After transforming from an underperforming, disappointing 69-win team in 2010 to a playoff-challenging ballclub in 2011, the Cleveland Indians, whose 11-game swing was the sixth best in baseball, were among the better surprises this season, and the franchise’s second place divisional finish was its best showing since 2007, the almost-magical, near-World Series year. Perhaps, even better, the team’s Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Clippers, rattled off its second consecutive International League Championship. The franchise, at least on the outside, seems to be moving in the right direction with a second place finish in the big leagues and another top team in AAA, but will that Columbus talent push the Indians – and their forever faithful – past mediocrity next season? Or will the parent club be left to fend for itself?
The Clippers’ offense, which paced the International League (IL) with 4.97 runs per game, featured a veteran laden lineup where many of the team’s top performers – including Chad Huffman, Luis Valbuena, Jared Goedert, Jason Donald and Jerad Head – were on the wrong side of 25-years-old, and other players like former first-rounder Beau Mills, who hit .269/.326/.496, and Tim Fedroff (.272/.370/.362) have been non-prospects for quite some time as well. And, actually, the only offensive players under 25 that have varying degrees of potential big league success are Ezequiel Carrera, Cord Phelps, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis – all of whom made their big league debuts this seasons.
Carrera is, at the very height of his potential, a fourth outfielder. He plays passable or slightly better defense; he has above-average speed; positional flexibility (all three outfield spots); and has shown at various points in the past the ability to take a free pass.
Many stat-heads around the baseball universe find reason to believe in Cord Phelps, a former third-rounder out of Stanford. Phelps, who turns 25 next January, has shown solid progress since his first full season in professional baseball. His power, according to ISO (isolated power) has nearly doubled, from .102 in 2009 to .198 this year, and he’s shown an incredible eye at the plate. During his career, he’s walked in nearly 12-percent of his plate appearances, struck out only 16.7% of the time and hit .288/.376/.434. In nearly two full seasons with Columbus, Phelps has hit .303/.380/.498. Clearly, he has nothing left to prove in the minors and should become a serviceable – if not better – minor league regular.
In a lot of ways Lonnie Chisenhall is Cleveland’s version of Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas. Both are 23-years-old, man the hot corner, swing a left-handed stick, and have been highly thought of throughout the industry. Baseball America rated Chisenhall as the 25th best prospect prior to 2011 and Moustakas as the ninth. Unfortunately, both players are plagued with a similar flaw: neither can hit left-handed pitching. Since 2009, Chisenhall, who was considered the crown jewel of the Cleveland farm system, has hit .229 off of southpaws. Similarly, Moustakas topped .260 once during his minor league career against lefties. Chisenhall, the likely frontrunner for the starting position, has also struggled with his glove as well. And right now, his ceiling resides somewhere far south than previously expected – perhaps only a solid platoon player.
Jason Kipnis, like Carrera, Phelps and Chisenhall, made his big league debut this season, but unlike the other three, he showed solid promise and laid the groundwork for what should become a solid Major League career. Kipnis, the number 54 prospect according to Baseball America, showed solid on-base skills along with average or slightly above-average power during his first stint in AAA. Overall, the former Arizona State Alum hit .280/.362/.484. He profiles best as solid number two big league hitter.
Outside of four players – Carrera, Phelps, Chisenhall and Kipnis, all of whom already made their big league debuts – the Clippers’ potent offense was buoyed mainly by older, Quad-A-type players, which, unfortunately, means that any early injuries that may plague Cleveland’s offense may potentially be more troublesome given the lack of upper level offensive players. However, pitching – especially starting pitching – proved to be the Tribe’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps the Clippers staff, whose 3.94 ERA was sixth best and average age, 24.9, was the youngest in the International League, has several options waiting in the wings?
Overall, the Clippers’ peripheral stats were solid; their 3.0 BB/9 tied them for fourth best, their 8.2 K/9 tied for second and the staff allowed the sixth fewest homeruns. Columbus’ rotation was led by Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Joe Martinez, and Scott Barnes, but much like the team’s offense, only McAllister, Gomez, and Barnes were under 25-years-old.
