The Cleveland Indians farm system received a large amount of recognition during the past year. Cleveland’s pool of developing talent went from barren to overflowing with a few wise trades, compensation draft picks for free agent losses, and emerging prospects all coinciding last summer. Their major league roster contains 11 rookies, and an influx of talent like that will almost certainly result in a depleted minor league stable.
The Indians’ young talent base doesn’t end in Cleveland, however. For instance…
- Cliff Lee made his 2003 debut a successful one last month.
- Grady Sizemore walked away from the Futures Game with his new MVP trophy.
- Fernando Cabrera and Francisco Cruceta are rolling through Double-A, and Jeremy Guthrie received a promotion because the Eastern League wasn’t presenting him with any challenges.
- Fausto Carmona was jumped from low-A to Double-A, and some in the Indians organization believe he has the best arm of any of their kids.
This isn’t news, however, and most of these guys are well known.
Separating the Indians from a lot of other farm systems, however, is their depth at the lower levels. Kinston (High-A), Lake County (Low-A), Mahoning Valley (Short Season), and Burlington (Rookie) are all talent-laden teams, and I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Kinston and Burlington on display recently. We’ll focus on their pitching staffs today, which are among the best in minor league baseball.
The entire Kinston rotation is made up of quality prospects, so I was guaranteed to see a solid match-up every time I hit the park. My first look was at Brian Slocum, Cleveland’s second-round pick in the 2002 draft out of Villanova University. At 6’4 and 200 pounds, Slocum looks like a hard-thrower, has learned his four-seam fastball flattens out when he brings it at the 95 mph range. He pitches comfortably at 90-92 and shows a solid change up with good fading movement. He didn’t throw a breaking ball the entire night, which I asked Cleveland’s assistant farm director Ross Atkins about. “Brian is very hard on himself, and he’s had a year of ups and downs,” he said. “He has a good curveball, but he needs to develop confidence by getting ahead with his fastball. He’s a hard-working kid, and it is easier to teach a kid to relax and have perspective than it is to be serious about his craft.”
For the season, Slocum has pitched 81 1/3 innings, giving up 81 hits and 32 walks, striking out 49 on his way to a 3.98 ERA. While the strikeout rate is certainly too low, few players skip a level and dominate. Slocum also missed the 2001 season in college due to a sore shoulder that was never operated on. There are reasons to expect better performance than what we’ve seen so far this year. With the Indians’ depth of arms and his limited repertoire, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in the bullpen eventually.
From there, I got a rain-shortened look at Travis Foley, who came in the draft bonanza of 2001 with fellow teammates Dan Denham and J.D. Martin. Foley is a smaller version of Slocum, with a thick upper body, but only standing 6’1″ tall. His velocity was 88-92 as well, but with more movement. His changeup was an effective second pitch, but he needs to work on making his arm speed the same as it is with the fastball. He started in mixing in curve balls as the game wore on, but that pitch is in the developmental stages. “Foley is an extremely aggressive kid who loves to pitch”, says Atkins. “While other kids want to play infield or bat, Travis just wants to be on the mound. He’s very polished and mixes his speeds well. We have some throwers, but Travis is a pitcher.”
Foley’s season does not look great on the surface, but he has out pitched his 4.76 ERA. In 73 2/3 innings, he’s given up 75 hits, walked 34, and struck out 57. His command has been his main enemy this year, as he walked just 44 in 137 innings last season. He’s still missing bats, but he’s falling behind early in the count, making strikeouts tough to come by. Don’t write him off because of his average numbers. He should overcome his first-half struggles, and a big second half is a good possibility.
The biggest name on Burlington’s roster is 2003 supplemental first round pick Adam Miller, a 6’4″ 18-year-old whom the Indians gave more than one million dollars to sign. Miller is a classic projection pick. He’s got a pitcher’s frame with wide shoulders and a very nice delivery. His arm action can get long occasionally, but that is easily correctable. He threw four innings at 86-88 mph, a surprisingly low velocity for someone with his size and mechanics. “We’ve had him as high as 91, and we’re confident he’ll get into the low-to-mid 90s,” Atkins stated. “He’s nervous, and once he gets settled in and relaxed, the velocity will come. He has plus makeup, and is just a great kid who wants to learn. We are very excited about his potential. He has a lot of room to grow.”
Miller has been limited to just two four-inning starts in the Appalachian league, and the Indians won’t push him this year. Expect him to begin 2004 with Lake County in the South Atlantic League. He is a one-level-at-a-time pitcher, and he won’t be rushed.
Miller was the first half of a tandem starter combination with Nelson Hiraldo, a 19-year-old Dominican listed at 6’0″. He’s extremely lean with a very loose arm action. As I fumbled through my notes for anything on Hiraldo, I looked up just in time to catch the radar reading on his first pitch. Ninety-four. I stopped bothering with the notes, and focused on the kid on the mound. Ninety-five. Ninety-six. Ninety-four. He displayed a very live, but straight, fastball and failed to hit the corners. He mixed in a breaking ball–a “slurve,” according to Atkins–that has extreme strikeout potential. It breaks down and away from right-handers at 82-84 mph and is nearly impossible for inexperienced hitters to lay off or make contact with.
Hiraldo is very raw however, and that showed early in the season as Appalachian League hitters touched him up. He has since lowered his ERA to 4.39 with back-to-back impressive performances, but his ratios are outstanding. In 26 2/3 innings, he’s allowed 28 hits, walked just four, and struck out 30. He has two plus pitches, but his command needs work and it will take time for him to learn how to pitch. These are the kinds of arms that coaches love to teach, however.
The other starter drawing praise in Burlington is southpaw Rafael Perez, who I unfortunately haven’t gotten a chance to see yet this year, but will make a point to do so. Atkins couldn’t say enough kind things about him. “Perez is awesome. He has a great arm slot, and is very tough on left-handers. His has a wipeout slider and good movement on his fastball. More than anything, it is his passion and focus for the game that sets him apart.” When I asked about a comparison to another young southpaw, Mariano Gomez, Atkins replied that Perez “has much better stuff than Gomez. He isn’t as projectable (Gomez is 6’6 and 180 pounds), but Perez is much tougher on lefties and his stuff is ahead right now.” High praise, indeed, considering Gomez has made it to high-A at age 20.
Perez has been untouchable so far, posting a 1.27 ERA in five starts. He has allowed just 19 hits in 28 1/3 innings, walked eight, and struck out 21. At 21-years-old, the Indians will be aggressive with him, and he could see Lake County later this fall.
The Indians scouting and player development program is running on all cylinders right now. While the major league club has restocked itself with young talent, the farm clubs continue to crowd the path to Cleveland. Despite the promotion of more top prospects than any organization in baseball, I am still hard pressed to find a farm system with more major league talent than the Cleveland Indians.