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2014 Tony Awards: Biggest Breakthrough

2014 Tony Awards: Biggest Breakthrough
Erik Gonzalez (Photo: Brittany Chay)
October 20, 2014
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Today we continue the IBI postseason awards with the announcement of the Biggest Breakthrough in the minors.  This award goes to the player who may not have been as highly touted coming into the season on prospect lists, but by the end of the season is definitely on the prospect map going into next season.

Here are the 2014 Tony Awards so far:

Rookie of the Year:  Bobby Bradley
Defensive Player of the Year: Tony Wolters
Biggest Disappointment: Cody Anderson

With the Biggest Disappointment award out of the way we can finally get back to talking about the good in the Indians minor league system.

Note that the nominees listed below are players that have taken a significant jump in their prospect standing. What this means for example is a 30-50 ranked guy in the 2014 IBI Top 100 moving into Top 10 territory for 2014, a lower ranked guy near the bottom of the 2014 IBI Top 100 moving into the middle of the Top 100 for 2014, or a guy that was not even in the 2014 IBI Top 100 that is now firmly in it for 2014.

Also, while players such as Mitch BrownNellie RodriguezShawn ArmstrongCasey ShaneAnderson PolancoLouis HeadGrant Sides and Jeremy Lucas were considered for this listing and have surely moved up for next season, they just missed this list because the other players should see more significant jumps in their rankings for next season.

In the coming days the Reliever of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year and All-Tony Team will be announced.  Again, these awards are simply for fun to hand out at the end of the year.  Also, the Cleveland Indians in no way whatsoever had any input in these awards.

Onto the nominees…

Biggest Breakthrough Nominees

Elvis Araujo, LHP
43 G, 2-1, 3.42 ERA, 50.0 IP, 43 H, 23 R (19 ER), 3 HR, 28 BB, 50 K, .239 BAA

Araujo began the season ranked as the IBI’s #49 ranked prospect, though he is no stranger to top 20-30 lists as he has been in there in the past when he was younger and a starter. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career and with consistency as a starter, but after pitching well in the bullpen in winter ball last year the Indians moved him into that role this season and he flourished. He stayed healthy, his stuff got better and he was more consistent. This is a legit power lefty prospect in the bullpen, but the only problem is he is a free agent and no sure thing to resign with the Indians unless they roster him (40-man roster trumps minor league free agency).

Justin Brantley, RHP
25 G, 4-1, 1.31 ERA, 41.1 IP, 31 H, 7 R (6 ER), 3 HR, 15 BB, 47 K, .204 BAA

Brantley was unranked in the 2014 IBI Top 100 going into the season, but he no doubt will be somewhere in the 50-75 range next season. At this time last year he was not even a part of the organization as he was not signed until a few weeks before spring training. This is an example of scouting at its best as the Indians unearthed a real gem that has some potential, and his performance this season shows it. The caveat is he is an older, college experienced arm who dominated some young, inexperienced bats in Low-A, but the upside is that he has a powerful arsenal and some exceptional work ethic like his cousin Michael Brantley.

Ivan Castillo, SS
84 G, .260 AVG (82-for-315), 37 R, 12 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 11 BB, 61 K, 11 SB, .658 OPS

Castillo was unranked in the 2014 IBI Top 100 going into the season, but he showed enough this season where he should find himself somewhere in the bottom half of the Top 100 next season. He has youth on his side as he is only 19-years old, plays shortstop well, can run, and showed some surprising pop in his bat. It remains to be seen if the power is real, but the Indians believe he has a quick enough bat where it is and that he should continue to plug gaps as he matures with age and with his approach. The one big concern is that 11:61 walk to strikeout ratio, so improving his discipline and approach will continue to be a main area of focus.

Anthony Gallas, OF
131 G, .285 AVG (143-for-501), 64 R, 37 2B, 2 3B, 24 HR, 80 RBI, 38 BB, 123 K, 4 SB, .845 OPS

Gallas was unranked in the 2014 IBI Top 100 going into the season, but his impressive showing this season will surely see him placed somewhere around the Top 50 next season. His stock dropped considerably in the past few seasons because of a combination of age, recurring injuries, low draft pedrigree and poor performance, but he came back with a vengeance this year and had a very good season that has put him on the prospect radar. He’s always been considered one of the strongest and most powerful players in the system, and with health it all came together this season. While the power is very interesting, for him to impact at the big league level he needs to get better defensively and clean up that approach.

Erik Gonzalez, SS
105 G, .309 AVG (135-for-437), 65 R, 20 2B, 10 3B, 4 HR, 62 RBI, 30 BB, 88 K, 21 SB, .780 OPS

Gonzalez opened the season as the IBI’s #40 ranked prospect. He was added to the roster in the offseason and had a very good breakout showing in 2013 to get himself into the Top 50 this year, and he followed it up with another very good season which is going to get him somewhere into the Top 10 next season. Among full season players he finished 1st in the organization in batting average and 5th in stolen bases. He continues to show some pop with the bat, an innate ability to drive in runs and some impressive leather in the field. He made some strides with his approach and discipline, and improving in that area will ultimately be the separator that determines his fate in the big leagues.

