2014 Carolina Mudcats Preview: Rising from the Ashes
While there are no big stars, who can take the next step?
The 2014 Carolina Mudcats in the spring of 2014 are a vastly different team than they were a season ago. Last season, the Muddies debuted with their prior two first round draft picks in Francisco Lindor and Tyler Naquin. As expected, both top ten prospects made quick work of the Carolina League, and were playing in Akron by the end of the season. Also gone is arguably the Indians top pitching prospect in Cody Anderson, who followed Lindor and Naquin, as well as several other high upside Indians’ prospects, to Akron for the 2014 season.
Losing prospects is the nature of the beast in minor league baseball, but it’s often the unheralded teams that end up with the best stories as the season progresses. What the Mudcats lack in perceived talent in comparison to last season’s roster, they may make up with players that are trying to either regain their prospect standing or players striving to make a name for themselves. That may not be “sexy” to most prospect-aficionados, but to the fans that love the feel-good stories of the unheralded players that make good, this may just be the team to watch.
While it’s true that the big-name players from the start of last season are gone, there are several familiar faces returning who were with the club either last season, or in season’s past. While some of that is indicative of regression, much of that has more to do with a minor league system that is filling up with really good prospects at the Triple A and Double A levels. Ten of the thirteen members of the pitching staff, and nine of twelve position players have spent some time with the Mudcats in the past. While there may not be a host of system-studs, there will be a familiar tone to this team for their new field management.
This is a non-typical season in which the Mudcats aren’t starting the year off with the best-of-the-best prospects, but this could be a team that has some serious chemistry, and could produce some of the surprises that most prospect junkies look for.
Minor League Affiliates
Columbus Clippers (AAA)
Akron Aeros (AA)
Carolina Mudcats (High A)
Lake County Captains (Low A)
Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Short Season A)
Arizona Indians (Rookie)
Manager: Scooter Tucker
First season as the manager of the Carolina Mudcats, and his third season with the organization, as he was the manager of Lake County in 2013, and was the Muddies hitting instructor during his first season in the Indians’ system.
Pitching Coach: Steve Karsay
First season as the pitching coach for the Carolina Mudcats, and his third season with the organization, as he was the pitching coach for Lake County in 2013, and was with the Arizona League Indians in 2012, his first as a coach at any level.
Hitting Coach: Tony Mansolino
First season as the hitting coach for the Carolina Mudcats, and his fourth season with the organization, as he was the hitting coach for Lake County in 2013, and was the hitting coach for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in both 2011 and 2012.
The Indians have clearly found a group of coaches that have good chemistry with each other, and have a lot of familiarity with the players they’ll be coaching in 2013.
Scooter Tucker is familiar with the Mudcats, as he spent the 2012 season as the hitting instructor, and played an important part in developing better hitting strokes for players such as Jesus Aguilar (.277, with 12 homers), Carlos Moncrief (15 homers and 53 RBI), Giovanny Urshela (14 homers and 59 RBI, and a .278 average) and Ronny Rodriguez (19 homers and 66 RBI). Tucker had a real knack for bridging the gap between what the Indians’ organization wanted for each player with regards to improvement, as players like Aguilar, Moncrief, Urshela and Rodriguez saw significant “holes” in their swings diminish as the season progressed.
Tucker was rewarded with the manager’s job in Lake County in 2013, and while the team wasn’t as successful with regards to wins and losses, a lot of that was attributed to the amount of teenagers that littered the roster. Clearly, it was a young roster, and the growing pains were obvious. He’s a well-respected coach in the minor league ranks, and is a perfect complement to a team of veteran minor leaguers looking to rebound or make a name for themselves.
Steve Karsay is a name that most Cleveland Indians fans are familiar with, as he played with the Indians from 1998 through 2001, as a set-up man, closer, and for a few games, a starter. He had a tough job in 2013, as the Captains’ staff lacked a legitimate amount of talent, and what talent they did have were very, very young. His one “win” was with regards to Dylan Baker, who became a legitimate top pitching prospect in the system, and who should be showing up in Carolina as soon as he’s 100%.
Mansolino is one of the youngest coaches in the system, and he’s already in his fourth season with the Indians. They obviously think a lot of the 31-year old, and it showed with an extremely young team. The average age for the Captains offense was 20.7 years old, which was second youngest in the league. They finished fourth in doubles and sixth in homers, but with youth comes struggle.
Overall, this is an interesting coaching staff with a wily veteran hitting coach as the manager, and a young hitting coach that’s highly thought of under his wing. Karsay is a coach that will bring some memories of the late 90’s teams trying to find his way. There’s good chemistry there, which should match this team well.
