The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.
The folks in Cleveland certainly had a great deal to be proud of last season. A playoff team by the lake and a victory over the Yankees once they reached the postseason will do a great deal for the Tribe as they head into 2008.
What will also be of great benefit to the Indians is the fact that their farm system is stocked and ready to contribute on the Major League level, if necessary. There is solid pitching and some potent power sources down below, all of which bear watching. Here's a closer look at what Cleveland has to offer this season.
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:
Nick Weglarz, OF
The Canadian native took a slug 'em-or-leave 'em approach last season at Lake County, connecting for 23 homers while driving in 82 runs, good enough to put him in the top 10 in each category in the South Atlantic League. His performance was a bit paradoxical in that he drew a team-high 82 walks, but also struck out once every 3.4 at-bats, proving how raw he is at times.
Weglarz missed just about all of 2006 after breaking a bone in his wrist but came back strong last year, giving the Indians hope that he could do well this season while splitting time between Kinston and Akron. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but if Weglarz can cut down a bit on his swing, he could move quickly. His 10 errors were second-most among Sally League outfielders, while his three assists suggest his arm is not top-notch. Not to worry, because it's his bat that will be pushing him forward. He had an OPS near .900, not something many teenagers have been able to accomplish in the Sally League.
"He doesn't leave the zone unless it's a breaking ball that he doesn't recognize," Cleveland's director of player development Ross Atkins said. "He sees the ball to the black and he doesn't chase it out or chase it up. And that's where you want to build. He's taken to the program that's in place, and really applied the philosophy. The approach is the most important thing about hitting ability. Couple that with the power and leverage he creates and he's a special prospect."
Audio: Weglarz extends Captains' lead
Audio: Weglarz lifts a solo shot
|ON THE VERGE
Here are a few players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:
• Adam Miller, RHP -- The former top pick had a rough season in 2007, spending two separate and long stints on the disabled list. He missed more than a month with an injury to the middle finger on his right hand, and after returning from that promptly went back on the DL with an inflamed elbow. By the time he returned again near the end of August, his season was essentially shot. He finished by going 5-4 with a 4.82 ERA in 19 games (11 starts) for Buffalo. The Tribe expected big things from Miller after he dominated the Eastern League in 2006. The unexpected injuries caused a great deal of tumult, but he's healthy this spring and should be ready to hop right into any situation in Cleveland, should the need arise.
• Brad Snyder, OF -- The former first-rounder (2003) has made a slow, often too slow some would say, climb through the organizational ranks, reaching Triple-A Buffalo last season. He hit .263 in 86 games before breaking his thumb in July. He had 10 homers and 35 RBIs at the time, numbers that were below what he was initially expected to produce. That said, he still has great projectability and better than average speed, though he will need to cut down on the strikeouts. Snyder will likely begin the season back in Buffalo, but it's a quick ride down to Cleveland should the Tribe need a bat off the bench.
• Reid Santos, LHP -- The Hawaiian native has done well for himself since the end of the 2006 season, going 9-3 with a 2.71 ERA in 106 1/3 innings. He's started 10 of the 48 games in which he's appeared, but seems to be better suited as a reliever, going 5-1 with two saves and a 2.10 ERA. Santos will be in Buffalo, at least to start, but he's now on the 40-man and could see Cleveland before long.
• Aaron Laffey, LHP -- There's nothing funny about Laffey, who completed a big 2007 with a nine-game run in Cleveland. He was 13-4 at Akron and Buffalo, relying on an ability to change speeds and keep hitters off balance. He was 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA for Buffalo in six June appearances (five starts) and became the first Buffalo pitcher to win nine consecutive decisions before moving on to Cleveland. He'll battle for a spot on the Major League staff or else help anchor what could be a very deep Buffalo rotation.
Beau Mills, IF
Beau knows the longball. He knows how to hit them far and hit them often and that, more than anything else, was the primary reason Cleveland gobbled him up with the 13th pick in last year's draft. Mills, who hit 38 homers and drove in 123 runs for NAIA power Lewis and Clark State, is the son of former big leaguer and Boston coach Brad Mills. He's been able to combine the knowledge he's culled from his dad with his explosive raw power, and turn himself into a pretty impressive player.
