Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tomahawks with Roster Coming Into Focus

Opening Day is a week away and Tribe talk is kicking into high gear as the Indians’ roster begins to take shape…for better or worse. If you’d like, you can have at discussing the Dolan interview that felt like most Dolan interviews that we’ve read in the past, with the only “revelation” being that “during the labor negotiations between the owners and players, the Indians were brought in to discuss how to run a franchise and fairly use the money from revenue sharing”, meaning that the Tribe was used as an example for how revenue sharing dollars should be spent by BOTH the owners and the players’ union. Personally, the piece provided the glimpse that we’ve seen before, with a couple of new topics broached and offering the naysayers that don’t like the Dolans to say “nay” and “harrumph” a couple of times.

Since that’s about as far as I’m going to go on that and didn’t spend too much time wondering how Vlad Guerrero fits on this team (he doesn’t because he can’t play the field and the Indians already have a limited DH and a plan to play Santana vs. LHP to protect said “limited DH”) before the team reveals that Guerrero REQUESTED the work-out in the Dominican Republic, let’s hit on some relevant and compelling topics having to do with roster make-up and the AL Central as a whole.

Because while the Guerrero “work-out” didn’t do much more than generate some chatter, it does bring up some interesting thoughts and those thoughts come to you shaped as Tomahawks…

Rather than actual interest in the player or a sign of an imminent addition of Vlad, the Guerrero “work-out” is a further indication that the Indians are looking ANYWHERE for an OF, or even a player that used to resemble a viable OF…and that’s not a bad thing. If you remember (or even if you don’t), before I went on my Lonnie/Jack rant this past weekend, I wrote that “given what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, it’s not hard to envision the Tribe’s Opening Day LF not being on this roster right now”, which (despite the TRIPLE negative) goes along with everything that’s been written in this space since Grady went down, despite the efforts of others to pencil Shelley Duncan into the LF spot in that they still know what they have as LF options and them not being all that impressed by them…still.

Well…it was not long after that was written/posted that Danny Knobler of CBS Sports dropped this on the Twitterverse on Sunday afternoon:

While I know that this is probably the 8th time that Knobler has intimated that the Indians are looking for an OF, FOX’s Jon-Paul Morosi fleshed it out a bit the next day:

None of this is really “news” as we’ve known (or at least have hoped) that the Indians have been looking for a LF since Sizemore went down. The fact that they’d prefer a RH one, given the rest of the lineup, may qualify as something less than “news” and, though I feel like I’ve been writing about this need for too long, this is the time of the year when players start to become available as teams recognize their needs and attempt to deal from a position of “strength” to fill those needs. Actually, one of my “targets” from last November, Marlon Byrd, is now reportedly the subject of trade rumors due to the Cubs’ OF depth. Of course, the Indians would likely be looking for some salary relief if they were to acquire a player like Byrd (scheduled to make $6.5M), but it would certainly seem that a player like Byrd would represent a more compelling option than the 4th OF options (at the very least) and is probably more attractive than Duncan as an everyday player.

Maybe the Indians can get something done with their middle infield depth (and Travis Snider, who was mentioned a couple of weeks ago here, just “lost” the OF competition in Toronto…though I’m not sure that Snider is an appreciable upgrade) to find a player that prevents us from “Shelley Duncan, everyday LF”, but I still get the feeling that the Indians are going to add something before this team breaks camp to augment an OF very much in need of augmentation.

Again…this “OF Watch” is nothing new, although something may finally be coming of it. However, the interesting of the original Knobler tweet is the inclusion of looking for a starting pitcher for “depth”. By now, we’ve all seen that the guaranteed money for Carmona/Hernandez has been reduced to a $2.5M base salary in 2012 with incentives and THAT number is going to be prorated by how much he actually plays once he comes off of the restricted list once he’s cleared to play. But if the Indians are now searching around for starting pitching, couldn’t that mean that they aren’t expecting #55 to be coming back any time soon?

We’re a little more than a week away from Opening Day and, despite #55’s agent feeding Hoynes the idea that Fausto/Roberto would be back for the start of the season, all has been quiet on the Dominican front in terms of Carmona/Hernandez moving any closer to Cleveland. And now they’re looking for starting pitching depth since the “depth” arm that they moved quickly to add – Kevin Slowey – when the #55 news broke underwhelmed in Spring Training. Who knows which of these pitchers is going to be the 5th or 6th starter to start the season, but Knobler’s reveal that the Indians are looking for some depth for their starting rotation provides a glimpse into how much (or how little) confidence they have in the arms lined up in the back of the rotation in Cleveland and at the top of the rotation in Columbus.

By that I mean, that the quick acquisition of Slowey always felt to me to be more of an indictment of Gomez/Huff/etc. than it was a proclamation that Slowey was “the answer” to the problem that #55’s identity “issues” presented. Now, if Slowey doesn’t look to be much more than the 5th starter/swing man fodder that Gomez and Huff (and others) seem to be, it would certainly make sense for the Indians to look for depth, particularly because there should be concerns about Tomlin’s ability to stick as the 4th starter and because – as quickly as everyone wants to anoint Jeanmar as a suitable 5th starter – Gomez’s ceiling is pretty low. That’s not to say that Gomez or Slowey or even Tomlin are being overlooked because the Indians are looking to “add some starting pitching depth”, but if the Indians are out looking for starting pitchers, it means that they have concerns about the ones currently lined up, probably from #4 (Tomlin) to #7 or so (McCallister or Kluber), and some of those concerns are probably valid.

Whether anything comes to pass either in the OF or with starting pitching depth, actions speak louder than words and, as much as the Indians (or writers) may be praising Duncan or Gomez or the Indians for “taking a chance” on either or both, there’s a reason that “taking a chance” is included in the idea that either (or both) is ready for regular action and finding an alternative – even now – shouldn’t be dismissed.

This LF spot is an interesting one to watch unfold because the majority of the fanbase seem to be inexplicably fine with Duncan in LF. Maybe some of that is prompted by the writers’ continued over-justification of Duncan as an everyday LF because of…well, whatever over-justification they’re using to assert that a 32-year-old poor defensive OF that was an NRI last Spring Training and spent a good amount of time in AAA last year is the “best option” out in Goodyear as an everyday LF, but it raises an interesting point as to how these “predictions” of what a 25-man roster coming true for people seem to be taking precedence over what is more prudent in terms of roster construction.

Obviously, you know that this is a response to the announcement that Lonnie Chisenhall will be heading to AAA despite the fact that it seems that there was an easy way to keep both Chiz AND Hannahan on the roster, maximizing Hannahan’s defensive prowess while allowing Lonnie to make adjustments to MLB pitching in MLB on an everyday basis, but it bears mentioning that most rationalizations from writers/analysts that I’ve seen for Lonnie being sent down essentially sound like the “reasons” that the club has been putting forth for a couple of weeks now.

Lonnie needs to work on his approach…
We know what we have in Hannahan’s glove…
Chisenhall is still viewed as a long-term answer and is only 23…

All of those arguments make sense to me to some degree and in a way this argument over the Opening Day 3B feels like “rosterbation” at its very worst. But what I find troubling about these “reasons” that keep getting trotted out there to send Lonnie down is that they’re basically the Indians’ reasons or that they seem like a justification to those that like to “predict” the 25-man roster just try to be right on their 25-man “predictions” instead of actually taking an analytical eye to the situation.

The question all Spring seems to be “What ARE the Indians going to do at 3B?” instead of the real question, which is “What SHOULD the Indians do at 3B?”