Shawn Morimando (LHP), Michael Peoples (RHP), Cole Sulser (RHP), Ryan Merritt (LHP), **Dylan Baker (RHP)—There are other potential starters here until Baker makes his way up, starting most likely with Jacob Lee.
The unquestioned ace of the staff was Shawn Morimando, who went 8-13 with a 3.73 ERA for the Mudcats last season. Looking deeper at the numbers though, Morimando was very good through his first 21 games before a swoon in August and September raised his ERA over a half-run. Over the last 90 days of his season, his ERA was near eight, and while a lot of that had to do with his last game in which he gave up seven runs, but he gave up four or more runs in four of his last seven starts. It’s likely just a stamina issue, and may be attributed to his slight size. Morimando isn’t about velocity, but movement. All of his pitches move around in the zone. He has a nice fastball, but his slider and curve have real potential going forward. I’m not crazy about his changeup because of his velocity issues at times, but Morimando can pitch, is a lefty, and may not be long for Carolina. My gut is that as a control lefty, he’s probably not going to end up a starter, but we shall see. He’s young, and the upside is there.
While he’s not officially on the roster, I’m putting Dylan Baker here, because he’s ultimately going to be the ace when he does return, which shouldn’t be too long. Baker has everything you want when you look at a starter. He’s a big kid that can bring it. He has mid-90’s potential, but sits in the low 90’s, but has seen his velocity move up every year with the system, according to IBI’s Tony Lastoria. The fastball is the key, and makes his curveball and slider that much better. Both are fantastic out pitches that could be special if he continues the strides he’s taken so far. He also throws a change-up. There’s a lot to like about Baker from all the reports that I’ve heard so far, and if he can develop that changeup with his spike in velocity and his big hooks, there some really good upside to him going forward. He’s the best starter that will make a start in Carolina this year.
Cole Sulser is really, really smart. The Dartmouth graduate, who received not one, but two degrees at the Ivy League school is trying to achieve his dream of playing major league baseball, but he’ll make far more money when he ultimately retires. Sulser was really good last year, his first with the organization. He was in a piggy-back roll at Mahoning Valley, and managed to go 3-2 with a 1.83 ERA. His numbers were freakish, with a 10 K/9 innings, while only walking 1.5 over the same stretch. Of course, he was a 23-year old in the short-season league, so you have to temper your thoughts. Sulser is a gamer though, and he’ll enjoy the ride for as long as the Indians will let him. Check out a fantastic special interest piece on Sulser written by IBI’s and The Morning Journal reporter Stephanie Metzger. Good stuff there.
Shawn Morimando, meet Ryan Merritt. Ryan Merritt, meet Shawn Morimando. Both are lefties. Both lack velocity. Both fit the mold of control pitches that make their living throwing strikes. Like Morimando, Merritt, his pitches show a nice amount of movement, and he’s able to add some deception by hiding the ball behind his thigh for an extended period of time during his delivery. He has a nice curveball that has some nice hook, and a really good change. The key for this kid is throwing strikes and moving the ball around. They’ll likely keep him far away from Morimando in the rotation.
Michael Peoples was really good last season in Lake County out of the pen for the most part. He had a nice 9.7 K/9 while walking less than two per nine, and had a 2.64 ERA. He struggled in eight starts with the Mudcats, but at 22, could still move through the Carolina League now that he’s a bit more settled. He has a good frame with a nice fastball, curveball and changeup. He’s not a top prospect, but he has a great make-up and mentality.
Overall, there are intangibles on this staff that I like, and it should get enhanced by Adam Plutko sooner, rather than later. I’m not sure what the plan is for Elvis Araujo either. He missed most of last season, so my bet is he’ll either piggy-back, or move to the bullpen to protect the arm. I didn’t mention Jacob Lee here, but he’s an older player for this league at 24, and while I like his intangibles, he’s not a major factor in the system, but is a veteran presence in the locker room.
The first thing that strikes me here is that there isn’t a left-hander here, which makes me believe that Araujo is going to at least start the year off in the pen. I’m not sure if that will be a full-time thing, or if it’s just to get him healthy, but he had been struggling as a starter, so this move may make sense for more than one reason.
The closer is likely going to be Louis Head, who closed both for Lake County and for Carolina, although not by any stretch was it a regular thing. He was spectacular in Lake County, with a 1.82 ERA in 25 appearances, and pretty good in Carolina, with a 3.11 ERA. He could share time there with Grant Sides, although thanks to his massive struggles in Carolina last year, you never know. You could also see a guy like Rob Nixon get some spots closing. Head has pitched the best of the three, but there really isn’t a special option of the obvious candidates.
