The Cleveland Indians tried to hold on and win the winnable AL Central, but even after making a mid-season trade for Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Verlander and the Tigers rolled their division foes on their way to an ALCS exit. One of the more important things the Indians may have done, however, was introduce two top prospects in Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis had an excellent debut, but I’d expect a little less power in his future with a few more walks, hits, and a higher OBP. Chisenhall played in about twice as many games, but he had a bit rougher of an introduction. Both of them are solid regulars, but I’d expect Kipnis to be the better player as their careers get going.
Down on the farm, life wasn’t very good. First of all, the top half of the 2011 Indians list got chopped off, which is enough to take a serious toll on any organization. Moving Kipnis and Chisenhall into the majors is a positive step forward as that’s the goal, but it does remove the top two prospects from the system. Next came the Jimenez trade that took Alex White, Drew Pomeranz, and Joe Gardner, who were the best three pitching prospects the Indians had. When that happens, you hope the rest of the system plays well enough to at least give the organization hope that the system can recover eventually from that.
That didn’t exactly happen. The Indians did have a pretty strong draft with Francisco Lindor, Dillon Howard, Jake Sisco, and spending heavily in the later rounds to grab several prospects who dropped, which is always a solid idea. They come into the organization, and it says a lot that 3 of the top 5 are newly-drafted players. There were a few nice seasons, but few Indians prospects outside of those drafted in 2011 represent guys that could be the core of the major-league team.
To be fair, the current, thin Indians system is not a complete failure. Promoting Kipnis and Chisenhall is the ultimate goal of a farm system, and both of those guys look to be core players in the future of the Indians. Trading Pomeranz and White, while it hurts the rotation’s depth, did bring Jimenez, who still has value despite a bumpy move to the American League. The question remains what is coming down the pipeline now. The recent draft does bolster the system and adds some potential, and there are some decent players that were already in the organization. But the major-league team isn’t without it’s problems, and there don’t seem to be any immediate answers coming from within.
Francisco Lindor SS
Age/Level (as of 4/2012): 18/Low-A
Projection: 3+ WAR
Lindor won’t amaze you with any one part of his game, but he’ll give you plenty to smile about as he can do just about everything very well. With above-average speed and an above-average arm, scouts believe Lindor will almost certainly stay at shortstop and be a pretty good one. At the plate, Lindor shows his lone major weakness in his lack of power, but he generates solid contact with a solid approach. It remains to be seen how his skills will translate into professional ball and if the power will become too much of a detriment, but Francisco “Truffles” Lindor (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) has a strong work ethic and a bright future.
Cord Phelps 2B/3B
Age/Level: 25/AAA or MLB
Projection: 2-4 WAR
When the Ubaldo Jimenez trade happened last summer, I was shocked Phelps wasn’t included, considering the Rockies need for a second and third baseman, and it seems like Phelps is still need of a trade as he has no place in Cleveland with Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall locked into his two positions. Phelps has a solid bat, solid approach, and solid power, and while none of those will lead him to being a star, there’s no reason he can’t be a decent regular. Phelps isn’t a defensive wizard, but he can play either position well enough (teams might fear he can’t play either at the major-league level). I think he needs an opportunity, but I don’t know where he’ll get it.
Dillon Howard SP
When you try to imagine what you want a pitcher to look like, Howard is it. The 6’4, 200-pounder has an ideal frame and room to grow, and having played shortstop in high school, he is a good athlete with a smooth delivery, though with the occasional head whip, that should be repeatable. Howard’s fastball is his only real pitch right now as it sits in the low-90s, though it could go higher as he fills out. His secondary pitches, a curve and change, have potential but are very inconsistent at the moment. Let’s get him some innings and see what we have.
Tony Wolters SS
Projection: 2-4 WAR
Currently a shortstop, there’s a belief that Wolters doesn’t have the range to stay at the position, but there is also the belief that he could be a solid second baseman. Wolters has average-ish speed and a solid arm, but he doesn’t cover enough ground at short. Offensively, he looks a lot like Lindor – good bat, solid approach, little power – but he could certainly fill out a bit more and add some power. The swing is a bit awkward – slight leg kick and an uppercut – but he makes it work for him.
Jake Sisco SP
Drafted out of junior college, Sisco sits in between the typical high school and college draftee. He’s still mostly projection, but he has a low-90s fastball along with three solid pitches that could get better in a cutter, curveball, and change-up. Sisco certainly has the frame and arsenal to start, but he’ll likely need those secondary pitches to get a bit better if he wants to stay in a rotation.
Luigi Rodriguez CF
Age/Level: 19/Low-A or High-A
Projection: 1-3 WAR
Rodriguez is mainly projection at this point. He has plus speed, and after a tiny chance in the infield, the Indians moved him to the outfield, where his speed will play better. The real concern is his bat. He strikes out a bit, but it’s not that much while taking a few walks as well. Rodriguez has little to no power at the moment, and at his size, it’s hard to imagine more coming. He had a rough introduction to Low-A pitching last summer, but it was only 34 games and there’s plenty of time.
Chun Chen C
Projection: 1-3 WAR
When Cleveland cleaned up Chen’s high leg kick, they may have found themselves an offense-oriented catcher. I say “offense-oriented” because Chen isn’t much of a catcher at the moment as he struggles to catch better stuff, but he has an above-average arm that nails basestealers with frequency. At the plate, he’s making better contact, but he still strikes out a little too much. If he could improve his defense, he might squeak into a starter’s role, but as he is, he could hit enough to be a back-up that fakes it behind the plate for a game or two a week.
Chen Lee RP
Projection: Middle Reliever
From a slight build, Lee propels the ball forward at pretty high speeds. His fastball sits in the low-90s, but it can scrape the mid-90s occasionally. What made such an improvement for him this season was the improvement in his slider, which became an above-average to plus pitch. A low arm angle likely means he’ll have platoon issues in the majors, but it’s hard to argue with his production (12 K/9, 3 BB/9) in the minors. He needs a chance.
Nick Hagadone RP
Projection: Middle Reliever
Suffering through numerous injuries has sapped most of Hagadone’s upside from him, but he remains a likely contributor to a major-league team, which shows you how good he could have been. His fastball no longer sits in the high-90s, but it sits in the low-90s with the occasional 95 or 96. And his slider, that was once plus to plus-plus, is now an above-average pitch. What keeps him here is that some of that velocity might come back and that his control improved substantially last year in AA and AAA. We’ll see if he can handle high-leverage situations, but Hagadone will probably still have quite a few MLB seasons in his future … as long as his arm stays attached.
Ronnie Rodriguez SS
Projection: 1-3 WAR
Calling Rodriguez a shortstop at this point seems a bit too kind (38 errors in 97 games), but that’s not Rodriguez’s calling card. If he’s going to make some noise in the majors, he’ll do it with his stick, most notably his power. He isn’t patient, and he doesn’t make a lot of contact. So he has a lot of growing up to do to become a useful role player in the majors.
Big Question – Nick Weglarz and Jason Knapp
On the mound and at the plate, the Cleveland Indians have a prospect with some potential that is severely limited by injuries. Nick Weglarz could fit in a corner outfield spot or first base, and he has the secondary skills at the plate to be an offensive force. But he gets hurt a lot, and after this season, there are concerns that the injuries have sapped his power, which would make him a non-prospect. Jason Knapp is in a similar situation. Part of the Cliff Lee trade, Knapp had huge upside with a monster fastball and a wicked slider, but he had his second shoulder surgery this past season. You’ll always hold out a little hope for past top prospects, but at this point, you wonder if either will make the majors, even if they’re only 24 and 21.