Sunday, May 04, 2014

Lazy Sunday Down in the Minors

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
I haven’t been able to crank out a Lazy one the past two weeks, as Easter and my wife’s birthday conspired to make things even crazier than usual around the house. Hopefully I’ll make it up to you this week, as I’m unveiling just shy of 5,000 words on the Indians minor league system and how the performances of some of the prospects in the organization stack up after the first month of the season. The below stats are only through April 30, so they won’t include Francisco Lindor’s home run from Friday, or Clint Frazier’s walk-off single. Hopefully you enjoy the in-depth look at the org, as I’ve been able to see both Carolina and Akron several times this season already, and I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff from players at both of those levels. The Columbus and Lake County info will be primarily statistics based, but I’ll be incorporating the views of some trusted friends and colleagues who’ve gotten first-hand looks at the AAA and low-A affiliates. So without further ado, let’s get at it here on the first Lazy Sunday in the month of May.
  • Akron RubberDucks catcher Tony Wolters is hitting .286/.329/.325 with 3 2B and 6 RBI in 21 AA games. That Wolters has 22 hits in the month of April is especially encouraging, because he had just 16 hits in 28 April games in the 2012/13 seasons. The 21-year old is young for the level and still learning a new defensive position, which happens to be the most physically and mentally demanding position on the field. Wolters could hit .100 for the season with no HR and still have a productive developmental season. He’s improving every day with the glove, and talent evaluators outside the Indians organization feel confident that he can play the position at the major league level someday. Watching him catch makes you wonder if he was secretly playing the position during the offseason prior to 2013. His hands are strong, he’s already a good receiver of the baseball and he’s improving his blocking on pitches in the dirt. He’s thrown out 6 of 13 would-be basestealers (46% CS rate!) this year. Oh, and he’s still got the ability to do this if he’s called upon to play 2B (two appearances at 2B this season). Wolters has long been one of my personal favorites in the organization, and he’s got the attention of plenty of people around baseball right now as a future major league backstop.
  • Outfielder Bryson Myles is another who’s off to a solid start this season. Myles is hitting .292/.350/.444 with a HR, 4 2B, 2 3B and 6 RBI. He’s swiped three bases while also being caught three times, and provides above-average defense in LF for the RubberDucks. Myles is a career .291/.363/.405 hitter in 265 minor league games, and it’s good to see him maintaining his production despite the jump to AA this season.
  • Clippers catcher Roberto Perez has been playing out of his mind this season. Coming into 2014, Perez was a career .227/.359/.326 hitter with 14 HR in 461 minor league games. He was always an elite defender behind the plate, but struggled to do much on the offensive side of the game. It’s a small sample size, but in the season’s first month he’s broken out to a .409/.519/.727 line with 4 HR and 12 RBI. He’s walked 10 times and struck out 8 in 16 games with Columbus. It’s a remarkable line, and unprecedented in Perez’s career. He appeared in 67 games with Columbus last year, and hit just .176/.269/.241 with no homers. It was revealed earlier this week that Perez played the 2013 season while suffering from Bell’s palsy, which partially paralyzed the left side of his face (to include his left eye). As a right-handed hitter, Perez’s left eye is his lead eye, and problems with that eye would have to make it especially difficult to hit. It’s a great story, and it’s fantastic to see Perez finding success with his offensive game commensurate with his fantastic defense. If Perez can be even a competent hitter, then he could have a very long and productive major league career.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Carolina Mudcats shortstop Erik Gonzalez has always been a solid defender, but he’s been making an impact with the bat this season as well. Gonzalez is hitting .341/.368/.495 with a HR, 5 2B, 3 3B and 11 RBI. Gonzalez is a big, athletic kid who has a very projectable frame. He should add strength as he fills out, and has the potential to be an impact player in the middle of the diamond. Gonzalez used to have a big, high leg lift that created timing issues, as he was often out on his front foot on off-speed pitches and had some trouble timing up his hands and his left leg. When I saw him in early April, the high leg lift was still there. But when I saw him last weekend in Frederick, it was much lower and less pronounced. His hands were quieter prior to loading and his timing looked much better as a result. If Gonzalez can stick with and refine these mechanical adjustments to his swing, he could be a top-10 prospect in the Indians organization this coming offseason.
