Sunday, March 30, 2014

Goodyear Notebook on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Another fantastic trip to Goodyear, Arizona is in my rear-view mirror, and the start of the season is upon us. This was my 4th consecutive trip to the desert for spring training, and every year it gets better and better. If you love baseball, you owe it to yourself to make the trip at least once in your lifetime. Between work-outs, minor league games, B games and big league games, you can watch over 10 hours of baseball a day in 80+ degree weather. And if that gets boring, there’s plenty of golf, bars/restaurants and other fun stuff to keep you occupied. Did I mention it is 85 degrees and sunny down there this time of year? Enough of my gloating, let me get into what you really came here for. These are some of my observations from spending six days in Indians camp this year, primarily on the minor league fields.

  • Tony Wolters, converted from middle infield to catcher around this time last year, has made enormous strides behind the plate. He looks like he’s been catching his entire life. His hands are strong, and he’s doing a great job receiving. He still has a ball go off his mitt for a passed ball every once in a while, but the strides he’s made in just one year of catching are remarkable. Some of the credit goes to Dave Wallace, Wolters’ manager in Carolina last year and a fantastic defensive catcher during his playing days. Wallace will move up to AA Akron this season, and so will Wolters, moves that work quite nicely together.
  • Dillon Howard and Jake Sisco have retired. Howard is 21, and was the Indians 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft, a pick that was widely praised outside of the organization at the time. He went 1-7 with a 7.90 ERA for the AZL Indians in 2012, never pitching outside of the complex leagues. Sisco, 22, was the Indians 3rd round pick in the 2011 draft. He went a combined 7-21 with a 4.98 ERA over three seasons between the AZL Indians, Mahoning Valley Scrappers and Lake County Captains. Good thing they got Lindor in the 1st round that year.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Francisco Mejia…wow. I ranked Mejia as the organization’s #4 overall prospect this offseason despite never having seen him play. Now that I have seen him in action, I feel like that might have been a spot too low. Mejia is just 18 years old, and won’t turn 19 until after the 2014 season. He has extremely strong hands/wrists, and generates plus bat speed from both sides of the plate. His swing is a little long, and his hands are very loud with almost a Sheffield-level bat twitch before loading his hands high and deep. He’s extremely aggressive at the plate, swinging at nearly anything around the strike zone and frequently attacking the first pitch of the AB. He makes it all work, as he reached base 7 times in the 9 AB’s I saw him take this spring in game action (5 hits and 2 BB). Both of the walks he took were on four pitches nowhere near the strike zone, and Mejia actually seemed disgusted by the fact that he had to take a walk rather than hit.
  • Mejia’s arm gets its own bullet point. Poems will be written about Francisco Mejia’s arm. We’ll tell our grandchildren about the times we saw Mejia throw down to second base. Singers will sing of it long after all of us are gone from this Earth. I didn’t see Mejia catch in the first couple of days because he was dealing with a minor elbow issue. Thankfully, that cleared up in time for me to watch him behind the plate my last couple of days in camp. I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, and never in my life have I heard fans and players ooh and ahh over a throw down to 2B between innings. But that’s exactly what happened nearly every time Mejia fired a ball to second. He never popped more than 1.9, and I had him in the 1.7 range a couple of times. I cannot possibly do it justice with the written word. You have to see it in action for yourself. He’s still a little raw as a receiver, but the tools are there for Mejia to be a Gold Glove catcher in the major leagues someday. That’s high praise for an 18-year old who’s never played in a full-season league, but that’s how impressed I was by Francisco Mejia.
  • Francisco Lindor looks pretty much ready. He’s added a little bit of muscle to his frame, but not enough to slow him down at SS. Defensively, he could play in the major leagues right now. He only has 91 plate appearances above high-A, so it’s tough to say that his bat is ready, but it wouldn’t be valueless. SSS alarms and ST alarms both blaring, Lindor did hit .316/.350/.579 with a HR, 2 2B and 5 RBI in 19 AB with the big club in spring training this year. I see growth at the plate from last year to this year, and he’ll continue to improve as he gets experience against top-flight competition. In 10 swings in BP, I saw him hit 6 HR; three from each side of the plate. His bat is going to have value on its own, and when you combine it with his Gold Glove potential in the field, Francisco Lindor is going to be a star. He’s going to start the season back in AA Akron, but you’d better get out and see him there while you can, because he could easily finish the 2014 season at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
  • 3B Gio Urshela has added some size and strength to his frame, and is showing off more power than in previous years. He showcased excellent pull side power in BP, and in one of the games I was watching he did a nice job extending his arms on a pitch on the outer half and driving it off the right-centerfield fence for a long double. He’s an elite defender at 3B, and if he can hit even a little, he has a major league future.
  • I saw one Cody Anderson start, and he was solid if unspectacular. The fastball sat between 90-92, and he was locating it well. He mixed in a slider hat was between 81-84, a curve that was 76-78 and an occasional change at around 78. The slider was more consistent than his curveball. The curve flashed plus, as he broke off a couple of really nice ones, but it was inconsistent. He bounced a couple of curves and really hung one, and looked like he was having a little trouble finding the release point on the pitch.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • LeVon Washington was dealing with some minor injury issues early in camp, but was back on the field by the time I got down there. When he’s healthy, #WASHTIME is productive. He’s got a solid approach at the plate, and feasts on fastballs up in the zone. He struggles with quality breaking balls, and needs to stay healthy and on the field so he can simply see more pitches to improve his pitch recognition/selection skills. He’s slated to open the 2014 season as a Carolina Mudcat, and at this point I’m just hoping that he can play 100+ games this year for the first time in his professional career.
  • It took some people (myself included) a little bit by surprise when Erik Gonzalez was added to the 40-man roster, but I have to say that I now see why the Indians made the move. Gonzalez is a big, athletic kid who still moves well enough to play an outstanding shortstop. His bat has been lagging behind his defense, but the Indians hitting coaches have been working with him to shorten his stride and lower his big, high leg lift that he’d been using to help with his timing. The big leg kick (almost Ruben Sierra level) made it difficult for Gonzalez to adjust and forced him to commit to his swing before he was able to recognize what pitch was being thrown and whether or not it was a strike. Reducing the stride and kick should help him with balance as well as pitch recognition/selection. I don’t expect him to become a Silver Slugger or anything, but the bat shouldn’t hold back his overall game as much as it did last season.