Just because the predicted outcome is what comes to pass doesn’t make it the “right” thing to do. Some critical thinking is needed here and the issue seems to be inexplicably clouded by this “feel-good” story that’s emerged about Hannahan all Spring – overcoming odds last year to become the Opening Day 3B for the Indians. To that end, “feel-good” stories are great and Hannahan seems to be a great guy, an easy player to root for, a recovering alcoholic and a family man who overcame a tough personal time in his life last year to merit a $1.13M paycheck for 2012 this off-season via arbitration.

Don’t get me wrong…it’s a fantastic story and there may not be a more likable player on the Indians right now, but let’s not confuse the narrative that’s making the rounds with the idea that Hannahan is suddenly a new baseball player at the age of 32 or that his presence should make it acceptable to send down a player that’s been among the Indians’ top prospects for a few years now, who spent ½ of the 2011 season in AAA and ½ of the 2011 season in MLB with the idea that he’s slowly climbing the ladder to be the Tribe 3B.

By that I mean that the new narrative (other than the “heavier bat” explanation) is that Hannahan was distracted in the 1st half of the year because of his pregnant wife. As a father of three who knows what it is like to have a pregnant wife, I can appreciate this and I’m not even going to attempt to put myself in his shoes with a premature baby, but the main problem with this idea that Hannahan started to thrive at the plate after his son was born is really just timing. That is, Hannahan didn’t hit in MLB for 6 years, sitting on a .600 OPS in 1,200+ MLB PA in June. That’s not debatable…then (in the minds of some, or so the narrative goes), with a “heavier bat” and a clear mind, he hit (IN PART-TIME DUTY) for the final three months of the season, apparently to the point that most everyone is ready and willing to give him two months (at least) of everyday AB at 3B to start the season.

The story is great, other than the fact that it glosses over the fact that Hannahan hit well while starting 27 of the final 83 games and that, while as the everyday 3B to start the season, he revealed himself to be the player that he’s always been. With that in mind, let’s remember why Chisenhall was called up to the Bigs last year – because the offense was struggling and the Indians were looking for a spark. In fact, they called up Chisenhall BEFORE Kipnis, perhaps because he represented a more obvious offensive upgrade at 3B.

Why are we to think that anything different is going to happen this year and why is waiting until Memorial Day (and the Indians play their 48th game of the season on Memorial Day) for what most of us expect to happen (Hannahan’s struggling at the plate) to justify waiting to make that move, with nearly 1/3 of the season played?

If you’ll remember, when Donald went down with an injury last Spring, there were calls for Chisenhall to start the season in MLB, to begin his adjustment to his eventual spot as the Tribe’s 3B. The rationale was that he had not played any games in AAA to that point and (while the club wouldn’t say this) keeping him off the 40-man roster until the end of June delayed his service time clock to the point that Chiz would remain an Indian through the 2017 season. Now that service time issues aren’t in play (he would have to stay in AAA until August or so to “earn” another year before he hits FA) and with almost 300 AAA PA under his belt, that rationale (that made perfect sense at the time) no longer applies.

Maybe the idea is that Lonnie needs to get himself “right” in AAA holds water, but (as Lonnie himself stated in a Fangraphs interview) he’s at a point in his development where he needs to adjust to MLB pitching in MLB. He has over 900 PA above AA and will now get to add to that total because the Indians feel that he needs to work on his approach (which is valid, though I’d rather see him do that in Cleveland, where he’s going to have to adjust eventually) and because the Indians are content with Hannahan as a 3B.

While that idea certainly has value in a vacuum, it goes back to something that I wrote last week that was expounded upon by Anthony Castrovince, as Castro writes that “the Indians, at this moment, project to have three guys in their everyday lineup who were non-roster invitees in their camps just one year ago — Hannahan at third, Shelley Duncan in left and Casey Kotchman at first. Hey, at least corner spots aren’t considered pivotal power-producing positions or anything…” with Castro’s piece (which is worth a whole read) drawing some frightening comparsions between Lonnie and MaTola (who was sent down on the same day as Chiz) being blocked by “one-tool” players at points that they should have been handed everyday MLB PA without hesitation and with Castro summarizing that “the Indians better hope Chisenhall tears it up in Triple-A, because a lineup with Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman in three of the four corner positions is in dire need of some offensive upside.” That’s where I eventually come down on this – that ON THIS TEAM on Opening Day as it’s currently constructed, Chiz’s offensive upside (he was the 25th rated prospect going into last year, per BA, with his “bat” being his best tool) outweighs the stability of Hannahan’s glove, groundballers considered.

For now, with the decisions that have been made, we hope that Chiz (as Castro says) “tears it up in AAA” and that while we wait for him to provide an offensive spark around Memorial Day (and the 2006 Tribe team was 10 ½ games back on Memorial Day, a year after nearly making the playoffs), that the Indians don’t find themselves too far back in the standings because of a spark-less offense up to that point.

As for what figures to be happening in the AL Central, while everyone is giving the division to the Tigers before a game is played and as the “team on the upswing”, the Royals have suffered more injuries this Spring than one can even keep track of, there are some interesting pieces being written about the Central and about the presumptive favorites in the Motor City. To start off, it is not all that surprising that 26 of the 27 writers at B-Pro picked the Tigers to win the Central (the Royals got the other 1st place vote), with the Indians “predicted” to come in 2nd place by the aggregate votes, but the idea that the Tigers are simply going to slash-and-burn their way to a divisional title is being questioned…at least in the mind of one baseball writer.

That mind belongs to Grantland’s Jonah Keri, who wrote an interesting piece on where he thinks teams will finish the year, in terms of victories, compared to the current over-under number that Vegas is posting. Right now, the over-under win total for the Tigers is 93.5 wins, with Keri taking the “under” on that. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he thinks that the Tigers will fall short of 93.5 wins and still not run away with the Central, but the issues that Keri brings up are interesting to see:
Here’s why you should worry about the Tigers this season: Their infield defense could be absolutely atrocious… Peralta’s track record suggests a likely pullback from last year’s performance, and Ryan Raburn is more of a hitter who can fake it at a few positions than a true everyday second baseman.
Make all the arguments you want about bad hops, unlucky breaks, and small sample sizes. Now please provide a list of other third basemen who’ve fielded grounders with their face. The Fielder-Raburn-Peralta-Cabrera alignment could end up ranking among the worst infields baseball has seen in decades. That’s bad news for a Tigers pitching staff that had just about everything go right for them last year. Justin Verlander is a great pitcher — who’s also an extreme long shot to ever match 2011’s numbers. Doug Fister showed real improvement in his command (57/5 K:BB rate with the Tigers) — and also benefited from a cupcake schedule in the final two months of the season. Jose Valverde walked too many batters, as he’s done for most of his career — and somehow managed 49 saves in 49 attempts.
As long as the Tigers keep playing the Four Butchers of the D-pocalypse, Detroit’s pitchers could suffer greatly; groundball specialist Rick Porcello in particular could be a replacement-level pitcher. But the Tigers could also be at risk for a kind of multiplier effect: bases loaded, two outs, fifth inning, Tigers starter trying to escape the jam. Groundball left side … through the hole and into left field. Two runs score, and Jim Leyland’s forced to go to his bullpen early. It’s not hard to imagine that scenario playing out multiple times this season, forcing middle relievers to win games and placing extra strain on a bullpen that could hurt their effectiveness, even up their workload enough to raise injury risk.

Keri goes on to write that the “Tigers are going to hit the snot out of the ball” and, given the middle of that lineup, that’s not hard to see. And yes, I get the juxtaposition of calling the Tigers’ infield defense into question while railing against Hannahan as the everyday 3B.

