This is the eighth installment in a 12-part series.
Part of the Tribe's failure this year can be blamed on the reality that when players were failing to perform in April and May (and there were many), no one was there in Akron or Columbus to step up and provide at least temporary relief. When Fausto Carmona was busy allowing 4+ runs in 10 of his first 12 starts, who was there to step up? Sure, David Huff was there to step in and promptly allow 13 earned runs in his first 6 innings of pro ball, but who was there behind him? And behind that guy? And when the bullpen was busy reading up on seppuku rather than "how to record a major league out" for the first two months, was there really no one better than Matt Herges and Greg Aquino available to fill the holes? Mark Shapiro has said nothing more frequently than the need for depth - the need to prepare for individual failures (which are inevitable) and insure against collective failures. So where was the depth when it was needed to keep the season alive?
One explanation is that it was a failure to acquire the right talent. This is a well hashed argument, and one which might have some validity. There is another possibility, however, that perhaps it is not that we have failed to acquire the right talent, but instead failed to develop the talent we have properly. Perhaps our developmental system, again one of Shapiro's trademarks on the organization has failed. Shapiro has been lauded for installing a system based on combining traditional scouting data with rigorous quantitative assessment and emphasizing consistency throughout the system. Players are supposed to enter into the organization and hear the same things at every level. Maybe some have been hearing the wrong things.
Trying to assess how good a developmental staff the Indians have is probably going to be a failed effort on my part. To really do it right, you would have to compare how the Indians fare relative to other organizations. The best hitters get out 60% of the time. Their greatness is only visible when assessed against everyone else, who get out 69% of the time. The success rate for prospects is much lower than either of the numbers. I don't have time for a thorough comparative analysis, sadly. But we can look internally at what the Tribe has done.
I consider the goal of the developmental staff to accomplish two things:
- A good system should help players achieve the potential they were viewed to have when they were drafted/signed (with obvious injury caveats).
- A great system should strive to raise the ceiling of their players, and strive to turn them into better players than other teams thought they could be.
How do they do this - I have no idea. But I would like to think they identify weaknesses in a player's game and seek to improve on them. Have the Indians done that? Here are some significant minor leaguers, either assessed by performance, draft or reputation, and how they've progressed (or regressed) while in the Indians system.
Michael Aubrey - Injuries make his development impossible to assess
Brad Snyder - I think Snyder's failures are viewed as a contact problem. I think it is more that he didn't hit for enough power given his high strikeout rate. Here are his K/BB rates from A+, to AA, and two years in Buffalo - 2.5, 2.5, 3, +4...that's not good.
Adam Miller - see Michael Aubrey
Javi Herrera - college defensive catcher (and 3rd round pick), never learned to hit at AA
Ryan Garko - Seems like a success story. He's never developed a lot of power, but aside from his senior year at Stanford he never had a lot of power.
Juan Valdes - Injuries (too much coffee, no doubt)
Aaron Laffey - Big developmental success. While he's always gotten groundballs in bunches, his improving K-numbers throughout his minor league career attest to his improved secondary stuff, particularly his slider.
Jeremy Sowers - I think it is hard to argue Sowers as a developmental failure. He has consistently dominated the minors. The translation to the big league level is not something I feel justified in blaming the minor league staff entirely for. An argument could be made that more of an effort should have been extended to improve his fastball velocity, but that is tough without incurring all sorts of other mechanical issues.
Justin Hoyman - never got started
Scott Lewis - I think a success story from a developmental perspective. Always did well, but was always described as likely having trouble at the next level. He kept doing well at the next level, up until his injury derailment in the majors.
Chuck Lofgren - Hard to know exactly what has happened or who is to blame for Lofgren, but losing the ability to throw strikes is something I'm happy to assign partial blame to the staff.
Mike Butia - Bad pick
Chris Gimenez - The Tribe turned this 19th round pick into a guy who can play multiple positions including catcher. He's not great, but that's not a bad job for a guy not many people probably thought much of.
Carlton Smith - Another guy who the Indians are trying to turn into something useful. They've managed to take his naturally sinking stuff and turn him into an extreme groundballer out of the pen in Akron this year. I say small victory.
Wyatt Toregas - selected in the 24th round, Wyatt's performance has been up and down, but at various points they've managed to get his plate discipline and/or power up to levels that made his appearance on the big league team this year not surprising. Success.
Tony Sipp - he was a late round flyer who I think we're all glad signed. A success obviously, but it is a little troubling that Sipp's control never showed any improvement.
Trevor Crowe - After looking like he was nothing in 2007 in Akron, he did rebound more towards a reasonably projection given his college performance. Not worth a first round pick, but not the developmental staff's fault.
John Drennen - Haven't been able to put together a solid approach at the plate for Drennen. It's either mediocre power with huge K-rates, or zero power with mediocre plate discipline.
Stephen Head - they really should have worked on his mustache more, or tried to put together a coherent set of skills
Nick Weglarz - projectable big guy from Ontario with limited baseball experience turned into a top prospect...Yes!
Jensen Lewis - Again, from the minor league side of things, this looks like a success
Jordan Brown - Following his 2007 season in Akron, it looked like all he needed to do was add a little power and he'd be a good guy at the plate. Instead he fell apart, losing power, discipline and contact skills. He has rebounded a lot this year, but hasn't recovered his discipline at the plate and given his defensive liabilities, isn't viewed as part of the future. In terms of development, I think Brown is probably a draw.
Kevin Dixon, Joe Ness, James Deters - These three consecutive picks from 2005 all reached Akron and promptly had their careers end, I think we can assign a little failure.