  • Southpaw starter T.J. House started four games for the Clippers in April, and finished the month with a miniscule 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 IP. House allowed 3 ER in his first start of the season, and has given up just 1 ER in his last three outings. He’s struck out 16 and walked just 5. He’s never been and will never be a guy who misses a ton of bats, but he does a nice job commanding the ball within the strike zone and keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark. House still projects best as a back-end starter, but can be an effective innings-eater in a major league rotation.
  • Jordan Cooper is pitching out of the Akron bullpen to start off the season after shoulder surgery this winter, and has a 2-0 record with a 3.00 ERA in 12 AA IP. He’s struck out 11 and walked just 3 so far, and looks like he’s stretching back out to move back into the starting rotation. Cooper’s last outing was on April 29, where he went 3 innings while allowing just one baserunner and striking out a pair.
  • I tried and failed to upload video straight to the site here, so to get a look at catching prospect Francisco Mejia you’ll have to hop over to youtube. Here’s video that I shot of Mejia collecting three hits in Goodyear, and here’s a slow-motion video of Mejia singling up the middle so you can get a good look at his swing mechanics. Mejia is a fun guy to dream on, and I can’t wait until the 18-year old catcher is assigned to one of the Indians affiliates so more fans can get a look at him. For now, he’s toiling away in extended spring training and will likely get another year in the complex leagues when those games start up in late-June.
  • Akron reliever Kyle Crockett is picking up right where he left off last season, opening 2014 with 9 1/3 scoreless innings pitched out of the RubberDuck bullpen. Crockett has allowed just four base runners this year (3 hits and one walk) while striking out 9. The lefty now has a career ERA of 0.26 in 34 professional innings pitched, and could find himself in Cleveland as soon as this season if the need arises. He’s not a hard thrower, working more off of a deceptive motion and pinpoint control.
  • After 18 games in AA to close out the 2013 season, CF Tyler Naquin is back in Akron this year. He’s hitting .267/.344/.384 with 4 2B and 3 3B this year, stealing 5 bases in 7 attempts. Naquin is struggling against same-side pitchers, hitting a robust .321/.400/.491 against righties but just .182/.250/.212 against lefties. I got to see Naquin’s best tool play in a game against Bowie a couple of weeks ago, as he preserved an Akron victory with a walk-off outfield assist in the bottom of the 9th inning. There were runners on 1st and 2nd with 2 outs in the 9th with Akron clinging to a one-run lead, and a Bowie hitter sent a grounder back up the middle and into CF. With any other player in CF, the game would be tied. Naquin charged the soft grounder, had a little trouble getting a handle on the ball but still managed to throw a perfect, one-hop strike to catcher Tony Wolters to send Akron home with a win. It was an incredible play, and a great opportunity to see just how much of an impact Naquin can make in the field.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Another RubberDuck who’s been opening eyes around baseball with his play this year is 3B Gio Urshela. Urshela is hitting .302/.344/.570 with 5 HR (tied for 4th in the Eastern League), 8 doubles and 19 RBI (tied for 3rd in the EL). Urshela put up a .676 OPS in 116 AA games last season, so his .914 mark this year is a huge leap and probably not sustainable for a full season. But he’s added strength to his frame over the offseason, and is really showing an improvement in his ability to drive balls to the opposite field. He’s still a potential Gold Glove defender at 3B, so an improvement with the bat would really make him a serious prospect. In the same game that Naquin made the play I described above, Urshela turned in a highlight-level defensive play of his own. He went deep behind the 3B bag to backhand a ball and then made a strong throw across the diamond while still running away from 1B. It looked almost like Manny Machado’s web gem from last July, showing both Urshela’s incredible range and arm strength. He’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
  • Venezuelan-born 1B Jesus Aguilar is feasting on the offense-friendly environment of Clippers Huntington Park this year. Aguilar is hitting .356/.440/.667 with 7 HR, 6 2B and 16 RBI. The 7 HR are good for 2nd in the International League. The line may prove to be a little deceiving though, as Aguilar has a 1.320 OPS and 6 HR in 14 home games and just a .795 OPS and 1 HR in 10 games on the road. Some fans are clamoring for Aguilar’s promotion as a shot in the arm for a struggling Indians offense, but I still think he’ll struggle against big-league breaking balls.
