Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday with the President, v.2015

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again (well, my favorite time of year at least), as I was fortunate enough to have my annual March talk with Indians team President Mark Shapiro earlier this week. Mark and I usually talk at the team’s spring training facility in Goodyear, but owing to some extenuating circumstances, I was unable to make my traditional pilgrimage to Arizona this winter. Still, he was gracious enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring schedule to talk with me over the phone, and that’s the next best thing. If you missed the previous installments of this tradition, here’s a link to the 2013 and a link the 2014 editions. The following is a (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation this week.

Al Ciammaichella: Looking at the offseason progression of the stadium, how excited are you for the new Progressive Field experience in 2015?

Mark Shapiro: I’m extremely excited. That week I came home from spring training, about a week ago, and walked the space, it struck me just how dramatic the changes are, and I think just how unaware most fans are, that have been coming to the ballpark for over 20 years, how different that area in centerfield and rightfield is going to seem to them. How much more improved it’s going to be, and how excited they’re going to be about the opportunity to have new experiences in the ballpark.

AC: The tickets are certainly a great deal. $13 and you get your first beer paid for.

MS: Yeah, that special ticket that’s meant to really activate the bar in the corner, and people that have more of an interest in standing up and not necessarily having a fixed seat. We have a ton of standing room, with drink rails that allow people to watch the game and move all around in that rightfield bar.

AC: I know it was a rough winter in Cleveland, is everything on schedule to be completed by opening day?

MS: Remarkably, even with the winter we’ve had, at the moment we’re on schedule. I haven’t looked at the weather, but if it stays decent the rest of the way and we don’t get another big snowfall…but it’s Cleveland, and it’s weather. Anytime you’re dealing in that realm, there’s some unpredictability. I would say the one thing we’re certain of at this point is that we will have substantial completion, and the majority of the project will be done by opening day. The one thing I cannot tell you with certainty, because there is no certainty when it comes to weather in Cleveland, is that it’ll be totally complete. Just like when we moved into the ballpark 21 years ago there were still things that had to be done during the first road trip. Small things that were not complete.

AC: Were there any ideas left on the drawing board when it came to that space? Anything that you looked at doing but didn’t make it into the final plans?

MS: Absolutely. Any time that you do a project like that it’s the financial realities of having to stay within a budget. You start with the concepts. Start by researching the market, and testing it. Then you take the concepts to paper and start looking at a bunch of alternatives. And some of those alternatives that you love eliminate themselves because they’re just too expensive and they would limit the scope of the project. So there were plenty of things that I won’t dwell on that we considered doing that we did not do. But overall, I’m extremely excited, extremely happy about how the project looks when I look at it.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: Shifting to the on-field product, Jose Ramirez came up last year, a guy who was more of a utility guy in the minors. Played a lot of 2B, was on the same team with Francisco Lindor a lot in the minors. Obviously Lindor is a special SS, so Ramirez played a lot of 2B and some 3B. He came up last year and really solidified the SS position at the major league level. Did you see him as a guy who could come up and be that good of a defensive SS right away at such a young age?

MS: Jose is an interesting guy. He’s a guy who’s not conventional in much that he does. You can’t teach the game the way he plays it. He’s got a great motor, incredible hands, good instincts, he picks great hops. He’s fearless in the way he plays the game. He’s obviously got well-above average speed. So he’s a guy that adds a dimension to our lineup and to our team that we really haven’t had, and I think a jolt of youth and energy to our team last year when he came up and did a great job.

AC: Does having him at SS give you a little luxury as far as leaving Lindor down in AAA to finish his development? You don’t have quite the same rush to promote him as if there were a free agent hole at short.

MS: At this point, we’re looking at those guys exclusive of each other. There may be a time when that doesn’t happen, but at this point Francisco Lindor’s development path says he should be in AAA completing his development and his foundation. Jose Ramirez, with his major league debut last year, justifies his opportunity to be our everyday shortstop. So although things can change; that’s the nature of professional sports and major league baseball, at the moment their trajectory doesn’t impact each other.

AC: So, speaking of Lindor, I think all fans want to know, with this top-5 prospect in all of baseball, what’s going to finish off his developmental curve? What will you see that makes him ready to come up to Cleveland and compete?

MS: I think consistency. Continuing to build the foundation of his routine and his preparation. I think the quality and consistency of both his at bats and his preparation are probably the keys. He’s got very limited time left in the minor leagues, and what he has, he has to use to prepare himself to have a foundation to handle both the mental and physical side up here. As a 21-year old there’s still some maturation both physically and mentally that he’s going through.

AC: So there’s no at bat threshold, certain amount of time you want for him in AAA or anything; when he’s ready, he’s ready?

MS: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve said it before, but having seen it over decades, with players who are very good players, they set the timeframe for you. You don’t have to make decisions on them. It becomes very clear, very quickly that they’re not being challenged at the level they’re at, and that they’re ready to contribute up here or at least transition up here.

AC: Another thing in the 2nd half of last season was the incredible run that really the entire pitching staff put together. You tried to shore that up this offseason by picking up Gavin Floyd; obviously that didn’t work out when he re-injured his arm. Are you concerned at all about the starting pitching depth, even with 7 or 8 guys competing for 5 slots in the rotation? Is that something you wish you’d done more to address this offseason?

MS: Yeah, that’s why we signed Gavin Floyd. But the financial reality of the parameters that we have and the reality of starting pitching being such an inefficient market; I would point to this, Al…Brett Anderson, who hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years got $10 million (from the Dodgers). Just stop and ponder that for a moment. Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years and got $10 million. So we took a guy who we thought was a little better risk than Brett, and gave him $4 million in the hope that he could pitch some or all of the season for us in the rotation and alleviate some depth concern and provide some veteran presence, all the while knowing it was very high risk, but that’s the nature of starting pitching, free agent starting pitching in particular. But we still have good options, particularly the way TJ has been throwing the ball.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: TJ is another guy I wanted to talk about. Did you see him coming up and pitching that well? He probably pitched better in the major leagues last year than he did at any stop in the minors on his way up. Is there anything in particular that keyed that success at the major league level?

MS: You know, that’s a good question. He’s an interesting guy to look at, because he’s not the prospect that came up and didn’t struggle, he’s a guy that struggled, and I think it’s his struggles that helped him to define both the pitcher he is and the mental approach he takes to the game. So when I look at him, having a tough and unconventional path to the major leagues, he’s a guy that was forced to confront some significant challenges along the way. And I think those things helped him to define how he’d be successful in both approach and his repertoire.

AC: Speaking of struggles, you have three guys at the major league level that had really tough years last year due to injury, three guys who you thought coming into last season were really going to be key guys in Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. What are you looking for from those three guys this season? Do you see them as being able to get back to the level they were at pre-2014?

MS: I’d probably separate Swish out from those other two guys. But the one thing I can say about all three guys together, Al, is that the upside with our club lies in those three players.

