Centerfield fodder

My personal period of mourning for the 2009 Cleveland Indians is over.  Good riddance.  A nice distraction from the lack of Indians baseball actually being played is to look back at how the Indians minor league system performed and daydream about possible future Tribesmen.  I've been in the process of compiling data from the Indians farm system and a number of interesting things have stuck out to me.  The first I want to talk about is the following set of centerfielders in the Indians system. 

Constanza, Henry and Cid were primary CFers last season (at Akron, Mahoning Valley, and Lake County).  Donnie Webb split his time pretty evenly between all three positions (mainly at LC, with a Columbus stint the final two weeks). One of the reasons I was interested in this is that all four of these guys have interesting things about them, aside from the fact that they appear to be capable defensive players.  But they also all get panned by progress score.  Progress score you may recall is a metric which tries to assess performance in minor league players relative to league, age, and defensive position.  Younger, better, closer to the majors, and at a more skilled defensive position are all rewarded.  All four of the above grade out as decidedly uninteresting (Ron Rivas outranks all of them).  So is progress score missing something or are these guys really just useless?  Generating value from within the system is obviously a critical part of the Indians success.  It is in this context that I'd like to look at these four.

Jose Constanza led the Indians minor league system in stolen bases with 49.  And while he was not as efficient as Michael Brantley, his 49:14 ratio is not bad. He also showed an excellent BB:K ratio (1.15) built on the back of an excellent BB-rate (13.0%) and an excellent K-rate (11.3%).  What Constanza has against him is back to back disappointing seasons in 2007 and 2008 making him decidedly old (26 now), especially for a guy who has yet to log an at-bat above AA.

Donnie Webb led the Indians system in triples (12) to go along with good stolen base figures (36:9).  For a centerfielder he actually had pretty good power, with 21 2Bs and 7 HRs to go along with his triples, good for a .132 ISO.  Donnie's problem is that he was old when he was drafted (2008, 10th round) and so was just making his full season debut this year as a 23-year old in Lake County.  He also has a below average (though not terrible) BB-rate (7.6%) and a below average (though not terrible) K-rate (20.9%).

Delvi Cid is a graduate of the Indians Dominican system, having made his rookie league debut last season before getting the promotion to Lake County this season.  Unlike the previous two, Cid isn't old, not turning 20 till mid-July this past season.  And through the first two months of last season, the then 19-year old was hitting a robust .331/.387/.423.  Closer examination reveals that was on the back of a .455 BABIP - not something likely to be maintained.  Especially when Cid was striking out in nearly 27% of his plate appearances (that is bad) and barely managing a walk for every four Ks (0.28 BB/K).  And although Cid stole 33 bases, his 16 times getting caught pretty much make those worthless.  So Delvi is young and plays great CF defense, but he has a lot of holes to fill in his game.

That leaves 2009 draftee (7th round) Jordan Henry.  The strikes against Henry in the mind of progress score is that he is old to be in Mahoning Valley (it would like him considerably more were he in Kinston - which he probably will be next season), and he really doesn't hit for any power at all. In just over 300 plate appearances he managed just 12 doubles, no triples and no homeruns with nearly 60% of his balls in play in the form of groundballs.  That is not inspiring.  But what Henry did extremely well in his pro debut is get on base (.408 OBP), take walks (16.0% - only behind Santana and Weglarz in the system), and put the ball in play (12.1% K-rate).  He also managed to only get caught stealing once in 23 attempts.

So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff with these guys?  Is there actually any wheat to be found here?

The first thing I thought of with these guys is Willy Taveras.  Taveras, you may recall, was selected in the rule 5 draft from Cleveland by Houston following a 2004 season when the 22.5 year old had put up a .335/.402/.386 line at Akron with 55 SBs.  Taveras became the Astros starting centerfielder in 2005 and again in 2006, racking up a lot of marginal offensive plate appearances (.670 OPS, .303 wOBA, +1200 PAs).  His speed (67 SB) and defense (+27.8 UZR), however, made up for it - making him a very cheap part of the Astro's team relative to his $700k combined salary.  Taveras then got sent to the Rockies where he regressed in 2008 before joining the Reds for a largely disappointing 2009.  Taveras is not a great player.  It may be pushing it to call him a mediocre player.  But for a few years he was quite effective relative to his cost. 

Before being taken in the rule 5 Taveras had put together three pretty decent seasons with respect to several measures at low-A, then high-A, then AA.  His OBP in those years was .385, .381, .402 with BB-rates over 10% in the first two years.  His K-rate was in the 14-18% range, meaning he was not a super contact guy, but not terrible.  His net (BB-K+XBH+SB-2*CS) was +26, +34, and +11.  He was getting on base enough, putting the ball in play enough, fast enough, and playing good enough defense to make up for his lack of power.  What about the guys above?

Donnie Webb's net last year and this year were -16 and -17 respectively.  Those below average plate discipline numbers kill him, even though he does have a modicum of power.  Constanza's numbers going back to 2006 are +46, -1, +15, and +53.  If 2007 and 2008 had never happened for Constanza I think we would talk about him a little more.  Since they did, there is really nothing left in the projection of him.  That said, he seems like the best candidate to follow Taveras's path, perhaps with better plate discipline.  I think he is a guy the Indians will have to think about come rule 5 time.  Obviously we have Grady, but if none of the group of Choo, Brantley or Crowe are really viable CFers, Constanza might make sense as a AAA-insurance option if not a 25th man on the roster (I'd probably take him over Crowe given the choice).  Delvi Cid's 2009 net was an impressive (in a bad way) -61.  Cid is fast, but is a terrible base-stealer.  He clearly has some offensive skill and room for projection, but at the moment is completely overwhelmed at the plate.  Cid is young enough to still improve, but next year might be a good time for him to repeat in Lake County and try to improve his offensive fundamentals.  Which leaves us Jordan Henry, who across a short-season at Mahoning Valley put up an impressive +44 net.  It'd be nice to see Henry get the Lonnie Chisenhall aggressive treatment in 2010 in the hopes that he turns into a viable CF/leadoff prospect.  At some point sooner rather than later he'll have to begin turning a few of those 60% groundballs into line drives, but he had a very encouraging rookie campaign.

I think these guys are a good illustration of why, even with a very useful metric, which I think progress score is, it is helpful to look at the larger context.  Good defensive CFers have more latitude to be average on offense than do corner outfielders.  Add in a lot of positive extras, like solid plate discipline and good base-running, and these guys might be interesting in the right organizational context.

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