Ryan Edell - Edell, the next pick in that draft, actually made it past Akron this year. Edell is not anything special, but he has followed an advance and struggle, then come back and improve trajectory to the point where he is a depth rotation option for next season. I say success from the development perspective.
Roman Pena - Toolsy, but failed to learn how to not strike out
Neil Wagner - Once viewed as a relief prospect sleeper, Wagner's control has gotten worse as he has moved through the system
David Huff - similar story to Jeremy Sowers. He really looked like he was ready in 2008, but in 2009 his stuff has been lacking. I have a hard time saying this is a failure of the minor league development staff, though.
Steven Wright - he's not a guy we talk much about, but he has slowly and steadily progressed through the system and will likely be a major part of the Columbus bullpen next year. Not a glowing victory, but not a developmental failure.
Josh Rodriguez - Rodriguez has dealt with some injuries, but this seems like a failure. He was highly thought of and got off to a nice pro start in 2007.
Wes Hodges - Again injuries have played a role, but Hodges' power and discipline have deteriorated at each level to the point where now he is a deserved after thought.
Matt McBride - Here I largely question the developmental choices the organization has made. McBride was at catcher, but got moved to corner outfield. He had enough of a projectable bat to be a major league catcher, but it would have and will take a minor miracle to make him a serviceable outfielder. I say development fail.
Adam Davis - He got worse each of his final two seasons at Florida, so I don't blame Cleveland for him not being any good, just for drafting him.
Ryan Morris - A big high-school lefty who the Indians have been unable to teach how to throw strikes
Jared Goedert - Apart from a now legendary 46 game stretch in Lake County, he is 9th round organizational fodder
Paolo Espino - Espino has been moved back and forth from rotation to bullpen, but his improved control this season was a positive step forward for him. I say one for the plus column.
Josh Tomlin - a 19th round pick, Tomlin has been steady in his performance across levels, last season as a stalwart in Akron's pitching staff, to the point of being an interesting guy. Development win.
Vinnie Pestano - Enough marginal improvement in his BB-rate to call this a minor victory.
Chris Nash - Big and raw high school firstbaseman, the Indians have never been able to translate his strength into power or any kind of plate performance. Fail.
Ryan Miller - late round flier who showed signs of life for Lake County in 2008, totally blew up in 2009.
Jon Meloan - not drafted, but clearly a developmental failure. Were never able to right his once promising ship.
Asdrubal Cabrera - huge victory. Cabrera was a hugely underrated guy when we acquired him, but he has been able to translate that potential into actual performance.
Fausto Carmona - huge victory....turned huge failure? But this also involves the major league staff.
Frank Herrmann - Transition to bullpen was successful this season and might prove to be a very smart developmental move. That said, he didn't actually improve any of his numbers in the process.
Hector Rondon - Definitely looks like a victory in progress, has been getting better as he has advanced (at least until the final month of this season).
Rafael Perez - Another victory in terms of his minor league performance. Was a borderline starter turned into a momentarily great reliever.
Jeanmar Gomez - Another seeming victory in progress. His stuff has become more effective as he has moved through the system.
Josh Judy - 34th round 2007 pick, his numbers have also shown steady progress. Could warrant a bullpen look in 2010.
Carlos Rivero - was looking good, but had a definite set back this season in his AA debut
There are lots of guys I have no doubt missed, and I have intentionally left most of the guys acquired from 2007-present out, because for most of them development is still a work in progress. Generally, I think the Indians developmental system has been adequate, if not extraordinary. We have had pitching successes (Aaron Laffey) and failures (Jon Meloan), hitting successes (Asdrubal Cabrera) and failures (Brad Snyder), college successes (Ryan Garko) and college failures (Wes Hodges), high school successes (Nick Weglarz) and high school failures (Chuck Lofgren). Again, a real study would try to assess this quantitatively and comaratively, but I don't have time for that.
I will say the Indians success with pitchers have seemingly been with developing downward movement on their fastball and/or the development of a slider in particular as an effective secondary pitch. There aren't a ton of changeup success stories in the system, or guys who have developed great power fastballs.
At the plate, it is my sense that certain players who have struggled have gone back and forth between trying to achieve their power potential, while also maintaining a reasonable plate approach. Beau Mills seems to be a case of this in progress, where last season he was showing some signs of actually improving in both areas (following a half-season debut with good power and bad discipline), only to come crashing down in many ways this season. I always find it disappointing when guys who showed plus defensive skills, like Brad Snyder, could not ever quite work it out at the plate enough to get a shot at the major league level. Fire everyone! - mabe. But I'd probably rather see an easing of the constraints on the system. Not an abandonment of the over-arching organizational philosophy on player development, but an openness to the reality that Cleveland is not the greatest organization on the planet and does not have all of the answers.
Just about any individual performance success story or failure can be viewed either as a result of the player's contribution or that of the coaches - so it is impossible to really get at the latter. Only systematic problems give reasonable evidence of organizational failings in this regard. By and large I don't think the Indians system has those. I question sometimes whether the one size fits all approach to development and advancement works for everyone, but some of the player development decisions made this year (Abner Abreu, Lonnie Chisenhall, Zach Putnam) suggest a more flexible approach on behalf of the front office. The bottom line is that I think the Indians do a good job of getting players to perform to the level that is expected of them. There are not that many examples of guys turning into something more than was ever thought possible, but I would guess these are rare in every organization. There are also not a lot of total failures which don't have some major injury component to them. Fire everyone! - maybe. But I'd probably rather just see more humility in the current organizational philosophy towards development. The Indians are not the greatest organization on the planet and do not know the answers to every (or these days any) question. Allowing a little flexibility and opening the channels of communication regarding development up to a few more smart voices might not be a bad idea.