But those concerns are very real and actually make the idea that the Indians should be putting their best foot forward from Opening Day all the more relevant.

Finally, if you haven’t caught Adam Van Arsdale’s interview series with B-Pro’s Kevin Goldstein, the pieces are here, here, and here with Goldstein providing insight that is invaluable. Take the time to read the piece…even if Goldstein is behind the idea that Chisenhall needed to head to AAA to start the season.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

View From Goodyear: Part Three

Can you feel the RAGE?

Monday was my last day in Goodyear, as my flight back East departed Phoenix Airport at 4:50pm local time. The Indians obliged me with 6-inning intersquad games between Columbus-Akron and Carolina-Lake County on the MLB practice fields, so I managed to watch both games in their entirety before heading to drop off the rental car and hop on a plane. Not only that, but Pure Rage Perez was pitching for Columbus again, so I got to see him in action up close and personal for a 2nd time this spring. On to the notebook…

As I mentioned, Perez was bringing his Rage to the minors again, and he looked good. He worked one inning, allowing one hit and striking out one. He got Cord Phelps to fly out to center, then allowed a single up the middle to Reyes. He came back to strike out Dwight Childs and then got Juan Diaz to fly out to shallow LF to retire the side. Perez was putting all of his effort into his pitches, grunting like a tennis pro with each pitch. He was sharp, throwing only 11 pitches and it appears that his body is now ready to handle the intensity of pitching. He’ll make his Cactus League debut later this week and likely be on track for opening day after all.

Elvis Araujo
Big lefty Elvis Araujo started for Lake County, and twirled four scoreless innings while allowing just two hits. He was sitting consistently between 91-93 with his fastball, and really showed off a greatly improved slider that was giving lefthanded batters fits. Araujo won’t turn 21 until mid-July, and if he can stay healthy he’s a big time breakout candidate in the system.

Starting opposite Araujo for Carolina was righty Kyle Blair, who’s coming off of an injury-plagued season to forget. Blair looked like last year never even happened, matching Araujo pitch for pitch with four scoreless innings of his own. He also gave up just a pair of hits, but he erased Luigi Rodriguez by picking him off of first base after Rodriguez had singled. Blair was mostly between 89-91 with his fastball, and did a really nice job attacking hitters and making them hit his pitch. If he’s over the nagging injuries that slowed him down last year, he could really be a bounceback guy in 2012. He’s still a very polished pitcher who could move quickly through the system.

LeVon Washington made an amazing diving play in CF for Carolina. He’s really getting it done on offense as well as defense this spring. He’s hitting the ball well, throwing the ball well, and playing solid defense in center. He put in a lot more work this offseason than last year, and it’s really showing as he’s healthy and producing this spring. I expect him to have a much, much better season in 2012 than last year.

Lefty T.J. McFarland got the start for Akron, and gave up a couple of runs in four innings of work. McFarland was throwing the ball well, sitting between 90-94 with his fastball velocity. He was victimized by some bad luck on some softly hit balls that fell in for hits, but pitched well overall. He looks both taller and leaner this season, and has a chance to pitch in AAA Columbus as a 22-year old this season. 

Tony Wolters has had a really good camp, making a lot of excellent defensive plays in the field. He was really showing off his range at SS, both up the middle and in the hole to his right. He made a really nice backhanded play and jump-throw to nab a runner at 1B. He was also playing some 2B, and the versatility will go a long ways toward moving him through the system. The Indians have a lot of young, athletic shortstops in the low minors and Wolters might be better suited to move to 2B and play alongside them. He played with Francisco Lindor for Team USA before both were drafted, so there’s already some nice chemistry there.

Chun Chen
Chun Chen has been hitting the ball hard all spring, and showing a really nice approach at the plate. One thing that the Indians minor league coaching staff consistently stresses is having a plan every time you go up to the plate, and Chen certainly does that. He’s rarely swinging at pitches outside of the zone, and doing a nice job hitting his pitch early in the count and happy to take a walk if he doesn’t get something to hit. Catching coordinator Dave Wallace thinks that Chen has made progress towards becoming a more complete defensive catcher, and believes strongly that he’ll be able to play the position defensively in the major leagues someday. With his bat, all he only needs to be an average defender to be an above-average catcher overall.

Both Juan Romero and Robel Garcia showed what makes them promising prospects as well as what makes them far from sure things to make the major leagues. Both showed outstanding bat speed and strength, hitting balls way out of the park in batting practice. They have above average raw power already, and project to add even more strength and size as they mature. But both really struggled to recognize offspeed pitches, and struck out several times each on sliders in the dirt that they couldn’t have hit with a shovel. They have a ton of potential, but their development is not going to be without some growing pains.

Jose Flores, a reliever who struck out 49 hitters in 55 1/3 innings for Kinston last year, pitched a scoreless inning. His fastball was sitting between 91-94, and his slider looked sharp. He’s an under-the-radar guy out of Venezuela who could end up as solid reliever. He should start out in AA Akron in 2012.

Oh, and Roberto Perez threw out another guy stealing. Just thought I’d sneak that in there. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

View From Goodyear: Part Two

House's 3/4 arm slot
After reveling in the Buckeyes Elite Eight victory Saturday night, I woke up Sunday morning and spent the entire day between the Indians and Reds minor league complexes. AAA Columbus and AA Akron were at “home” against the Reds, but high-A Carolina and low-A Lake County were on the “road” just a few hundred yards away, so I got to see plenty of all four teams in action. Kevin Slowey was starting for AAA Columbus, so that made my decision on where to begin my day a very easy one; off to the Reds side of Goodyear to see the kids in action. Here’s some notes on the game action from the weekend:

T.J. House started for Lake County after all of the starters were pushed down a level or two because of the major league guys needing to get their work in. House’s new (old) ¾ delivery was absolute murder on lefties. His sharp, sweeping slider was impossible for them to hit, and he got several K’s on guys who just waved embarrassingly at the pitch. Things had a chance to go a little bit sideways in the first inning when House gave up a leadoff single that was misplayed into a double, then a little broken-bat looper over the second baseman to score a run, but the settled down quickly, got out of the jam and didn’t give up  another run in his 4 innings of work. His fastball was working mostly between 89-92 with really nice arm-side run from the new (old) ¾ delivery.

Jesus Aguilar looks like a man among boys. He looks bigger but leaner, if that makes any sense. Looks like he really hit the offseason conditioning hard. He ripped two doubles that I saw, one off the top of the left-centerfield fence just inches from a HR, then went the other way and drilled one off the right-centerfield fence. As I mentioned yesterday, Aguilar is usually out before the rest of the team getting extra work on his defense, and looks like he will play just fine at 1B. He’ll likely begin 2012 in the offense-challenged Carolina League, which will be a big challenge for him. It will be interesting to see if he can follow up his breakout 2011 with a similar offensive season this year.

C.C. Lee
C.C. Lee is nasty. Just plain nasty. He came on to finish the game in the 9th inning, and was sitting between 93-95 with his fastball and touched 97. It’s really impressive to see a guy who is that small throw a baseball that hard. He struck out a pair of overmatched Cincy AAA hitters, one on a slider that broke so hard it looked like a Bugs Bunny pitch from my view directly behind the backstop. He’s got the talent to contribute at the big league level right now, it’s just a matter of finding a spot for him in the crowded Indians bullpen.