He made his professional debut last season, hitting three stops on the organizational ladder. He combined to hit .261 with six homers and 42 RBIs in 245 at-bats at Mahoning Valley, Lake County and Kinston. He appeared in 27 games at third base, 23 at first base and in 12 as a designated hitter last year, but for now his future appears to be at the hot corner. Whichever side of the infield he ends up on -- for the time being, he will play both third and first -- it will be his bat and not his defense that will carry him.
"We're hopeful that third is an option," Atkins said. "He had an injury [in 2006] and had never really been able to rehab his shoulder. We still don't have a great feel for where he is. But if his arm is back to where it was, we could have a third baseman on our hands."
Audio: Two at-bats, three RBIs for Mills
Audio: Mills' spectacular Carolina League debut
Chuck Lofgren, LHP
The former fourth-rounder (2004) has posted a 29-13 record over the past two seasons while working his way up through the system, including going 12-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 26 starts last year for Double-A Akron. He led all Cleveland prospects with 123 strikeouts, relying heavily on a deceptive fastball that can hover in the mid-80s or touch the mid-90s. He also has a big-time changeup that he wasn't as consistent with last year as he had been in 2006. Still, he remains one of the top left-handed prospects in all of baseball.
Lofgren finished up well at Akron, going seven innings without allowing an earned run in his final start against Binghamton. In his nine starts prior to that, however, he pitched to a 5.29 ERA and got hit relatively hard. Lofgren was 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 playoff innings and will likely spend the bulk of this season in Buffalo.
Audio: Lofgren gets eighth strikeout of the game
Jordan Brown, 1B
The sweet-swinging Brown has played three seasons of pro ball since being taken in the fourth round in 2005 and already has a pair of MVP awards on his mantle. He took home his second trophy last season after leading the Eastern League in batting average (.333, the highest average in Double-A) and hits (161). Eleven of those hits were home runs that helped produce his 76 RBIs. He also had more walks (63) than strikeouts (56), and he has nearly a one-to-one ratio in that category over more than 1,000 pro at-bats. His .421 OBP was good enough for third in the Eastern League last year.
Brown has some speed, stealing 11 bases, but is hardly considered a threat. And despite being hampered with some knee issues over the summer, he still played in 28 games in August, hitting .349.
Audio: Brown blasts a two-run dinger
Audio: Brown hits the foul pole in the playoffs
Trevor Crowe, OF
The former top pick has had a tough season-and-a-half in Akron, hitting .253 in 672 at-bats. He was hitting .192 as of June 25 last year before a 14-game hitting streak propelled him to a second-half average of .329. That pushed his seasonal average to a more respectable .259. And though he started off the AFL season well, hitting .289 through 38 at-bats, he was forced to head home early to have a cyst removed beneath his right pectoral muscle. The cyst proved benign and Crowe was able to focus on the upcoming season.
After a failed attempt to move him to second base and the disappointment of not making the Major League roster last spring -- both of which played a role in his poor first half in 2007 -- Crowe appears poised to have a big season in Buffalo and perhaps even in Cleveland. He's a scrappy kid who brings many intangibles to the clubhouse. If he can regain the form he displayed at Kinston through the first half of 2006 (he hit .329 in 60 games), he may prove to be valuable off the bench for the Tribe at some point this season.
"He's most likely going to start the year in Buffalo, but we need to see where he is first," Atkins said. "With guys as important as Trevor is, you try not to make quick decisions in Spring Training. We want to get our hands around him, and see how he's doing and where he's at. If he's where he was when he left Arizona, then he'll be fine in Buffalo. Within the near future, I could see him helping the Major League team, if the need presented itself.
"He's been through a lot, and we would so much prefer that a guy go through that. Guys that go through adversity come up with a good plan on how to deal with it. It made his makeup better, and he already had a pretty good starting point. And he'd tell you that."
Video: Crowe checks in with MiLB.com
Audio: Crowe's gapper clears the bases
Wes Hodges, 3B
Injuries have played a role in the shaping of Hodges' career to this point. He suffered a stress fracture in his leg during his final season at Georgia Tech, leading many to believe that was the reason he was drafted in the third round rather than the first. He broke a toe and had hamstring issues that hampered him for much of May last year, which many believe cost him a more productive season. But before anyone starts waving the Michael Aubrey flag around Hodges, know this: these injuries aren't chronic and appear to be quite isolated, and no one in the Cleveland organization has ever thought of Hodges in that (Aubrey) light.