McAllister, who was acquired for Austin Kearns in 2010, is a big, 6-foot-6, solidly built right-hander with a fastball that grades out as average, at best, which, of course, limits his strikeout rates. He excels by limiting homeruns – 0.6 HR/9 – and allowing very few passes; he walked 1.8 hitters every nine innings in 2011, which was a slight improvement from his 2.2 career rate. The 23-year-old should be among the first wave of call ups in 2012; though he profiles as a backend starter.
Gomez has had two semi-successful stints in Cleveland, one in 2010 and the other in 2011. Combined, he’s gone 9-8 with a 4.58 ERA, 2.9 BB/9, and 5.0 K/9. The 6-foot-3, lanky right-hander went 10-7 with a 2.55 ERA in Columbus this season. His career strikeout and walk rates are slightly worse than McAllister’s, and may eventually shift to a fulltime relief role given his lack of quality secondary offerings.
Barnes, arguably, has the highest ceiling of the three. He’s tall, 6-foot-4, lanky, left-handed and armed with a low to mid 90s fastball. The 23-year-old went 7 – 4 with a 3.68 ERA, walked 3.5 batters per nine innings, and struck out 9.2. His mechanics, which are, umm, less than orthodox, do cause a concern and have caused his pitches to flatten out as he drops his arm slot. If he can continue to improve his average walk rates, Barnes could become a solid mid rotation starter. If not, his power arsenal can always be used in the ‘pen.
Similarly to the big league club, Columbus’ pen is also the team’s greatest strength. The bullpen, which was led a quartet of potential big league backend relievers, saved 45 games for the Clippers, tops in the International League.
Nick Hagadone, a late season call up, is a hard throwing lefty who averaged just a shade less than 10 K/9. Hagadone, a former starter, was converted back to relief work following his trade from Boston. He features two above-average to plus pitches: fastball and slider. Following the big lefty in potential is righty Chen Lee. Lee has been nothing short of spectacular throughout his three-year professional career. In 227.1 innings, he’s posted a 3.01 ERA, averaged 11 K/9, and walked less than 3.0 hitters every nine innings. And his 12.2 K/9 this season AAA was the highest rate of his stateside career. Lee is another closer candidate at the big league level. Former University of Michigan player Zach Putnam tossed 69 innings with a 3.65 ERA and an almost 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Putnam, like Hagadone and Lee, features a mid 90s fastball. He also mixes in a solid splitter and slider, and has toyed with a curve and changeup in the past as well. He lacks the high ceilings of Hagadone and Lee, but should become a solid setup man at the next level. Finally, Josh Judy. Judy’s a big, 6-foot-4 right-hander who posted a 3.12 ERA and averaged almost 10.5 K/9 in AAA this season. He sinker/slider combo is merely average, but shows a solid feel for pitching (i.e. command and know-how). His lower arm slot may force him into a right-handed platoon role.
After winning two consecutive International League Championships, does the Columbus Clippers talent level have enough to make noticeable impacts next season at the big league level? Not likely.
The Tribe’s bullpen remains largely intact. Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, and Vinnie Pestano are all expected back; all of which means that the best collection of Columbus talent likely won’t play a large enough role unless injuries become a factor. As far as the rotation goes, the Indians have newly acquired Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Josh Tomlin, assuming he’s healthy, filling the five spots. And Scott Barnes, Zach McAllister, and Jeanmar Gomez won’t be able to wrestle a rotation spot away from any of them either. Offensively, Kipnis continue as the starting second baseman; Cord Phelps and Ezequiel Carrera are expected to fill utility roles; and Lonnie Chisenhall could, realistically, begin the year back in AAA given his struggles against lefties.
So, despite winning another championship in 2011, much of that talent won’t be needed in Cleveland in 2012; either due to depth or age.