Minors Only - Indians System Q&A

August 12, 2009
The Cleveland Indians reloaded their minor league system when they traded away Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee. To get the low down on the trades and the rest of the system, Minors Only chatted with Tony Lastoria of Indians Prospect Insider. Lastoria also writes an dedicated to Indians prospects (see button to the right), frequently travels around the minor league system, and is well-connected within the organization.

Project Prospect: Did the Indians get good enough prospects Martinez and Lee?

Tony Lastoria: Compared to deals three to five years ago? No, but by today's standards, they got a fair return for Lee and a very good return for Martinez. The difference today as compared to three to five years ago is no one is willing to part with their best prospects -- particularly good, young major-league-ready pitching and that is what the Indians were targeting. The Indians had to settle for a step down from the elite prospects as far as major league ready pitching goes. In going after right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Justin Masterson, (they acquired) two pitchers who are not frontline guys but still have excellent stuff and could be middle-of-the-rotation guys or if all goes well good number two type pitchers. Teams were more willing to trade high upside projectable pitchers who are a few years away, which is how the Indians were able to land guys like Knapp, Hagadone, and right-hander Bryan Price. The acquisitions of infielder Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson were somewhat puzzling, though Marson immediately filled the catching void after Martinez was dealt. Bottom line: the Indians were not blown away with prospects in either deal, but the trade of both players was two-fold in that it was about getting the best return available in prospects right now along with cutting 2009 and future payroll.

PP: Which Indians prospect has taken the biggest leap forward this season?

TL: Right-hander Hector Rondon has made the biggest leap. Not that he was not a good prospect before the season began (he was a top 10 guy), but he has grown by leaps and bounds as a pitcher. Before the Indians made all their trades prior to the July 31st deadline, he had established himself as the best pitcher in the Indians system. Even after the trades, he is still probably the second or third best pitcher in the system, and is the best pitcher most ready for the big leagues. In the past year, he has had a spike in his velocity due to him maturing and filling out his frame. His fastball has gone from the low 90's to one that sits 93-94 MPH while topping out at 96 MPH. His secondary stuff has improved, and with his excellent command of his pitches and great late life of his fastball, he is now a potential frontline starter and at worst is a middle rotation pitcher. He should be in Cleveland in September and open the 2010 season in their rotation.

PP: Which Indians prospect has taken the biggest step backward this season?

TL: Injuries often are the reason for a fall back in performance, and this is the case with left-hander Kelvin De La Cruz. He was lights out through his first two starts for High-A Kinston, but an elbow injury suffered before making his third start has sidelined him since. He is currently on a return-to-throw program and doing well in sim games and may make it back for a handful of starts before the end of the season, but a full year of development is down the tubes. His size, stuff, and mound presence made him a top 10 guy before the season, and while he still likely will be going into next year, he took a step back this year because of the injury.

PP: Carlos Rivero entered the year with some breakout buzz, but he has struggled all season long (.092 ISOP, .287 wOBA). What has held him back?

TL: Rivero is the classic example of a young player often hyped because of his tools, size, and ability who has been considered very young for the league he was in. This is now the third season in a row where Rivero has played at a level he is two to three younger than league average, and while he has shown some progress of late at the plate, he has mostly been stagnant this year as far as growing as a hitter and as a player. He is improving defensively and actually does very well at shortstop, but as a hitter he still has yet to live up to the hype and start producing offensively. Eventually, you have to show something, so maybe he blossoms in a likely return trip to Double-A Akron next year. He has been extremely inconsistent at the plate and shown little power -- something he was expected to start showing about now. He's still very young, and by no means should no one give up on him, but some of the luster is starting to wear off on him and his overall grade as a prospect may have slipped a few notches.

PP: Most would agree that Carlos Santana -- your preseason No. 1 prospect in the organization -- is still tops. But who would you currently slot No. 2?

TL: This is a tough call. My preseason No. 2 was outfielder Nick Weglarz, and to date he has done nothing to really hurt that standing. But the emergence of Hector Rondon and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall would factor heavily in that determination. Recently acquired pitchers Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp may end up No. 2 and No. 3 when the listing comes out next year. Since I am still getting to know Hagadone and Knapp, I will defer to the guys I know and claim Rondon as the No. 2 prospect in the system with the caveat that this is likely to change by the end of the season if Hagadone proves healthy and is the real deal.

PP: What did you think of the Indians draft? Were there any later-round picks who you found especially intriguing?

TL: The draft gets an incomplete grade at this point. Second round pick outfielder Jason Kipnis just started playing, third rounder right-handed pitcher Joe Gardner has not pitched yet, and first round pick right-hander Alex White has not officially signed. With the absence of their top three picks playing, it is hard to get a good read on the draft. The actual draft itself was okay, as they seemed to focus mostly on low upside, polished college arms. There was very little risk taken in the draft, as opposed to 2008 when they put together one of the best drafts in the organization's history. Almost every risk they took in last year's draft has panned out so far. To date, I'd say this year's draft was average with little impact, but if Kipnis, Gardner, and White live up to their hype it could be a solid low-B and still one of their best drafts in the past decade.

