October 16, 2007
How the Indians Were Built
For the most part, the Indians are a self-built team, getting good production out of their top prospects, but also valuable contributions from some unlikely sources. More importantly, based on the team's age and the contract status of its players, this squad is built to last.
There's really not much to say about Victor Martinez--he was always great, and was seemingly destined for stardom. Signed out of Venezuela as a 17-year-old, he was the Carolina League MVP in 2001, led the Eastern League in all three triple-slash numbers (.336/.417/.576) the following year, and the rest is pretty much history. His defense often gets knocked by scouts, but he made significant improvements in the second half of last year that stuck this year, and he's thrown out 32 percent of opposing basestealers.
It's interesting to note that so far the Indians have gotten far more out of Shoppach than the big prize they received in the Coco Crisp trade--third baseman Andy Marte. A second-round pick by the Red Sox in 2001, Shoppach won the Johnny Bench award at Baylor, given annually to the top college catcher, and he's one of the top backups in the game. He's a good defender with a strong arm and solid power, and is arguably one of the top 30 catchers in baseball--and a player who would be starting in another organization.
The Future: The great Cleveland teams of the mid-'90s were defined on a business level by management's decisions to lock in their young talent for extra years beyond their initial arbitration and free agent eligibility. Under general manager Mark Shapiro, the organization has done the same with the current squad, and Martinez is a fine example--he's locked up through 2009 with a highly affordable team option for '10 ($7 million). Shoppach is a long way from making big money, and is too valuable for the team to move. The Indians have been thin at catcher in the minors for a long time, and that's still the case after sending Max Ramirez to Texas in the Kenny Lofton deal. With the current crop, it's not a big concern.
One of the few lowlights of the Indians' year has been the performance of Barfield, who was seen by some as a breakout candidate upon coming over in the offseason for Kevin Kouzmanoff after a .280/.318/.423 season in the difficult offensive environment of San Diego. He was the top prospect in the Padres system for several years, leading the Midwest League in hits in 2002 and than exploding with a .337/.389/.530 campaign in the California League the following season.
Blake is one of those guys who really shouldn't be expected to be around, but he bloomed late, and opportunity is really part of it. A seventh-round pick in 1996 out of Wichita State, Blake put up some big numbers here and there in the Toronto system, but was waived in 2000, then bounced from the Twins to the Orioles and back to the Twins, although he did but up consistently good numbers at each team's Triple-A affiliate. Signed by the Tribe prior to the 2003 season as little more than an extra body, he earned a big league job in spring training and got his first consistent playing time at the age of 29. It's a testament to Blake's dedication, and Cleveland's willingness to give him a chance.
The Indians made a couple of deals with Seattle last year. Dealing Ben Broussard for Shin-Soo Choo got far more attention at the time than the minor swap of now-ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez for Cabrera--but not any more, as Choo has stagnated in Triple-A while Cabrera took Barfield's starting second base job down the stretch. Cabrera was a difficult player to evaluate while in the Mariners system because of how he was rushed, and Cleveland recognized that leaving him on Seattle's timetable would be a mistake. Yes, he was bad at Triple-A last year, but at the same time, he was only 20 years old. The Indians sent him down a level to Double-A this year, and adjusted his hitting mechanics and worked on his approach, and with that help, he took off. Even with Cabrera's struggles last year, the Perez trade seemed lopsided at the time, and it looks even more so now. As an aside on Choo--when you talk to scouts about an outfield prospect and all they want to discuss is how great his arm is, this is not a good thing. Let's call it the Alex Ochoa rule.
A third-round pick out of Stanford, Garko was a catcher in college, and while he put up big numbers in the minors, scouts were unable to warm up to him too much, knowing that a move to first base was inevitable due to his defensive shortcomings. As a first baseman, he's serviceable. Neither athletic nor a great defender, he hits for a decent average and decent power for the position, bolstering a low walk total by getting plunked a lot due to his plate-crowding ways.
A definitive 25th man at this point in his career, Gomez is a true journeyman, added to the Tribe when he was picked off the scrapheap towards the end of the season. A third-round pick in 1992, and one of the first big shortstops from Long Beach State before Bobby Crosby and Troy Tulowitzki came along, Gomez was once seen as a top prospect, beginning his career in Double-A and needing just 151 minor league games before getting called up by the Tigers. He's been around long enough to have once been included in a trade that involved Andujar Cedeno, and Cleveland represents the seventh big league team he's played for.
