The five most important Akron Aeros' in 2012
Even though the Cleveland Indians have a lack of top-end talent in the upper levels of their minor league system, the performances of five players currently ticketed for the AA level Akron Aeros will be very important to the Tribe’s success in 2012 and beyond.
Saying most of the real talent of the Indians’ minor league system is in the lower levels is an understatement. Of IPI’s Top 20 prospects, only eight are currently slated to be above A-ball at the start of the 2012 season (to find out exactly who they are, buy the book!). Even worse for the Akron Aeros, most of those eight are above the AA level. Only two players in IPI’s Top 20 are expected to start the year in Akron, leaving fans of the Aeros without much impressive, top talent to go see this season.
That said, the Indians will need some of the players at Akron to succeed at a high level for the overall health of the system. Here are the five most important Aeros for the 2012 season:
Chun Chen, C
On the surface, Chun Chen’s first exposure to the AA level in 2011 did not go all that poorly. In 113 games, Chen posted a fairly strong .262/.330/.451 slash line, .781 OPS, .346 wOBA (113 wRC+), 16 HR, 70 RBI and 24 2B. Since the offensive threshold for catchers is not all that high and Chen was only 22 last year, his 2011 season would not normally seem to be a huge cause for concern. Yet, Chen saw his prospect stock fall heading into 2012.
Despite most of the top of the 2011 Indians’ prospects list being lopped off, Chen fell two spots from 20th to 22nd. This is due in a big way to his defense and strikeout problems. By all accounts, Chen’s defense is below-average right now, something that means more now that we are finding out catcher defense may be underrated by our current metrics. Chen needs to improve his defense because he has to stick at catcher, since his bat does not profile at all at first base. In addition to his defensive struggles, Chen’s strikeout rate jumped from 17.8% to 26.1% in 2011 and his walk rate plummeted from 12.1% to 9.2%. He still showed decent pop when he made contact, but he needs to improve his plate discipline in order to be successful.
The Indians may have a good one-two punch at catcher of Carlos Santana and Lou Marson at the big league level, but the Tribe really needs Chen to reach his full potential. At the very least, an offensive-oriented catcher who can handle the position – someone like Yasmani Grandal – can be a key piece in trades for impact players like Mat Latos. That is not to say the Indians must trade Chen, that he is as good as Grandal or that they are going to trade for someone like Latos, but if Chen were to rebuild his stock, he would be very useful to the club in one way or another.
Nick Weglarz, OF/DH
There are no words that can express how happy Nick Weglarz must have been to see 2011 end. In what was supposed to be his final year of seasoning at the AAA level, Weglarz only managed 41 games due to injuries and struggled mightily back down in AA Akron. Weglarz does not have much speed or play defense particularly well, so his power is his big calling card. After 2011 saw Weglarz post a meager .306 SLG%, there is real doubt now if he will ever make it to the majors.
Weglarz has never managed to stay healthy throughout his minor league career, but he is still only headed into his age-24 season. This is still the player who had a .501 SLG% and .893 OPS between AA Akron and AAA Columbus in 2010 (granted, in only 87 games). Weglarz’s stock is at a major low, but the injuries last year only robbed him of his power considering he maintained his strong batting approach (43:36 SO:BB, .360 OBP). If Weglarz can stay healthy and regain his power, he can spend 2012 re-establishing himself within the system and stake his claim to the DH spot in Cleveland that will be coming free next season after Travis Hafner departs. Weglarz is still far from making it to Cleveland, but if he can dominate Akron like he did in 2010, he could still work out in the end.
Austin Adams, RHP
Unlike Chen and Weglarz, Austin Adams is a prospect whose star is rising. Adams saw his ranking jump from 32nd in 2011 to a high, as of yet unreleased number in IPI’s top prospect countdown (again, if you want to know now, buy the book! I did already and it is tremendous). Adams may not be a big guy (5’11”, 185 lbs.), but he has hit triple digits on the radar gun with his fastball. Considering Adams was a shortstop in college and only started pitching full-time recently, his growth and production in 2011 at Akron (3.77 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 8.7 SO/9, 4.2 BB/9) is very impressive.