So, let's focus on the positive and talk about how he hit .288 at Kinston last season, with 15 homers and 71 RBIs. Let's talk about the fact that he'll likely be the starting third baseman at Akron this season, and he may even see Buffalo before the year is out. Let's talk about his great work ethic and the leadership qualities that have folks raving about him. Those are all positives and must be considered when discussing Hodges.
"He seems exceptionally strong and durable to us," Atkins said. "We never thought he had durability issues. The hamstring thing he had last year was very brief and more of a hydration issue anyway.
"He's not the guy you ever have to call in and talk to about the plan. He's always taking it to a next level. He has an ability to learn, and even though he's accomplished so many things, he knows he still has a long way to go. That's a great combination. He recognizes the challenges of baseball, and how everyone is gifted at the elite level. He knows he's not going to just will himself to the Major Leagues. That, plus he's a ridiculous talent and one of our favorite guys to deal with."
Audio: Hodges flirts with the cycle
David Huff, LHP
The supplemental-round pick appeared to be on his way toward a great year when a strained elbow ligament forced the Tribe to shut him down after he made his last start May 31. He got hit hard in that game, allowing five runs on six hits in four innings, leaving him with a 4-2 record and a 2.72 ERA in 11 starts. His ERA prior to that game was 2.10.
Huff, who has poise on the mound, relies more on finesse and skill than the ability to overpower a hitter. He's been likened to Barry Zito and fellow Indian Jeremy Sowers in that regard. He got back on the mound in the Arizona Fall League and was fine physically, so the folks in Cleveland anticipate a big year from him this season.
Audio: Huff picks up two early strikeouts
Jeff Stevens, RHP
The Indians acquired Stevens as the player-to-be-named-later in the Brandon Phillips deal, and he has certainly looked like more than a toss-in. He's gone 13-6 with a 3.56 ERA since coming to Cleveland. The Indians also moved him to the bullpen this year, and he responded by going 6-3 with a 2.81 ERA and two saves over 49 appearances at Kinston and Akron. He also pitched well in the AFL and for Team USA.
Stevens has a nice, low-90s fastball that looks at times like it's a lot closer to 95 or 96. He certainly uses it more effectively out of the pen, striking out 102 in 83 1/3 innings. He only walked 25 batters last year and held the opposition to a .194 batting average. Stevens has the makeup and stuff to be a closer someday, and he may get the chance to pitch in the Cleveland pen at some point this year.
Audio: Stevens notches fourth punchout
Carlos Rivero, SS
It's not so much what you're doing now as it is what you project to be doing down the road. Such is the case with Rivero, a 19-year-old infielder who looks as though he could turn into something special. He's 6-foot-3 and just over 200 pounds, and he hasn't fully filled out yet. He's a big, strong young man whom one National League executive compared to Miguel Cabrera at that age.
Rivero hit .261 with seven homers and 62 RBIs in the Sally League last year, despite being hampered by an ankle injury for a while in the second half of the season. Cabrera hit .268 with seven homers and 66 RBIs in the Midwest League at the same age, so from that standpoint the comparison is a valid one. The strikeout and walk totals were similar, but before we get carried away, remember a lot can happen between now and the time Rivero reaches the Major Leagues, if he even gets there.
Audio: Rivero's slam is a 'no-doubter'
Jared Goedert, 3B
Goedert proved to be one of the surprises of the 2007 season after getting off to an explosive start at Lake County, where he was hitting .364 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs through 165 at-bats. He was at or near the top of the Minor Leagues in almost every major offensive category when the Indians bumped him to Kinston in late May. Goedert got off to a slow start in the Carolina League, hitting .205 (8-for-39) before going on the disabled list with a left shoulder (labrum) injury, the same shoulder on which he'd had an operation the previous fall.
Goedert came off the DL and struggled to find his way through the rest of July, but got hot in August and finished by hitting .299 over the final five weeks of the season to raise his average at Kinston to .256. All indications are that his shoulder is fine, but it's a situation that will bear watching as he'll likely split this year between Kinston and Akron.
"He was one of the best hitters in the Minor Leagues last year before he got hurt," Atkins said. "He was a disciplined hitter with some power. He's athletic at third base and he has the ability to play second base. I can't say right now if he has the ability to be an everyday Major League second baseman, but we're hopeful that he'll develop that skill. But his ability to hit is exceptional."
