TWiP (1/22): The Cleveland Indians System

Welcome to the January 22, 2011 edition of This Week in Prospects!

I am, of course, continuing my rundown of each team’s farm system. This week, the Cleveland Indians are up.

System Overview

Cleveland landed seven players, including five pitchers, on my Top 100 Prospects list, so that’s good.

I appear to have wildly differing views on this system from the mainstream. I’m all over Chun-Hsiu Chen, Jason Knapp, Felix Sterling, and Matt Packer, but take a less excited view of Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis than most. Chisenhall and Kipnis are often considered the Indians’ two best prospects and easy Top 100 candidates–they didn’t make my top 100 while seven of their organization-mates did.

I guess that’s what happens when you go against the grain a bit with analysis.

In any case, this is an excellent system, one of the best in the game. Shortstop and first base aren’t particularly strong, and the outfield is just average, but the pitching, second base, and catcher are beyond reproach. The Indians have two legitimate starting second basemen in Kipnis and the criminally underrated Cord Phelps, and they’ve got a ton of pitchers beyond the five starters and two relievers I’ve listed who could also be very solid MLB hurlers. Between the loser of the second base competition and all those extra arms, the Indians should have enough trade assets to fill whatever holes they have in the future. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly Cleveland’s currently poor major league team ascends with all this young talent coming in over the next half-decade.

Players

Catcher: Chun-Hsiu Chen. Probably the most underrated catcher, and one of the most underrated position prospects in all of baseball, Chen came in at #43 on my Top 100 Prospects List:

Like [Padres righthander and 44th prospect Matt] Lollis, Chen isn’t the most hyped prospect out there, but his talent and results are beyond reproach. The catcher hit .312/.368/.512 in Low-A and then .320/.442/.517 in High-A Kinston, arguably the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball. He also threw out 35% and 39% of runners at each level, respectively. Chen looks to be a true two-way stud behind the plate. Obviously, with Carlos Santana entrenched in Cleveland, he could wind up blocked, but having two stud catchers isn’t exactly a problem you don’t want to have.

Upside: 9.3, Downside: 4.5

First base: Jordan Brown. There’s really nobody else to pick for this spot, unless you want to take the Indians’ Dominican Summer League team’s first baseman. Brown is 27 and hit .298/.341/.463 in Triple-A and .230/.272/.310 in the majors last year. He hit .336/.381/.532 in Triple-A in 2009, but Brown lacks the plate discipline and power to be an impact first baseman at the MLB level.

Upside: 7.0, Downside: 5.0

Second base: Jason Kipnis. I do like Kipnis, in spite of his Top 100 snub, although I like Cord Phelps nearly as much, and it was a tough decision to go with Kipnis here. He hit .307/.386/.492 between High-A and Double-A in his first full pro season, although he’ll already be 24 by Minor League Opening Day this year. The 63rd overall pick of the 2009 Draft still has some defensive issues to iron out, but he should be able to avoid the move to the outfield corners that a lot of scouts worried he’d have to make a year ago. Kelly Johnson is a decent comparison as a patient and powerful second baseman with below-average defense and a fair amount of whiffs.

Upside: 8.9, Downside: 5.9

Shortstop: Tony Wolters. Wolters was the Indians’ third-round pick in 2010, and while he has yet to plan in a significant amount of minor league games, he’s easily the best shortstop prospect in a system with no other impact shortstops. Wolters was drafted as an offense-first shortstop with good contact skills and doubles power. While he’s known more for his offense than defense, he’s known as a hard worker who projects to play competent defense in the majors.

Upside: 8.5, Downside: 2.7

Third base: Lonnie Chisenhall. I’m not a big Chisenhall backer compared to most; scouts love his swing, but he has yet to show true impact offensive ability in any phase of the game. Chisenhall is solid across the board offensively, hitting .278/.351/.450 in Double-A at age 21 last year. He’s got the ability to hit in the high .200s with decent plate discipline and 20-ish homer power, as well as a slick glove at third base. He’ll need to have a breakout year at some point to be any sort of star, but Chisenhall should at least be a solid starting third baseman.

Upside: 9.0, Downside: 5.5

Outfielder #1: Nick Weglarz: The other Cleveland batting prospect to enter my Top 100, Weglarz checked in at #73, 30 spots behind Chen:

Another slugger type, Weglarz beats out [Mariners 1B prospect and #75 overall prospect Rich] Poythress because he spent much of the year two levels higher despite being four months younger, and he plays a more difficult position. Weglarz doesn’t have much defensive value either—he’s a passable left fielder, and that’s it—but he’s essentially Jack Cust with fewer strikeouts, and that’s valuable.

Upside: 9.1, Downside: 6.5

Outfielder #2: LeVon Washington. A former first-round pick of the Rays, Washington was picked in the second round last year by Cleveland. He’s not big, but has good pop to go with a solid feel for hitting and good athleticism. Scouts do wonder about his ability to stay in center field, and he may need to move to second base, where he’d be blocked, or develop the bat needed to stick in a corner outfield spot. Still, he’s an intriguing package of offensive tools and has the athleticism to be a good defender somewhere.