Adams still has plenty of work and improvement to do, but he is certainly on the right track. The biggest problem with Adams right now is that he may only end up being a reliever at the Major League level. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, the Tribe would obviously rather see Adams produce 200 innings as a starter as opposed to 70 as a reliever. The Indians have plenty of back-end starting options in the majors and upper minors, but not many middle- to top- of the rotation starters. If Adams can continue his development, he projects to be more than just another back-end depth guy, making his 2012 season very important and one to watch at AA Akron.
Tyler Holt, OF
He may not look like much (5’10”, 187 lbs.), but Tyler Holt will be an interesting player for the Akron Aeros this season. Last year in his age-22 season, Holt posted a decent .254/.365/.325 slash line, .690 OPS, .338 wOBA (112 wRC+), 19.8 K%, 14.6 BB% and 34 SB last year at A+ Kinston. The high amount of strikeouts is concerning, but if he is able to walk as much as he did last year, he will be okay. He brings a lot of speed and baserunning ability to the table and has drawn comparisons to Brett Gardner. Since Gardner was worth 5.1 fWAR last year (and should be hitting leadoff for the Yankees, in my opinion), that is high praise for Holt.
My biggest concern for Holt is the lack of power he showed at Kinston last year. Sure, the point of his game is to make contact and be the tablesetter for the rest of the order, but he needs to be a bit better than a .325 SLG%. I have watched Jordan Henry for the last two years at Akron and he is quite frustrating at times to watch. The right fielder will play closer to center field than right field, daring him to pull the ball anywhere close to the right field line, and Henry continues to just slap the ball the other way into the defense. You have to be aggressive and assert yourself from time to time to keep the defense honest, so I hope Holt continues his aggressive approach and works on driving the ball. He has the tools to be more than a fourth outfielder (something the Indians have excelled at producing recently, with Trevor Crowe leading the parade) and will get the chance to hone them in his first exposure at AA Akron this season.
T.J. McFarland, LHP/Matt Packer, LHP/Clayton Cook, RHP
Alright, so I cheated a bit with this spot here. The point is, as I mentioned earlier, the Indians have a massive amount of back-end rotation pitchers in the majors and upper minors. Between Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe, Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, Scott Barnes and maybe even Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez (who just had the charges against him dropped), the Indians do not need more fourth or fifth starters. Unfortunately, T.J. McFarland, Matt Packer and Clayton Cook look more like back-end than middle of the rotation guys right now.
Cook has the most upside of these three right now, but has struggled with massive blowups and staying consistent throughout the long baseball season. McFarland and Packer are groundball-inducing innings-eating machines, but those guys typically end up more as fourth or fifth starters. While you can never really have enough of those guys, the Indians are doing their best to prove that axiom wrong (in a good way). The key for Cook, McFarland and Packer in 2012 is to separate themselves from the group. They all should be in the starting rotation in Akron on Opening Day and thus will be good competition against each other throughout the season. If one of these guys was able to improve their stock and start looking like a bona fide middle of the rotation starter, they would have a much easier path to the majors and the Indians would gain some diversity in their depth.
Overall, the Indians may not have many impact players currently slated for the AA Akron Aeros, but there will still be important players donning that purple uniform and hanging out with Orbit the space cat this year. Chun Chen, Nick Weglarz, Austin Adams, Tyler Holt and the T.J. McFarland/Matt Packer/Clayton Cook triumvirate are players to watch in Akron in 2012 and their fortunes will have a big say in if the Indians can climb out of the cellar of everyone’s minor league organizational rankings. Nothing against players like Karexon Sanchez (Mr. 100 on IPI’s Top 100 prospects), but if they fail, no one will really notice. As for the players on this list, they need to succeed in a big way and are wildly important players to watch in Akron in 2012.
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Jose De La Torre
Out of those minor league FA they signed who do u expect to make the team/go to columbus/get cut