OF LeVon Washington continued his torrid spring yesterday, going 4-4 with a triple and a run scored. When he was rounding 2nd on his triple, I heard one of the coaches remark that, “all this kid does is hit triples.” More on this in a later, more in-depth piece, but Washington really came to spring training this year ready to work after a 2011 to forget, and I really expect a big, breakout year for WASHTIME that leaves him in the top-100 prospects in baseball after 2012 is said and done.

Catcher/DH Chun Chen hit a long bomb to left-center field yesterday, clearing the fence by a good margin. He’s been mostly DH’ing for Columbus in camp, so it will be really interesting to see who gets time behind the plate in both Akron and Columbus this year. Chen still needs to develop defensively as a catcher, and he’s not going to do that as a DH. It might end up being a situation where he catches ahead of a guy like Roberto Perez (more on him later) in AA even though the latter player is far superior defensively.

Danny Salazar, recently added to the 40-man roster this offseason, also threw an inning yesterday. He was sitting between 91-94 with his fastball, and overmatched the young Reds hitters in low-A with relative ease. It will be interesting to see how the converted shortstop does this year, as he was a surprise add to the 40-man and the Indians clearly think they have something here.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Indians are switching both Eric Berger and Paulo Espino from their roles in the bullpen back to the starting rotation. I thought Berger was an ideal lefty reliever out of the bullpen, but the Indians still think he can start. It will be really, really interesting to see where these guys slot in which rotation, because the org is already pretty crowded when it comes to starting pitchers. If Berger or Espino ends up in the AA rotation ahead of a kid like T.J. House who has already spent two full seasons in the Carolina League, I’d be awfully disappointed.

Clayton Cook
Clayton Cook threw a couple of innings, sitting mostly between 89-92 with his fastball. It wasn’t the sharpest outing, as he left a couple pitches up and walked a couple of guys, but it’s still early. Cook always seems to pitch badly when I watch him in spring training, so I’m going to try and avoid him next year in Goodyear, for his sake.

I know you’re probably sick of hearing about him from me, but Roberto Perez put on his usual defensive display, throwing out a pair of runners who foolishly tested his arm. The second guy had an enormous jump and I thought he would cruise into second with ease, but Perez gunned him down by half a step. It really is just a lot of fun watching that guy catch.

That’s it for today. I’m off to watch the major league guys take batting practice, then watch the first 6 or so innings of the minor league games before I have to drop off the rental car and head back to the real world. Look for one last recap piece tomorrow based on what I get to see this afternoon. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

View From Goodyear: Part One

Pure Rage
In the past few days down here in the Arizona sunshine, I’ve seen a LOT of baseball, both at the major league and minor league level. From minor leaguers working on bunt plays and PFP all the way up to the big league club in game action, I’ve seen pretty much everything one can see on a baseball diamond. Here are some of the highlights from around the Goodyear complex:

Jason Donald has looked serviceable in centerfield. Not amazing, but certainly not terrible. He made several routine plays, one really good plan on a sinking liner that he had to come in, and then one play where he took a bad route to a ball in the gap and turned a single into a triple. He’s not going to save a ton of runs, but probably won’t give up too many extra runs either.

Pure Rage Perez returned to “live” action on Saturday, facing three hitters in a minor league intersquad game. He only needed 7 pitches to retire the side in order, as OF Delvi Cid grounded out on the 1st pitch, OF Tyler Holt hit a drive to the track in CF that Trevor Crowe ran down and SS Tony Wolters grounded out sharply to 1B to end the inning. Perez had to hustle over to cover the bag on the Wolters groundout, and was showing no ill effects from the strained oblique that he suffered earlier in the year. Hopefully his body is now ready for the intensity of pitching.

1st round draft pick Francisco Lindor looks like the real deal. The switch-hitting SS has shown impressive doubles power to all fields from both sides of the plate, especially considering his size. He looks solid in the field, although he hasn’t had a chance to make any crazy plays in the games that I’ve seen. Still, he passes the initial eye test and should be a lot of fun for NE Ohio fans to watch in Lake County this year.

RHP Austin Adams is still not throwing after shoulder tightness sidelined him earlier in camp. Adams assured me that there is no apparent structural damage to the shoulder, and that the Indians are just being conservative at this stage. There’s no reason to push his million-dollar arm in March, so hopefully he throws a few innings in extended spring training and then heads up to Columbus in mid to late April.

RHP Trey Haley was lighting up the radar gun in his two innings of work Saturday in the intersquad games. His fastball was sitting consistently between 94-97, and he touched 99 a couple of times. Haley is an intriguing guy who could really be a breakout prospect this year, as he’s healthy and ready to go at the beginning of the season after struggling with some nagging injuries last year. His command is still coming along, as he walked a couple of guys but if he can harness his stuff, he’s one of the top starting pitching prospects in the organization

RHP Bryce Stowell sat between 91-95 with his fastball, and showed a really impressive slider with excellent life. The fastball still isn’t where it was in his breakout 2010 campaign, but if he can regain his velocity the stuff could still be dominant.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but LHP T.J. House is in the best shape of his life. He lost 27 pounds in the offseason, and really looks solid. After a poor 2011, House tinkered with his delivery, going back to the ¾ arm slot he featured to great success earlier in his career. He’s definitely talented, and hopefully the new (old) arm slot will help him get back to where he was in 2010. The native of Louisiana is a little upset about the harsh penalties levied on coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints, but other than that things are looking up for the young lefty in 2012.

Slugging 1B Jesus Aguilar also looks like he’s added some strength in the offseason. Hitting is not the big righty’s problem, as he’s shown some impressive raw power so far in his young career. Defensively though, he’s struggled with his footwork at 1B. Aguilar was out at the fields an hr before the rest of the players on Thursday, getting in extra work with coach Travis Fryman on the defensive side. He looks much more athletic and light on his feet than he did last year, and really seems to be making strides defensively.

Catcher Dwight Childs, usually known more for his defense than his offense, hit a long home run off Bryce Stowell in intersquad action. Childs only has two professional HR’s in 125 career AB’s, but he really got into a Stowell fastball and hit one off the light tower in left field.

Outfielder LeVon Washington looks to have added some strength to his frame in the offseason, but he hasn’t lost any of his speed. He’s had a really good spring so far, popping a home run and hitting over .400 for high-A Carolina. Washington’s arm looks much, much better than last season, and he’s much more of a candidate to remain in CF than he was at this time last year.

RHP Rob Bryson seems a little off. He’s sitting between 90-94 with his fastball, which is a little slower than usual. His command is the real concern though, as he’s been walking way too many hitters this spring. It’s still early and I’m not going to condemn a guy to failure just because of a few poor outings in March, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Catcher Eric Haase has been extremely impressive this spring. Drafted and signed out of high school, Haase is one of the younger players in camp but is performing like a veteran. He’s shown remarkable power to the opposite field, something he was forced to develop in high school as pitchers would consistently pitch him away. He’s still learning the intricacies of the position defensively, but his plus athletic ability is making him look awfully good behind the dish. He has the chance to be a five-tool player, something that you don’t see very often for a catcher. I really think the Indians got a steal when the selected him in the 7th round of the draft last year.

Jason Knapp…still not throwing.

That’s it for today, but more to come later this week. I’ll be back at the fields all day tomorrow before flying out late Monday afternoon. If you have any burning questions about any of the prospects in the org, shoot them to me via Twitter and I’ll do my best to get them answered before I leave town. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Hot Topic Lazy Sunday at the Hot Corner

As the most wonderful time of the year (sports-wise) rolls on and the Madness threatens to envelop us all, you’ll excuse me if I’ve been preoccupied with two types of “Mad”-ness recently – the NCAA tournament and re-watching the last season of “Mad Men” in anticipation of Don Draper’s highly anticipated return tonight. Though my focus has wavered a bit, there are some things happening on The Reservation that need to be weighed in on, particularly with…wait for it…Opening Day only weeks away.