The guy I’m most interested in based on numbers is D.J. Brown, who pitched in 66 1/3 innings over 27 games. Now Brown can start, and I know that he is definitively a guy they could use in a piggy back role, but we’ll see just how good the second-year minor leaguer is when he plays his first season in the Carolina League.
Josh Martin is another guy, like Brown, that could find himself in a piggy back scenario. He logged a ton of innings last year in both Lake County and Carolina, and struggled at High A over the long haul. The 24-year old will have to be special to move along in this season, and at that age.
Carlos Melo used to be a decent prospect for the Texas Rangers, but the 23-year old struggled past low A, and was released. He’s been with the Indians in the rookie league and low A, and been solid. This year, he’s back to High A. As a 23-year old, he’ll have to perform now, or his time as a pro ballplayer could be short.
Benny Suarez may have the most upside of all the pitchers here, and at 22, will be looking to build upon a nice 2013 season in which he seemed to get better with every promotion, including in a brief end of the year promotion to Columbus.
All-in-all, in a system that is full of relievers, none of them seem to be here in Carolina. The Muddies are ripe with players who used to have promise, but have fallen by the wayside.
The left side of the infield is really going to be represented well. Diaz defected out of Cuba, and I don’t know a whole lot about him, but everything that I’ve heard is that the kid can hit the baseball. He’s got a good frame, at 6’2” and 185 pounds, and can play some defense. I’ve heard reports that he was an able replacement for Jose Iglesius, after he defected, but you know how rumors and innuendos go. What I like is that everyone that I’ve talked to seem to like this kid, and that the really feel that he could be a top guy at third in the system if it all pans out, and if he can’t field the position, he could easily move to the outfield or to the middle infield. Of course, they have one or two guys there already.
Erik Gonzalez is the highest ranked position player on the team, and it’s unfortunate that there are so many players ranked higher ahead of him. He really came out of nowhere last year with his power production, and the Indians are moving him to shortstop, perhaps to enhance his value as a guy that can handle multiple positions going forward. He had 32 doubles, 12 triples, nine homers and 11 stolen bases. He struck out a little too much, and walked a little too less, but this is a kid that has a ton of upside. It will be fun seeing Diaz and Gonzalez side-by-side, and I have to imagine that they’ll be in Carolina all year long, which is a nice bonus.
Todd Hankins will likely play second base, but can also play a little third as well. Hankins is a burner who had 31 stolen bases in 2013 in his three different stops, and had 33 stolen bases in 2012 as well. He’s played in Carolina in both seasons, and knows the league well. Hankins is a fun player to have on your team, and while he won’t likely be knocking the door on anyone’s major league team, you never count out speed.
Joe Sever will be returning to Carolina, where he ended the season in 2013, and played very well. Sever can also play multiple positions, but is the only guy listed here that has first base experience. There’s always value in a guy that can play multiple infield positions, and he does have some decent gap power. He hit 29 doubles and seven dingers last year. What’s great about Sever is that he has upside, but he’ll really have to start showing it this year before he gets knocked for being and advanced age player in a lower minors team. He needs to really start to add patience, and add power, and he could make a bit of noise because of his versatility.
Yhoxian Medina had a nice season in Lake County, hitting .278, with 11 doubles and three triples, but struggled in his month at Five County stadium. He’s fairly limited in upside, but like the other players in this infield, he can play multiple positions, and has utility guy written all over him. He’s a guy you could see at multiple levels at times because of his versatile glove, and likely, the Indians lack of worry at moving him around a bunch. He could be the new-ish version of one of my favorite all-time minor leaguers in this organization, Justin Toole.
The infield has a lot of potential, especially with Diaz and Gonzalez. However, the Carolina League has often made mincemeat out of players that are trying to figure things out. If those two are up to the task, it could really change their prospect standing, as well as how they are perceived by the front office.
