2014 IBI Top 50 Indians Prospects countdown preview
Indians manager Terry Francona brought about an organizational change in culture last season that was felt not just at the big league level but in the minor leagues as well.
The Indians enjoyed a thrilling 92-70 season that qualified them for the playoffs as a wildcard team. Their 24-win improvement came under the guide of Francona and his staff, but also because of the depth the Indians had built on the major league roster the previous winter and from some key contributions from players in the minors.
While the Indians were having fun at the major league level, they also spent a lot of time putting in several changes to their player development system before last season. They adjusted some of their pitching programs, how some of their prospects are pushed, changed some player roles and implemented a new cohesive vision shared by the major league staff to better allow more young players to impact the team in Cleveland than in years past.
That systematic growth was seen last season with several young prospects making considerable strides and the system suddenly becoming more stable at several positions as well as unearthing some players that have since turned into legit prospects. It was a successful year as a whole for the organization from top to bottom, and one they hope to at least duplicate this season and potentially have even better results.
The Indians were very active last offseason in acquiring veterans to help add to the foundation of the team and provide the necessary leadership so the team can develop going forward. This offseason the focus has been less on acquiring those bigger names but instead on filling in the gaps on the roster with low cost options so as to leave open the door for opportunities for a bevy of exciting players in the minors that the Indians are very excited about unveiling at some point in the next year.
At shortstop the Indians have the system’s star in Francisco Lindor and at first base they have Jesus Aguilar – both of which are just a stone’s throw from the majors. There are others like outfielders Tyler Naquin and Carlos Moncrief, infielders Jose Ramirez and Joey Wendle, right-handed pitchers Cody Anderson and Trevor Bauer, and relievers like C.C. Lee, Austin Adams and Kyle Crockett who could all have a sizable impact on the Indians roster at some point in 2014.
Even after their spending splurge before the 2013 season the focus and backbone of the organization remained their player develop system. This season more than any before the Indians are going to rely on a lot of help from within to fill in some of the cracks - and in some cases large gaps - left by departing players from the previous season as well as players who end up underperforming or get hurt this coming season.
Free agency will continue to be an avenue used to supplement the big league roster going forward, but the stars and true impact talent will need to continue to come from within. Such players are the bloodline to any success the Indians can have as an organization, and is how they have done it in the past with their successful run in the 1990s and once again in the mid-2000s.
As with any year, the Indians had some ups, downs, successes and disappointments last year, but for the first time in a few years there was tangible evidence that the system as a whole made more than an incremental improvement. This is not only based on the results and development of several players, but also how the players reacted to some of the new development plans set forth by the organization and the infusion of some new philosophies.
The Indians farm system may still not be one of the better ones in baseball, but it continues to grow in strength. A lot of the poor perception of the system comes from the lack of major league caliber starting pitching prospects, but if you look beyond that area of the organization the Indians are as good or better in the minors than most other teams at almost every other position or role possible. Some of their younger players are maturing into good prospects, and as a higher distribution of upside talent continues to hit the upper levels the organization’s standing will only continue to rise – especially if they can make some strides in the starting pitching department.
This year there will be several new faces in the Top 50. As with any prospect ranking there is a lot of volatility from year to year as the combination of injuries, development and performance can change things from year to year, but that what makes following prospects fun. The focus is not on the standings for the various Indians affiliates, it is on the players to see who improves or who struggles over the course of the season and how their standing in the organization changes.
The system may not be what it was in 2003 when the Indians were the #1 system in baseball with future major league stars such as Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Travis Hafner all ranked in the Top 10 that year. But there is still lots of youth, upside and talent in a system that continues to blossom and is starting to show results on the roster in Cleveland.
So buckle up and enjoy what should be another fun season of Indians baseball and prospecting in the minors.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strength of the Indians’ farm system is the amount of middle of the infield prospects they have that are legit major league prospects. Their impact and potential may vary from a potential future star in Francisco Lindor or as a potentially good utility player in Erik Gonzalez, but the middle infield – particularly at shortstop – is a spot in the organization where they have “talent pouring out of their ears” as one scout put it so eloquently.
The farm is also loaded with relief prospects, a luxury the Indians have had now for a few years and they are starting to see pay off at the major league level. They have Cody Allen firmly established in the major league pen and a litany of developed relievers at their disposal as depth options or more this coming season – relievers along the lines of C.C. Lee, Austin Adams, Bryan Price, Preston Guilmet and more. Behind those players they have another nice, young core of relievers who could be banging on the door by the end of this season or earlier – relievers like Jeff Johnson, Kyle Crockett, Enosil Tejeda, and others.
