2012 Carolina Mudcats Preview: New Beginnings
The 2012 season brings a new era to the Cleveland Indians High A affiliate. Gone are the Kinston Indians after 25 years, and in their place are the Carolina Mudcats. Gone is the quaint, 4,100-seat Historic Grainger Stadium, and in it's place is the more state-of-the-art, 6,500-seat Five County Stadium. Gone is the 2011 Carolina League manager of the year Aaron Holbert and his staff, and in their place is former major league manager Edwin Rodriguez, and a new staff led by former major league all-star pitcher Scott Erickson. Yes, the changes are many, but to be expected for a brand new start in a new city.
The Mudcats will look to start their franchise-first 2012 season off the way it ended in Kinston last year, with another playoff run. The K-Tribe came on strong during the second half of the season last year, winning the second half title. They then won their first-round playoff series against Myrtle Beach, before losing in the Carolina League championship in four games to the Frederick Keys. Rodriguez will look to take the Mudcats one step further in 2012, and he may just have the horses to do it.
The 2012 Carolina Mudcats just might have the most "must-see" infield in the entire system with power-hitting Jesus Aguilar at first, slick-fielding Tony Wolters at second, the multi-faceted Ronny Rodriguez at short and the under-rated Giovanny Urshela at third. The infield is essentially are newcomers to the High A affiliate, with the exception of Aguilar, who showed up late in the second half for the playoff push. The outfield has more questions than answers, but will be anchored early on by returning spark-plug Tyler Holt in centerfield. Carlos Moncrief and Delvi Cid will be looking to fill out the roster, but will be getting pushed by Anthony Galas and Jordan Casas. Moncrief is the lone newcomer. Jake Lowery moves up to the Carolina League as the primary backstop after his time at Mahoning Valley.
The starting rotation is a rarity in High A baseball as all five starters spent some time with the K-Tribe last season, and will all be returning for different reasons. Brett Brach will be looked upon as the staff leader to start with, although he is far from being the staff ace. T.J. House will be looking to rejuvenate a stalled career. Clayton Cook will be looking to regain his health. Mike Rayl and Michael Goodnight will be looking to continue their progression through the system. The bullpen will be anchored by Cody Allen, who is rocketing through the organization and will be starting his first full year. Clayton Ehlert will be the closer to start the year off, and has big shoes to fill in last season's Carolina League relief pitcher of the year, Preston Guilmet. The rest of the bullpen is a mixed bag of returners and newcomers, and of one-inning guys and potential piggy-back options.
This team should be an interesting watch as the season progresses with the cupboard extremely full in Lake County. With Carolina already full of solid talent, this could be the affiliate to watch as some of the top prospects from Lake County move up to the next level. Look for a grand creshendo in Zebulon, NC, as the Mudcats really take off in 2012.
Minor League Affiliates
Columbus Clippers (AAA)
Akron Aeros (AA)
Carolina Mudcats (High A)
Lake County Captains (Low A)
Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Short Season A)
Arizona Indians (Rookie)
Manager: Edwin Rodriguez
1st season as manager of the Carolina Mudcats, 1st season in Indians' organization
Pitching Coach: Scott Erickson
1st season as pitching coach of the Carolina Mudcats, 1st season in Indians' organization
Hitting Coach: Scooter Tucker
1st season as hitting coach of the Carolina Mudcats, 1st season in Indians' organization
Rodriguez really brings some knowledge to the team, as his last job was as the manager of the major league Florida Marlins. Rodriguez also spent time in Carolina as the Mudcats hitting coach in the mid-2000's. This combination should bring a solid leader to the clubhouse to take over for Holbert, who left for the Braves' organization. Erickson comes to the Indians for his first year of coaching experience. While this would normally be a concern, Erickson brings a high calibre background as a pitcher to the table, having gone 153-146 over 15 major league seasons. Scooter Tucker, a former catcher for the Tribe, is their new hitting coach. Tucker, who worked as an associate scout for the Mets over the past two seasons, is making his first foray into coaching. Rodriguez is the only guy with a background in coaching, so it should be interesting to see how this staff gels throughout the season.
