Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions -- from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the First-Year Player Drafts -- not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.
So while a few extra bucks in payroll will certainly help, no amount of money will overcome poor personnel decisions. If the wrong players are continually drafted, traded for and signed in the free agent market, then the team is going to continue lose a lot more than they win. Francona though is comfortable with the front office, having worked with them in the past and worked in an organization with similar philosophies (albeit a far bigger payroll) in Boston. Francona won’t be fighting the front office on most of their decisions, and he’ll get a 25-man roster that he will have some input in the construction of. He’s definitely ready to work, and he’s happy to be working in Cleveland. Money alone does not beget success; it can help cover up failures, but continuing to harp on the team’s well-documented payroll limitations is misguided and short-sighted. The Indians can contend in the Central Division with a modest increase in payroll as long as there’s a significant increase in good personnel decisions.

My favorite line from Francona so far is this one, from another of Bastain’s pieces on; “I didn't come here to go to pasture," Francona said. "I was either going to work here or go back and work at ESPN. I came here again, because I'm not afraid of a challenge, and the people here that I'm doing it with.” Francona is happy to be working for Shapiro and Antonetti, happy to be in Cleveland, and he knows the challenge he’s stepping in to. Is that going to be enough to help return the Indians to contender status in the below-average Central Division? Time will tell, but I definitely think that the team made the right hire and that it’s at least a step in the right direction. Francona is not going to be able to transform the team overnight, and he’s not going to be able to do it without an influx of talent. With the state of the Indians minor league system, that talent is going to have to come from outside the organization if the club expects to contend in the near-term. Francona will be an important piece in the fight to throw open another “window of contention,” but he’s not going to be able to do it alone. But if the front office can put the right pieces on the field, I’m confident in Francona’s ability to manage them to a title. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Arizona Fall League Preview

True confessions time; I did not write a Lazy Sunday last week in the hopes that Paul was kidding about retiring and this was all some elaborate hoax. I woke up first thing Sunday morning, fired up the laptop and checked the site. Nothing. Made breakfast, had a cup of coffee, set my fantasy football lineups and checked the site again. Still nothing. Watched the Browns game. Tried not to throw up. Checked the site again, just in case. Still nothing. The realization finally sank favorite Indians writer isn't writing about the Indians anymore. I feel like sad Victor. 

No one can replace Paul. I'm going to save much of my material on this subject for the intro to this week's Lazy Sunday (yes, it will be back this Sunday). Bottom line here is that I'm going to do my best, and I hope you all like it and continue to read, but Paul is a one of a kind writer, fan, and friend. To replace him is not a realistic goal, but I'll try to fill the void.

On a programming note, I'm planning to do mostly minor league stuff during the week, and mostly big-league club stuff on Sunday. Don't hold me to this because that won't be a hard-and-fast rule throughout our little journey, but that's the plan for now. If you like it, don't like it, or have any questions, please never hesitate to let me know in the comments section, e-mail ( or on twitter @Gotribe31. I convinced Paul to keep the DiaTribe twitter handle as his own, so he'll still be somewhat active on that. With all that being said, a sincere thanks for reading, and here's a look at the prospects the Indians will be sending down to the Arizona Fall League. Go Tribe!!!

The Arizona Fall League opened play yesterday as action got underway in what is universally regarded as MLB’s premiere off-season showcase for top prospects across baseball. The Indians sent eight of their kids down to the desert, split evenly between pitchers and position players. The Tribe farmhands will join those from the Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants to comprise the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall, who will play their home games in San Francisco’s spring training facility located in lovely Scottsdale, Arizona. An informal survey of the Indians prospects found that 117% of them favor living/working in Scottsdale over Goodyear, and those who’ve been to both areas will have a pretty good idea why. Columbus Clippers hitting coach Phil Clark will be accompanying the players as part of the Scottsdale coaching staff. The Indians sent an interesting contingent of players to Arizona this year, including the two youngest players on the Scorpions roster. Here’s a look at who’s in the desert and what we can expect out of them, both this fall and going forward through the system:

T.J. House, LHP: Each organization is allowed to designate one of their pitchers as a starter, and the AFL managers can only use those players in the starting rotation. House is the Indians designated starter this year, and the lefty is hoping to have a similar campaign as his predecessors the past two years, fellow southpaws Scott Barnes (2010) and T.J. McFarland (2011). Both Barnes and McFarland had solid seasons in the hitter-friendly environment down in the desert, and House should be able to do the same. He began the season with high-A Carolina, going 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA while striking out 26 and walking just 6 in 25 IP for the Mudcats. Quickly promoted to the more challenging environment of AA Akron, House continued to put together a solid season. He went 8-5 with a 3.98 ERA, 90 K and 44 BB in 124 1/3 IP for the Aeros, and was really one of the better starting pitchers in the organization this season. He was criminally underrated on my preseason top prospects countdown at #49, a fact I’m both slightly ashamed of and extremely happy about being so wrong. House reported to spring training in much better shape in 2012, and also changed his arm slot from an over-the-top angle to a more ¾ delivery similar to how he through as a prepster. Those factors combined to propel House to his best season as a professional, and there’s no reason to think his success won’t carry over to Arizona this fall. House turned 23 just a couple of weeks ago, and has a profiles as a solid middle of the rotation starter who pitches to contact, keeps the ball in the ballpark and eats innings in a major league rotation.