Upside: 9.0, Downside: 3.0

Outfielder #3: Bo Greenwell. Greenwell hit .315/.399/.431 in Low-A and .286/.359/.357 in High-A, showcasing his contact skils and stealing 25 bases. His 34/32 K/BB at the lower level was excellent, and at age 21, he was fairly young for High-A and playing in an extreme pitcher’s park. He won’t be a star, but he could become a very solid fourth outfielder.

Upside: 7.3, Downside: 3.7

Starting Pitcher #1: Jason Knapp. Knapp’s been a personal favorite of mine for years, and came in at #11 on the Top 100 Prospects:

I ranked Knapp sixth last year, so while you won’t see him this high on most lists, this is actually a demotion from me. It comes mainly because Knapp missed large part of 2010 due to shoulder trouble, and when he did get back, he was pitching in Low-A, the same level he dominated last year, so the big righty didn’t tell us anything new about his abilities. Still, though, Knapp has a fastball/curve/changeup combo that just about anyone would envy, particularly the heater, which runs up near triple digits on occasion. He’ll still be just 20 in 2011, starting the season out in High-A, so it’s not like he isn’t ahead of the age curve despite the injuries. Knapp showed himself to be in fine form when he did get on the hill last year, striking out a whopping 29 batters in 16 Low-A innings late in the season. Few pitchers have more upside.

Upside: 9.7, Downside: 3.6

Starting Pitcher #2: Drew Pomeranz. The fifth overall pick last year, Pomeranz landed at #29 on my list:

Pomeranz has yet to pitch in pro ball after being the fifth overall draft pick in 2010’s draft, but he’s an extremely polished lefty who should move quickly thanks to a top-shelf curve and a good heater to back it up. The Rockies’ Christian Friedrichthrived with the same skillset (until a rash of injuries marred his 2010), so expect Pomeranz to have a similar quick climb up the ladder, posting silly numbers along the way. He could evolve into one of baseball’s top lefties.

Upside: 9.0, Downside: 4.5

Starting Pitcher #3: Alex White. White was #70:

Like #71 prospect Dustin Ackley, White is a 2009 first-rounder (15th overall, in his case), who put up solid but unspectacular numbers in the upper minors just a year out of college. A 2.25 ERA in Double-A at age 21 is great, particularly in a pitcher’s first pro season. The 6.42 K/9 is problematic, though; it’s pretty tough to turn into a front-of-the-line starter in the majors when your Double-A whiff numbers don’t impress. Still, White throws a good low-90’s heater and two good offspeed offerings, so he could be a poor man’s Dan Haren and a fine #2/#3 starter for a playoff team.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 5.8

Starting Pitcher #4: Felix Sterling. Sterling was #77:

At the tender age of 17, Sterling dominated in the Arizona League, whiffing ten batters per nine innings while keeping his walks reasonable and allowing just two homers in 11 starts. Big and projectable, Sterling features advanced velocity for his age and already touches 94-95 mph at age 17. Both his offspeed pitches are advanced as well, and he could end up a truly dominating force. At age 17, it’s too early to push Sterling much higher on this list, but he’s one of the most intriguing low-level prospects around.

Upside: 9.3, Downside: 2.2

Starting Pitcher #5: Matt Packer. Packer was #90:

Packer came out of nowhere to dominate the Midwest League and proved his legitimacy by stringing together a solid month in Double-A to close the season.

Two things really set Packer apart from most minor league finesse lefties—his command is right there with anyone’s and the ball is always at the bottom of the strike zone. He also can get the ball going in the low 90’s, so we aren’t necessarily talking about Aaron Laffey 2.0 here. Indians fans sick of finesse lefties may be cautious, but Packer could be the sort of durable strikethrower who works as a great complement to a flamethrowing ace (Jason Knapp, perhaps?)

Upside: 8.4, Downside: 5.9

Relief Pitcher #1: Rob Bryson. Eighty strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings…that’s pretty good. Bryson did that across three levels in 2010, reaching Double-A at age 22. He’s got a nice low-90′s fastball and a breaking ball low-minors hitters haven’t been able to do anything with, and should be an impact MLB reliever.

Upside: 8.5, Downside: 5.5

Relief Pitcher #2: Cory Burns: Burns’ deceptive, twisting delivery hides the ball so well that nobody’s been able to hit him–how’s an 81/14 K/BB in 55 innings? To boot, he pitches down in the zone. Burns doesn’t quite have Bryson’s stuff, but he’s got better command and deception, and should also become an excellent bullpen arm.

Upside: 8.3, Downside: 4.2

Topics: Alex White, Bo Greenwell, Chun-Hsiu Chen, Cleveland Indians, Cory Burns, Drew Pomeranz, Felix Sterling, Jason Kipnis, Jason Knapp, Jordan Brown, Levon Washington, Lonnie Chisenhall, Matt Packer, Nick Weglarz, Rob Bryson, Tony Wolters

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