IPI #20--Clayton Cook (RHP), IPI #26--Michael Goodnight (RHP), IPI #35--Mike Rayl (LHP), IPI #41--T.J. House (LHP), Brett Brach (RHP), IPI #38--Danny Salazar
Clayton Cook is a real interesting prospect, who projects to be a workhorse sort of pitcher in the middle of any rotation down the road. He was absolutely lights out last May, going 4-1 with a sub 2.00 ERA in Kinston. His main issue though was consistency, with starts in which he's absolutely imploded. He throws a low 90's two and four-fastball, but his real bread-and-butter is a curveball that's developing into one of the best in the system. It's his plus pitch, and is his one strikeout offering. As I mentioned last season, Cook continues to work on a changeup, but it's still a work in progress. If he garners command of this pitch this season, I could certainly see him make tremendous growth, potentially moving up to the top 10 prospect list. The system is craving starters at the upper levels, and Cook has a chance to fill in the void as the year progresses. Cook is another guy who could get the call up fairly early. He has better stuff than nearly every other starter in the rotation, so it's possible that if he proves healthy, he could be at the top of the totem pole for promotion.
There's also a lot to like from big righty, Michael Goodnight. He throws four pitches, a fastball, curve, slider and change, but hasn't really mastered any of them at this point. His best pitch is an above-average fastball, that sits in the low-90's, but can touch 95 at times. His main issue is the same as most young pitchers, and that's consistency. He needs to continue to replicate and just spend time throwing his pitches to truly reach his potential. He had moments at Lake County and Kinston last season that showcased an ability to be a potential #3 starter projecting forward. It's likely that he'll find himself in Carolina for the long haul this season, but he does possess upside, and with added consistency, could also make a push into any void created at Akron throughout the season.
Mike Rayl is a tall, lanky righthander, who will remind people more of pitchers like Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and David Huff than say, Drew Pomeranz. His size would promote the idea that he's going to blow it past you, but that's not what he delivers at all. What he delivers is a high level of maturity and athleticism, and a strong ability to locate his pitches. His fastball rarely touches 90, but can get up into the low 90's if he pushes it. He pitched very well in Lake County, going 5-5 with a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts. he struck out an impressive 84 batters, while walking only 13. Don't expect those types of K numbers going forward though. He struggled a bit in his Carolina League call up, going 1-3 with a 4.61 ERA. Rayl's another guy that projects to be in the Carolina League for the duration, but could move up the system should he continue to pitch the way he did in 2011. It has to project to the upper levels though.
T.J. House is starting his third season in High A Carolina, and really needs to start to show some polish, or this former high ceiling guy may find himself languishing in the low minors for years to come. Still, the lefty is only 22, and does command one of the most live arms in the system, touching 95 with regularity. The bottom line with House last year is that he absolutely lost control of his fastball, and walked nearly five batters per nine innings (up from 3.3 two years ago), while only striking out 5 1/2 batters per nine (down from 7 1/2 two years ago). He simply doesn't replicate good mechanics in his delivery, and until he does, he simply won't make any movement in the system whatsoever. This is his make-or-break season for the lefty, and it's likely he could end up in the bullpen if improvement isn't shown early. He's really fallen through the prospect ratings, and is lucky to be listed in the top 50.
Brett Brach had a nice 2011 outing that saw the righthander make starts in Kinston, Akron and Columbus. While I'm sure this is looked at as a step down for Brach, It will be interesting to see what the Indians do with the righty going forward. He clearly isn't the most talented, but he does get the most out of what he's been given. This could be a make or break sort of year for the kid. His record with the K-Tribe was a misleading 6-9, but he logged 115 innings with a 3.60 ERA, while walking only 37, and striking out 72. Brach's certainly not a top prospect in the organization, but had streaks of brilliance that likely woke up the Indians' organization to the potential of future bottom-of-the-rotation potential, or even as a long reliever. Brach can locate, and will hammer the bottom of the strike zone with a sinking fastball. I don't see Brach in Carolina for long, and would be surprised to see if he makes it to May before getting the call-up. If not, it could be a sign that the Indians aren't planning on moving him up in the future except to fill-in.