With that in mind, let’s get a couple things out of the way before letting loose on the Lazy One – as much attention figures to be paid to which pitchers will be on the Opening Day roster in the 5th starter’s spot and as the last two arms in the bullpen, I’m invoking the “Scott Lewis Clause” to point out that while Jeanmar Gomez is probably going to get 1st crack at the 5th starter spot and while Accardo and Herrmann look to be the leaders in the clubhouse for the Opening Day bullpen, we’re going to see Kevin Slowey at some point this year, just as Hagadone is going to see the inside of the bullpen at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at some point, as will CC Lee and others that may not even be obvious right now. The insertion of the “Scott Lewis Clause” is not meant to minimize either of these “scrums” for roster spots in the final two weeks – it’s just meant to point out that pitchers are going to move up and down between Cleveland and Columbus all year long because…well, because that’s what pitchers do, because of attrition and injury, and the make-up of the Indians’ rotation on Day 1 or which bullpen arm is coming to mop up in an April blowout interests much less than other issues still facing this team.

Oh no, you say…not another LF screed, right?
No, I’ve had my say on that (a couple of times) and this hesitance to give Shelley Duncan the full-time LF job despite him excelling in Spring Training gives me hope that they realize who Shelley Duncan is (a terrific RH bat off the bench) and who he is not (a suitable everyday LF) and there is still this sneaking suspicion that they’re going to add another OF before Opening Day is hard to ignore. Given Brantley’s injury (which is, unfortunately, unsurprising given his recent injury history), it would seem that the Indians’ need in the OF may actually be more pressing than it was even a week ago.

In terms of possibly adding a OF, that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a little early for teams to be jettisoning players that they may deem to redundant or deal from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness (and…um, Chase Utley’s injury issues seem to be major with a chronic condition in both knees AND one-time-uber-prospect OF Domonic Brown has been sent to Minor-League camp, by the Phillies who are very aware of what Jason Donald could be for them), it still bears watching how (or if) the Indians add to that OF mix. Regardless, given what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, it’s not hard to envision the Tribe’s Opening Day LF not being on this roster right now.

But that’s a topic I’ve already hit on as the topic of the day relates to another everyday position, but one where the Opening Day player is already out in Goodyear. Of course, I’m speaking of this 3B “battle” between Hannahan and Chisenhall.
And with that, let’s get loose on a Hot (Corner) Lazy Sunday…

Since this generally relates with “all the news that’s fit to link”, let’s go back a week and get to the impetus for this piece, the opening to Terry Pluto’s “Notes” on the Tribe (which generally come straight from the Indians) as Pluto starts out with, “two weeks remain in spring training, but right now it appears Jack Hannahan will start at third base, with Lonnie Chisenhall headed to Class AAA. This may open the door for Jose Lopez to make the team as an extra infielder, along with Jason Donald.”

As someone who cares not at all about Jose Lopez or whether he’s on this team and think that Donald is more interesting as trade bait for an OF than he is moving around the diamond (even though I like Donald a lot as a player), I was more than a little surprised at reading this with two weeks remaining in Goodyear. What was even more shocking was most Indians’ fans blindly nodding at this arrangement because is “makes sense” because of Hannahan’s glove or Chisenhall’s struggles or whatever other over-rationalization was out there to attempt to explain why this is the “proper” way for the Indians to start the 2012 season – with Hannahan at 3B EVERYDAY and with Chisenhall in Columbus to “get ready” and “make adjustments” and bide his time before he was needed.

A team that has offensive questions up and down the lineup – from whether players can replicate career years (Asdrubal, Kotchman), recover from “lost” seasons (Choo and even Brantley), or can carry over momentum from successful starts to their careers (Santana, Kipnis) – is ready to go with the offensively-challenged Jack Hannahan at 3B, despite a young hitter in Lonnie Chisenhall already having logged some 200+ PA in MLB, with no incentive (service-time wise) to keep him in AAA for the year?

Really, the Indians are really considering going with Hannahan as the starting 3B for this team over the “3B of the Future” that we’ve been waiting for since he’s been drafted and carefully tutored by Travis Fryman and everyone seems OK with this?

Truthfully, I’m tired of poking holes in these ideas that certain players on this team are “breaking out” now that they’ve been given a chance, but since this acceptance that Jack Hannahan is the best option to start the 2012 season, let me remind you of a few things…

In his career up to the point of joining the Indians, among 355 players that compiled 950 PA or more from 2006 to 2010, Hannahan’s 78 OPS+ put him 34th…from the bottom of the list, just besting Josh Barfield’s mark of 77 OPS+ over that timeframe and because of that offensive body of work, prior to the 2011 season, Hannahan was an NRI who only became the starting 3B for the 2011 team when Jason Donald was injured in Spring Training…

But…but, he proved in 2011 that he COULD hit given the opportunity - that’s the counter-argument that I can hear from here…
Trust me, I can…

Again, I hate to be the wet blanket here, but Hannahan was the 3B for the better part of the 1st half of 2011 and on June 29th of last year (right after Lonnie Chisenhall was called up), he had a .215 BA / .306 OBP / .336 SLG / .642 OPS batting line in 245 PA in 2011 which – when added to his career totals to that point – means that he had compiled a career batting line up to June 29th of last year that looked like this:
.222 BA / .310 OBP / .290 SLG / .600 OPS in 1,226 MLB PA

Looks pretty similar to what he did in the 1st half of last year, right?
After Chisenhall arrived, Hannahan’s performance at the plate improved to the point that he did this over the 2nd half of the season:
.321 BA / .383 OBP / .491 SLG / .874 OPS in 121 MLB PA

Again, this is becoming tiresome to even have to point out, but it’s necessary to swim against the crushing momentum of the “let’s start Shelley Duncan in LF and Hannahan at 3B” movement that seemingly cannot be stopped, but which Jack Hannahan do you expect at the plate in 2012, given the amount of PA involved in those two batting lines?

Exactly…and with that in mind, let’s go to a piece by Rob Neyer this week, where Neyer voices his skepticism over Hannahan’s 2nd half performance (which, in the linked piece, is attributed to Hannahan using a heavier bat) and puts this comparison into some very clear terms:
Before the second half of last season, Hannahan had never really hit much. Not in the majors, at all. And his only real good minor-league season came in 2007 with the Tigers’ triple-A team in Toledo. It’s possible that he did finally figure something out last summer, after all those years. It’s somewhat more possible that he hit over his head in those 121 plate appearances, and will significantly regress if given another few hundred plate appearances this year.

Hannahan’s competition at third base is 23-year-old Lonnie Chisenhall, who essentially is the Bizarro Hannahan;
* Hannahan is (relatively) old; Chisenhall is young.
* Hannahan can really field but not really hit; Chisenhall can really hit, but is just adequate in the field.
* Hannahan’s been cast off by various organizations; Chisenhall was taken by the Indians in the first round of the 2008 draft, has never known another organization, and a year ago was considered the club’s No. 1 prospect.

Neither player has done much this spring, but the job would seem to be Chisenhall’s to lose. Until and unless, at some point, Hannahan proves that switching bats in your early 30s really can turn around a career.

The skepticism is dripping off of that and the money quote there is that “it’s somewhat more possible that he hit over his head in those 121 plate appearances, and will significantly regress if given another few hundred plate appearances this year” because to really get an idea of “those 121 plate appearance”, you have to put that performance in the proper context.