The catching position has also suddenly become a position that is very interesting. There may not be a true major league ready catching prospect biding their time for an opportunity, but there is a lot of intrigue around the young phenom Francisco Mejia, the upside and ability of Tony Wolters, the physical attributes of Alex Monsalve, the whole package that Eric Haase offers, the defense of Roberto Perez and the left-handed power or Jake Lowery. This is a position where the Indians should have a legit prospect catching at all four full season affiliates to start the season, something almost unheard of and something that is going to be a lot of fun to watch how they develop and perform over the 2014 season.
Although maybe not actually a strength, the system is more balanced than it has been in recent years. The Indians have rid themselves of the big gap they had in the system for a few years, something evidenced by last season’s Triple-A Columbus team which had few if any prospects and was largely filled with minor league veterans. A lot of that team played together at Double-A Akron in 2012 and at High-A Kinston in 2011, so the gap kind of rode through the system like a wave from 2011-2013 until it finally crashed on the beach at the end of last season and went away. This season the Indians should have a good balance of prospects from Triple-A through rookie ball, though the strongest team will probably be Double-A Akron who should be loaded with as many as five or six of the Indians top 10-12 prospects.
What is nice to see is the Indians will have some legitimate prospect depth at Triple-A Columbus, something they really have not had since 2011. Prospects such as right-handed reliever Austin Adams, first baseman Jesus Aguilar, right-handed pitcher Trevor Bauer, left-handed pitcher Kyle Crockett, right-handed reliever Preston Guilmet, left-handed starter T.J. House, right-handed reliever C.C. Lee, outfielder Carlos Moncrief, right-handed reliever Bryan Price, infielder Jose Ramirez and even outfielder Tyler Holt should all start the year at Columbus or spend a great majority of the season there.
That lack of balance has hurt them in recent years as the Indians have had few options to turn to as options at the major league level, but that appears to have changed as they have depth and legit prospects to turn to at just about any position or role on the field except third base. With this balance and a solid collection of prospects in the system, their overall “ranking” in the industry should climb some from where they were last season, though they still need some big strides this season from the prospects taken in the last two drafts and an impactful draft this season if they want to crack the top 10-12 as far as farm system rankings in MLB go.
The biggest weakness of the Indians’ system continues to be their lack of starting pitching prospects. They have some interesting arms as Cody Anderson really came on last season, Trevor Bauer struggled in Cleveland but is still very talented, and Danny Salazar blew the doors down in Cleveland. But Salazar, unfortunately, is no longer rookie eligible and thus no longer considered for these rankings, and beyond Anderson there are some good starting pitching prospects but they have some concerns. Also, they really did not add a big time arm in the draft last year and did not acquire one in a trade. The Indians have drafted and signed a lot of interesting high upside arms over the past few seasons that look promising such as Shawn Morimando, Dylan Baker, Dace Kime, Adam Plutko,Mitch Brown, Kieran Lovegrove, Caleb Hamrick and Kenny Matthews, but all of these pitchers bring some question marks. They will really need to solidify their standing as a legit major league starting pitching prospect by demonstrating some growth this season and some consistency with their performance on the mound.
If there is another area of concern in the organization it is at the corner infield positions. Beyond Jesus Aguilar, the Indians really do not have a legit prospect at third base or first base. Third baseman Giovanny Urshela still lacks consistency and Nellie Rodriguez is still a few years away at first base – but beyond them that is it as far as other true prospects at a corner infield position.
Who are some breakout candidates?
In 2013, players like Cody Anderson, Dylan Baker, Joe Colon, Erik Gonzalez, Caleb Hamrick, Ryan Merritt, Shawn Morimando, Nellie Rodriguez, Enosil Tejeda, Logan Vick and Joe Wendle really broke through as legit prospects and saw their prospect “ranking” jump by at least 30-50 spots or more. This season there are some intriguing names to watch which may not show up in the Top 20 or so prospects who I think have a chance to really take a step forward into Top 10 territory, and for those more in the lower end of the Top 100 this year to jump into the Top 50 territory next year.
I will say right now that outfielder LeVon Washington is not going to rank well in my listing, but that he has the talent and ability where if he proves he can stay healthy for a full season and has some success at a level above Low-A that he can reestablish himself as a high end prospect (remember, I once had him #2 in the system because of that ability). There is still a great deal of unknown with newly drafted pitchers Dace Kime, Kenny Mathews andCasey Shane where all could have a big year and jump significantly going into 2015. I still remain high on some lower level guys like Claudio Bautista, and don’t sleep on D.J. Brown and Jordan Milbrath.