Matt Packer, LHP: Packer, a 32nd round pick out of the University of Virginia in 2009, was one of the more pleasant surprises in the system in 2010. Packer put up a 9-7 record with a 2.04 ERA between Lake County and Akron that year, striking out 123 and walking just 22 in 132 2/3 IP. He took a small step back in 2011, pitching the entire year at AA Akron and going 9-12 with a 4.31 ERA, 129 K and 33 BB in 169 1/3 IP. Still, Packer was expected to spend a significant amount of time in Columbus this season, but sprained his rotator cuff in spring training this year and didn’t pitch in game action until July. He made a total of 14 starts between the rookie-level AZL Indians, Carolina, Akron and Columbus. Six of his starts were for the AAA Clippers, where he went 1-4 with a 5.50 ERA, 23 K and 14 BB in 34 1/3 IP. Packer has always been more of a command and control guy who does a nice job going after hitters. Not having a spring training really undercut both his effectiveness and any momentum he had built up with a strong 2nd half of the 2011 season, and is really just looking to make up for lost time down in Arizona.

Trey Haley, RHP: Haley is everything you could want in a power bullpen arm. The 6’3”, 180lb righty out of Nacogdoches, TX just looks like a pitcher. He has an arm capable of generating triple-digit heat, and he maintains high-90’s velocity with surprising consistency. He also has a nice curveball that flashes plus, a big-breaker that is almost 20 MPH slower than his plus-plus heat. It’s a great pitch to change up both the velocity and the eye level on hitters, and makes his fastball that much more effective. Haley went a combined 4-1 with a 2.33 ERA and a 11.4 K/9 ratio between three levels last season. The only concerns with Haley are his command (4.4 BB/9) and his health, as Haley was able to throw just 38 2/3 innings in 2012 after being limited to 44 1/3 innings in 2011 with a sports hernia. Haley was a starter through 2010, but the decision was made to move him to the bullpen prior to the 2011 season. The lack of a reliable 3rd pitch played a major role in that decision, although Haley has added a slider to his repertoire that he feels increasingly comfortable with. He’s an ideal arm to have in the back end of a bullpen though, as he has the ability to come in and just blow hitters away with his fastball towards the end of the game. Like Packer, Haley will be logging some innings to make up for time lost to injury in 2012, and should be one of the top RP on the Scottsdale roster this fall.

Shawn Armstrong, RHP: The Indians really do have an embarrassment of riches in their minor league bullpens, as Armstrong represents another outstanding relief arm that the Indians have assigned to the AFL. Selected in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, the former East Carolina Pirate had a fantastic 2012 season, putting up fantastic numbers at three stops in the Indians farm system. I’m not a huge fan of simply regurgitating numbers to you guys, but these are too good to pass up; 0.00 ERA with 4 K and 2 BB in 3 2/3 IP for Lake County, 2.06 ERA with 52 K and 23 BB in 43 2/3 IP for Carolina, and finally 0.89 ERA with 22 K and 12 BB in 20 1/3 IP for Akron. Overall, that gave him a season line of 2-3 with 4 saves and a 1.60 ERA, 78 K and 37 BB in 67 2/3 IP throughout all of 2012. He was a Carolina League All-Star, and didn’t allow a home run all season. That HR streak will be in jeopardy in the thin Arizona air, but I think Armstrong will be up to the challenge. The 6’2, 210lb righty picked up a couple of ticks on his fastball since he was drafted, and now flashes mid-90’s heat. Combine that with an above-average slider that flashes plus, and you have the makings of a pretty solid bullpen arm. The one area Armstrong does need to improve is his walk rate, which was a too-high 4.9 BB/9 this season. It was his first full year of professional baseball though, so the hope is that he can become more consistent with his mechanics and by extension his command as he gets coached up by the Indians developmental staff.