Danny Salazar may be the most interesting watch of the bunch. He had Tommy John surgery in 2010, and when he returned from the surgery last season, he saw a massive bump in velocity. His pitches were clocked anywhere from 91 to 94 MPH, and he topped out at 98. He has high command of his fastball, and while making sure he's popping the glove this year is important, he'll be working on his supplemental pitches. His slider and changeup both project as plus pitches, and if he can master them at any level, he goes through the roof. It's IPI's best guess that Salazar will be piggy-backing with one of the other five starters to start the year off. When one of them moves up to Akron, he'll get his shot without the hand-holding. He could be a massive sleeper in the system.
Cody Allen (RHP), Dale Dickerson (RHP), Clayton Ehlert (RHP), Jose Flores (RHP), Francisco Jimenez (LHP), J.D. Reichenbach (LHP)
There isn't a whole lot not to like about Cody Allen as he burst upon the scene after being redrafted by the Indians in 2011. He started his career off in Mahoning Valley and promptly went 3-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 14 appearances over 33 2/3 innings. He struck out 42 batters, and only walked nine. The Indians promptly bumped him up to Lake County, where he went 2-0, with a 0.00 ERA in seven appearances, over 17 innings. he struck out 28 batters, while walking only five. He has a plus fastball, a slider, curve and changeup, and his breaking pitches are projected to be plus pitches. This kid is raw talent, and while I'm not sure who the closer is going to be in Carolina this year, I'd have to believe that Allen gets a good, strong look. Regardless, Allen will be their best reliever. This kid could be a quick mover, so keep an eye on him.
Dale Dickerson is rumored to be the closer in a couple of local publications in the Raleigh area, but my guess is that they are basing that simply on the fact that he was the first relief pitcher listed in the press release. Dickerson can certainly close baseball games, but there's no reason to think he's going to leapfrog a guy like Allen, or even Clayton Ehlert, who was the closer last season at Lake County where Dickerson spent most of his time in the same bullpen. Dickerson did have a nice season though, pitching in 53 games at Lake County, going 3-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 69 2/3 innings. He's not a big K guy (48 last year), but he is another pitcher that can locate, and is smart on the hill. He can throw in the low to mid 90's, and has a deceptive, sidearm delivery. He did have three saves last season.
Clayton Ehlert was the primary closer in Lake County last season, and he saved 16 games. While that may sound like a small number, keep in mind that the Captains only had 53 wins last season, and were blown out of several games. Ehlert made 33 total appearances over 48 1/3 innings, striking out 29, while walking only seven. My gut tells me that Ehlert will start off as the closer, as he seems to fall in line with Cory Burns in 2010 and Preston Guilmet last season. They weren't the best arms in the pen, but had the right mentality. It should be interesting to see how it plays out though, because the Indians are high on all three from the seventh inning on.
J.D. Reichenbach is one of my favorite pitchers in the system. No, he's not going to blaze up the prospect charts any time soon, but I have a feeling this kid is going to be a major league pitcher some day. Why? He does whatever the Indians ask him to do, and he generally does it well. Last season, Reichenbach appeared at Lake County, Kinston and Columbus, making 33 appearances, ten of which were starts. Overall, he went 8-2 with a 3.42 ERA over 110 2/3 innings. He struck out 76 batters, while walking 29. He's got the ability to start, which will be important on this team, as Brach and Cook appear to be short-term in the Carolinas. He'll be able to spot start while the Indians try and find an arm to replace any that leave.
Rounding out the early Mudcats' bullpen this season are holdovers from last year, Jose Flores and Francisco Jimenez. Neither are high up on the Indians' radar, but can provide stretches of good pitching when asked. Neither have much consistency, but fill a roll in any farm team. Of the two, Jimenez may be the more valuable of the two based on his ability to start. Jimenez became a starter for a brief time after injuries and call-ups left the K-Tribe depleted at the starter position. He actually saved his best pitching for those brief starts. I could see him work in a sporadic piggy-back situation as well.