By that I mean that Neyer points out earlier in the piece when he says that Hannahan “held the every-day (3B) job until the end of June, by which point he’d posted a .215/.306/.336 line”, or a hitting line that is pretty much consistent with what Hannahan had done to that point in his career. As Neyer notes, “Hannahan would start only 27 games the rest of the season. He did hit, though: .321/.383/.491 in 121 plate appearances,” meaning that Hannahan started to thrive at the plate essentially about the time he became a part-time player.

Before pointing out that Hannahan had a better OPS than Orlando Cabrera by all of .005 points on June 29th (Hannahan - .642 OPS, The OC - .637 OPS), let me lay these “two seasons” for Hannahan out for you a little differently, using the “end of June” that Neyer references because the day that Chisenhall arrived (June 27th) could certainly be used as the break-point:
First 79 games of 2011 season (Opening Day to June 29th)
Jack Hannahan – 64 starts, 65 games played

.215 BA / .306 OBP / .336 SLG / .642 OPS with 11 2B and 5 HR in 245 PA

Last 83 games of 2011 season (July 1st to Final Game)
Jack Hannahan – 27 starts, 45 games played

.321 BA / .383 OBP / .491 SLG / .874 OPS with 5 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR in 121 PA
Look at the number of games in those two “seasons”, where Hannahan played nearly all of the games in the first “half” and played in about ½ of the games, and started less than 1/3 of them in the second “half”.

So Hannahan was most successful last year while he was starting less than 1/3 of the games played by the Indians and, it should be noted, that 2 of those 27 starts came as a 1B as the Indians effectively utilized Hannahan in a part-time role that maximized his defensive prowess and his versatility. Given ½ of a season of everyday plate appearances, Hannahan hit like he always had and, being used as a part-time player/defensive specialist in the 2nd half of the season, he thrived and, in doing so, generated an inexplicable amount of goodwill among the Tribe fanbase, now ready to accept him as the everyday 3B in 2012, despite the presence of (in Neyer’s words) a former 1st round pick and perennial top prospect, who has thrived at every level (that he’s been young in) and who “can really hit” and is “adequate in the field”.

Look…I get the defensive part of the equation and enjoy watching Hannahan ply his trade at 3B more than most and the groundballing staff factor is not lost on me. Heck, I was the one last year that said that because the Indians lacked a more compelling option, that they should go with the best defensive 3B out of Goodyear to start 2011. They did and, for the 1st half, Hannahan did what Hannahan has done – sparkle with the glove and struggle with the bat. Now, given that “compelling option” at 3B that we’ve been waiting quite some time for, someone explain to me again why Hannahan should be handed the 3B job from Opening Day on in 2012 when he was given that opportunity last year and couldn’t hit and didn’t hit his stride until he was used as a part-time player, PARTICULARLY when Lonnie Chisenhall has already started adjusting to MLB?

Though I’m not sure why I seem to be the dissenting voice on this idea that Jack Hannahan or Shelley Duncan…or even Casey Kotchman should be acceptable options for the Indians on Opening Day as EVERYDAY players given that Kotchman is the youngest of the trio at the age of 29 (which he just turned in February) and that, at this time last year, each of those three were NRI’s in Cleveland and Tampa. Now, after a career year for Kotchman (which may or may not have been tied to being “lucky”) and strong finishes to the season for Hannahan and Duncan, now each is being considered as possible everyday starters for 1/3 of the lineup. Again, I understand the role of defense for Kotchman and Hannahan and the fact that no better option is obvious for 1B or LF (at the moment) plays a role, but I fear that this acceptance of that trio on “acceptable” offensive numbers that they MIGHT put forth, largely based upon 2011 stats that may represent unsustainable paths for all three.

Maybe Kotchman’s vision thing is legit and maybe Hannahan’s bigger bat turned him (quite suddenly) into an acceptable everyday 3B option, but I’m skeptical that either should be give everyday AB on this team when – at 3B in particular – more compelling options exist. Please don’t take this to mean that Kotchman and Hannahan aren’t valuable as I certainly see their value, but it is more about maximizing that value instead of going into the season relying on players in their late-20’s/early 30’s with spotty offensive numbers to this point in their career.

Perhaps you’re thinking that they’re sitting at the bottom of the lineup and their defense makes it acceptable, but what that does is put increased pressure on the rest of the lineup and (just to bring this back to the 3B “debate”) given the legitimate concern over Kotchman as an everyday player and the fact that Hafner shouldn’t face a LHP all year, I’m still not sure why this has to be a “this” or “that” equation here at 3B.

That idea is something I alluded to a few weeks ago (and I’ll get to that), but it’s also something that Jonah Keri focused on in a recent interview at Grantland with Tribe GM Chris Antonetti:
Jonah Keri: Do you bench a young, up-and-coming hitter like Chisenhall in favor of Jack Hannahan, one of the best defensive players in the game at any position?
Chris Antonetti: [Hannahan] is great, and we like what Casey Kotchman brings to his position, not only on ground balls, but on balls in the dirt, he’s got tremendous hands. As well as his feeds to other bases. On 3-6-3 double plays, he’s as good as anyone in baseball. So we are very mindful of our infield defense, it’s very important to our team’s success.

JK: Would Hannahan move around, maybe play some second base?
CA: He could. He’s played some multiple positions. First base, second, even a little short. We have to determine what’s best for the team, whether that’s Lonnie as our regular third baseman or Jack as our regular third baseman.
JK: Could that be a consideration with Hannahan, play him for the first six innings, then bring in Chisenhall for the rest of the game?
CA: [Indians manager] Manny [Acta] is very creative. We’ve looked at all the players on our roster a lot to try and figure out how we can put the best team on the field. Not only based on the opponent’s pitcher, but also based on the attributes of our own pitchers. For instance, when Josh Tomlin pitches, our outfield defense is probably more important than our infield defense. But when Derek Lowe pitches or Carmona pitches … or Hernandez pitches, those are times where our infield defense is at a premium. And you can find those opportunities, where, OK, even if we think Lonnie is a better offensive player than Jack, you know what, Jack will start the game as long as that starting pitcher is in there. And then if a meaningful spot comes up offensively, and Manny wants to try to leverage that at-bat, he can do that, and finish the game another way.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I love the fact that Keri kept harping on this point with Antonetti, peppering him with relevant questions, perhaps trying to figure out why it would even be a question why Hannahan or Chisenhall would be in competition and why some happy medium would seem to be a better alternative. To that end, does anyone else find it interesting that guys like Neyer and Keri (smart baseball guys not in Cleveland, who are taking an overview of the situation) are asking whether Hannahan will ever hit or how Hannahan could be utilized as a defensive specialist while most seem fine to send Chisenhall to AAA to accommodate Jack Hannahan, starting 3B for YOUR 2012 Cleveland Indians?

Both seem to approach it that the Indians need to slot Hannahan around a (to use Keri’s words) “young, up-and-coming hitter like Chisenhall” and Neyer says that the job is Chisenhall’s to use, yet the accepted narrative on the North Coast is that Hannahan will be the starting 3B.

This cannot be stated enough, but Hannahan’s defense at 3B is great and there are some groundballers on the staff – though Tomlin and Slowey (if he’s the 5th starter) – are extreme FLYBALL pitchers, with Antonetti even acknowledging that “when Josh Tomlin pitches, our OF defense is probably more important than our infield defense” and it would certainly beehove the Indians to maximize defensive efficiency (again, as Antonetti says) “when Derek Lowe pitches or Carmona/Hernandez pitches” (and I’m assuming he just forgot about Masterson?) to put the best infield defense behind them, but this idea that Hannahan should be used as a complementary piece holds more water for me, particularly considering that he thrived when he filled that role down the stretch last year.