AC: Right. There’s almost some course correction, some improvement, that you can hope for out of those three if they are healthy:

MS: Right. And then shifting to Kip, talking to every single player that I know about what they’ve gone through when they’ve strained an oblique, particularly during spring training, that is an extremely, extremely tough injury to battle back from. And in some ways it never truly heals, particularly when you do it right at the beginning of spring training. I think that impacted his swing, his mechanics. I would say among the things we’ve seen in camp this spring, his play and his physical level of preparedness is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen this spring. I mean, he’s rifling balls to left and right field, he’s ran extremely well.

AC: Yeah, he’s going the other way better, and when he’s going the other way that’s a sign he’s really going good.

MS: Yeah, I’d say that, and just hard contact. He’s impacting the baseball, and running extremely well.

AC: The competition in the AL Central this year…Chicago went out and got a lot better this year, Detroit is probably slipping a little with losing Scherzer and getting a little older, but what’s the challenge in the Central this year? That’s a tough division to be in right now.

MS: It can pretty much be summed up as the best division in baseball. I think there’s a lot of parity throughout the game but it’s hard to argue that the Central isn’t the best division. There are four teams that you can make a compelling case to win the division. The interesting thing is that you can probably also say here are the flaws in those teams and the reasons why they won’t win the division. But as you noted, Chicago may be the most improved team in all of major league baseball, and they were probably a lot better than most people realize last year as well. The Tigers, while they could be termed as “declining” simply because of age, they’re declining from an elite level where they were probably capable of winning 115 games. That’s probably something people don’t realize there, different things have led to them underperforming relative to their talent level over the last few years, so they could easily go out and win 100 games this year. That’s how good they still are. Kansas City, obviously, has some challenges that we fight. They’re a very young, very talented core group of players, but they’ve also lost some guys.

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
AC: One good thing to look at is the 2014 draft. It’s being roundly accepted as one of the best drafts in all of baseball, getting a guy like Bradley Zimmer that a lot of people saw going in the top 10-15. Did you have a plan to get guys like that, or did they just fall to you? How did that all work out?

MS: I think what we really try to challenge ourselves to do is to have our org slotted as well as we can possibly slot it. Over the years, probably over the past 5 or 6 drafts, we’ve gotten better each year at understanding about how to position our board most effectively, and I think that allows us to react to what happens in front of you without having to target specific players. Our goal and our intent is to get the best player available at the time we pick, each time we pick. There may be other variables like signability that factor into it, particularly in later rounds, but initially we just want to be in position to get the best player available. We have a set of criteria that’s constantly evolving that allows us to slot the board that factors in scouting information and every other piece of analytical data that we can possibly get our hands on.

AC: It has to be good to see guys like Zimmer and even Bobby Bradley, a kid who came right out of high school, already fitting in spring training games at the major league level, holding their own, showing that they belong there.

MS: Those are exciting guys. Both Zimmer and Bobby Bradley…Bradley may be one of the most exciting high school position players that I can remember. We’re excited about the draft. I’m hesitant to pay attention to what people talk about, judging draft classes too early. Judging draft classes should be 5 or 6 years later.

AC: You see a big explosion, seems like every year around this time, of pitchers going down with Tommy John, pitchers getting hurt, needing season-ending surgery. Is there anything the organization is doing to try to protect themselves against that? Obviously there’s no way to completely eliminate it, but is there anything you’re doing to try and reduce arm injuries? Are you avoiding young pitching prospects?

MS: No (not avoiding pitching prospects). We have certain things we look at that are somewhat predictive in terms of ability to stay healthy, ranging from arm action to delivery to usage…other physical parameters. But they’re not perfect. Human beings are far from perfect. We’re constantly seeking to learn and understand, there are adjustments kids have to make to keep guys healthy once we get them. Matt Harvey is a good example. He’s a guy we thought profiled to stay healthy and he still got hurt. Pitching is a tough, tough area. It’s an area where you never feel completely confident and secure. You do the best you can to control what you can control.

AC: Right, there’s clearly no magic bullet that says “this guy will have TJ, and this guy will never get hurt.”

MS: The likelihood with pitching is that at some point guys are probably going to have some type of arm injury. There may be some freaks of nature that don’t, but it’s an unnatural movement and motion, one that gets repeated a lot over a career.

AC: Seeing the opening of Cuba as a market, more so that before with defectors, as both the Indians President and a guy on the competition committee, what do you think of some of the big deals that are getting thrown to the Cuban guys that are coming over? Do you ever see an international draft because of some of the factors in the market down there?

MS: Well, it’s a little bit, probably, Indians-centric of me as a judgement, but I’d like to see some adjustment that allows access to that talent. As it’s currently being distributed, we are going to be marginal to non-players in that area just because of the level of risk, and that risk comes from lack of information. We just don’t know much about these guys. Unless there’s information being illegally obtained, they’re being signed largely from a tryout environment. I understand, and I’d probably take that risk if I ran a large-market team, but we don’t have that luxury. It’s not an area we can play in. We can’t risk tens of millions of dollars on players that we have far less information on than players in the draft that cost a lot less. So it’s just a very tough market for us to play in. I would like to see something that allows access to that talent on a more proportional basis, that’s not so market-based.

AC: Does it at least offer you an opportunity, with the big-market guys paying the Cuban players? The Red Sox can’t spend international money (bonus over $300k per the CBA) next year. Does that give you a little more of a market share with the Dominican, Venezuelan and Colombian kids?

MS: Slight. They’re going to do what they did this year. It might free us up a little for that one year, but they’ve already spend the money. For the next year maybe, maybe, for one team it takes them out of it. But that’s just one team, so it’s not going to dramatically change it.

AC: Looking at some of the excitement around the team this year, you have a lot of national guys, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, picking the Indians as a dark horse for the AL pennant. Some guys picking you to win the Central despite that tough competition we talked about earlier. Do you like being more of a dark horse or in the favorite role?

MS: If I had my preference, I’d probably prefer to fly under the radar. But I also like the credit, like seeing the credibility generated by the way we’re going about our business. People are starting to recognize the talent we have in our clubhouse, how we have some of the best players in major league baseball on our team. I like to see that recognized. But internally, very few people pay attention to that stuff. Our players probably have no idea, other than that there’s been a little more attention this spring.

AC: Ok, I can’t possibly go an entire interview with the Indians team President without talking about Yan Gomes. How happy are you with the contract that you were able to sign him to, and how good does that look moving forward?

MS: You and I have talked about that a lot (laughs). I love Yan. I love Yan the player, I love what he represents. He’s a winning player, the kind of guy, the kind of player that I’d prefer to have represent the Indians. The fact that we can control him, and the fact that he’s so happy to be a part of the long-term plan here. I think it’s empowered a guy like him, and Michael Brantley, to take even more of a leadership role here. Leadership gets asserted in different ways by different guys, but those are both guys who, the way they go about their business, is a form of leadership and is inspirational in some ways. I’m excited to watch Yan continue to mature, and there’s not much doubt at this point, already, that he’s one of the best catchers in the American League.