IPI #14—Jesus Aguilar (1B), IPI #5—Tony Wolters (2B), IPI #9—Ronny Rodriguez (SS), Giovanny Urshela (3B), Tyler Cannon (Super Utility), Justin Toole (1B, 2B, 3B, SS)
Jesus Aguilar is a big dude and a truly imposing figure when he walks up to the plate. He’s listed at 6’3” and 241 pounds, but that truly doesn’t do him justice. When he walks up to the plate, he truly dwarfs the catcher and the umpire, and looks like an absolute giant at the plate. Of course, playing the game of baseball is a bit more than just walking up to the plate, and Aguilar does a bit more than that as well. Last season, he blasted 23 home runs, 30 doubles, two triples and 82 RBI. He dominated the Midwest League with Lake County and more or less forced Tribe management to move him up to the Carolina League earlier than they wanted. He struggled a bit during the move, only hitting .257 with four homers and 13 RBI in 31 games, but showcased what his power game could do in the playoffs. Starting in the game clincher in the first round, Aguilar would hit four homers in four games, scoring four runs and driving in seven. He would add a double in the fifth game, giving him five extra base hits in five straight. Yes, Aguilar struggles with pitch selection (he struck out 126 times, while only garnering 46 walks), and is still learning how to hit pitches that jam him, and are low and away. But, if the big righty ever figures things out, that imposing figure may just be walking up to a major league home plate near you in the coming years.
It’s not a surprise to see Tony Wolters advance through the system quickly, but it is a bit of a surprise to see him skip a whole level in the jump from short season Mahoning Valley to High A Carolina. Wolters has shown an impressive makeup from the start, but he is all of 19-years old. It just goes to show you how loaded the middle infield positions are at the lower levels of the system. Last season, Wolters excelled offensively, hitting .292 with a .385 OBP and 20 SBs for the Scrappers. He does everything you want for a draft pick. He works hard on and off the field, and really reminds me of Jason Kipnis in makeup….which is just what this team needs. I can’t imagine the Indians won’t be watching him closely, so it should be interesting to see what happens early in the 2012 season if he takes off, or struggles. Will they move him up if he tears up the Carolina League, or will they move him down if he struggles? Either way, it should be an interesting watch.
As much upside at Tony Wolters has, Ronny Rodriguez might actually have more potential overall. Wolters played 98 games at Lake County, and while he only hit .246 with a deplorable .274 OBP, he managed to blast 11 homers, and drive in 42 RBI, showcasing his plus power. He also hit an impressive 27 doubles and nine RBI, giving him 47 extra base hits on the season. Like Wolters, he has a lot of defensive skill at the position, but still needs work there to refine his play. Offensively, he needs to really work on his plate discipline as well, striking out 83 times with only 13 walks. The kicker though is that Rodriguez doesn’t turn 20 until April 17th, and played his first professional baseball last season. If he harnesses his offense and defense, the Indians could be looking at a shortstop that could put up 25 homers a season with plus defense. Of course, where do you put him once Lindor starts moving up? Like I said…loaded up the middle.
Giovanny Urshela just missed IPI’s top 50 this year, and he’ll likely be the most overlooked player in the Mudcats’ infield. Urshela did manage to hit 24 doubles, two triples and nine homers last year, while driving in 46. He struck out only 69 times, but only walked 14 times. His OBP was down 60 points though, from 2010, at .262. He is an above-average defender, and at 20, he has a high ceiling offensively. He does have some projectable power going forward, but there are still a bunch of unanswered questions. If there’s an uptick in offense in Carolina this year, he could make things interesting at the hot corner as he moves up to Akron, and ultimately Columbus.
Tyler Cannon left the Midwest League last season absolutely pounding the ball. He was hitting .366 with three homers and 17 RBI, but found things more difficult in both Kinston and Akron. Overall for the season, he hit .274 with nine homers and 58 RBI, but created a niche for himself going forward as an above average Super Utility player. Throughout the year, he played every position on the diamond except catcher and center, and played them all very well. He’s the perfect compliment to this team full of young infielders, as he can play everywhere in case they struggle. There will be plenty of gaps in the outfield as well, should the Mudcats need him.
Justin Toole returns to Carolina as perhaps its best overall defender. As an infielder, Toole played 13 games or more at every infield position. His worst fielding percentage at any infield position was a solid .970. While Cannon is certainly more projectable going forward as a prospect, Toole will be looked upon to provide defensive stability to a team of youngsters. He doesn't have a terrible bat, but make no mistake, Toole is in this organization as a defensive whiz.