  • Right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong had a rocky 2013 season, dealing with an arm injury that limited him to 37 IP (4.14 ERA) between AA Akron and the complex leagues. Armstrong has shown no lingering effects from the arm issue so far in 2014, as he’s allowed just one earned run in 9 1/3 IP, striking out 14 and walking just 3. Armstrong has been a lights-out reliever when healthy, striking out 142 batters in 116 career IP. He’s a future late-inning arm in the Indians bullpen, and like his teammate Kyle Crockett, could be there as soon as this season if the need arises.
  • Righty Cody Anderson is the RubberDucks top SP prospect, and has been a little hot and cold this year. In his three good starts, Anderson has gone a combined 14 IP while allowing just 2 ER. In his two bad starts, Anderson has been roughed up for 8 ER in 11 IP. His strikeout rate is lower than you’d like to see, with just 13 K in 25 IP overall this season. He’s walked 9 and allowed 26 hits, and as of right now looks more like a future back-end starter than a future #3.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Lindor Watch continues. The Indians top prospect is hitting .281/.354/.416 with 2 HR, 2 2B, 2 3B and 13 RBI in 23 games with the RubberDucks. He’s stolen 5 bases in 7 attempts, and continues to play elite defense at the SS position. Asdrubal Cabrera has been struggling at the plate and in the field, and some fans have been clamoring for the Indians to replace him with Lindor. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It’d be unfair to Lindor to put him in that role at this stage of his development, as asking a 20-year old prospect with no experience above AA to step in and be the savior for a major league team simply isn’t realistic. Indians fans have to be patient with the major league club and with their farmhands, as we’re just one month into a 162-game season. Lindor has the total package, and could be a very, very good major league shortstop for a long time. But that time isn’t quite upon us, not just yet anyway.
  • Last year’s 1st round draft pick, outfielder Clint Frazier suffered a minor hamstring injury in spring training, causing the Indians to slow-roll their multi-million dollar investment and hold him in extended spring training for a little while. Frazier only appeared in 13 games for Lake County in April, hitting .224/.339/.327 with a double, two triples and 3 RBI. He did hit his first full-season league HR on May 1, a 2-run shot to tie the game in the bottom of the 8th inning. Frazier is a prodigious talent with elite bat speed, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts hitting the ball out of the ballpark with regularity. The Georgia native has never played in NE Ohio weather conditions before, and I have to think that he’ll start to warm up with the weather here in May/June.
  • Catcher Alex Lavisky has played only sparingly as the backup to Tony Wolters in Akron, but he’s been hitting the ball when he has been in the lineup. Lavisky has just 22 AB, but he’s hitting .318/.348/.636 with 2 HR and 5 RBI in that limited action. Lavisky is a big, strong kid who still has the potential to be a solid catcher both at and behind the plate.
  • Mudcats left-handed starter Shawn Morimando has been dominant in the early going this season, posting a 1.88 ERA and a 3-0 record in his 5 Carolina League starts. Morimando is just 21 years old, and although he’s repeating the Carolina League this year he’s still age-appropriate for the level. He struggled somewhat with his command last year, walking 76 hitters in 135 innings. I talked to Morimando in Frederick last week, and he said that controlling his walks was his main goal for 2014. That goal is going well so far, as Morimando has walked just 5 in 28 2/3 IP this season. The low walk rate has helped keep his WHIP under 1, and the former 19th round draft pick is looking like a late-round find for the Indians.
  • Although C.C. Lee got the first call to Cleveland when the big club needed a bullpen arm, I still think that flame throwing right-hander Austin Adams is the organization’s top relief prospect. A former shortstop in college, Adams is an outstanding athlete who touches triple digits with his 80-grade fastball and flashes a plus slider and curve as well. He hasn’t been as untouchable as usual so far this year, allowing 7 ER in 11 2/3 IP for the Clippers. But 6 of those 7 ER came in two outings, and he’s given up just 1 ER in the other 9 1/3 innings of work. You obviously can’t pick and choose which innings to keep and which to throw out, but I am pretty sure Adams won’t have an ERA over 5 for much longer. He’s a potential late-inning bullpen arm that is ready for major league action as soon as the Indians need another reliever.