AC: Speaking of Brantley, his 2014 was one of the best seasons by an Indians position player in recent years. Do we think that 2014 Brantley is the new normal? Or is that going to be a little bit of an outlier for him, with him coming back to earth a little bit?

MS: Obviously, there’s an analytical case to be made that he will regress some. But I think what offsets some of the analytical concern is knowing the guy. He’s a determined guy, extremely committed to his level of preparation. So while I wouldn’t be surprised to see him regress some…but look, guys like Kluber and Brantley, the years they had, some regression is not unexpected, but that would not mean they had a bad year.

AC: Thanks again so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me again, and good luck this year. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Running the Bases on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
I’ll start off this week by begging your pardon for the brevity of this week’s Lazy…an over-aggressive work/travel schedule this week plus friends from out of town prevented me from getting any sort of meaningful writing time. But there were some great Tribe-centric articles floating around the interwebs this week that I wanted to be sure to highlight here, so I wanted to get something on to virtual paper even if it’s not the usual 5-6,000 word effort. I promise that next week will more than make up for it, as I have something special in store to help cure your post-St. Patty’s Day hangovers. If not though, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to The DiaTribe, Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, Cleveland, OH to receive your full refund (purchase price minus small convenience and restocking fees, of course). With that bit of housecleaning out of the way, let’s jump right in to all (ok, most) of the news that’s fit to link…

Francisco Lindor is a guy who I’ve spent plenty of time talking about for the last few years, so I’m not going to spend a lot of space on him this week. But I did want to highlight an article from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that focused on Lindor, because Crasnick is normally a guy who covers the MLB beat. It’s a little unusual to see him write an article focusing solely on a prospect. Crasnick (a closet Indians fan) includes a pretty telling quote from veteran infielder Mike Aviles:

"He's a cocky kid, a confident kid, and that's good," Aviles said. "You want that. But sometimes when you get that much hype, it's easy to let it go to your head. He's also a very humble kid, to the point where none of that gets to him. He's so willing to learn and so appreciative of any information you give him, it's actually a joy to be around him. He doesn't believe the hype -- he wants to prove the hype.
Cocky, confident, but humble and willing to learn. More indications on how special Lindor’s makeup is, and this from the guy who will essentially be out of a job when Lindor comes up to the major league roster. If Lindor takes over at SS, Ramirez will likely slide to the utility role, leaving Aviles to scratch and claw for playing time and provide depth in case of injury. Despite this, Aviles has nothing but good things to say about Lindor, and is playing a significant role in mentoring the young uber-prospect.

I’ve often linked to Grantland’s Jonah Keri, in this space, and today will be no different. Keri has been high on the Indians for the past couple of years, and features no less than three Sons of Geronimo in his “Breakout Players of 2015” piece this week. To absolutely no one’s surprise, those three players are pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Salazar was in Keri’s 2014 edition of the breakout players list, and he makes a repeat appearance this year after his solid 2nd half last season. Keri even mentions Yan Gomes (a sure way to get me to link to your article, BTW) as a reason to be optimistic when looking at the entire Indians pitching staff. Music to my ears, especially when Keri provides his justification for predicting breakouts for those three pitchers:

The soon-to-be-28-year-old Carrasco hails from the Hutchison camp, coming to 2014 off of a strong final 10 starts: 69 innings pitched, 78 strikeouts, 11 walks, 45 hits and two homers allowed, and a 1.30 ERA. The third-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bauer owns an eclectic and at times electric eight-pitch repertoire that helped the 24-year-old fan 143 batters in 153 innings last year. He is also one of the most fascinating characters in the game. As for Salazar, we’re going back to the well after an erratic season that included an extended demotion to the minors, but 120 punch-outs in 110 innings hint at the potential that the 25-year-old’s fastball-slider-splitter combination possesses.
Keri’s effort was far from the only article this week that looked at the Indians starting rotation. We’ll go back to our ESPN friend Jerry Crasnick for a minute, as he penned a nice piece on the Indians starting 5. Crasnick didn’t really break much new ground for those of us who have been devoted fans of the Tribe over the past few years, but he did write a really solid article pulling together the strides that the Indians staff made last year under the tutelage of The Pitcher Whisperer™ and also gave a shout out to Indians minor league pitching coordinator Ruben Niebla for his work with the young arms throughout the org. Niebla is one of those guys who most fans probably don’t know, but he has an impact from Arizona all the way up to Cleveland, and it’s nice to see him get some of the attention he deserves for his tireless work in the organization. Niebla is an experienced guy who has the respect of players and coaches throughout baseball, and plays a significant role in the development of the Indians arms. Crasnick’s article also helps highlight the quiet but steady leadership provided by Corey Kluber, who helped with the enigma that is Trevor Bauer this offseason. Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar, House and Kluber all made significant strides in their development last year, and it’s a credit to the Indians coaching staff that they can work to improve their players while still allowing them the freedom to work things out in their own way. What works with Carlos Carrasco (simplifying his delivery, coming up with a bullpen to mound routine) isn’t going to work with a thinker/tinkerer like Bauer. The Indians didn’t try to copy the Carrasco model with Bauer this offseason, allowing him to pitch in the dark, build drones and do basically whatever he felt he needed to do to get ready for spring training. We’ll still have to wait and see if last season’s performance gains were legitimate and sustainable, but if not, it won’t be for lack of solid coaching throughout the organization.

Both Anthony Castrovince and Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus wrote similar articles focusing on the volatility of the Indians rotation this week, and both are well-worth the time it takes to read. Castro used a Seinfeld approach (shocking, I know), harkening back to George Costanza’s insanely inconsistent sight without his glasses. George could spot a dime from across Jerry’s apartment, but also managed to accidentally bite into an onion from the fridge, believing it to be an apple. The native Clevelander knows not to get too out over his skis when it comes to the Indians rotation; once bitten, twice shy and all:
I love the enthusiasm about this unit, but, at the same time, I’m a Clevelander who knows how it so often goes, and I’ll admit to being a little more pessimistic about things, sans Floyd.
This rotation could amaze. It could completely unravel. Either possibility is 100 percent realistic. That’s what makes it one of the most fascinating rotations in baseball.
Trueblood doesn’t have the built-in Cleveland fandom (nor impending sense of doom), but is equally fascinated with the Indians rotation. He first looks at how insanely cheap the Indians starting pitching is this year, and he even included Gavin Floyd’s (more on him in a minute) $4 million in the very helpful chart below:

Trueblood goes on to look at the boom-or-bust nature of the Cleveland staff, using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system to look at the 90% through 10% performance predictions for the Indians 5 likely starting pitchers come April and beyond. What he finds is that while the Indians staff could be among the very best in baseball, it could also wind up down in the dumps:

What does this tell us, other than that the Indians are one of the toughest teams in baseball about whom to prognosticate this spring? Well, for one thing, when it comes to pitchers, ceiling comes cheap. The Indians employ the reigning Cy Young champion, a former third-overall draft pick, three guys who struck out at least a quarter of opposing batters last season and three who throw at least 95 miles per hour regularly. The five pitchers in this proposed rotation will make a combined $6.2 million and change this season. Part of that is, again, that the Indians were excruciatingly patient with the development of these arms, gave them more chances than most organizations would have given, and are now reaping the benefits (while also maintaining many years of team control over the group). Part, though, is that the front office’s appetite for risk here has been stunningly high. Most teams simply wouldn’t allow this much variance to build within one segment of its roster.
When you’re dealing with the financial realities that the Indians face (small payroll, small TV deal, lots of money committed to Swisher/Bourn), you’re going to have to take some chances throughout your roster. If a lot of those chances (we called them “ifs” in this space about a year ago) pay out, then even with a bottom-10 payroll you can contend for a division and even a World Series title. If a lot of those chances go bust, then you’re planning for a top-5 draft pick next June. The Indians aren’t unique in that they have to take risks, but they are a little unique in that they have so much volatility in one specific area of their roster (SP). But the price is certainly right, and if you’re going to load up one segment of your roster with boom-or-bust guys, it might as well be the segment of your roster that is coached by The Pitcher Whisperer™. Having Yan Gomes behind the plate doing the framing for these guys won’t hurt either.

The rotation news wasn’t all sunshine and roses this week, as Gavin Floyd looks to have re-injured his elbow, possibly in the same fashion that prematurely ended his 2014 season with the Braves. Floyd had Tommy John in May of 2013, then another procedure in June of 2014 to stabilize a fracture in the same elbow. Here we are in March of 2015, and it’s looking like Floyd will need yet another procedure in the very same joint that’s given him so many problems over the past few years. Floyd was a $4 million lottery ticket that was signed to give the Indians depth in their young rotation, and it’s looking like that ticket was a bust. It’s hardly the worst injury that could strike this spring, as the rotation is deep and talented even without the veteran Floyd. The Indians still have seven (eight if you count Bruce Chen) legitimate starting pitching options, but their depth took a serious hit with the Floyd re-injury.

Even after the Floyd injury, Jeff Long of Baseball Prospectus ranked the Indians as having “Doomsday Prepper” level depth with their starting rotation. Long took a look at the projected WARP (if they each pitched 165 innings) of MLB clubs’ 6th and 7th starters, using Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister for the Indians. That duo projects to a 2.6 WARP, 3rd highest in all of baseball. Also, I can sorta picture Josh Tomlin in a survivalist store purchasing bulk MREs to store in his underground bunker in case the North Koreans decide to take out our power grid, so the category fits. For comparison’s sake, the Indians AL Central rivals clock in at “Outdoor Enthusiast” (Royals) and the lowly “Millennial” (White Sox and Tigers), suggesting that the Indians are still in better shape to weather a potential injury to a starting pitcher than their direct competitors for the divisional crown.

In his start against the Chicago Cubs earlier this week, Trevor Bauer gave up back-to-back-to-back HR against three of the Cubs young prospects in Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. All three of those guys have prodigious power potential, and there’s really no shame in giving up HR in the thin Arizona air. Tito Francona and Brad Mills decided to have some fun with Bauer after the game, enlisting the Goodyear PD to come into the locker room with three baseballs to return to Bauer, saying they had contributed to a traffic incident on Estrella Parkway outside of the stadium. Bauer took it in stride, posting pictures of the baseballs on his twitter account, and laughing about the gag along with the rest of his teammates. Bauer infamously clashed with his teammates and coaching staff in Arizona before being traded to Cleveland, and he can sometimes get a little bogged down in minutiae of individual results, so it’s especially good to see him laughing off his less than ideal results on the diamond. Spring training stats don’t mean anything, and baseball is still supposed to be fun. Hopefully, this Indians team is still laughing together deep into the postseason in the fall of 2015. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

A Dream of Spring on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Real baseball is here! Well, spring training baseball is here, and with the rest of the country stuck in the throes of winter, spring training baseball looks pretty good right now. The sample sizes are small, the pitchers aren’t stretched out, and the stats are meaningless. But Yan Gomes is throwing runners out (and hitting home runs), Bradley Zimmer is legging out triples, and Trevor Bauer is back tinkering with his delivery. It’s baseball! Indians baseball! In the sunshine! I can’t stop using exclamation points! We’re less than a month away from the games that count, as the Indians open the season in Houston on April 6.  Then, just a few days later, the home opener on April 10, which is the first in a three-game series against the reigning AL Central Champion Detroit Tigers. It’s certainly not a must-win series or any nonsense like that, not in early April. But it sure would feel good to come roaring (pun) out of the gates and take three from the Motor City Kitties, announcing our presence with authority and making sure the Tigers know that their reign at the top of the division is crumbling beneath them like the marble columns of the Roman Empire. And if one of those games involves hanging a ten-spot on Kate Upton’s boyfriend and chasing him out of the game in the 3rd inning, so much the better. If you’re not excited for the prospect of real, actual baseball that counts in the standings, there’s something wrong with you.

My annual prospect countdown is in the rearview mirror, as the 6-part series concluded on Friday. If you missed any of the installments, here’s your chance to catch up: the intro and #30-26, #25-21, #20-16, #15-11, #10-6 and finally #5-1. It’s a system loaded with up-the-middle talent, as the list is littered with CF, C and SS prospects. If for no other reason, read it for my lengthy dissertation on shortstop and top prospect Francisco Lindor, where I do everything short of propose marriage to the young phenom (hey, don’t judge me, he’s over 18). The full list clocks in at just under 20,000 words, and if nothing else it should give you something to read during your lunch breaks at work this week. There are a couple of surprises on the list, and a couple of guys ranked lower than I anticipated when I first started sketching it out back in late-November. As always, it was a massive labor of love, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy putting it together every year.

Speaking of prospects, Jordan Bastian confirmed what we all suspected when he reported that Francisco Lindor was slated to begin the 2015 season in AAA Columbus, no matter what happens this spring. Bastian talked to manager Terry Francona about Lindor, and Tito is very supportive of Lindor finishing off his development in AAA rather than in Cleveland:

"I don't think that's developing a player," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "If you [promote] a guy too quick and you get him beat up, that's not development. They've got to go through a progression, for the most part."
"Being 21 years old and being in Triple-A, he saw a lot of things for the first time," Francona said. "You're looking at some older players and guys that have been in the big leagues. He handled himself pretty well, but there was still a lot of learning going on.
"He's a really good player and, fortunately for us, he's very mature. We've seen a lot of kids that age that are good that are immature. Probably myself included. He's just a really mature kid and he is grasping things really quickly. That bodes well for us."
Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
I’ve come to terms with Lindor starting in AAA, even though I feel like he’d be able to contribute to the major league roster right away. His bat isn’t ready yet, and there’s a chance that he could struggle so badly early on that he’d end up getting sent back to Columbus anyway. Jose Ramriez outplayed expectations in his 68-game audition last year, particularly with the glove. So there’s really no reason to rush Lindor to the big league squad. But Lindor is still a better defender than Ramirez, and I think it gets a little lost in the shuffle that Ramirez posted a .646 OPS (86 OPS+) last year. So it’s not like he set the world on fire, he was just so much better than Asdrubal in the field that it felt like he was a savior. Lindor is the future, and it’ll be interesting to see how long he remains in Columbus before he forces the issue and is finally called up to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. For his part, Lindor has confirmed to Zack Meisel that he is in fact, not God. Based on his lofty prospect ranking and near-universal praise, I can understand how some people were initially a little confused on that point. Expect to see Lindor in Cleveland at some point this year, just not before June.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri is back with “The 30,” his recurring power rankings column that takes an objective look at every team in baseball. Yes, it’s only March. And no baseball had been played prior to Keri’s rankings, even spring training baseball. Still, it’s tough to read Keri’s thoughts on the American League Central and not come away optimistic. Keri has the Kansas City Royals as his #23 team in baseball (losing Shields and signing guys like Morales and Rios did not impress him). The Chicago White Sox, on the heels of their strong offseason, come in at #14 overall. The reigning division champion Tigers slide down to 10th (losing Scherzer and Fister, plus injury concerns for Miggy and Victor, not to mention whatever the heck has happened to Justin Verlander). That leaves only the Indians, who come in at 5th overall in all of baseball. Third in the American League. First in the American League Central. That’s more or less in line with the latest Fangraphs projections that have the Indians as the 8th best team in baseball, 4th in the AL and just 3 games away from the 3rd best record in the game. I’ll let Keri tell you why himself:

Now this is a bandwagon I will not be trying to slow down. Put it this way: Last year, the Indians won 85 games despite an injury-plagued Jason Kipnis flukishly hitting like a 75-year-old Rey Ordonez and the combination of first baseman Nick Swisher, utility man Mike Aviles, and outfielders Ryan Raburn, Michael Bourn, and David Murphy providing nearly 2,000 plate appearances worth of sub-replacement-level performance. Three of those five guys have been relegated to bench duty this year, while Bourn and Swisher still look to be significant contributors, albeit on a short leash. The addition of Brandon Moss plus a healthy Kipnis could significantly boost results for a team that finished seventh in the AL in runs scored and ninth in homers last year. Meanwhile, the rotation includes defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber alongside not one, not two, but three starting pitchers who look like prime breakout candidates: Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco. Combine the revitalized offense with a potentially fantastic group on the mound and you have an extremely dangerous club — one that might very well end Detroit’s AL Central reign.

In another of his articles this week, Keri commented that he was tempted to bet on the “over” for the Vegas-imposed 83.5 over/under win total for the Indians. These are primarily the same reasons we’ve heard from local writers and bloggers (including yours truly) when touting the Indians chances in 2015, but it’s nice to hear them from a respected, objective, national guy like Keri as well. There are still plenty of “ifs” that could go wrong with the team this year, but there’s no doubt that they’re well poised for a run at the AL Central.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The Indians won 85 games and made a legitimate run at the playoffs last year in part due to dramatic and unexpected leaps in performance from some of their young, talented players. Breakouts from Brantley, Kluber, Carrasco and others helped offset injury-related regression from Swisher, Bourn and Kipnis, keeping the Indians in it until the final week. Ben Lindbergh, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and now writing for Grantland, was nice enough to do a lot of research and math in order to try and identify candidates for similar improvements in 2015. Lindbergh looked at the projections from both ZiPS and Steamer for 2014 and 2015, applied park factors to the equation and identified which pitchers could expect a lower FIP and which batters project to have a better wOBA this year. As you might expect, Michael Brantley shows up in the hitter portion of Lindbergh’s article, as he went from a league-average outfielder to an MVP candidate last year. Brantley is projected to have a .028 increase in his wOBA (and if you need a refresher on exactly what wOBA is and how it is calculated, click here). These are just projections of course, but it’s good to see the computers like 
Brantley as much as the scouts do.

When we move onto the pitching portion of Lindbergh’s article, we see no fewer than three potential members of the Indians starting rotation. Trevor Bauer, T.J. House and CyKluber himself have increased expectations coming into the 2015 season. Bauer actually picked up a tick on his fastball last year. House managed a 3.35 ERA in 2014 despite being a groundball pitcher with the league’s worst infield defense (and a .333 BABIP). And Kluber? Well, all Kluber did was post the best FIP in the AL (2nd in MLB behind Kershaw) last year en route to winning his first Cy Young award. It’s good to see the projection models see these gains as both legitimate and repeatable, and the Indians deep starting rotation should again be a strength of the club this year.

These projected improvements, combined with some backsliding from the Tigers, gives the Indians a much better chance at winning the division in 2014. According to Fangraphs projections, the Indians are 20% (ok, 19.3%) more likely to win the division right now than they were at this time last season (see below graphic). That’s the 2nd biggest jump in baseball, behind only the 28% leap made by the Seattle Mariners in the AL West. This team is built to contend, right now and in the future.

One member of the Indians aforementioned deep rotation had a minor setback in his return from injury, as 32-year old Gavin Floyd cut short a live BP session and was scratched from his scheduled spring training start against the Rangers today. The official reason given by the Indians was the very descriptive “general soreness” (please, for the love of God, no “General Soreness” twitter characters need to spring from this). I’m not overly worried about Floyd at this point, and I think that the general soreness he’s feeling is legitimate and not a cover for any specific arm issue. He’s just a 32-year old guy pitching off of a mound again for the first time since June of last year. Some muscle soreness in early spring training is understandable, if not predictable. The former 4th overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001, Floyd was signed to a cheap, 1-year contract to eat innings in the middle of the Indians rotation, not anchor it. He was really good in the 54 innings he did pitch last year (2.65 ERA, 45 K, 13 BB) and was more than worth the $4 million shot the Indians took on him. But he’s one of eight (!) legitimate starting pitching options that the Indians have at their disposal for 2015. So if he turns into more of a Brett Meyers than a Kevin Millwood, no harm done. Floyd is going to have every shot at making the rotation as long as he’s healthy. If he’s injured or ineffective, the Indians simply move on to whichever of the impressive House/Bauer/Salazar trio initially loses out on the 5th starter job.

Photo Credit: AP
The busy Jordan Bastian put together a really nice feature on Brandon Moss earlier this week, detailing the struggles that he went through earlier in his career that nearly had him quit and apply for the Gwinnet County Fire Department (seriously). Moss was drafted as a high schooler in 2002, and didn’t make his MLB debut until 2007 when he had a cup of coffee with the Boston Red Sox. He had a shot as a regular in 2009, amassing 385 AB with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but only hit .236/.304/.364 with 7 HR. He bounced between AAA and short stints in the majors before signing with the Phillies in 2011, then with the A’s in 2012. When he got the call to Oakland from AAA in 2012, he struggled initially but suddenly became the power hitter that we know today based on the advice from his wife, Allison:

Allison was tired of seeing her husband -- an outgoing character typically beaming with enthusiasm -- coming home so dejected.