While he has been unable to reproduce his 2005 breakout campaign, Peralta's 2007 season was a major step forward from the previous year's disappointment, and in reality, more in line with his true level of talent, as after a .270/.341/.430 campaign, his career line is a nearly identical .266/.336/.425. Peralta is a fine offensive shortstop--the only problem, of course, is that he's not really a shortstop. Signed out of the Dominican in 1999, Peralta scuffled early in his career before suddenly and surprisingly hitting .281/.343/.457 at Double-A Akron in 2002. He came up as a defensive whiz, but as his body filled out, he lost the speed and range necessary for the position.
The Future: As seemingly stable as this team is, it's possible that the team could be in for some sizable changes in the infield over the next few years. The most logical change will take place up the middle, as Cabrera is the far superior defensive shortstop to Peralta, whose range and arm limitations would be easier to hide on the other side of the keystone. As for the corners, both Blake and Garko are serviceable for now, but also ultimately replaceable as well. Next season could be Marte's last chance at providing anything to the Tribe.
Gutierrez was acquired along with Andrew Brown in the Milton Bradley deal. The Dodgers basically sold high on him, as he was coming off a 20-homer year in the Florida State League that got scouts excited. In the end, the power didn't play as well at the upper levels, but his 13 home runs this year in 271 at-bats are a good sign. Scouts are still mixed as to whether he'll be a good bench outfielder or solid starter.
Lofton is a remarkable success story. Known more for his exploits on the basketball court during his days at the University of Arizona, Lofton was a rarely-used bench player on the baseball team, but the Astros took a chance on his plus-plus speed and drafted him in the 17th round of the 1988 draft. In his pro debut, he hit very much like a basketball player, finishing up at just .214/.286/.273 as a 21-year-old in the New York-Penn League. Two years later he hit .331/.395/.407 with 62 stolen bases in the Florida State League, and there was no looking back. Houston nevertheless basically gave up on him, giving him to Cleveland for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee. Although Lofton's in the waning days as a player, it's a career that falls really just a few good years short of being Hall of Fame-worthy.
After three years of outstanding bench play in Philadelphia, the Indians signed Michaels in what is a classic, yet often unavoidable, free agent blunder--the attempt to turn the good part-time player into an everyday guy. Sometimes you don't see the holes in a player's game until he's given that full opportunity, and what Michaels has proven in the end is that at least he's a solid bench option. A fourth-round pick by the Phillies in 1998 out of the University of Miami, Michaels is exactly what scouts thought he would be, and his minor league career (.283/.359/.463) is very close to his major league one (.280/.354/.418).
Nixon was once an über-prospect, but he never lived up to the hype of being the seventh overall pick in the 1993 draft, when he was not only one of the top high school players in the country, but also one of the best quarterbacks, requiring a $1 million bonus to be lured away from the college gridiron. His minor league career was highly similar to his major league one--always solid, but rarely spectacular--but injuries are coming close to already ending Nixon's career at the age of 33.
Sizemore's amateur background is highly similar to Nixon's. In 2000, he was seen as one of the top talents in the draft, but he fell to the third round because of bonus concerns, as the top baseball and football player in the state was strongly committed to future two-sport stardom at the University of Washington. The Expos paid $2 million to dissuade him from that notion, an offer that was more typical of the top half of the first round. While Sizemore has developed into one of the top players in the game, it didn't always look like he would get there. Coming over to Cleveland in the lopsided Bartolo Colon trade five years ago, Sizemore was still a favorite of scouts for his tools, athleticism, and potential, but he didn't take off until he arrived in the Indians organization. At the time of the trade, his minor league career numbers were .271/.372/.348 with three home runs in 912 at-bats.
The Future: Sizemore will be patrolling center field for the Indians through 2012, and it will cost the Tribe only $25 million for those six years, one of the bargains of the century. Beyond center, it's a bit of a toss-up. Both Nixon and Lofton are hired guns for the season, and unless the Indians make a move, they'll likely give Gutierrez a chance to play everyday while cobbling together a third outfielder out of Michaels, David Dellucci, and possibly Blake if they decide to give Marte a look at third. On the horizon are minor leaguers Brian Barton and Trevor Crowe, though scouts differ as to whether either represents any kind of significant upgrade.
