Update: I've added a few quantitative comparisons at the end
I recently finished a primarily laudatory assessment of the Indians farm system - a few nice hitting prospects and a boatload of interesting pitchers, coupled with a young major league squad. A consensus view of our system is that its greatest strength is its depth. Ideas differ about who and how many guys project as above average major leaguers, but there is no doubt the system is flush with interesting players, particularly pitching arms. While calling the Indians system one of the "deepest in the game," Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus added:
The Indians system is a difficult one to wrap your head around. It lacks the star power of an elite system, but at the same time, don't be surprised if it produces a greater number of big-leaguers than any organization in baseball.
Similar thoughts were echoed by Keith Law, the folks at Baseball America and Jon Sickels. What is less clear is how likely the Indians depth of talent will translate into major league success for Cleveland. In the comments of the same review, Goldstein added that he viewed the Indians as being on "a path to competition, not to contention."
One way to approach the question is to compare how our system looks now relative to times in the past. Specifically I am interested in what our system looked like at the end of 2003 and 2004, just as we were about to re-emerge as a contender. In case you have blocked the years from your memory, you may recall that the Indians experienced a precipitous decline from the 91 win season of 2001 to a 94 loss season just two years later in 2003, only to boomerang back to a 93 win squad in 2005. While the 2002 acquisition of Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips (and Lee Stevens!) is the hallmark transaction of this turnaround, 2003 and 2004 saw a huge infusion of young talent into Cleveland's team and the broader organization. The winning teams of 2005 and 2007 were built off the turnaround of 2003 and 2004. So how does the current mix of young major league talent, blue chip minor league prospects, and overall system depth compare to those seasons? Can we reject the idea that the Indians are on the brink of another turnaround? And if not, are we closer to 2003 or 2004 in terms of major league competitiveness?
I'm not going to repeat my system overview in its entirety here (see my hitting overview, pitching overview, the DiaTriber's comments, Al Ciammiachelli's work at The Cleveland Fan, and Tony Lastoria's stuff for more details), but after the jump I am going to re-examine what our system looked like in 2003 and 2004, then draw some systematic comparisons.
The easiest thing to assess, in retrospect, is what talent was already present in Cleveland in 2003 and 2004. It is a little harder to reconstruct what our expectations of that talent looked like seven or eight years ago, but we can make some approximation.
Milton Bradley was the best player, just 25, in Cleveland. 2003 was the year Bradley seized his tremendous talent and turned it into results. But he did not escape either the personality or injury issues which have and continue to plague his career. Despite the teams abysmal record, Bradley was hardly the only young talent on the team. Travis Hafner, age 26, didn't break out exactly, but he gave positive signs (14 HRs) in a little over half a season of play. Jody Gerut, age 25, was the surprise second best offensive player. Brandon Phillips, just 22, struggled mightily in his full-season debut, but still had the pedigree of a blue-chipper. Jhonny Peralta, even younger at 21, was forced into regular action, also struggled, but managed to impress in the process. Coco Crisp was forced into extended action and flashed solid defense, even if outmatched by major league pitchers. More importantly, Victor Martinez (age 24), made a second half debut without embarrassing himself. Ryan Ludwick (age 24) hit 7 HRs in 39 games at the end of the season. Alex Escobar, age 24, managed to not physically explode in 28 games. While neither impressed, Josh Bard (age 25) spent half the season as the team's primary catcher, while Ben Broussard (age 26) spent most of the season as the primary first baseman. On the pitching side, CC Sabathia (age 22) continued his development apace. Jake Westbrook (age 25) gave the first indication of the pitcher he would become. Jason Davis and Billy Traber (both 23), struggled. Cliff Lee (age 24) made a successful late season debut. Jason Stanford, Brian Tallet and Chad Durbin also saw action.
This team had, in retrospect, a tremendous amount of talent. But as the record of the team suggests, the talent was coupled with a huge amount of uncertainty. Only Brantley, Gerut, Sabathia and Lee really showed flashes of excellence. There were many many positive signs outside of that group, but few sure things.
2004 saw both a filtering of wheat from chaff and the consolidation of the potential flashed in 2003. Victor Martinez became the everyday catcher and put up All-Star number. Travis Hafner became Pronk. Coco Crisp emerged as a legitimate player. Broussard, though already 27, held his own at first. Jake Westbrook became the team's most consistent (and best) starter. Cliff Lee showed his potential across a full season. Sabathia continued his incremental progress towards greatness. Crisp aside, these were top prospects performing well at the big league level, not just showing potential.
Others fared not as well. Gerut got hurt and suffered. Brandon Phillips and Jhonny Peralta spent most of the season in Buffalo (with very different results, outlined below). Escobar and Ludwick floundered. Durbin and Davis struggled. But the season also saw the debut of 21-year old Grady Sizemore.