"She was like, 'Babe, this might be your last opportunity in the big leagues,'" Moss said. "'Just go and let it hang out. Just do your thing and leave with no regrets. If you struggle and can't do it, at least be able to walk away and say, no matter what I did, I couldn't do it. But don't go in there beat before you get there.'"

Her words hit Moss hard.

"I told her, 'I'm just going to go out there and try to hit home runs every at-bat,'" he said. "Just like I try to do in the Minor Leagues.'"

Moss hit five homers over the next four games and ended with 21 long balls in just 84 games with Oakland that season.

Swinging from his heels, Moss finished with a .954 OPS in 2012, then followed it up with a 30-HR, .859 OPS season in 2013. He made the AL All-Star team for the 1st time as a 30 year old last season, slugging 21 HR with a .878 OPS in 89 1st-half games before fading in the 2nd half of the season while dealing with his hip injury. Clearly hurt, Moss still managed to hit 2 HR and drive in 5 runs in Oakland’s wild card playoff loss to Kansas City, and was traded to the Indians in exchange for minor league infielder Joey Wendle this offseason. Moss may hit left-handed, which for some fans makes him next to useless, but he’s going to be an important member of the Indians this year. His power is going to look awfully good in the middle of a lineup that should hopefully be augmented by bounce-back seasons from Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. It’s the Gwinnet County Fire Department’s loss, but the Indians gain.

Although there’s really not much we can garner from spring training games stats-wise, there are things we can focus on when it comes to individual performances and how certain players look. Doug Thorburn, the resident pitching doctor at Baseball Prospectus, penned an article looking at a few pitchers that he’s going to be focusing on this spring, and he included both Trevor Bauer (a long-time Thorburn subject) and Cookie Carrasco. I’ll sample from the article here, but the entire thing really is worth your time:


…Last season was a step in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see if the oft-tinkering Bauer has made any adjustments in the off-season. My focus will be on his balance, given his drop-and-drive delivery that features a back-side collapse as part of the strategy, a variant that stands in the way of repetition.

What to look for: Well, everything, but my main focus will be on his balance and momentum to see if he can build on last season's progress.

…His all-stretch approach took advantage of his mechanical efficiency and eliminated the needless extra motion of his windup, and Carrasco reaped the benefits with a consistent release point.

What to look for: Is he still pitching from the stretch all the time? Fingers crossed that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

It’s impossible to overstate how important those two are to the Indians success this year. The Indians 2nd half was fueled by their suddenly-dominant pitching staff despite a scuffling offense and the league’s worst defense. Both the offense and defense should be better this year, but the Indians can’t afford much backsliding from the 2nd half pitching they enjoyed last year, if any. Spring training stats are useless, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the contests. Both Bauer and T.J. House looked good in their initial outings of the spring, and Bauer’s back leg didn’t look like it was collapsing as much as it did in 2014. Whether that’s a temporary tweak or a long-term adjustment for the notoriously fickle Bauer is yet to be seen, but it’s definitely something we can keep an eye on as Spring Training rolls on.

I like to end things on a lighthearted note here on Lazy Sunday, so I’m going to point you in the direction of this very entertaining (and thought provoking) piece on whether or not Charlie Brown is the worst manager in the history of baseball. Yes, Charlie Brown as in Snoopy, as in the guy who represents Cleveland Browns fans by continuously falling for Lucy’s “I’ll hold the football, Charlie Brown” trick. Patrick Dubuque of the Hardball Times takes an insightful look into how Brown’s squad could lose as many games as it did despite having the Peanuts version of Mike Trout (Snoopy) playing shortstop. I won’t spoil it for you, but rest assured that player-manager Brown’s insistence in keeping himself on the mound despite the presence of a much better alternative is partially to blame for his squad’s woes. It’s a funny look at a long-running comic strip, and even manages to teach us a lesson in the end. So give it a read while you’re waiting for the Indians next spring training broadcast, and know that regular season baseball is less than a month away…

Friday, March 06, 2015

Indians Prospect Countdown: #5-1

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
5. Giovanny Urshela, 3B
DOB: 10/11/1991
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 197 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: International free agent in 2008
2014 Stats: .280/.334/.491 with 18 HR and 84 RBI in 128 games between AA Akron and AAA Columbus

Scouting Report: Long one of my favorite under-the-radar players in the organization, Urshela broke out with the best offensive season of his career in 2014. Urshela set a career single-season high in OPS, HR, RBI, 2B, BB…pretty much every offensive category across the board. He’s always been an elite defender, and the step forward with the bat last year turned him into a legitimate top-10 prospect in the organization. He began the season back in AA Akron, putting up a .914 OPS with 5 HR in just 24 games. Promoted quickly to AAA Columbus, the 22-year old Urshela didn’t miss a beat. He had an .804 OPS with 13 HR in 104 AAA games, showing the type of offensive acumen that makes him a legitimate two-way prospect.

At the plate, Urshela was known as a contact-oriented hitter who would sit back and try to hit the ball where it was pitched. But last year, Urshela started driving the ball to all fields with more authority, a consequence of having added 10-15 pounds of muscle over the offseason. In spring training last year, I noticed his ability to go the other way with power more than in the past, as he’d get his arms out on pitches out and over the plate and hit them to right field with authority. The ball was just carrying off his bat better than I’d seen in the past, and that was a harbinger of things to come in the regular season. Urshela still doesn’t profile to have a ton of power at the major league level, but 15-20 HR are not out of the question. Urshela has a smooth, level swing, and doesn’t try to do too much with the ball. He doesn’t sell out for power, and as a result will make plenty of contact. He’s not going to work the count, walking just 109 times in 601 career minor league games. He’s an aggressive hitter who’s going to be challenged by pitchers who aren’t afraid of his power, and as a result he’s just not going to walk very often.

Defensively, Urshela does everything well. He has soft hands, quick feet and a strong arm. He’s got great instincts, and always seems to be in the right place to make the play. He’s got Gold Glove potential at the hot corner, something that Indians fans are desperate to see after sub-par defense of Lonnie Chisenhall and Carlos Santana at 3rd base in 2014. His defense has been his calling card throughout his rise in the Indians system, and it’s what has him added to the 40-man roster heading into 2015.

Urshela is on the cusp of the major leagues, having found success at the AAA level in 2014. He’ll be 23 years old for the entire 2015 season, so there’s really no reason to rush him to The Show this year. Urshela’s timetable will depend almost as much on Lonnie Chisenhall as on Urshela himself. If Chisenhall gets off to a sizzling start similar to 2014, Urshela will remain in Columbus for most of the season. If Chiz’s dismal 2nd half carries over into 2015, we could see Urshela before the all-star break. Even if he doesn’t do much with the bat, Urshela’s glove can help the Indians in 2015 and beyond. We saw what happened to the club in 2014 when Jose Ramriez’s adequate defense replaced Asdrubal Cabrera’s dismal D, and a move from Chisenhall to Urshela could have a similar effect in 2015.