Yet somehow, everyone else seems to accept this idea that the best arrangement is with Hannahan being the everyday 3B in Cleveland and with The Chiz heading down I-71. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m on an island here on this 3B “debate” in that all of it centers around a “Black and White” decision (Hannahan OR Chiz as the EVERYDAY 3B) when there are shades of gray that are actually much more appealing. Allow me to re-introduce those “appealing” shades of gray in something that was laid out at the end of February in this space in pretty specific detail.

Forgive me for the massive cut-and-paste, but it’s an idea that would be fleshed out like this, largely based on the idea that Kotchman and Hafner shouldn’t really face LHP, that is spelled out in greater detail in the piece, which goes on to suggest an alignment that plays up the strengths of the players on hand:
Perhaps the alignment should be Chisenhall playing in the majority of the games at 3B with Hannahan bouncing back and forth between 3B and 1B, based on the pitcher (he’d play 3rd when Masterson or Lowe pitched) and the opposing pitcher (he’d play 1B when Kotchman needed a rest against LHP) with Chisenhall perhaps slotting into some plate appearances at DH, as the Indians attempt to keep Hafner as healthy and fresh as possible throughout the season.
While the argument may be that using Chisenhall in any kind of “platoon” situation doesn’t do his development any great favors, perhaps everyday AB would be there for him, particularly in the light that the Indians are going to want to keep Hafner as rested as possible in the interest of maximizing his usefulness. And that’s really what this all boils down to – maximizing the talents of an imperfect group of players to put them in the best positions possible to succeed. These numbers are overly simplistic, but why couldn’t the Indians figure out usage patterns that looked like this:
Santana – 120 (vs. RHP)
Marson – 40 (vs. LHP)

Kotchman – 120 (vs. RHP)
Hannahan – 40 (vs. LHP)

Chisenhall – 120 (based on CLE pitcher)
Hannahan – 40 (based on CLE pitcher, when not at 1B)

Hafner – 100 (against RHP only, with other days off)
Santana – 30 (filling in around that)
Chisenhall – 30 (filling in around that)

Santana – 150
Chisenhall – 150
Kotchman – 120
Hafner – 100
Hannahan – 80
Marson – 40

Yes…the numbers wouldn’t be that “clean” on any given position (particularly DH), but you get the main idea here, which is to maximize the effectiveness of these players – keep Hafner healthy and as effective as he can be, allow Santana and Chisenhall to remain in the lineup as much as possible to continue their development while allowing their defensive-oriented back-ups to shine when asked to, prevent Kotchman and Hafner from playing against LHP, prevent Marson from playing against RHP, put the best defensive IF in there when the GB pitchers are going, etc.

Despite the fact that it would seem that there would be a feasible “solution” that would give Chisenhall everyday PA in MLB and would maximize Hannahan’s defensive wizardry, the prevailing thought of the day remains to send Lonnie to Columbus to start the season to “work on things” and to allow Hannahan to begin 2012 as the unquestioned everyday 3B. To that, I would point out what was written in this space last week, how Chisenhall – despite his struggles at the plate last year – needs to be making the adjustments that will allow him to thrive in the Big Leagues in Cleveland and not in Columbus.

Is it possible that Lonnie struggles in the early going in MLB, to the point that the Indians would be looking to send him down to Columbus around Memorial Day if the issues that plagued him last year (and seem to be persisting in Spring Training) aren’t overcome?

Of course, but the alternative is what Hannahan is likely to contribute at the plate (last Memorial Day he had a .229 BA / .310 OBP / .353 SLG / .663 OPS with 11 XBH in 173 PA) and the upside for what Chisenhall could be and the level of improvement that he can attain simply doesn’t exist for Hannahan. Among the crowd that screams that the beginning of the 2012 season represents the beginning of this 2-year window, I can’t see how the idea of an improving and compelling long-term solution like Chisenhall (or even the idea of “an improving and compelling long-term solution) doesn’t make sense, even if you just give Chisenhall a month or two to make the adjustments that he’s going to have to…at the MLB level. As a rival scout was recently quoted in the SI MLB Preview issue, “It’s not like Lonnie Chisenhall is George Brett, but a lefthanded-hitting third baseman is really a valuable commodity. He uses the whole field, and he’s got some pop. Hitting .280 or .300 and playing third—that’s a nice package.”

While nobody is looking for The Chiz to be “George Brett” in 2012, all he really needs to be is more appealing than Jack Hannahan on an everyday basis right now. Given that Hannahan’s success in 2011 at the plate did not start until he became a part-time player in the 2nd “half” of his season, it would seem that there is room for each player on the 2012 Opening Day roster.

As I prepare myself to re-watch the last episode of the last episode of the last season of “Mad Men”, entitled “Tomorrowland”, in anticipation of tonight’s season premiere, it’s impossible not to think that “tomorrow” should begin “now” for the Cleveland Indians at the hot corner and that the title of “3B” is the one that should be permanently handed to Chisenhall, starting now…

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cleveland Indians Prospect Countdown: #5-1

5. Scott Barnes, LHP
DOB: 9/5/1987
Height/Weight: 6-4/185
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: From San Francisco in the 2009 Ryan Garko trade, originally an 8th round pick of the Giants in 2008
2011 Stats: 8-4, 3.45 ERA, 88 IP, 90 K, 34 BB between AA and AAA

Scouting Report: Barnes just might end up being the biggest beneficiary of the whole Fausto/Roberto rigmarole. He was well on his way to being an option in the major league rotation last year before his season was derailed by a freak ACL tear when he was coming off the mound to field a bunt in July. The good news about the injury is that it was to his knee, and not an arm issue that could raise questions about his ability to stay healthy down the road. He’s not a guy with an incredibly high ceiling, but he also has a pretty high floor.
Barnes throws an above-average fastball that typically sits between 91-94 and has touched 96. He generally locates the pitch well, and the velocity plays up due to his somewhat deceptive delivery. In addition to the fastball, Barnes throws an above-average slider and a changeup that really dives down through the zone. It’s not an overwhelming arsenal, but it is solid in every aspect. His delivery is a little funky and creates some deception, but he does a nice job keeping it consistent and maintaining his release point from game to game and pitch to pitch. He struck out more than a batter per inning last season, and did a nice job with his control with a 3.3 BB/9 ratio.

He doesn’t have much projection left in him, and pretty much is an “is what he is” type of guy at this point in his developmental arc. But just because he doesn’t project to improve to #1 starter potential doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful cog in a big league rotation. And I think it bears repeating; we acquired him straight up for Ryan Garko. He should open the season in the AAA Columbus rotation, but don’t rule out seeing him on the bump at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario before the season is over.

Glass Half-Full: A solid #3 starter in a major league rotation
Glass Half-Empty: A solid #5 starter in a major league rotation

4. Austin Adams, RHP

DOB: 8/19/1986
Height/Weight: 5-11/185
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 5th round draft pick in 2009
2011 Stats: 11-10, 3.77 ERA for AA Akron

Scouting Report: You don’t typically see righthanded pitchers standing less than 6 feet tall in the top-5 of a teams’ prospects, but Adams isn’t your typical sub-6 foot righty. He throws harder than anyone in the system, sitting comfortably in the mid-to-high 90’s and touching triple digits when he needs to reach back for a little extra. In addition to the fastball, he throws a very nice slider that flashes plus, a decent curveball that he feels comfortable throwing at any time and is developing a changeup that still needs refined. Adams was the team’s shortstop and closer at NAIA Faulkner College, and is an impressive athlete who uses his lower half well to get maximum velocity out of his frame. In last year’s top-50 list, I said that Adams was “definitely a guy to keep an eye on, as he wasn’t seen as a top-25 guy entering 2010 but could be a top-10 guy by the time 2012 rolls around.” He’s a power, strikeout pitcher who could develop into a front of a rotation guy sooner rather than later. 