Compared to 2003, there were fewer individual young talents in Cleveland in 2003, but those that were there performed much better and erased a lot of the uncertainty around them. While the team post-2003 might have looked like one with greater potential in an ideal world, the team post-2004 looked like one you would expect to do better going forward - potential had begun being replaced by results.
Which moves us forward to today's team. Marson (24), Cabrera (24), Valbuena (24), LaPorta (25), Brantley (23), Donald (25), and Crowe (26) all played key roles and struggled. Carlos Santana (24) made sure that not every young player struggled. And it is not as if the supposed rocks of the team - one who struggled (Sizemore) and one who excelled (Choo) - are that old, as both were just in their age-27 season. The pitching staff depended even more on young talent. The veterans, in their age 26 seasons, were Fausto Carmona and rookie Mitch Talbot. Justin Masterson, David Huff, Josh Tomlin and Aaron Laffey - all age 25 - showed mixed results. Chris Perez (24) was great, as was Carlos Carrasco (23). Even Jeanmar Gomez (22) showed flashes of potential.
2010 was not 2004. We did not see a lot of young players, outside of Santana and a few pitchers, producing major league results. But if the more appropriate comparison is 2003, the 2010 Indians featured a greater number of legitimately talented young players. Not many of the 2010 kids had the pedigree of a guy like Phillips, but a few of them (LaPorta, Carrasco) could probably be considered in that ballpark. Accepting these comparisons, 2011 might be expected to look something like 2004, where the talent debuted last season separates into legit talents and could-have-been misses.
But the major league talent is only part of the story. Grady Sizemore's debut at the end of 2004 was just part of an emering core of talent, including Jhonny Peralta's MVP performance in the International League that season. How does our current minor league system stack up to those of 2003 and 2004?
In 2003, Jim Ingraham wrote this about Cleveland for Baseball America:
At the major league level, Cleveland’s .420 winning percentage was its 10th-worst since it began play in 1901. The Tribe’s six minor league clubs, however, combined for a .575 mark, the second-best in baseball
Many longtime Indians employees say it has been decades since the organization had this much depth in its farm system, and it makes the team’s minor league talent among the best in the game. Cleveland has so much talent, in fact, that several legitimate prospects with eye-catching numbers or good tools couldn’t crack the organization’s top 10.
The Indians aren’t ready to contend in the AL Central this year, but they should be able to challenge no later than 2006. Their only division rival whose future looks as bright is the Twins.
Grady Sizemore (.304/.373/.480, AA) was the Indians top prospect, but he was just one of many talented young Tribe stars. If we evaluate the system on the same basis I have with this year's system - a combination of age, position and performance - Sizemore is far from the only standout. Victor Martinez was great (.329/.393/.476, AAA), while Crisp (.360/.434/.511, AAA) and Peralta (.257/.310/.329, AA shortstop) were excellent in their half-season in the minors. Alex Escobar (.251/.296/.472, AAA) and Corey Smith (.271/.340/.397, AA) showed power potential, though little else. Recent draftee Michael Aubrey also looked good. Outside of that was an interesting group of players. There weren't many who were great performers, but there were a number with plus defense that ended up having major league careers (Macier Izturis, Ivan Ochoa, Wily Tavares, Hector Luna), as well as a couple who were somewhat old who ended up having success in other organizations (Ryan Church, Luke Scott).
The pitching is a little bit harder to sort through, but one thing that sticks out is that relative to the present, the 2003 pitchers in the system were older. The 2003 Buffalo pitchers were 27 years of age on average, while the guys in Akron were nearly 25. Contrast that with the 2010 squads which were under 25 and 24, respectively. In AAA, Cliff Lee and Jason Stanford were the most impressive on a statistical basis. Jeremy Guthrie also did well, but in a Sowersian fashion. Fernando Cabrera, and to a lesser extent Francisco Cruceta, led the Akron rotation. Rafael Betancourt dominated out of the Akron pen, supported by Japanese import Kaz Tadano. Kinston could have perhaps been viewed as the most talented staff, but by and large it was characterized by players who put up just marginal performances, such as the draft quartet of JD Martin, Dan Denham, Jake Dittler and Travis Foley, as well as Mariano Gomez and Brian Slocum. This was a group a lot of people were high on, but they didn't perform in 2003. Lake County meanwhile featured a couple of control specialists, the young Fausto Carmona and the more veteran Keith Ramsey.
Move ahead a season and the Indians system looked a little more impressive. Writing for Baseball America, this is what Chris Kline said about the system back on November of 2004:
It didn’t mollify the general public, but Shapiro promised the Indians would be able to contend again by 2005. Thanks to trades, the draft and their ability to develop prospects, the Tribe finds itself on the brink of Shapiro’s original timetable....
There’s more talent on the way. The Indians have been stockpiling arms as they attempt to complement an offense that ranked fifth in the majors in scoring in 2004...
No. 1 prospect Adam Miller is a couple of years away, but Fausto Carmona, Francisco Cabrera, Andrew Brown, Cruceta, Kyle Denney and Jeremy Guthrie should be able to contribute in 2005. More hitting is on the way as well, as Sizemore, Phillips and Jhonny Peralta are ready for full-time duty.