Glass half-full: A Gold Glove 3B with 18 HR annually
Glass half-empty: A solid defender at 3B who never hits enough to be an everyday guy

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
4. Francisco Mejia, C
DOB: 10/27/1995
Height/Weight: 5’10”, 175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Switch/Right
Acquired: International free agent in 2012
2014 Stats: .282/.339/.407 with 2 HR and 36 RBI in 66 games with short-season Mahoning Valley

Scouting Report: Mejia is one of the most exciting prospects in the Indians organization, but he’s also has the biggest gap between his current and future projection. Catchers generally have a high fail rate as prospects, partially because they face a much longer road to the majors than any other position. But Mejia’s tantalizing package of tools is too special to ignore, which is why he ranks 4th on this list. He’s the rare catching prospect that could be a force both at the plate and behind it.

At the plate, Mejia is a switch-hitter with impressive bat speed from both sides of the plate. He’s not a big guy, but his forearms are the size of most people’s biceps, providing for extremely strong wrists and an insanely quick bat. There’s raw power in his swing that hasn’t shown up in games yet, but that’s to be expected when you’re talking about a teenager. He has an ultra-aggressive approach from both sides, and a lot of his at-bats end on the first pitch. He’s going to have to clean that up as he advances through the system, and is going to struggle with exposure to advanced breaking balls. Better pitchers are going to exploit his aggressiveness, and few will challenge him with fastballs until he can do a better job recognizing spin.

On the defensive side of the ledger, Mejia simply has the best arm I’ve ever seen up-close. I’m not comparing him to Pudge Rodriguez, Johnny Bench or Yadier Molina because I’ve never stood 10 feet away and watch them throw. But I’ve seen every catcher in the Indians org for the last 5 years, plus plenty of other guys from around baseball on minor league fields around the country. And I’ve never seen anything quite like Francisco Mejia throwing a ball to 2B. His footwork isn’t especially clean, and his actions still need to be refined a little, but that arm…my God. I had him popping in the 1.8-1.9 range consistently, and the scary thing is that he should be able to improve on those times once he addresses the footwork/transfer issues. He projects to be the type of catcher who can control the opposition’s running game by himself, allowing his pitchers to focus on the guy at the plate rather than worry about the baserunners. His glove itself is still a little raw, as he still stabs at pitches that miss his target rather than receiving and framing them. But he has soft hands and should improve over time, so it’s not something I’m worried about effecting his long-term projection at this stage of his development. He moves well behind the plate, and should be more than adequate dealing with pitches in the dirt after (you guessed it) more reps.

Patience, patience, patience. That’s what the Indians (and their fans) will need to exercise with Mejia. He’ll likely spend all of 2015 as a 19-year old catcher in the Midwest League, an aggressive assignment that will test all phases of his game. His stats might not blow you away at the end of the season, but he if can stick in the Lake County lineup for the season, it’ll be considered a win for his development. Catchers take longer to develop than other positions due to the many nuances involved in baseball’s most difficult position. Mejia has a chance to be really special, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Glass half-full: An all-star, Gold Glove catcher
Glass half-empty: He might not make it above AAA

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
3. Bradley Zimmer, OF
DOB: 11/27/1992
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 185 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in the 2014 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .302/.400/.492 with 6 HR and 32 RBI in 48 games between short-season Mahoning Valley (45 G) and low-A Lake County (3 G)

Scouting Report: Zimmer was the 21st overall pick for the Indians in last June’s draft, and most prognosticators were surprised that he fell that far. Zimmer was projected as a possible top-10 pick prior to the draft, and the Indians were thrilled to snatch him up in the back end of the 1st round. Zimmer hit .368/.461/.573 with a team-high 7 HR and 31 RBI in 2014 for the San Francisco Dons, swiping 21 bases in 32 attempts and showing an ability to handle CF. Prior to the draft, ESPN’s Keith Law and Chris Crawford identified him as the “highest-ceiling” collegiate bat in the 2014 class.

Zimmer has a big, athletic frame that looks like it’d generate more power than it does. He has a consistent swing from the left side, but it’s a pretty flat plane that doesn’t result in a lot of backspin on the ball. As a result, he has more doubles power than HR power right now, but it’s easy to look at the 6’4” Zimmer and project an uptick in pop as he fills out and makes adjustments to his swing at the professional level. Zimmer did hit 2 HR in 3 games with Lake County, an impressive showing in an admittedly tiny small-sample last season. I think he ends up as at least a 15-20 HR guy, and that’s pretty valuable if he can stay in the middle of the outfield. He has an advanced approach and does a nice job picking out his pitch and driving it early in the count, but that’s going to be challenged as he progresses through the system and gets exposed to better breaking stuff.

In the field, Zimmer’s size actually works against him, as many scouts see him as a little awkward in the field and project a move to an OF corner by the time he reaches the show. His arm is above-average and will play wherever he ends up. His speed is a tick above average, so he’s not the type of guy who can afford to take bad routes and outrun his mistakes in center. If he does wind up in an OF corner (likely RF), then the power is going to have to improve if he wants to be a 1st-division regular.

Zimmer is one of those players that projects to be average or above-average across the board, but doesn’t have one single tool that really jumps out at you. That’s still a very valuable player, but it’s not a future star. If everything goes right, he could be a power-hitting CF who also hits for a high average. But that’s a perfect-world projection, and we’re living in reality. In all probability, Zimmer will bulk up, slow down a step, and move to an OF corner. He’ll open the season with low-A Lake County and will probably be ready for a call-up at some point in 2015. But CF is crowded in the Indians system, so he’ll either have to move to a corner in high-A or skip the Carolina League entirely and jump right up to AA Akron. He’s an advanced hitter with great makeup, a hard worker who will get the most out of his considerable talents. He could be patrolling the outfield at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as soon as 2017.

Glass half-full: Zimmer sticks in CF and produces like Michael Brantley (pre-2014)
Glass half-empty: Zimmer slides to a corner and produces like David Murphy, v. 2014

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
2. Clint Frazier, OF
DOB: 9/6/1994
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 190 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in the 2013 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .266/.349/.411 with 13 HR and 50 RBI in 120 games for low-A Lake County

Scouting Report: Frazier was the top high school bat in the 2013 draft, and the Indians snagged him with the 5th overall pick. He signed quickly, and put up an .868 OPS in 44 games in the complex league as an 18-year old in 2013. It was an impressive debut, and the Indians pushed Frazier straight up to the low-A Midwest League in 2014. Frazier dealt with some minor hamstring issues in spring training last year, and didn’t really get as many at-bats in Goodyear as he would’ve liked. He didn’t debut in Lake County until mid-April, and got off to a slow start in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. Frazier hit just .241/.335/.329 with 1 HR and 12 RBI in April and May, showing none of the power that made him a top-5 pick in the draft. But the Georgia native would heat up with the weather, hitting an impressive .280/.358/.457 (.815 OPS) with 12 HR and 38 RBI in 78 games from June 1 through the end of the season.