Video: Goedert goes the other way for second homer
Under the Radar
Michael Aubrey, 1B
Unfortunately, no matter what Aubrey does when he plays, expectations will always be tempered with the phrase "if he's healthy." Every year brings the annual, what-has-happened-to-Aubrey-now watch, and last season was no different. He was limited to 256 at-bats, hitting .277 while splitting time between Kinston and Akron. He did have a decent Arizona Fall League, during which he hit .275 with five homers and 11 RBIs in 91 at-bats for Surprise. Whether he ever fulfills the potential or pays out on the gamble the Tribe took by choosing him in the first round (2003) remains to be seen. But until he plays a full season and remains healthy throughout, he's stuck under the radar.
Audio: Aubrey clubs second homer
Hector Rondon, RHP
The Venezuelan native, who signed as a free agent in 2004, turned 20 last month and heads into the season looking to make an impact at Kinston. He was 7-10 with a 4.37 ERA in 27 Sally League starts last year. He struck out 113 and walked 27 in 136 innings.
"His fastball is around 94, and there's a lot of projection there," Atkins said. "He still hasn't filled out [physically]. And his secondary pitches haven't come around yet, but he still had an exceptional year in the South Atlantic League."
Audio: Rondon fans his fourth batter
Frank Herrmann, RHP
The Indians dug a little deeper into the pile and pulled out this gem as a nondrafted free agent in 2005. The Harvard grad -- yes, he's that smart -- battled some elbow issues in college and was not selected in the draft. Undeterred, he kept pitching wherever he could, and the Tribe spotted him toiling in Hawaii. He went out in 2006 and posted a 4-6 mark with a 3.90 ERA in 26 starts for Lake County before flourishing last season in Kinston.
Herrmann went 11-5 with a 4.01 ERA, tying for the Carolina League lead with three complete games. He won't overwhelm anyone (he fanned only 88 in 146 innings), but he won't get himself into trouble either (he walked only 28). He does have a penchant for allowing the longball -- the 15 he surrendered were second-most in the league -- so it will be interesting to see how he fares this year in the Eastern League. Whether his finesse will work at the Double-A level remains to be seen, but he's already overcome quite a few obstacles to make it this far.
Audio: Herrmann gets into a strikeout groove
2007 Draft Recap
LHP Timothy McFarland, a prep star from Illinois, signed late, meaning his pro debut won't come until sometime this spring, most likely in a short-season league. ... RHP Jonathan Holt, a University of Tampa product, posted a 4.32 ERA in 16 games at Mahoning Valley and showed great command, walking four while striking out 27 over 33 innings. ... LHP Brandon "Heath" Taylor (10th round) posted a 2.35 ERA in 12 starts at Mahoning Valley. ... RHP Kyle Landis (18th round) out of Pittsburgh posted a 0.33 ERA in relief at Mahoning Valley, going 6-for-6 in save opportunities and striking out 37 over 27 innings. ... LHP Garrett Rieck (29th round) out of Cal State-Chico had a 2.00 ERA in relief at Mahoning Valley, where he walked four and struck out 31 over 36 innings.
Audio: Holt strikes out the side
Audio: Taylor notches third strikeout
Organizational Player of the Year: Trevor Crowe
We believe in Crowe and his ability to come back big. Look for him to have a strong season.
Cy on the Farm (Organizational Pitcher of the Year): Chuck Lofgren
The first inclination is to go with Miller, but since he probably won't be in the Minors long enough to merit consideration, we'll go with Lofgren.
No aches and pains
Okay, we'll go out on a limb and say that Michael Aubrey will stay healthy for an entire year and re-establish himself in Cleveland's future plans.
Act your age
Todd Martin won the New York-Penn League batting title with a Mahoning Valley franchise-record .360 average. The knock on him was that at 24 he should have been dominating that league. But we think the former Middle Tennessee State star will do just fine this year at Kinston, where he'll be hitting over .300, warranting a promotion to Akron.
"We're certainly not concerned about our system, and there's no reason to think we need wholesale changes, though we are always discussing how to remain on the cutting edge. We feel very good about our depth, how we make decisions and from a player development standpoint. We feel very confident with the staff we take to the players on a daily basis. We're constantly evolving, and if you ever feel like you're good where you are, you just got worse."
-- Atkins, with a player development overview.