  • Another of my personal favorites in the organization, Captains catcher Eric Haase started off the season on fire, but slumped in the 2nd half of April to finish the month with a .217/.341/.507 slash line in 19 games. As you’d guess from the SLG, Haase does lead the team (and the entire Midwest League) in HR with 5 to go along with 5 2B. But he also has just 5 singles on the season, hence the relatively low batting average. Haase has an intriguing blend of tools on both the offensive and defensive side of the game, but his hit tool is going to have to improve if he’s going to catch at the major league level.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • The Mudcats (and by extension the Indians) got a tough break, literally, when starting pitcher Dylan Baker went down with a broken fibula. Baker dealt with a nagging oblique issue in spring training, and when he was on the mound towards the end of spring he was hit in the leg by a line drive. He felt good enough to pitch, and threw 6 perfect innings in his Carolina League debut in Frederick. I was at that start, and Baker was dominant, working in the high-90’s with his fastball and flashing a plus curveball and slider. Prior to his next start though, Baker was hopping over the baseline as he always does and snapped his fibula. Baker is in extended spring training right now rehabbing the injury, and will probably not pitch again during the 2014 regular season. A really, really tough break for a talented kid and a guy who was really looking like he’d play a big role in the Indians farm system this year.
  • Versatile infielder Jose Ramirez came into 2014 with 7 career HR in 231 minor league games. He’s already hit 4 in 23 games this season, to go along with an impressive .319/.365/.484 slash line. Ramirez profiles best as a utility infielder. He can spot start anywhere on the infield, but his best defensive position is 2B. That just happens to match up with a hole that the Indians suddenly have thanks to an injury to Jason Kipnis. The Indians already have a versatile utility guy in Mike Aviles, but Ramirez can come up to help split time at 2B as well as pinch run and fill in with the occasional spot start at 3B or SS.
  • Reaching all the way down to extended spring training, Indians 2012 3rd round draft pick Kieran Lovegrove was expected to begin this season with low-A Lake County. But the 19-year old had a bout of self-described “Ankiel-itis” in spring training this year, losing complete command of his fastball midway through camp in Goodyear. Lovegrove was able to throw his changeup and slider for strikes, but couldn’t get his fastball over the plate no matter what. It was more of a mental problem than physical, as Lovegrove was healthy and still throwing in the 94-97 MPH range. Lovegrove had to stick around in Arizona for extended spring training, but has worked through the issue with his fastball and has appeared in three games in Goodyear without seeing the problem re-appear. It’s just a matter of time before the 19-year old gets assigned to a full-season league now that he’s back on track. With a fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90’s, a wipeout slider and a solid changeup, he’s got a chance to be one of the top SP prospects in the organization.
  • Captains 1B Nellie Rodriguez has as much raw power as anyone in the Indians system, despite not turning 20 until mid-June. Rodriguez is 2nd on the team (and the Midwest League) with 4 bombs this year, and hit .225/.337/.413 in 24 April contests. Rodriguez still needs to improve his pitch recognition/selection and hit tool, but his profile at a corner IF spot is tantalizing for an organization that’s short on big power guys. He’s struck out 29 times and walked 14 this season, continuing a trend of a 2/1 K/BB ratio throughout his career. The Midwest league can be tough on hitters, but the Indians are going to be patient with the slugging young 1B and are likely to give him a full season in low-A this year no matter what the end result looks like.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance that Trevor Bauer has turned in this season, winning 3 of his 4 AAA starts and posting a 1.40 ERA for the Clip Show. Separate from his very good MLB spot start, Bauer has 28 K in 25 2/3 innings, and most importantly has walked just 7 hitters. I’ve written pretty extensively about Bauer already this season, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice to say I expect that Bauer will be the one getting the call to replace Carlos Carrasco in the rotation, and hopefully the mechanical adjustments he’s made will stay consistent and effective over a larger sample size at the major league level this season.