It’s no coincidence that Frazier started hitting in June. He came to the professional ranks with a short toe-tap to trigger his swing, something he did all through high school and in Arizona in 2013. Tinkering with his swing in 2014, he instituted a high leg kick to “help” with his timing. The leg kick ended up throwing off his timing and he went back to the simpler toe tap, and suddenly started hitting the ball with authority again.

As far as the raw tools go, Frazier has them all in spades. He has some of the quickest hands and one of the fastest bats in the minor leagues, resulting in 7 raw power. He does a nice job barreling the ball and makes hard contact when he gets a pitch in the zone. If he can tighten up his pitch recognition and selection, his power could easily play at the 6 to 6+ level. His hit tool lags behind his raw power at this stage of his development, as he’s still working on tracking and identifying spin. He’s an extremely aggressive hitter who is used to chasing bad pitches from his high school days (when no one in their right mind would throw him a pitch in the strike zone). If he can work on his approach and do a better job laying off pitches outside the zone (particularly down and off the outside corner), Frazier can be expected to have a 5+ to 6 hit tool. If not, his susceptibility to quality breaking stuff will limit both his hit and his in-game power to a more pedestrian level.

Defensively, Frazier has all the tools to stick in CF at the major league level. He’s had some arm troubles, but touched 98 MPH off the mound in a high school showcase. He’s a plus runner, but still needs to work on reads/recognition in CF. Some scouts see a move to an OF corner down the line, but the Indians are going to give him every chance to stick in CF, for obvious reasons.

Frazier’s 2014 stat line reads like a young Latin American prospect. Lots of pop, but lots of strikeouts (166) and not enough walks (56). And it’s not like he got better as the season went along either; Frazier racked up 44 K and just 16 BB in 138 May AB. In 131 August AB, he struck out 42 times against just 13 BB. So there’s still plenty of risk here. But you look at the tantalizing package of tools, and consider the fact that he was just 19 in the difficult hitters environment of the Midwest League in 2014, and there’s quite a bit to dream on. Frazier could legitimately be a 30/30 guy in centerfield with average to above-average defense. That’s a star, and possibly an MVP candidate. Again, we’re a ways away from that ceiling, but the potential is there. Frazier should be a year-at-a-time guy on his way up the ladder, and the 20-year old should be a mainstay in the Lynchburg Hillcats lineup for the 2015 season.

Glass half-full: An all-star CF that hits in the middle of a major league lineup. Grady Sizemore with a better arm.
Glass half-empty: A corner OF with some pop.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
1. Francisco Lindor, SS
DOB: 11/14/1993
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Switch/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft
2014 Stats: .276/.338/.389 with 11 HR, 62 RBI and 28 SB in 126 games between AA Akron and AAA Columbus

Scouting Report: I mean…were you expecting anyone else at the top of this list? What more can I say about Francisco Lindor? He’s been at the #1 slot in my (and everyone else’s) rankings for the past 4 years, and the only reason he won’t be here next year is that he (should) lose his prospect eligibility in 2015. Lindor has taken on every challenge presented to him so far in his professional career, and passed them with flying colors. His offensive numbers don’t blow you away, but consider that his season OPS of  .727 was collected over 88 AA games where he was an average of 4.7 years younger than the competition, and then in an additional 38 games in AAA when he was a full 7 years younger than his counterparts. To put that in perspective, Lindor was roughly equivalent to a 5th-grader playing against high school seniors in AAA, and managed to hit more HR in 38 games in Columbus (5) than he hit in all of 2013 (2). He’s a consensus top-5 prospect in all of baseball, and the SS job in Cleveland is going to be his sooner rather than later.

Lindor opened the 2014 season where he finished 2013, back in AA Akron. He put up a .278/.352/.389 line with 6 HR and 48 RBI in 88 games with the Aeros, and stealing 25 bases in 34 attempts to boot. He walked 40 times against just 61 strikeouts, showing a mature approach for a 20-year old in the Eastern League. Promoted to AAA Columbus in July, Lindor appeared in 38 games with the Clippers to close out the season. He hit .273/.307/.388 with 5 HR and 14 RBI, but his strikeout rate jumped (36 K) and walk rate dropped (9 BB). The “struggles” at the plate are expected for a 20-year old jumping to AAA, and aren’t really concerning long-term. But it’s one reason the Indians are planning to start Lindor back in AAA this April, as his bat still has room to grow in the minor leagues.

Lindor is a switch-hitter with an advanced approach from both sides of the plate. He makes a lot of contact, and has an above-average to plus hit tool. He tracks the ball well out if the pitchers hand, and picks up spin well. His power will never be more than average, but if the Indians get 8-12 HR’s out of Lindor at his peak that’ll be plenty to compliment the rest of his profile. He has gap power and will hit for average, and the bat will provide value in its own right. By the time it’s all said and done, Lindor could end up with a 6+ hit tool and 4 power. But Lindor isn’t a top prospect merely for his work at the plate.

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
Defensively, Lindor is quite simply the best defensive shortstop in minor league baseball. He has impressive range both up the middle and into the hole. He has soft hands, excellent footwork and clean actions. He has above-average arm strength and accuracy, and does a great job throwing on the run. He has incredible instincts, and often seems to be moving to be moving towards the ball even before it’s hit. Baseball Prospectus and have both called Lindor the best infield defender in the minor leagues over the past two years, and he’s ready to contribute with the glove at the major league level right now. He could be a 7 to 7+ defender at the major league level for a long, long time. He’s a 5+ runner, but his speed plays up because of how good a baserunner he is. He steals bases because he gets great jumps, not because he’s a burner who outruns the pitcher and catcher (sort of the anti-Billy Hamilton).

In addition to his skills on the field, Lindor is a leader in the clubhouse and sets a great example with his work ethic and makeup. In addition to recognizing him as the best infield defender in the minor leagues last year, Baseball Prospectus singled out Lindor as having the “best makeup” in the minors as well. It’s a combination of intangibles that you can’t quantify in any one stat, but he helps make his entire team better on and off the field.

Lindor is slated to begin the 2015 season back in AAA Columbus, but he could be called up to Cleveland at virtually any time. If anything happens to Jose Ramirez, Lindor will be on his way north on I-71 in very short order. If not, the Indians are happy to give him a little more time to develop with the bat and keep in in the friendly confines of Huntington Park until he forces his way to Cleveland (likely sometime after the Super-Two cutoff). I really can’t stress enough how much I like this kid, and how much of an impact he could have on the Indians for the next 6 years (or hopefully more). He’s the type of guy who could be the face of the franchise, a perennial all-star and Gold Glover. He’s the total package; a solid hitter, incredible defender, plus runner and a leader on and off the field. The only thing holding him back right now is his relative lack of experience and some lingering questions about just how good the bat will end up being against major league pitching. We’re going to find out soon though, and I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy the Francisco Lindor experience.

Glass half-full: We’re gathering in Cleveland in November of 2038 for Lindor’s farewell parade when he finally retires from the Indians.

Glass half-empty: A much more adorable version of Rey Ordonez