IPI #36—Carlos Moncrief (RF), IPI #24—Tyler Holt (CF), Delvi Cid (LF), Jordan Casas (OF), Anthony Gallas (OF)
Carlos Moncrief is another player coming up from Lake County with that term “raw ability.” He has a canon for an arm. He has above-average power and speed, and is one of those players you think of when you say “five-tool.” There are a lot of catch-22’s when you think of Moncrief. He has really learned how to work the count, and drew 76 walks last season. Of course, while he was drawing all of those walks, he managed to strike out 158 times. He hit only .233, but pounded 16 homers, stole 20 bases, and scored 73 runs. Moncrief is a worker, but he is 23-years old, so he needs to really start figuring things now to become that prototypical corner outfielder that the Indians are banking on. If he has a big 2012, he could launch himself up through a system that needs impact outfielders. Keep an eye on Moncrief. He can frustrate, but if he continues to develop, he’s a true talent.
My favorite player on this team is Tyler Holt. No, he's not going to mash 30 homers, or steal 100 bases, but he is the type of player that can be the motor for an entire team. Holt is 100% agression, and brings an extremely mature approach to the plate. He can be madening to face as a pitcher, but can also take everything personal. That's what I love as a fan of the game. Tyler Holt plays with controlled abandon, and is one of the smartest players out there. He has above average speed, but his stolen bases are rarely because of it. When he's on base, the pitcher's focus can never stay on the plate because Holt is waiting for the one inch that he can turn into something. He's the guy you want on your major league roster, and while I don't think he'll ever be the guy hitting .320 in the bigs, with 50 stolen bases and the focal point of the offense, you just never know with Holt. If he continues to work as hard as he has, I wouldn't put anything past him moving forward. I firmly believe that Holt will be in Akron by mid-May, if not sooner, with Moncrief or Delvi Cid moving to center, and Cannon moving to the corner outfield slot. But that remains to be seen. Once Holt gets out of the pitching heavy Carolina league, I firmly expect him to tear up Akron. He could be in Columbus by year's end.
Delvi Cid is a forgotten man in the big scheme of the Cleveland Indians farm system. Two years ago, Cid stole 71 bases and was a top 25 prospect. Then came an injury plagued 2011 season that saw him fall off the map in Kinston. Now, he's back in High A at Carolina, and has been handed a starting slot in left field, and perhaps ultimately center. When you get past the injuries, Cid is extremely athletic with good size, at 6'2" and 194 pounds. He's added nearly 20 pounds over the past two seasons to make himself more durable, and perhaps add some more offense. He needs to showcase more offense in Carolina before they even think of moving him up, as he only managed to hit .197 last year in 79 off-and-on games. If he can find his way back up to .250 to .270, and can get his OBP back up to .350 or better, you could see him back as a prospect. Defensively, he's above average, and with his speed, he could find his way gliding through the system. Remember, you can't teach speed...of course...it doesn't do anyone good injured or sitting on the bench after a strikeout.
Jordan Casas had a nice year at Lake County last season, hitting .281, but really is best utilized as a utility outfielder. He played all three outfield positions at stops with the Captains and the K-Tribe, and only made one error. That's right, his fielding percentage was .992 in 68 games and 133 chances. Anthony Gallas also rolled through Lake County with a .314 average before getting smacked in the face in the Carolina League (.197). Gallas can hit, and will likely get some opportunities this year with some likely call-ups, but at 24 really needs to capitalize on every opportunity to have any chance at progression.
This team should start off as an extremely exciting team, with 1/5 of IPI's top 50 starting off with the Mudcats. The starting pitching is understated, but could end up underrated. The bullpen, without a top 50 member, ironically enough could be the strongest part of the ballclub with regards to their top four relievers. The infield may be the best offensive infield in the system, and has impressive defense up the middle. The offense has speed, tenacity and promise with regards to their starters. Overall, the starting lineup is as impressive as has been in Carolina in years. The real potential with this team lies in their potential call-ups from Lake County throughout the season. As good as this team is today, it could be that much better in July. I have visions of Myles, Lindor and Washington dancing in my head. Look for the Mudcats to make the playoffs in their first season at Five County Stadium.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.