Tyler Holt, CF: Holt was a 10th round pick out of Florida State in the 2010 draft, and profiles as a classic CF/leadoff hitter type of player. He split the 2012 season between Carolina and Akron, finishing with an overall line of .258/.340/.320 with 15 doubles, 9 triples, 34 RBI and 29 stolen bases in 41 attempts. He has above-average speed and is a very good baserunner, doing a nice job timing pitchers and picking his spots to run. He has below-average power, as he’s hit just 2 career HR in 1051 minor-league at bats. He’s an above-average defender in CF who makes great reads on balls and covers a lot of ground. His arm is a tick above average. Holt pretty much has to stick in CF defensively, because his bat simply does not profile well in a corner OF position. He’s 23 years old, and will turn 24 during spring training next year. Holt is an intense competitor who really wears his emotions on his sleeve and always plays with maximum effort. His overall tools package plays better than the sum of his parts so to speak, as he has good baseball instincts, a great work ethic and gives 100% on every opportunity at the plate and in the field.

Ronny Rodriguez, SS: Rodriguez is one of my favorite players in the organization, both on and off the diamond. He was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, and the Indians tossed then-19 year old SS straight into the deep end to see if he’d swim. He made his debut with the Lake County Captains in the pitcher friendly Midwest League that year, hitting a very respectable .246/.274/.449 with 11 HR and 49 RBI. Rodriguez played all of 2012 in the Carolina infield in another league notorious for poor batting lines, and all he did was go .264/.300/.452 with 19 HR, 20 doubles and 66 RBI. The 19 HR were good for 4th in the entire Carolina League, was 5th in the league in total bases with 205. All this while learning a new position in the field (2B) and playing a very much improved SS. Any way you look at it, that’s an awfully impressive prospect, especially when you factor in his age. He’s got a plus arm and above-average range, and really got better at consistently making the plays he should make in the field. He has incredibly strong hands and a quick bat, which actually results in the righthanded hitter getting a little pull-happy sometimes. As long as he’s staying back and using the whole field, Rodriguez is a very, very good hitter. His approach could use a little work (88 K and just 19 BB) but his K rate actually went down from 22% in 2011 to 19% in 2012. Still a little high, but the improvement despite facing better pitching is an encouraging sign. He’s a lock to be a top-5 prospect in the Indians organization this offseason, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the AFL against pitchers even older and more talented than the ones he was facing in Carolina this season. He’s the 2nd youngest player on the Scottsdale roster, as he’s just 5 days older than the next player on our list.

Alex Monsalve, C: As I previously alluded to, Monsalve is the youngest player on the Scorpions roster this season, as he’s just 20 years old. Monsalve split the 2012 season between Lake County and Carolina, going for a combined line of .256/.311/.373 with 8 HR and 42 RBI in 399 AB between the two levels. Monsalve is a big, athletic kid who moves pretty well behind the plate. His footwork is improving, but he still needs to work to clean up his transfer and arm actions to improve his overall defensive game. He has a strong arm, but simply takes too much time to get rid of the baseball. Overall, I have him ranked somewhere in the bottom half of the Indians top-50 prospects.’s Jonathan Mayo however, loves Monsalve. Mayo has consistently ranked him among the Indians top 10-15 in the entire organization. I like Monsalve’s athleticism and potential, but I just don’t see what Mayo sees right now. He’s got to get more consistent at the plate and behind it, and really needs to improve his communication with the pitching staff. That’s a huge part of a catcher’s game, and for Monsalve it’s just not there yet. The AFL will only help this development though, so I’m hopeful that a season of dealing with new pitchers in the desert helps speed up Monsalve’s learning curve.

Carlos Moncrief, OF: A converted pitcher, Moncrief has the best OF throwing arm I’ve seen in the Indians organization to date. That may change this spring when I finally get my first look at last year’s 1st round draft pick Tyler Naquin, but for now Moncrief has the belt. He profiles as an ideal RF, with above-average power and speed to go along with his plus-plus arm. Moncrief was well on his way to a 20/20 season in 2012 when his campaign was cut short at the beginning of August with a broken hammate bone. He’s been rehabbing in Goodyear since having surgery to repair the injury, and must be doing well enough that the Indians think he can make up some at-bats in the AFL. Moncrief ended up playing in 101 games for the Carolina Mudcats this season, and put up a .249/.339/.465 line with 15 HR, 23 2B, 53 RBI and 17 SB. He was caught stealing just twice, showing outstanding baserunning instincts in addition to his above-average speed. Moncrief is a very good athlete, and in addition to the cannon arm covers a lot of ground in RF. If he can just cut down on the strikeouts (126 in 353 AB last year), he could become a classic power hitting, strong armed RF in the show one day. The injury may limit Moncrief as far as playing time goes, and I’d be surprised if he actually started the AFL season in the lineup, but it’s a great opportunity for him to build up his strength and conditioning while still collecting important at bats against quality pitching. Because he lost some developmental time on the mound, the 23-year old Moncrief needs as much playing time as possible if he’s going to turn into the player that Indians fans hope he can be.