Travis Hafner (Trade, 12/02)
Hafner was an obscure 31st-round pick by the Rangers in 1996 who signed as a draft-and-follow out of a Kansas juco the following year. He was big and stiff and useless defensively or on the base paths, and in his first full season he hit just .237/.351/.412 at Low-A Savannah. He took off from there, leading the Sally League in home runs, RBI, and slugging the following season, and then finishing in the top five in both on-base percentage and slugging in his league in each of the next three seasons. Going into 2003, Hafner was closing in on 26 and the Rangers had no plans for him, so they gave him away for a song, including righty Aaron Myette with Hafner in a deal that netted them just Ryan Drese and Einar Diaz. The Indians then reaped the benefits. Long ago in one of his Baseball Abstracts, Bill James lamented that not enough teams see guys like Hafner and just make them a DH and tell them to have a nice career. Two of the top men at the position in baseball, Hafner and David Ortiz, are both proof that at times this is a sound decision.
The Future: After last year's monster campaign, the Indians inked Hafner to a long-term deal through 2012 with a club option for 2013. So, that's that.
Byrd was actually originally drafted by the Indians, but it took him 15 years to play for them in the big leagues. A fourth-round selection out of Louisiana State in 1991, Byrd was an undersized righty with average stuff at best, but he knew what he was doing out there, and he threw strikes--pretty much an exact description of him all these years later. He was first traded at the 1994 winter meetings, going to the Mets as part of the Jeromy Burnitz deal, and he then floated around, finally establishing himself with the Phillies (who picked him up off waivers) with a 15-win season in 1999. From there he had some injuries and bounced around some more before re-establishing himself with a big year for the Royals in 2002. Byrd parlayed that season into his first real payday, a two-year deal from Atlanta, where he spent more time on the DL than the active roster. From there, it was more bouncing, to the Angels and then the Indians, only now he gets paid like a wily veteran.
Baseball Prospectus 2007 features a surprisingly optimistic outlook on Carmona, considering that he was coming off a season with a 1-10 record and a 5.42 ERA. I wrote that comment, and while I'd love to say I have some sort of magical prognostication powers, I wrote that "he has the stuff to succeed as a starter if the Indians give him to opportunity to do so" for a reason. In the offseason, I had two surprising discussions with scouts, both of whom were still very big Carmona supporters, including one who said, "I'd trade for him in a second--he's going to be very good." Signed out of the Dominican Republic three weeks after his 17th birthday, Carmona put up consistently good numbers in the minors--other than his strikeout rate--making him similar in many regards to Chien-Ming Wang, only with arguably better stuff.
Carsten Charles Sabathia was the pride of the Cleveland system for some time after they nabbed him with the 20th overall pick of the 1998 draft. A 6'7" California high schooler who was pushing the mid-90s with his fastball, scouts saw him as a prodigious talent, although there were some fears at the time that he was simply the left-handed second coming of Jeff Juden. Just 17 when drafted, Sabathia stuck out 35 in 18 innings after signing, and was in the big leagues before his 21st birthday. He's coming off a breakout season, and most of the improvement revolves around his control, an improvement that has abandoned him so far in the postseason. It was his only real developmental issue, as he struck out 284 in 246.2 career minor league innings while giving up just 200 hits, but walked 119.
Westbrook was also a first-round selection, going 21st overall to the Rockies in 1996. He lasted less than 18 months in the Colorado organization, getting dealt at the end of the 1997 winter meetings with a pair of low-level prospects to the Expos for Mark Lansing. Over the next two years, Westbrook pitched well at High- and Double-A, earning a reputation very much in line with what he is now--a strike-thrower who keeps the ball on the ground and understands his craft well, yet who lacks a dependable out pitch. Westbrook had further travels in 1999 when the Expos sent him to the Yankees as part of their unloading of Hideki Irabu, and then he lasted just half a year in that organization before coming to Cleveland at the 2000 trading deadline in the David Justice deal. At this point, he is what he is--not nearly as good as his 2004 showing, but probably a little better than he pitched this year.
The Future: While the Indians signed Sabathia to an extension early in his career, 2008 is the last year of his contract, and he'll hit the free agent market as a 28-year-old lined up for a massive pay day. Westbrook signed a three-year extension prior to the 2007 season that pays him $33 million for the next three years, while Carmona is young and a long way away from even arbitration, though the Indians might look into an extended deal with him as well. Byrd has an $8 million option for 2008, which isn't an awful price, and the fact that the Indians have no obvious replacement might dictate their picking it up more than anything else. Jeremy Sowers will likely get another chance to start next year, and Adam Miller lies in wait if he can stay healthy, which unfortunately has become a big 'if' of late.
