July 4th is now in the rear view mirror which means the Indians full-season minor league squads already have logged more than 80 games on the season, making it the perfect time to check in on how the system is faring. A fair short story is that the system is performing very well at the top levels, somewhat disappointing in the mid-levels, and has some intriguing stories at the lower levels. Also, this season has been yet another reminder that attrition to injury is simply a reality, and not a deviation from normal, in the world of baseball. Let's begin the series with Columbus.
Columbus Clipper (57-30)
Jason Kipnis (24.2, 2B): Kipnis might be the only one of the "big three" infielders in Columbus not to get the call to Cleveland, but he is having the best season in Columbus. Here is how Kipnis has progressed through the Indians system to-date:
- 2009 (Rk, 29 games) - .306/.388/.459
- 2010 (A+, 54 games) - .300/.387/.478
- 2010 (AA, 79 games) - .311/.385/.502
- 211 (AAA, 81 games) - .301/.384/.517
Kipnis has shown not just consistency in his ability to make hard contact and get on-base, but also incremental improvements to his power, all while facing increasingly challenging competition. He should be in Cleveland.
Scott Barnes (23.8, LHP): Barnes has been riding a hot-streak since last year's AFL season, and is now carrying on that success at the AAA level. Barnes has the fourth-highest K% of eligible starting pitchers in the International League (24.6%). He would benefit from continuing to improve his control and making fewer mistakes that end of leaving the park (12 so far), but Barnes stock has shot up more than any other pitcher in the top of the system...
Zach McAllister (23.5, RHP):...which is saying something, since Zach McAllister is also having a nice bounceback season (including his major league debut, tonight). McAllister came to the organization last year as a guy struggling, but with a track record of having good control, decent strikeout abilities, and a fastball angle that leads to lots of GBs. This season McAllister has been showing excellent control (5.2 BB%), decent strikeout abilities (18.6 K%) and fewer GBs. Relative to his struggles last season, McAllister, despite the increase in FBs, has managed to improve upon his HR-rate, only giving up 6 so far after 21 a year ago.
Ezequiel Carrera (24.0, CF): Carrera does not project as a starter, but he has shown consistent major-league level skills (on-base ability, base-running, defense) that could translate into success as an auxiliary outfielder. For a guy with no power, Carrera has managed to keep his OPS over .700 each month of the season while running wild, and frequently, on the basepaths (.370 OBP, 33/37 SBs).
Chen Lee (24.7, RHP): I do not think there is a more under-the-radar relief prospect in the system than Chen Lee. Lee has only made four appearances since his promotion to Columbus in late June, but in those four outings he has dominated opposing batters, allowing just five base-runners against 12 Ks in 6.2 innings. His cumulative season line - 27 appearances, 46.1 IP, 31 H, 1 HR, 12 BB, 68 K - speaks both to his effectiveness and his potential as a multi-inning reliever. I'm not sure we see him this year, but if injuries happen, don't be surprised if he gets a call.
Jason Donald (26.9, 2B/SS/3B): That he is listed for Columbus, and not Cleveland, tells Donald's story. Donald's series of injuries this season could not have had worse timing for him. He is still a possible utility option in the near future for Cleveland, but in a season in which a lot of high-level infielders have performed well, Donald's inability to stay on the field (just 36 games so far) has been costly.
Lonnie Chisenhall (22.7, 3B): Yes, he is in Cleveland now and coming off his first major league HR, but Chisenhall's season with Columbus has not impressed the way others have. He has not been "bad," but after a great spring training showing Chisenhall has been merely average for the Clippers, which is not a good thing for a top prospect. Chisenhall is still young compared to a guy like Kipnis, but their developmental trajectories make for interesting comparison.
- 2008 (Rk, 68 games) - .290/.355/.438
- 2009 (A+, 99 games) - .276/.346/.492
- 2009/10 (AA, 141 games) - ..262/.333/.439
- 2011 (AAA, 65 games) - .265/.352/.427
No red flags, but nothing to really write home about either. His swing on his HR last night reminded me of Grady Sizemore, which is nice, but it would be nicer at some point to see a real breakout from Chisenhall.
Alex White (22.9, RHP): Alex White was having an excellent season, including a respectable 15+ inning major league debut, until...he injured ligaments in his pitching hand. That alone is a big enough flag for the season to count as a disappointment. Word this week is that he is throwing again, which is good news. A positive end of the year showing, in Cleveland or Columbus, would go a long way towards making his season look like a success.
Corey Kluber (25.1, RHP): Kluber was probably never viewed as more than a depth starting option, but he did come to the organization with a track record of some success built on consistently strong K-rates. This year his K-rate has tallied off while his control has completely abandoned him. Kluber's the only member of the Columbus rotation who has been anything but excellent this year.
David Huff (26.8, LHP): The time is ticking on Huff to outshine his competition. Even though he has performed well, and has had an especially encouraging run of late, he keeps falling further and further back on the Indians depth chart. From a spring training 5th starter candidate, he is arguably 8th or 9th in line now.
Cord Phelps (24.5, 2B/3B): That Phelps performed well enough to earn the earliest big-league promotion out of the Columbus infield argues that perhaps he should be a "riser", but I think questions still exist about where Phelps' hitting ability will ultimately place him, and where his defense will allow him to be placed. I'm not going to hang too much on his shakiness after two weeks in the majors, but it is a reality. The other reality is that his offensive surge the past two seasons has been predicated on BABIPs well over .360. Phelps appears to be a solid line-drive kind of guy, suggestive of good BABIP numbers, but the numbers he has put up in Columbus are likely not to translate to the majors...meaning he is going to need to continue to do all the other things (defense, base-running, on-base) well to keep his spot in Cleveland.
Nick Hagadone (25.5, LHP): He is just a reliever as it turns out, but Hagadone has now had his longest continuous stretch of good health since joining the organization. His control has improved and scouting reports on him have reported well above average stuff. Now it is just a matter of staying healthy and featuring that stuff on a nightly basis.
Jeanmar Gomez (22.7, RHP): Gomez has quietly regained the status he earned as a prospect during his stellar 2009 campaign after a down year in 2010. His peripherals are above average across the board, now it is just a matter of earning a big league opportunity and showing his stuff can translate to the next level.
Luis Valbuena (25.6, 2B/SS/3B/LF): Unfortunately for Luis, holding steady means remaining in limbo. Valbuena has shown, yet again, that he can hit AAA pitching well (.314/.381/.515), and is testing the waters as a super-utility guy. Seems like a trade candidate more than a once and future Indian, though.
Overview: Columbus is an almost unfairly stacked minor league team, including not just the once and former prospects above, but a cast of above average minor league veterans as well. The team is dominating IL competition and is a testament to the quality depth in the high level of the system, much of it with the chance to make an impact on the major league level (we are already seeing it, of course) soon. One thing to note about Columbus is that for several years we have talked about Huntington Park being a strong hitters park, and have viewed the numbers coming out of Columbus accordingly. This view might lead you to discount some of the offensive success of guys like Phelps and Kipnis a bit. The problem this year is that much of that strong offense is still there, but the pitchers are also performing exceptionally well. So either the hitting performances are real, the pitching is even better than it looks, or both are legitimate indicators.