While Cleveland hasn’t quite returned to its winning ways in the majors, its minor league affiliates are getting the job done. The Indians became the first organization since the Dodgers in 1990 to win championships at four levels in the minors.
In 2004, BA ranked the Indians top 10 prospects this way:
1. Adam Miller, rhp
2. Michael Aubrey, 1b
3. Franklin Gutierrez, of
4. Brad Snyder, of
5. Jeremy Sowers, lhp
6. Fausto Carmona, rhp
7. Fernando Cabrera, rhp
8. Ryan Garko, c/1b
9. Nick Pesco, rhp
10. Andy Brown, rhp
2004 saw fantastic seasons from Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta at AAA. They looked and played like the real thing. Consensus blue-chipper, Brandon Phillips, did not, but did hold his own in a turbulent AAA campaign. Michael Aubrey began to show his fragility in Akron, but his weaknesses were over-shadowed by Ryan Garko's high batting average and Franklin Gutierrez's all-around solid play. The lower part of the Indians sytem was buoyed by strong performances from older prospects like Brad Snyder, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Goleski. Again it is worth noticing that a number of the guys who had gone on to have major league careers (Ochoa, Francisco and Kouzmanoff) were not particularly heralded.
2004 was a better year for the pitchers in the system. Carmona was in Buffalo by the end of the season. Cabrera continued to put up huge strikeout numbers at the AAA level, although a worrying lack of control began to emerge. Andrew Brown, fresh from the LA system, promised large strikeout numbers. Reclamation project Bob Howry showed promise in the Bisons pens, though no one performed better in the pen than Matt Miller(!). The disappointing 2003 quartet made a few steps forward, as Dittler had a nice season. Jeremy Guthrie showed more Sowerscess. Adam Miller, the BA #1 prospect, was identified as the gem of the system at this point, but he was still far from Cleveland (though we didn't know how far).
So how do these groups compare to Cleveland's system at the present? The Indians don't have the upper minors positional talent that it did in 2003 or 2004. Yet. You can imagine a situation in which a year from now we will have comparable players in the form of Chisenhall, Kipnis, Phelps and Weglarz. But those 2003 and 2004 systems were significantly top-heavy in hitting talent. Going into the 2010 season, the Indians system arguably was top-heavy as well, with few exciting lower minors hitting prospects. The 2010 draft and the emergence of guys like Chun-Hsiu Chen alters that picture a bit.
The pitching comparisons are more striking. The current Indians system simply has many more and much better looking prospects than it did eight years ago. Adam Miller stuck out in 2004, in part, because he was one of the few strikeout/power pitchers in the organization. The Indians last season had more players at the AA/AAA level average more than a K/IP than the entire organization in either 2003 or 2004. The majority of Indians pitching prospects in 2003 and 2004 built their success on control. The current crop has their success dictated, at least in part, by strikeouts.
The Indians right now do not have the proven young talent at the big league level of the 2004 team...though they do have the potential to show that this season. They do, however, have more talent more evenly distributed throughout their system than anytime in the recent past. We lack corner outfield, corner infield and shortstop prospects...but we have so many arms, great depth up the middle and at catcher, and an interesting group of young guys at the positions we lack (i.e. LeVon Washington and Nick Bartolone). The challenging part of these comparisons is that Brandon Phillips, Adam Miller and Grady Sizemore would probably grade out as the best three prospects in any honest study (though you could probably throw Carlos Santana into that group). But the current system might occupy 15 of the next 20 slots. And the Indians success in 2005 and 2007 utilized only one of those guys....and he, by the way, is still here. By 2012 we have more options for quality guys to put around those centerpieces, particularly on the pitching staff, than we did back in 2003 and 2004.
A lot went right in 2005 and again in 2007. But Grady, Victor, Hafner, Sabathia and Westbrook weren't lucky accidents. Nor will the next group, many of whom you'll be able to watch in Cleveland this season.
Some numbers for those who like numbers.
System wide K%, BB%, K/BB for pitchers
2010: 21.3 K%, 8.6 BB%, 2.46 K/BB
2004: 18.9 K%, 8.7BB%, 2.18 K/BB
- 2003: 18.0 K%, 8.0 BB%, 2.29 K/BB
Average pitcher age:
- 2010: 22.8
- 2004: 24.0
- 2003: 24.5
Number of "interesting" pitching prospects per level (based on PS and Net)
Average age of hitters:
- 2010: 23.0
- 2004: 23.8
System-wide triple-slash, BB%,K%
- 2010: .272/.340/.406, 9.0 BB%, 18.2 K%
- 2004: .272/.343/.427, 8.8 BB%, 18.2 K%
- 2003: .262/.333/.389, 9.0 BB%, 17.3 K%
Number of "interesting positional prospects (based on PS and Net)
|AA/AAA up the middle
|A/A+ up the middle