The minor league season is about to start full-steam, with short-season affiliates opening play in about a week. An appropriate time, I think, to make an assessment of how the system is fairing so far on the season.
First, to put this in context, remember that the vast majority of the Indians system talent is extremely young and low in the system. Much of their talent, indeed, is still getting work in extended spring training and will not officially see game action until Mahoning Valley and the Arizona complex league begin play. Coming into the season, the system seemed poised to potentially experience a major breakout if some of that talent took a big leap forward. It was arguably equally likely that that talent might fail to develop, leaving the system as empty-looking as many off-season system evaluations suggested. The reality thus far has probably been somewhere in the middle...not "great leap forward," but still hints of a potentially much brighter near term future.
Here are some highlights and lowlights so far:
HIGHLIGHT: Francisco Lindor. The Indians top pick from 2011 is a legitimate blue-chip SS prospect. While his .278/.341/.400 line might seem somewhat pedestrian (he is in a bit of slump at the moment), scouts have raved about his abilities and maturity. And keep in mind that this is all from a guy who won't turn 19 till near Thanksgiving. Lindor is hopefully a product of a much improved scouting system that has engineered highly regarded drafts the past several years (including the most recent one).
LOWLIGHT: Injuries. These are a constant in baseball, but I can't help shake the idea that the Indians have been particularly hard hit in this regard. LeVon Washington got off to a tremendously encouraging start for Lake County, potentially representing much-need high-ceiling outfield talent, only to be felled by an injury and subsequent hip-surgery. The injury is a major blow to his development and time will tell how it impacts his play on the field. The depth of talent in pitching arms, particularly in the higher part of the system, has been thinned dramatically due to injury. The group of injured pitchers has, at various intervals this season, included Hector Rondon, Scott Barnes, David Huff, C.C. Lee, Tyler Sturdevant, Austin Adams, Matt Packer, Clayton Cook, Danny Salazar, Jason Knapp and Trey Haley. Adams and Sturdevant represented legitimate sleeper prospects for the rotation and bullpen, respectively, who appeared strong in spring training before going down to injury.
HIGHLIGHT: Steven Wright. At Akron, the impact of injuries to the starting staff has been mellowed by the emergence of Steven Wright and his knuckleball. Wright is too old to be a prospect, but in the bizarro world of knuckleball pitchers is there really an age limit? The paucity of major league knuckleballers highlights the tremendously fine line such pitchers have to walk to have success, but Wright this season has had more success than at any point in his career, putting him on the prospect map for Cleveland, even if only peripherally.
HIGHLIGHT/LOWLIGHT: The offensive performance of the Columbus Clippers. The Clippers have put up very strong offensive numbers, especially from guys like Lonnie Chisenhall and Matt LaPorta (both currently in Cleveland), but also including Jared Goedert, Cord Phelps and Tim Fedroff. The problem is that while the numbers are good, the performance of these players has shown little in the way of development. Chisenhall still doesn't talk a walk, LaPorta still can't hit a breaking pitch, and none of the rest have been able to do enough to earn a spot on a Cleveland roster with obvious holes.
HIGHLIGHT: Akron's bullpen. Akron is, for the most part, a team devoid of prospects. Except for its bullpen, which has been downright masterful much of the season. Cody Allen (who started in Carolina and is now in Columbus), the recently acquired Loek Van Mil, Bryce Stowell (24 Ks in 13 innings), Bryan Price, Matt Langwell, Kyle Landis, Preston Guilmet, Rob Bryson and the recently promoted Mason Radeke have been an extraordinarily effective bunch. It is hard for a minor league relief pitcher to be viewed very highly as a prospect. It is less hard to imagine this group producing our next several versions of Vinnie Pestano.
LOWLIGHT: The upper-level fringe position players. The Nick Weglarz dream is dead (.237/.342/.422, though he has been playing better lately). Chun Hsiu-Chen (.313/.393/.425, 1 HR, 19 2Bs) looks increasingly like the second coming of Jordan Brown. Thomas Neal (.284/.355/.351) seems as if he is never going to recover from the injuries that derailed him a few years ago. Juan Diaz (.247/.287/.370) made it to Cleveland, but for good reason, no one made a big deal about it. Kyle Bellows (.250/.346/.380) may be a brilliant third basemen defensively, but unless he Jack Hannahans it, don't expect him to appear in Cleveland's plans for the future. Same for Roberto Perez at catcher. As a group of fringe-prospects, you can't expect much from these guys. But for an organization like Cleveland, extracting utility out of one or two of these kinds of guys is pretty important.
HIGHLIGHT: T.J. House. Left for dead a bit after a stagnant 2010 and disappointing 2011, House has come back with a fury this season. After dominating the Carolina League for a month, House earned a promotion to Akron. His k-rate has fallen since the move, but his overall line (6-1, 2.14 ERA, 2 HRs allowed, 8 K/9), puts him back in the interesting names crowd.
HIGHLIGHT/LOWLIGHT: Carolina's positional prospects. This is another one that is hard, or perhaps too early, to read. On one end you have the obviously disappointing showings of Tony Wolters (.229/.301/.332), Jake Lowery (.240/.325/.349) and Giovanny Urshela (.227/.276/.287). On the other end you have Jeremie Tice (.300/.394/.627) is abusing Carolina League pitchers...but this is his third season in the League, he'll turn 26 in August, and he doesn't have a defensive position. So he pretty much would need to hit at a Ruthian/Bondsian level to garner much attention. Harder to figure out is the performance of Jesus Aguilar (.285/.371/.450), Carlos Moncrief (.241/.336/.447), and Ronny Rodriguez (.261/.297/.393). Rodriguez is the prize of this group, and he has been trending in the right direction (.545 OPS in April, .719 in May and .938 in the early going of June), but still has obvious fundamentals that need development if his raw tools are to be captured. Aguilar has been "good," but given his size and defensive limitations he needs to do a better job of putting the power he began to show last season in play more often. Moncrief remains my favorite sleeper prospect, but his fundamental short-fall, his lack of a "hit" tool, remains a problem. Moncrief is one of the rare cases where his batting average is actually a pretty telling stat, as it captures some of his ability to put the ball in play (the other is Ks--he has 72 in 57 games so far!). If he can ever figure that out, and he has made incremental progress each season, everything else about his game is pretty exciting (speed, arm, power).
LOWLIGHT: Leo Castillo and Robel Garcia. Both of these guys are super young (18 and 19, respectively) and too toolsy to cast aside, but they have been clearly overmatched at Lake County (.482 and .599 OPS, respectively). I like the organization's aggressive approach with these two, but so far it has not produced results on the field.
Just a sampling for now...and lots of time left in the season. The short-season leagues will also feature the debut of guys like Dillon Howard, Jake Sisco, Robbie Aviles, Dorsyss Paulino and Eric Haase.