PP: The Indians went over-slot on 2008 second rounder Trey Haley, but his first season has been one to forget (19.3% BB, 6.40 FIP for Low-A Lake County). What has happened to him this year?

TL: Haley has certainly had his ups and downs this year, but one thing to remember is he is very raw and young. He just turned 19 years old a month ago and is pitching in full season A-ball. He's learning on the fly and had some flashes of brilliance, but his inexperience and immaturity as a baseball player has often shown itself mostly this season. Another thing to remember is he just started pitching a few years ago as a sophomore in high school -- or so I have been told. He is still learning the nuances of the game as a pitcher. As he continues to grow and mature as a player, it will surely help, but it will all come down to his ability to command and control his blazing fastball and the development of at least one secondary pitch into a plus offering. He'll likely return to the Low-A rotation to start the 2010 season, and his growth as a player between now and the start of next season will largely shape his future as a professional baseball player.

PP: Andy Marte, a former top prospect yet to find success at the major league level, resurrected his career this year in Triple-A (.267 ISOP, .419 wOBA). Do you buy into his success?

TL: I'm still on the fence. While his numbers and performance at Triple-A Columbus cannot be ignored, until I see that translate to some degree at the big league level, I still am not a believer. He still gets eaten up on sliders low and away from right-handers and his outer plate coverage is not very good, though he has had some noticeable improvement in this area. He was called up to Cleveland when Ryan Garko was traded to San Francisco. With about eight weeks left in the season, Marte will get every opportunity to prove whether what he has done is for real or not, given that he is out of options and the Indians are in a numbers crunch for roster spots this offseason on the 40-man.

PP: Who has the best fastball in the system?

TL: With the acquisition of Knapp, he'd probably rank as having the best fastball in the system now with Hagadone a close second. Knapp is 18 years old and gets it up to 97 MPH already, and with his big frame and arm strength, as he matures there are some who feel he could eventually touch triple digits with his fastball.

PP: Who has the best curveball in the system?

TL: Right-handers Paolo Espino and Alexander Perez probably have the best curveball in the system. Don't forget about left-hander Scott Lewis, who has been shelved with an elbow injury this year and was on the Indians opening day roster. Perez is special for a guy who just turned 20 years old last month. He is pitching beyond his years by being able to command and control two plus secondary offerings with his curveball and changeup. He has unbelievable confidence in his curveball -- so much so that the Indians have had to force him to throw more fastballs. Espino's curveball is a natural pitch for him and easily the best pitch in his arsenal.

PP: Who has the best slider in the system?

TL: If right-hander Adam Miller was still healthy, he easily has the best slider in the system, but with his career in jeopardy because of the finger issue it is hard to consider him. That said, I'd say 19-year-old left-hander T.J. House has the best slider now. It's a true plus pitch for him that sits in the mid-80s with excellent depth and late break. That pitch combined with his plus fastball, excellent work ethic, advanced pitching approach, and solid mechanics and delivery make him a sure fire Indians Top 10 guy for next season.

PP: Who has the best changeup in the system?

TL: This would have been left-hander David Huff, but since he has since graduated and is in the big league rotation and no longer a prospect due to his service time and innings load. With him gone, there is not anyone who has a great changeup in their repertoire, though newly acquired left-hander Scott Barnes (from San Francisco in the Ryan Garko trade) has a changeup that is very good and could be a plus pitch for him. The aforementioned Perez has a pretty good changeup as well.

PP: Who is the best power-hitter in the system?

TL: Nick Weglarz. While outfielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta and first baseman Beau Mills have very good power, Weglarz clearly separates himself from the field with his plus power potential. Only 21 years old, he is already 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and is expected to get even bigger. He is country strong, with thighs the size of tree trunks, and hits balls a long way. He has hit many scoreboards over his minor league career with rocket shots to right center, and in the Olympics last year, he hit an absolute moon shot to dead center that went off the flag pole at an estimated 500+ feet.

PP: Who are a couple sleeper hitters who could be prime to breakout in 2010?

TL: A couple guys who could do this are third baseman Jesus Brito and shortstop Jose Camargo. They are currently playing rookie ball for the Arizona League team. Outfielder Jordan Henry at Mahoning Valley has the tools to be an excellent leadoff hitter, as does 19-year-old outfielder Delvi Cid of Low-A Lake County.

PP: Who are a couple sleeper pitchers who could be prime to breakout in 2010?

TL: Right-hander Jeanmar Gomez has already had somewhat of a breakout season this year, but another year of development could polish him off and put him in a much higher caliber level of pitching prospects. Right-hander Bryce Stowell has had a rough (time) battling back from some injuries, but if he is healthy next year, he could breakout and be the high level prospect he was expected to be when the Indians dumped a large sum of money on him as a late round draft pick. If left-hander Elvis Araujo avoids Tommy John surgery (he is currently shut down), he has the size and stuff to take a step forward next year and become a household regular among Indians fans like Alexander Perez has done this year and De La Cruz did last year.


Contact Ryan Fay at rfay@projectprospect.com