Like most starting pitchers, Adams gets into trouble when he starts walking batters and running up his pitch count. He walked 63 hitters while striking out 131 in 136 innings pitched for the Aeros last year. When you add up all those walks and all those strikeouts, you can see how his pitch counts can add up early in some games. He only average about 5 1/3 IP per start last year, and that’s a number that simply has to come up if he’s going to remain in the rotation. He was on a pretty strict pitch count last year, and wasn’t allowed to go over 95 pitches in a game. He’ll likely open 2012 in the rotation for the Columbus Clippers, and will fight with Scott Barnes, David Huff and Jenmar Gomez to be the 1st pitcher called up in the event of an injury to one of the big club’s starting 5. If necessary, it’s even possible that he could be an impact reliever in the stretch run to the playoffs at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Glass Half-Full: Adams cuts down on the walks and becomes a solid #3 or even a #2 starter
Glass Half-Empty: The control remains an issue and Adams is forced to a bullpen role

3. Tony Wolters, SS

DOB: 6/9/1992
Height/Weight: 5-10/165
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 3rd round pick in the 2010 draft
2011 Stats: .292/.385/.363 with 1 HR, 20 RBI and 19 SB in 69 games for Mahoning Valley

Scouting Report: Wolters is a gym rat, a grinder, and whatever else you call a kid who plays hard on the field and works hard off of it. He doesn’t have any one single tool that sticks out, but he’s solid across the board. His tools play up due to his baseball intelligence and work ethic. He was drafted out of high school, and turn 20 midway through the 2012 baseball season. He got a late start on his 2011 season after breaking a bone in his hand during spring training, but managed to put together a solid campaign for short season Mahoning Valley once he did manage to get on the field. I remember watching Wolters down in Goodyear last year when he had a cast on his hand, and the guy just couldn’t sit still. He was running around the outfield grabbing loose baseballs before the game, coaching first base during the game, and talking to any coach or player who would listen the rest of the time. I know the word “grinder” still has a negative connotation around Cleveland after Eric Wedge’s propensity to use the word as a synonym for talentless, but Wolters is a grinder who will always work to get the most out of his tools.

Wolters has an above average hit tool to go along with gap power. He’s probably never going to hit a bunch of home runs in the majors, and profiles as a top of the order hitter. He has a solid approach, with 30 walks last year against 49 strikeouts. That’s a pretty solid ratio for a kid straight out of high school in his first exposure to professional pitching. He has a short, compact stroke and does a nice job barreling the baseball on a consistent basis.

Wolters is a solid defender at short, with good hands and an above average arm. His range is average, and because of that and the fact that the Indians have so many talented young shortstops in the organization, many people see a move to 2B in the near future. His bat will definitely play at either middle infield position, and he would probably be a plus defender at second. While he never made it past short season ball last year, Wolters should begin 2012 in low-A Lake County. But the presence of top prospect Francisco Lindor at SS might force Wolters to 2B earlier rather than later.

Glass Half-Full: He sticks at SS and becomes a solid 1st division starter
Glass Half-Empty: He ends up at 2B and becomes a solid 2nd division starter

2. Dillon Howard, RHP

DOB: 7/1/1992
Height/Weight: 6-4/210
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in 2011
2011 Stats: DNP

Scouting Report: Howard was the Indians 2nd round pick (#67 overall) in 2011 out of a small Searcy, Arkansas high school. Howard went 9-1 with a 0.31 ERA his senior year, striking out 115 hitters (!) in just 58 innings of work. He allowed just 2 earned runs, and was named the high school player of the year in Arkansas by pretty much anyone that matters. He’s a big, strong kid who should be able to maintain his stuff deep into games. He made it known before the draft that it was going to take a big number for him to sign, which pushed him to the 2nd round and into the waiting arms of the Indians.

Nearly all scouts had a 1st round grade on Howard before the draft, and it’s easy to see why. He has a four-pitch mix, including a mid-90’s fastball, low-90’s sinker, a changeup that is at least average and flashes plus, and a developing curveball. The curve can get a little slurvy on occasion and flatten out, so it’s a pitch that Howard will need to work on refining as he climbs the organizational ladder. He has simple, clean and repeatable mechanics that will not need to be tinkered with when the Indians coaching staff gets their hands on him in Goodyear this spring.

In addition to his talent, Howard has a great makeup. The oldest of three sons raised by his single mother, Howard received an over-slot $1.85 million signing bonus. One of the first things he did with the money was not to buy a car, gold chain, an iPad or even a house for his mom. He sat down and found a charity in the Cleveland area that supports the fight against autism, and he wrote them a check. Howard’s youngest brother has autism, so it is clearly a cause that is near to his heart. He donated to the Milestones Autism Organization in Beachwood, Ohio, an extremely worthy non-profit organization. Even if he never throws a pitch in an Indians uniform, Howard has helped to make the Cleveland area a better place. He’ll likely pitch 2012 for low-A Lake County.

Glass half-full: A true #2 starter, or even a low-end ace
Glass half-empty: His curve doesn’t mature and he’s a back-end starter

1    1. Francisco Lindor, SS

DOB: 11/14/1993
Height/Weight: 5-11/175
Bats/Throws: Switch/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in 2011
2011 Stats: .316/.350/.350 in 5 games for short-season Mahoning Valley

Scouting Report: Lindor was the top shortstop in the 2011 draft, high school or otherwise. Watching tape of him, I’m struck by just how smooth he looks, both at the plate and in the field. He’s just a natural athlete who makes even difficult plays look easy. When the Indians selected him with the #8 overall pick in last June’s draft, I tried to push “Smooth” as a nickname for him, but it never caught on. Still hoping for that to work out once more people have seen him play. Lindor is still just 17-years old, but is already a natural leader. He was the captain of his high school team, and scouts rave about his makeup both on and off the field.

Lindor has a plus hit tool, above average speed, and projects to have at least average power. He won the AFLAC Home Run Derby last year, which was held at Seattle’s spacious Safeco Field. He powered four home runs to take the title against some of the top power hitters in high school baseball. More impressively, he and the other competitors were hitting with wood in the derby, not metal. He profiles as a top of the order hitter, and a guy that could consistently hit over .300 with 15-20 home runs. He’s a switch hitter, which only adds to his versatility.

Lindor’s real selling point though, is his incredible defense. There are no questions about his ability to stick at shortstop long-term, as his range and arm are both above-average. He has outstanding hands, and makes all the routine plays as well as some jaw-dropping spectacular ones. He’s shown a consistent ability to go deep in the hole to his right and make plays, as well as ranging up the middle to his left. He can throw accurately on the move, and really flashes his athleticism in the field. In case you can’t tell, I really, really like Francisco Lindor. He’s a consensus top-50 prospect in all of baseball, and with a strong season he could push his way into the top-10 by next offseason. Despite his youth and inexperience, the Indians will likely get aggressive with Lindor and start him at low-A Lake County to begin 2012.   

Glass half-full: A perennial all-star, gold glove shortstop
Glass half-empty: A solid defensive shortstop that never hits enough to be elite