I can’t help it. I love LeVon Washington. I love #Washtime, and while #Washtime is rarely, if ever, seen by anyone buy me these days, I still love it. I don’t want to harbor too much about Washington’s past with this organization, but I do have to mention the injuries that have really debilitated his career. He’s brash. He has moxie. He’s really, really good. It’s an old story with #Washtime, but if he could just stay healthy, he would be a guy that the Indians would take very seriously. He can hit the ball, and he showcased that last season in Lake County, when he was healthy (.321/.425/.477). He showed up at Carolina for four games in Carolina in 2012, and just wasn’t very good. Now is a different story. During media day, #Washtime was pure #Washtime: “All I can do is take advantage of where I am and play hard day-by-day. It seems like everybody is hungry and wants to take the spot of somebody in front of him. The pitcher’s mound is the pitcher’s mound, home plate is home plate and they’ve got to throw it over the plate. A lot of people tell me stuff about this league, but I’m going to stay with my same approach. It’s baseball. I’m not going to see anybody throwing with his foot.” I really don’t know what to add to that, other than to say that Washington really could be the best player on the team this year.
Last year, IBI had a get together at a Lake County game. During that game, I mentioned to the crew that Logan Vickk was a really, really good player that reminded me perhaps of a poor man’s Tyler Naquin. Everyone stopped, looked at me funny, and went back to the festivities. Well, he did stink in Carolina for his month-long tenure, but he got to Carolina by hitting .281 in Lake County, with 23 doubles, three triples and five homers. He’s a good fielder, and while I don’t think he’ll ever be a top prospect in the system, he’s a guy that figures things out by working hard. He also has some nice speed, with 26 stolen bases last season. Washington and Vick should cover a lot of ground at Five County…which is good, because there is a lot of ground to cover.
I don’t know a thing about Ollie Linton. I know that he’s a 27-year old career minor leaguer that steals a lot of bases, played in the Diamondbacks organization for a long time, played in two Southern League all-star games, and is playing in his first season with the Indians’ organization. It’s clear this kid is filling a spot for a bit while some others are developing beneath him.
Anthony Gallas is a guy that I’ve written about before. He’s a Cleveland kid who went to Strongsville High, then Kent State, and then made his name as the little engine that could in the lower levels of the system. The 26-year old missed most of last season, but is back in Carolina to hopefully extend a professional career that perhaps shouldn’t have happened to begin with. He’s a career minor leaguer for sure, but a great hometown story, who like Linton, is a system placeholder for the time being.
With Vick and Washington, the outfield has some good pieces. Unfortunately, if Washington gets hurt, there could be problems. I know Luigi Rodriguez has a shot to show up here at some point, so there is help in the pipeline.
Monsalve can play the game of baseball. Unfortunately, he had the UCL injury in spring of last year, and missed the entire season. In doing so, a bunch of people passed him up, including Tony Wolters, who just started playing the position last year. He is raw talent, and has seen improvement from year-to-year, but this missed time will certainly put him back. What can he do? He’s a big kid with good power offensively. He attacks the zone with his bat, and when he makes contact, you know it. He has every intangible defensively to be a major league player, and has a really strong arm. He could have used a full season of 2013 polish. That said, I could see him move up fairly quickly.
Charlie Valerio was a free agent first baseman when he joined Cleveland, and has made a really good transition to the catcher role. He was a really good hitter at the lower levels, but that has tapered off over the season. He’s a good leader, a decent enough defender, and has a nice bat. To me, he is the perfect minor league back-up catcher.
Jeremy Lucas is an offensive-minded catcher, and while I’m not checking him off as a defender, I’m saying that he’ll likely play some DH this year, for as long as Monsalve is here. If you were to comp him to Valerio, there isn’t really a whole lot of difference to me at this point, other than Lucas seems to have better offense as of right now, and is a little younger.
I don’t know that anyone on this team stands out to the average Cleveland Indians fan. To the folks that really follow minor league baseball though, there are several interesting stories worth watching:
Is Yandy Diaz a really good prospect, or is he just another guy in the system?
Can Erik Gonzalez take the next step, in a league that is known as a pitchers league?
Can LeVon Washington stay healthy long enough to ever make it to the major leagues?
Has the injury killed the movement of Alex Monsalve through the system?
Can Joe Sever develop the type of power he would need to be an effective upper minor league player?
Can Shawn Morimando make short work of the Carolina League this year, or has the finesse thing been played out?
Can Dylan Baker take Cody Anderson’s path in 2013?
Is there anyone in this bullpen who can be special, or even kind of good?
Even with all of those questions, this should be a very grounded, good baseball team, and another fun season of Carolina Mudcats baseball.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
I'm calling a Wendle-like surprise out-of-nowhere year offensively for Jeremy Lucas, if given a fair chance and enough ABs. He's a C/DH/(1B?) with a good OBP skills and some underrated pop.
Not sure why a 25yo Rob Nixon still gets a roster spot while some interesting pen arms are blocked at LC and further down.
Was a big fan of the Sulser pick and hope he keeps performing. Could be a pleasant surprise.