Rafael Betancourt (Free Agent, 1/03)
Betancourt had an interesting path to the majors. Originally signed by the Red Sox in 1993, the Venezuelan began his career as a shortstop, batting just .195/.255/.243 in 137 games before moving to the mound. He established himself as a decent relief prospect, but as a 25-year-old in Double-A, the Red Sox allowed him to ply his trade in Japan for a year, and he spent 2000 pitching very well in the NPB minor leagues and just so-so in 11 games for the Yokohama Bay Stars. He then returned to the Red Sox, and was signed by Cleveland prior to the 2003 season. For four years, Betancourt was a consistently good reliever (rarer than you might think), but this year he was borderline historically good, with a 1.47 ERA in 79 1/3 innings with 80 strikeouts against just nine walks, three of which were intentional.
Borowski's story is a book unto itself. A 32nd-round pick in 1989, Borowski started his career with the White Sox. Then, through trades, waiver claims, and free agent signings, he spent the next nine years bouncing to the Orioles, Braves, Yankees, Brewers, and Reds. With his career seemingly over, he spent 2000 pitching for Newark in the independent Atlantic League, and pitched 12 games for Monterrey in the Mexican League. The Cubs saw something and gave him a shot, two years later he was their closer, and he was able to make some money out of his career after all. The purpose of this article is not to explain why the fourth- or fifth-best reliever on the team is also the closer, so we won't go there for now.
A sixth-round pick by the Giants in 1992, Fultz quickly became an interesting prospect when he finished among his league's top five in strikeouts in three of his first four seasons. The upper levels were too much for him as a starter, but he proved to be good enough to fashion a career as a left-handed situational reliever.
Laffey may have been a 16th-round pick in 2003, but he was a much better prospect than that coming out of high school. He gave teams strong indications that he would attend college without a signing bonus in the half-million range, but Cleveland pried him away from higher learning for $363,000. He's undersized and hardly dominant, but he throws strikes and has one of the better sinkers around, generating a large number of ground balls. Serving as the last lefty in the bullpen, he's yet to pitch in the postseason.
Considering where he was at the beginning of the season, Jensen Lewis might be the most unlikely name on a postseason roster. Last season, the 2005 third-round pick had a solid year split between High-A Kinston and Double-A Akron, getting a scouting reputation as a crafty right-hander who doesn't carry his stuff late into games and has yet to develop a consistent breaking ball. Moved to the bullpen this year, Lewis had a 1.85 ERA in 24 games at Double-A, and allowed just five hits in 13 Triple-A innings before getting called up, where he continued to succeed. Lewis' fastball increased 2-3 notches with his bullpen shift, and is now sitting at 91-93 mph, while his changeup is a true big-league out pitch, with deception, depth, and fade. He still doesn't have much of a breaking ball, but will mix in a loopy curve from time to time to keep hitters honest.
An 11th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2003, Mastny's rise to the big leagues was another one not predicted by scouts. The best pitcher in Furman University history, Mastny had a 2.17 ERA in his full-season debut at Low-A Charleston in 2004, but scouts (and perhaps performance analysts as well) saw a finesse righty who was old for the league and offered little projection. The Blue Jays traded him in the offseason for John McDonald, and Mastny continued to succeed at every level, bringing a minor league career ERA of 2.20 with him to the big leagues in 2006. His stuff still doesn't blow anyone away--his primary pitches are an average fastball and curve--but he has good command of them, and takes advantage of his height to put a downhill plane on the ball. He's nothing special, but he could be in a big league bullpen for the next decade. Trivia: Mastny is the first player born in Indonesia to reach the major leagues.
The Indians' Latin American program hasn't created much in the way of position players lately, but it sure has found some arms. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2002, Perez was a starter in the minors until he reached Double-A, and his ability to work primarily with two plus pitches--a fastball that can get into the mid-90s at times, and a wipe-out slider--has served him well in a bullpen role. The stuff is plenty good, and his command of the two pitches make him almost closer-worthy.
The Future: This is generally a very young, very good bullpen, so you can expect that it will likely return en masse next year, minus Borowski. The young players are of course under full contractual control by the Indians, although Betancourt will earn a significant raise through arbitration or a deal before the hearing. Fultz has a highly affordable $1.5 million option for 2008, and Borowski's $4 million option for next year isn't a bad price, but the Indians might want to move on and buy him out for $250,000.