  • The other pitcher competing to replace the ineffective Carrasco had a pretty good month of April himself, as the Little Cowboy Josh Tomlin went 1-1 for the Clippers with a 2.77 ERA in 26 IP. Tomlin struck out 18 and walked an uncharacteristic 9 hitters, but didn’t issue a free pass in 8 innings of work during his April 25 start against Gwinnett. Tomlin was certainly shaking some rust off after not pitching at all in 2013, and looks like he’s back to his old strike-throwing self. I still think Bauer offers more ultimate upside as a member of the rotation, but Tomlin has the ability to give this team effective innings in 2014 and beyond as well. 
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Former UCLA Bruin Adam Plutko is doing something in the pros that he really didn’t do in college; strike out a ton of batters. Plutko was the Indians 11th round pick in the 2013 draft, and he struck out 81 hitters in 124 innings of work his final year at UCLA. He’s managed to rack up 31 K in just 22 1/3 innings for Lake County, taking advantage of the over-aggressiveness of low-A batters with his advanced feel for pitching. Plutko doesn’t have front of the rotation stuff, but he’s a very intelligent pitcher with excellent command and mound presence. He’s an intense competitor and is going to be a guy who always gets the most out of his stuff. He’s going to run into much tougher challenges on his way up the organizational ladder, and a pitcher with his experience should really be in high-A sooner rather than later.
  • Judging solely by ERA, lefty starter Ryan Merritt was the best starting pitcher in the Carolina League during the month of April. Merritt went 3-0 for the Mudcats, allowing just a single earned run in 24 1/3 IP. He doesn’t have dominating stuff, getting it done more with command and control that an overpowering fastball, but a 0.37 ERA is a 0.37 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .165 off of him, and he struck out 18 and walked just 6. He put up a 3.42 ERA for the Captains last year, and is looking like he’s on track for an even better year in Carolina this season.
  • After setting the AZL on fire to the tune of a 1.015 OPS in 2012, SS Dorssys Paulino has struggled in the Midwest League the past two seasons. Paulino hit just .246/.297/.349 in 120 games for the Captains last year, and went for a .221/.275/.305 slash line in April of 2014. It’s actually an improvement for Paulino over last April when he hit just .208/.288/.208 during the first month of the season for Lake County. Paulino is another player who is much more used to playing in warm weather, having grown up in the Dominican Republic. The Midwest League in April cannot be fun for him, and hopefully he can pick up his production as the weather warms up. Paulino posted a .716 OPS in August of last season, and especially seeing as he’s repeating the level, I’d expect to see a similar uptick in production as the season wears on.
  • I didn’t know a whole lot about 3B Grant Fink before seeing him in Arizona this year, but came away impressed. He made several athletic defensive plays at 3B, flashed a strong throwing arm and demonstrated a solid approach at the plate. Fink led the Captains in batting during the month of April, slashing .280/.379/.378 with a HR, 5 2B and 11 RBI. The Indians 23rd round pick in the 2013 draft, Fink is an athletic kid that can play a very good 3B or 1B. He’s a little old for the level as a 23-year old in low-A, and is the type of player that flies under the radar and sneaks up on prospect aficionados two or three years into his career. Fink is definitely a guy that I’m keeping my eye on, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can cut down on his strikeout rate (38 in 24 games) enough to become a legitimate major league prospect.
  • Imposing 6’6” RHP D.J. Brown opened the 2014 season in the Mudcats bullpen, but moved into the starting rotation on April 13. He’s made three starts, and has a 2-0 record with a 1.89 ERA in 19 total innings this season. Brown has 13 K and just 2 BB, and the James Madison graduate has been a mainstay in a Mudcats staff that’s been the best in the Carolina League so far this season (2.78 team ERA).

That’s it for this week, as our whirlwind tour of the organization is complete (for now). Status for next week’s Lazy Sunday is currently at doubtful, as I’m flying to The Netherlands today and then Sweden on Wednesday for a work trip and won’t return until Sunday. Hopefully MLB TV works on the iPad even when I’m in Europe.