What is impressive about two of the Indians most improved seasons by minor league offensive players is that they were already top prospects. Amazingly, Carlos Santana might have had the most improved season of any Indians minor leaguer, despite coming off a sensational 2008 season.
Carlos Santana, in case you forgot, put up a .326/.431/.568 last season, spending most of his time in high-A Inland Empire and then Kinston. That included 21 HRs, 65 total XBHs, and more walks (89) than Ks (85). This year he advanced to AA and spent the entire season as the constant rock in the middle of the Aeros potent lineup. Any adjustment time Santana needed to AA talent was minimal, as he put up a .290/.413/.530 line with 55 XBHs (23 HRs) and even more walks (90) than Ks (83). Part of what made his 2009 so impressive however was that there was good reason to suspect some regression in his numbers coming into the season. His 2008 was built on the back of a +.370 BABIP. What he did this year he did with a totally reasonably .314 BABIP...no getting lucky argument for 2009, it was just the real thing.
Michael Brantley, like Santana, was a top prospect coming into the season. As a member of the Brewers AA Huntsville team Brantley put up a .319/.395/.398 line with a phenomenal 5.6% K-rate. Again - Brantley's baseline may not jump out as much improved. In fact, in a lot of ways, it does not look improved at all. This year in Buffalo he put up a .267/.350/.361 line (before hitting .313/358/.348 for a month in Cleveland). Aside from advancing to AAA, where's the improvement? Again the answer lies deeper in his numbers. Michael Brantley had an underwhelming .288 BABIP this season despite putting up line drive rates well over 20% essentially every month - just as we saw in September, Brantley is a line drive machine. Corrected for this, Brantley's adjusted OPS for 2009 was actually .821, up from .767 in 2008. And despite being hobbled early in the season with a hamstring issue he stole 46 bases in 51 attempts. Now if only we could say with certainty he was a great defender (or even a good one)...
John Drennen is not a top prospect. There was a time (after the 2006 season) when Drennen was a good looking young prospect, and not just because he managed to take Roger Clemens deep in a minor league game. Then came a disappointing 2007, and then a truly terrible 2008 despite repeating Kinston. Starting in Kinston for a third straight time seemed to light a fire in Drennen, as he began the season hitting .270/.395/.397 in the season's first month. The improved plate discipline was a particular surprise. Following his promotion to Akron his plate discipline regressed, but his power spiked to a career high (36 XBHs, including 8 HRs, in 354 plate appearances). Drennen's final cumulative line, .273/.333/.441 is not going to earn him a ticket to Cleveland, but given that he just turned 23 in the season's final month, it does put him back in the picture somewhat.
Other offensive players who showed solid improvements from 2008 to 2009: Matt LaPorta, Jordan Brown, Donnie Webb, Lonnie Chisenhall, Matt McBride and Nick Weglarz. Pitchers will come later in the week.
UPDATE: A couple other players probably deserve a slightly longer shout-out...It was in many ways a good year for Andy Marte. Certainly his best season since his final season with the Braves organization in 2004 at AAA Richmond. Between Columbus and Cleveland Marte put up 24 HRs and 30 2Bs. Marte seems have morphed into contact/BABIP driven offensive player, perhaps reflective of his strong pull tendencies. To be worth anything with that kind of approach he needs to show considerable power, and this season was pretty much his best power display as a pro player.
This year was also Jordan Brown's best season as a pro. Brown has followed a similar trajectory of plate discipline regression/power increase that Marte has. Unfortunately for Brown the power isn't really quite as good (.196 ISOP to Marte's .266 in AAA) and the defensive is more of a limiting circumstance. The MLE (from minorleaugesplits.com) line from Brown's season is .301/.339/.464.
Finally, Nick Weglarz rebounded pretty nicely from a disappointing 2008 season interrupted by injuries and the olympics. Weglarz baseline numbers, .227/.377/.431, are considerable deflated by a .253 BABIP (his previous career low was .311 in his rookie campaign at Burlington). His power jumped back towards his 2007 figures, which were solid, if not yet into the light-tower territory people expect from him. His BB-rate reached a career high of over 17.5% while his K-rate remained pretty stable at 18.3%. Amazingly he'll still just be 22 next year, perfect time I hope for a huge season and preparation for a 2011 rookie presence in Cleveland.