In years past I listed potential bust candidates, but last year I refrained from doing so and will continue that this year. This is mostly out of respect for the players getting ready for another big season as I am just not sure it is the right thing to even write about at the moment. There are certainly several players out there with a lot to prove this year after tough seasons last year because of injuries or what not, players like Dillon Howard, Nick Hagadone,Scott Barnes, LeVon Washington, Dorssys Paulino, Anthony Santander, Ronny Rodriguez, and so on. Also, there will obviously be players ranked highly this year that bring a lot of bust risk due to their age or health concerns. But again, there will be no bust predictions from me this year.
The criteria used to determine who is eligible for the 2014 prospect ranking is fairly simple.
Major League service time is not considered, and instead the only requirement is that a player still have rookie status with less than 50.0 innings pitched or with less than 130 at bats in their Major League career. This means players like Nick Hagadone, Jose Ramirez, Preston Guilmet, C.C. Lee, Trevor Bauer and Scott Barnes are still considered rookies, and thus, still eligible to be ranked (and they will be). It also means that Danny Salazar – much to my dismay – is not eligible.
The other exception from the ranking is players that have yet to play stateside are not ranked, which is basically those players that played the 2013 season in the Dominican Summer League or were a 2013 international signing that has yet to play. Until these Latin American players come stateside where I have an opportunity to see them more and also get opinions from others in the industry on them, I leave them out of the overall listing. I will provide a separate listing with my International Top 15 or Top 20 that will rank those players not eligible for the overall ranking list. This ranking (with scouting reports) will either be posted online at a later date and/or included in the upcoming book.
The information for these scouting reports comes from my numerous conversations over the past year with players, scouts, coaches, front office personnel, and so on as well as my own observations. I typically talk to “someone” every day about a prospect or two in the system, so all of this information is obtained firsthand.
The way someone puts together their ranking of players can vary from scout to scout, executive to executive, and from writer to writer. Some people rate prospects purely on results (stats), some on standing (class level/age), and some purely on potential (projection), but I try to incorporate all three of those rating styles and use a balanced approach in order to consider all possible information to make the best possible decision on where to place a player in my ranking. I generally do favor projection over performance, so younger players with upside will always get the higher nod versus an older player with great stats but a limited ceiling.
It also should be noted that different positions rank well while others do not. Starting pitchers always have much, much more upside than relief pitchers, so they get the priority when ranking players. The relief pitchers often do not rank in the Top 40-50 unless they have a chance to be a dominant backend reliever in the Major Leagues. This also holds true for players that are utility players or reserve players as they will not rank well because of their limited role. Starting pitchers and players up the middle at catcher, middle infield, and center field are typically always valued the highest among prospects, then the rest of the position players, and then the relievers.
Also, older players in the upper levels that maybe have performed well but have plateaued as a prospect will not rank well. The rankings are not about who is closer to the big leagues as I base them solely on what I think the player becomes and what their true Major League value/potential is to the organization. For example, someone that may be a solid performer over their career, will be at Triple-A, and may be on the 40-man roster may not necessarily be ranked as well as a young prospect in Low-A that maybe has been inconsistent with their performance but has the tools to be an impact player. It is mostly about the potential to impact a Major League roster rather than about who are the best prospects that can “get there”.
In the end, the rankings are arbitrary. I always tell people not to take each and every ranking exactly for what it is, but instead as a guideline that shows what players to keep an eye out for, who has more or less value than you thought, and how all the players stack up against one another.
As always, thanks for the continued support with the site and for reading. Enjoy the new reports and most of all I wish all the players the best of luck this upcoming season.
Up Next: The countdown begins Friday with #50.
Note: For those wondering, I am still thinking about what to do with the 2014 prospect book. I have been considering some changes to the format, size, etc. I plan to publish “something” but please be aware that I probably won’t publish it until the middle-end of March this year. I am trying some new ideas and trying to inject some new life into it in order to keep it going. I will have an update in February on how that is coming along and when it may be available. Thanks!
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2013 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Perhaps ONE of these three guys emerges as a legit rotation candidate. It would go a long way to strengthening a weakness in the system, namely high end SPs.
Brian, I am not sure about Howard at the moment except for what I know from last July. Not much about his plan really until he gets to spring training other than he will be there and participate like everyone else. If it is any different, you can bet I will see it this spring when I am there and be sure to ask.
In addition to being low on starters, we are also low on power hitters. As you say, the corner infield is weak but so is corner outfielders. Not a lot of pop in the lineup.
Question...what is the status of the kid from St. Ed's? The catcher the Indians drafted a few years back. Is he making any progress? He just seemed overwhelmed....and didn't another kid from Ed's ...a pitcher...get drafted even higher by the Pirates?