  • One of the coolest things I got to see in spring training this year was the AAA Columbus infield practice during BP. Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez and Joey Wendle rotated between 2B/SS with Travis Fryman hitting them groundballs. The four athletic middle infielders competed to try and turn the most acrobatic double plays, with Fryman assigning grades after each turn. This went on for at least 20 min, and getting to see those guys (especially Lindor!) showcasing their entire range of defensive skills was a lot of fun. Fryman challenged them with a little bit of everything, hitting balls up the middle, deep in the hole, choppers, soft rollers and rockets. That display alone was worth the price of the hotel in Goodyear last week.
  • I got to see Austin Adams pitch twice, and he did Austin Adams things. He’s a pretty known quantity at this point, as he’s going to challenge hitters with a 97-99 MPH fastball, mixing in the occasional bat-breaking slider or curveball. He’s ready to pitch in the major leagues right now, and will be one of the first arms (along with C.C. Lee) that the Indians call on from Columbus in the event of injury or ineffectiveness in the 2014 version of the Bullpen Mafia.
  • Carlos Melo was a guy that I had zero background on, but seeing him hit 96 on his first pitch made me do a little research. Melo was released by the Rangers last year, and the Indians picked him up on the cheap. He’s 23 years old, although that figure was in dispute at one time and caused Melo some visa problems while he was in the Rangers org. He’s never pitched above A ball, and has struck out 283 hitters in 243 innings of work. He’s also walked 163. He sits comfortably in the high-90’s with his fastball, and has touched triple digits in the past. Unfortunately, he has poor command and no breaking ball to speak of. I’m not counting on getting anything out of Melo, but the pure velocity in his arm makes him worth keeping an eye on.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • I got to see lefty Kyle Crockett in action for the first time, and he came as advertised. He’s going to be awfully tough on lefties, coming at the hitter from a variety of arm angles with a lot of deception in his delivery. It was really tough to pick up the ball on Crockett, something that helps his average velocity play up. He’s going to pound the strike zone, attack hitters and induce a lot of weak contact. He could be a big-league bullpen piece as soon as this year (although there's no reason to rush him), and I think he can have success against hitters from both sides of the plate.
  • At every level of their organization, from low-A to the big leagues, the Indians do a fun and interesting game during batting practice. In the last round for each group of hitters, they play a game where ghost runners start on 1st and 2nd with no outs, and each hitter gets an “at-bat” until 3 outs are made. The hitting coach is the sole decider of whether a ball goes for a hit or an out. It makes for a fun competition, some lively debates between hitter and coach, and a lot of ribbing from teammates based on final scores. The day I watched ML BP, Swisher and Kipnis’ group stuck around in the dugout after they hit, yelling at the other groups as they tried to match their score. It’s clearly a lot of fun for the players and coaches, and was pretty cool to watch up close.
  • I finally got to see left-handed starter Luis Lugo pitch, and he was okay. Nothing incredible, but showed a feel for pitching and broke off a couple of nice breaking balls. His fastball sat between 88-91 MPH. He definitely has a projectable body, as he’s already every bit of his listed 6’5” and 200lbs. It’s possible there’s more velocity in there that Lugo will pick up as he continues to add strength to his frame. He just turned 20 earlier this month, so there’s still quite a bit of time on the developmental curve.
  • Another big lefty from Venezuela, Elvis Araujo, showcased a bump in velocity of his own. Araujo sat between 93-95 MPH, touching 97 once. His slider was around 85, and flashed above-average although still needs consistency. At this point, the Indians are just looking for a healthy season from the 6’6” southpaw, as he was only able to throw 9 2/3 innings in 2013.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Mitch Brown flashed the impressive stuff that caused the Indians to pick him in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft. His fastball was sitting between 93-95, touching as high as 97. He was moving the ball around in the strike zone, and gave hitters trouble with his big, 77-79 MPH curveball. He threw a couple of really impressive changeups as well, but also left one up in the zone against Emmanuel Tapia that Tapia deposited over the right field fence. The raw stuff is impressive, he just needs to refine his secondary stuff and improve his fastball command.
  •  One of the guys that I didn’t get to see in action was last year’s 1st round draft pick, Clint Frazier. Frazier was dealing with a minor hamstring issue, and the organization is understandably playing it slow with the talented young outfielder. Frazier did some base coaching, some light running and could be frequently spotted running his fingers through his luxurious red hair. I’m guessing he’ll start off the season in extended spring training before moving up to low-A Lake County after the weather warms up a little bit. Cleveland area fans will still get to see Frazier’s ginger afro patrolling the shores of Lake Erie this season, it’ll just be a little later than anticipated.
  • Jordan Cooper is back on the mound after “minor” offseason surgery (if surgery on a pitcher’s arm can ever be considered minor) to clean up some loose bodies in his arm. He looked like the Coop of old, attacking hitters with a variety of quality offspeed stuff and inducing soft contact. He’s a tough guy to square up, and someone I think can have success eating innings in the back end of a major league rotation.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Venezuelan OF Anthony Santander added significant weight this offseason, and profiles best in LF moving forward. He had some at-bats in AA/AAA games against guys like Aaron Harang and held his own, showing an impressive approach for a kid his age. I think the bat will play, but the defensive profile limits his overall prospect ceiling a little bit.
  • Eric Haase continues to impress every time I see him. He’s at least a backup catcher in the majors for me, and has a chance to be more. He does a nice job handling a pitching staff, calls his own game and really takes charge of the diamond from behind the plate. His bat is solid, and it seems like he gets two hits in every game I watch. He does a really nice job staying back on the baseball and using all fields. I’ve seen him turn on balls on the inner half and rip them down the 3B line for extra bases, and stay back on a breaking ball on the outer half and shoot it past the 2B for a single. I love the approach, the attitude and the work ethic behind the plate.


