The Lake County Captains, the Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, finished dead last in the 16-team Midwest League in 2011, 33 games below .500 just 12 months after winning a championship in their first year in the league.
The big league club fared better, but also finished the year with a losing record and failed to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Both trends could take a drastic turn for the better with the continued growth of the team's top prospects in 2012.
Cleveland's organization is largely bottom-heavy. The number of prospects making their way from the lower rungs of the system should leave the team in a great position in the coming years. So much so that at least half of Cleveland's Top 20 prospects are expected to play in the Midwest League in 2012.
"It's exciting. With the trades the team has made, most of the top prospects are in 'A' ball or at the lower levels," Captains manager David Wallace said. "For someone like me in the early stages of their managerial career, I could not have walked into a better situation."
Leading the way is shortstop phenom Francisco Lindor, the most highly touted of three or four shortstop prospects creating a healthy logjam at the Class A level.
Lindor, ranked as baseball's No. 32 prospect by MLB.com, projects well on both sides of the ball, and he figures to be one of the key pieces in Cleveland's infield further down the line.
Selected eighth overall last summer, Lindor waited until the last minute to ink a lucrative deal worth almost $3 million. This meant that his time in the short-season New York-Penn League with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers was limited, making his upcoming full-season debut more enticing.
"He is just a quality person," Wallace said of Lindor. "It's tough to say that those qualities stand out more than his baseball skills because they are just as impressive, but what I was most pleased with was his character as a teammate and a human being.
"He's a humble kid who sees himself as one of the guys. He doesn't think of himself as a first-rounder. There's nothing that he really lacks, it's all there. There is work to be done to refine his skills, but he has all the tools and we'll look for him to be our cleanup hitter."
Lindor's double-play partner will be Robel Garcia, a switch-hitting infielder from the Dominican Republic who could fill a need up the middle. The Indians have little in the way of prospects on the right side of their infield and, without converting a shortstop, have few pure second basemen.
Garcia -- Cleveland's top infield prospect whose natural position is not at shortstop -- has spent the past two years in the Arizona League, showing a combination of power and speed that makes his plus arm and good plate discipline even more appealing.
But the middle infield isn't the only place where the Captains should be strong this year. Catchers Alex Monsalve and Alex Lavisky, ranked ninth and 12th respectively in Cleveland's Top 20, will split time behind the plate, while
LeVon Washington (11th) and Luigi Rodriguez (15th) will see regular at-bats in the outfield.
"We just felt that the Midwest League fits Monsalve and Lavisky at this point in their careers," Wallace said. "Both are hard workers who take pride in calling a good game, blocking balls and doing the grunt work. We want to give them both a chance to develop this year."
Indians' No. 10 prospect Felix Sterling will get the nod as Wallace's Opening Day starter, and hard-throwing 19-year-old Dillon Howard -- the team's top pitching prospect at No. 2 -- will spend the bulk of the year in the Captains' rotation as soon as he finishes extended spring training. Southpaw Elvis Araujo, ranked No. 18, will also begin the year in the Midwest League.
Two stars on two different paths: Lindor may be the one to watch in Lake County, but there are two players in Kane County and Beloit who also deserve attention. Kansas City Royals outfielder Bubba Starling and Minnesota Twins third baseman Miguel Sano are each ranked as the top prospect within their respective organizations by MLB.com, and both will be looking to use the Midwest League as a springboard to bigger and brighter things.
Starling was selected fifth overall in June's Draft and has yet to play a competitive game in the Minors. He cultivated celebrity status in his hometown of Gardner in Kansas City, where he was a standout two-way baseball player, multi-threat quarterback and All-State basketball star, and he bypassed a scholarship to the University of Nebraska to sign with the Royals.
"I just have to work as hard as I can," Starling said. "I want to be a great teammate, but in the back of my head, I have to think about being back in Kansas City in a few years. I'm a winner, I love winning. I don't take losing very well. Unfortunately, in baseball you can fail a lot, but I plan on dealing with that."
Sano, on the other hand, was picked up by the Minnesota Twins as a 16-year-old non-drafted free agent out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. After solid but unspectacular debuts in the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League in 2010, the 195-pound infielder broke through in a huge way in '11.
The third baseman finished second in the Appalachian League in homers (20) and runs scored (58) and he ranked third in RBIs (59) and slugging percentage (.637). He was a two-time Player of the Week and a postseason All-Star, and he was also named as the best-performing third baseman in the Twins organization by MiLB.com.
First impressions: Right-handed flamethrower Robert Stephenson is expected to draw a lot of attention when he makes his professional debut next week. Selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of June's Draft, the 19-year-old -- Cincinnati's
top pitching prospect -- is slated to start the season with the Dayton Dragons. The prep prospect out of Alhambra High School in California dominated the baseball scene in his hometown of Martinez last year. He tossed three no-hitters to begin the season, fanned 132 batters and posted a 1.33 ERA over 64 innings en route to being named the San Jose Mercury News' Gatorade California Baseball Player of the Year.
Strength in numbers: One thing that stands out heading into the new season is the large number of right-handed pitching prospects expected to see time in the Midwest League in 2012. While Arizona teen Archie Bradley -- MLB.com's No. 20 prospect -- will warrant many of the early season headlines, you can make the case that more than a dozen other top hurlers will shine just as brightly as the former first-rounder.
Toronto Blue Jays farmhand Noah Syndergaard -- the club's No. 4 prospect -- hopes to log up to 130 innings this year and add a slider to his four-pitch repertoire, and St. Louis Cardinals teen Tyrell Jenkins -- the third-best pitcher in the organization -- will transition to a full-season league after fanning 55 batters in 56 Apply League innings.
In Peoria, Chicago Cubs No. 5 prospect Dillon Maples will likely spend most of the season with the Class A Chiefs despite starting the year elsewhere, while San Diego's Joe Ross will begin the year with Fort Wayne. Elsewhere, Seattle's Carter Capps, Detroit's Brenny Paulino and Milwaukee's David Goforth also have the chance to put up exceptional numbers for their respective clubs.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Midwest League.
- Last season's championship: Quad Cities over Lansing in three games. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Fort Wayne TinCaps, 2006-'07
- Last no-hitter: Victor Mateo, Bowling Green vs. Lake County, July 8, 2011
MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last nine-inning no-hitter: Austin Kirk, Peoria vs. Clinton, July 4, 2011 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Alan Webb, West Michigan, 1998 (202)
- Last Triple Crown winner: Joseph Meyer, Beloit, 1984 (.320 average, 30 home runs, 102 RBIs)
- Last 40-home run hitter: Jeffrey Jones, Cedar Rapids, 1982 (42)
- Last player to hit for the cycle: Donald Lutz, July 21, 2011, Dayton vs. Peoria. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 20-game winner: John Fritz, Quad City, 1992 (20-4)