Trevor Crowe is currently the best hitter in Columbus. He also is a great knitter and enjoys flying kites on Fall days. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Regulars for the full season minor league affiliates are beginning to get close to 20 games played with starters in the rotation making their fourth appearance this week, making it a reasonable time to check in on the early storylines in the system. Today I will focus on Columbus and Akron and follow that later this week with some thoughts on Carolina and Lake County.
The thing to keep in mind with Columbus at the moment is that basically no one of any significance is getting their first exposure to AAA pitchers and hitters. Instead, Columbus is the halfway house for a few young prospects sprinkled in with a healthy mix of former prospects and major league veterans. All of them are basically jockeying for the top spot in their area should an opening emerge in Cleveland. It is also worth considering that the top four hitters (ranked by OPS) currently on the Clippers roster are Luke Carlin (1.111), Trevor Crowe (1.086), Chad Huffman (.977) and Matt Pagnozzi (.936). I say this only to provide some perspective from which the early season stats of some of the more notable team members might be viewed.
Lonnie Chisenhall is perhaps the one offensive player in Columbus who controls his own destiny in terms of a Cleveland promotion. Chisenhall is in AAA because he needs to improve his plate approach and show consistency on defense. Through 18 games he is hitting the ball very well (.315/.338/.575/.913, 4 HRs, 7 2Bs), but has an abysmal 15:2 K:BB ratio and five errors in the field. So while he is doing well, he is not doing the things he needs to do to get to Cleveland. Putting up an eerily similar line to Chisenhall is our old friend Matt LaPorta (.305/.364/.559/.923, 4 HRs, 3 2Bs), with a marginally better plate approach (5 BBs, 17 Ks). Cord Phelps is remaining relevant by hitting .316/.384/.487 while seeing time exclusively at 2B in the early going. Russ Canzler is probably the most disappointing guy on the roster at this point, as he has labored to a .234/.290/.297 line. Ryan Spilborghs, Gregorio Petit, Andy LaRoche and Ezequiel Carrera are, collectively, failing to do much more than occupy a spot.
While the overall pitching performance has been mixed, by and large, the pitchers that matter have done reasonably well in Columbus thus far. After a great spring, Scott Barnes had an excellent first start before coming back to earth in his last two. Part of this is bad luck, as his difference in ERA (5.06) and FIP (2.76) would suggest, as well as his strong K-rate (25%, 9.5 K/9). Eventually Barnes need to show that he can stay healthy while pitching efficiently enough to make it deeper into ballgames. Columbus opening day starter, Zach McAllister, has been alternative good starts (4/10, 4/21) with bad ones (4/5, 4/15). Former 5th starter candidate Kevin Slowey got off to a strong start with his first two outings (4 runs, 14.2 IP, 11 K, 3 BB), but got beat around pretty well his last time out (5.1IP, 6R). The best starter, arguably, has been Corey Kluber, who struck out 25 batters in his first 16 innings of work. Kluber's ceiling as a starter is probably limited, but I would imagine he is in the running along with David Huff replacement, Chris Seddon (2-0, 3.45 ERA), for an expendable long-man/spot-starter job should one become available in Cleveland.
Hagadone, now back with Columbus, has not allowed a run yet this season. His partner in crime, CC Lee, has been great, but got placed on the 7-day DL this week. Aside from those two, the veteran duo of Jeremy Accardo and Chris Ray continue to hang around with solid performances in the early going.
At the moment, Akron is the least interesting Cleveland affiliate to prospect watch. They have a few marginally interesting pitchers in the rotation, legitimately interesting guys in their bullpen, and a few guys who bested AA long ago but are back because of the veterans in Columbus. Together this mix has produced a successful team in the early going.
The offense does not have a true prospect. Chun-Hsiu Chen used to kind of sort of be one, but now that he is playing firstbase full-time, his status is marginal. Chen's line, .308/.410/.365 just doesn't cut it there. Jared Goedert (1.066) and Tim Fedroff (.888) are riding the high of having good patience at the plate, an inflated BABIP, and considerable AAA experience while pacing the Aeros' offense. Beyond those two the lineup is pretty much a graveyard of never-have-beens; Thomas Neal (.574), Nick Weglarz (.675), Kyle Bellows (.679) and Roberto Perez (.576).
The pitching is brighter. Steven Wright continues an interesting transformation into a knuckleball pitcher, allowing just nine hits while striking out 19 in 17.1 innings (he has "fluttered" his way to 10 walks). Wright will be 28 later this summer, but as far as I am concerned, age becomes something close to a null factor for a knuckleball pitcher. Giovanni Soto has come back healthy and strong, with 17 Ks and 3 BBs in 14.1 innings. TJ McFarland continues to ride his sinker to stealthy success (2.11 ERA through 21+ innings).
The real highlights have come in the bullpen. Cody Allen, if you include his first two appearances for Carolina, has allowed just three hits while striking out 16 and not allowing any walks in 11 innings. He is a definite fast-riser in the system. Bryce Stowell, with 15 Ks and just 3 hits (also no walks) in seven innings has suddenly found his mojo in a major way again. Bryan Price, probably the least talked about component of the Victor Martinez trade is suddenly finding his groove working out of the pen, striking out 14 in 10.1 innings. Kyle Landis (just promoted to Columbus), Rob Bryson and Preston Guilmet have had their moments, as well.
I will have more on Carolina and Lake County, both of which are loaded with interesting prospects, later this week.