Unknown said...

Thanks, All! Bang up work all spring. Two questions: 1, Wendle. Legit or Josh Rodriguez 2.0? If the bat can play, what's an ETA? 2. Would you consider doing a best tools list?

Adam Van Arsdale said...

Great stuff, Al. I should have told you to say hi to my dad, who has been an usher at a bunch of the Tribe's spring games.

A couple of other guys I was wondering if you saw this spring; Ronny Rodriguez, Jake Lowery, Luigi Rodriguez, Matt Packer, TJ House?

I know that is asking a lot...

Whirled HQ said...

Awesome report, Al! I'd noticed that some of the most recent international signees got significant playing time this spring. Tapia, Cruz, Castro, Soto and Chang. Any of theses guys make an impression?

Jeff E said...

Al, great job on the photos too! :)

Al Ciammaichella said...

1) I like Wendle's bat a lot. I hadn't thought of the Josh Rodriguez comp for him, but that's not too unreasonable. The bat could play, but with all of the up the middle talent the Indians have, it's tough to see when. I can do a "best tools" list; look for it in an upcoming Lazy Sunday.

2) Thanks Adam! You should've, I would have definitely said hi. I saw plenty of Ronny, and one of House's starts. Both looked pretty much as expected. Ronny is still aggressive and still has some pop. I love watching him play. House still looks like a back of the rotation starter. Luigi Rodriguez was hurt, so didn't see him on the field at all. Didn't see Packer throw at all either. Lowery looked good, seems like he added a couple of pounds of muscle. I think he can hit his way to the majors as an offense-oriented backup.

3) I saw Tapia hit a changeup from Mitch Brown deep over the RF fence. Didn't see enough of those other guys to really make an informed opinion.

4) Thanks Jeff!

Unknown said...

Can't wait for Tribe season. Great photos Al. Great article and info.

hawk1228 said...

With the recent contract extension of Gomes what do you think it means for Wolters, Haase, Lowery