Ben Heller, RHP
45 G, 5-1, 2.38 ERA, 53.0 IP, 27 H, 16 R (14 ER), 4 HR, 29 BB, 81 K, .148 BAA

Heller was unranked in the 2014 IBI Top 100 going into the season, but is no doubt going to find himself somewhere in the bottom half of the Top 100 next year. He had an unbelievable showing at Low-A Lake County in 28 appearances (15.6 K/9, 4.6 H/9, 0.95 WHIP, .148 BAA) which got him noticed and a promotion to High-A Carolina. He struggled some at Carolina, mostly with his command, but overall had a good showing there and will get a chance to repeat there to open next season. He’s put himself on the big league radar as one of the Indians better bullpen prospects, though to stay there will need to continue to show dominant stuff and put up impressive numbers.

Josh Martin, RHP
39 G, 5-6, 2.84 ERA, 66.2 IP, 47 H, 23 R (21 ER), 4 HR, 21 BB, 69 K, .194 BAA

Martin opened the season as the IBI’s #90 ranked prospect. After a so-so showing at High-A Carolina the second half of 2013, his age and limitations as a reliever, he did not end up high in the rankings though will surely make a few leaps up the rankings next year. He showed some dominant stuff in a return to Carolina this season and put up some impressive numbers, but what really impressed was how he pitched the last month of the year at Carolina and in a few appearances with Double-A Akron to end the season and in the playoffs. His stuff took a step forward this season, he has size, he has strength and he has durability, which is a good recipe for a pen prospect.

Ryan Merritt, LHP
25 GS, 13-3, 2.58 ERA, 160.1 IP, 128 H, 56 R (46 ER), 12 HR, 25 BB, 127 K, .216 BAA

Merritt opened the season as the IBI’s #45 ranked prospect. He finished 1st in the organization in ERA (min 0.8 IP per team game), 2nd in wins, and tied for 4th in strikeouts, so he no doubt had an impressive season. He finished 3rd in the Carolina League in ERA, 5th in games started, 1st in innings pitched, 4th in strikeouts and 1st in WHIP, and would have won the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year award if not for the sensational showing from Glenn Sparkman with Wilmington (Royals). The big step forward statistically is good to see, but what was really nice to see was the ability to show durability, haul a lot of innings and the improvement of his offspeed stuff.

Will Roberts, RHP
27 GS, 12-12, 4.08 ERA, 161.0 IP, 170 H, 81 R (73 ER), 13 HR, 36 BB, 98 K, .276 BAA

Roberts opened the season as the IBI’s #50 ranked prospect. While the numbers may not impress, he did finish 2nd in the organization in wins and finished 2nd in the Eastern League in wins, 1st in starts, 1st in innings pitched and 9th in WHIP (1.28). With his intriguing size, athleticism, durability and ability to haul innings, he has solidified himself as a back of the rotation prospect for the Indians. That alone will see him make a good jump in the rankings going into next season, but he also made some strides with his stuff and according to Indians coaches may be on the verge of a big breakout next season if everything clicks. This is a guy to keep an eye on next season.

Giovanny Urshela, 3B
128 G, .280 AVG (136-for-485), 78 R, 36 2B, 6 3B, 18 HR, 84 RBI, 36 BB, 67 K, 1 SB, .825 OPS

Urshela opened the season as the IBI’s #36 ranked prospect, but he is no stranger to the Top 25 as he placed in there going into the 2011 and 2013 seasons. There is no doubt that he will once again be in the Top 25 next year and should get strong consideration for the Top 10. He finished 4th in the organization in home runs and 2nd in RBI, and among full season players was in the top 10 in batting average. His defensive play has always been superb and he has always shown a good ability to make consistent contact and avoid strikeouts, but this season he finally put it all together offensively with an improved approach which resulted in more walks and a spike in his power. He’s no doubt the heir apparent to third base in Cleveland.

And the Tony Award goes to….Erik Gonzalez

While there are a lot of guys on this list who will make a considerable jump from nonranked status to somewhere in or around the Top 50 next season, the three players who made the biggest breakthrough were Gonzalez, Merritt and Urshela.

Merritt went from an interesting small sized lefty arm the Indians wanted to see if he could start to someone who has fimsly established himself as a legit starting pitching prospect for them. Urshela went from a guy who many felt was at most a Jack Hannahan-type who is strong defensively but limited offensively in the big leagues to someone who now has a chance to be a solid Major League starter as whole and Pedro Feliz-type player.

But no one came close to the breakthrough that Gonzalez had this season.  Even though he had been rostered in the offseason, was coming off a big 2013 showing and was getting a lot of positive talk in the industry, I was hesitant to buy in on a player who had a big year after such a bad year the season before at Short-A Mahoning Valley in 2012 (.220 AVG, .563 OPS). I’m all in now, and he is no doubt a top 10 prospect in the organization and arguably a top five prospect.

Gonzalez made some notable improvements with his approach which resulted in incremental improvements in his walk rate, strikeout rate and more consistent, hard contact. As a result, his batting average spiked upward. He had some help with a high BABIP, but some of that is inflated because of that aforementioned consistent, hard contact. The power numbers were not as good as last season as he saw a significant decline in his isolated power (.163 to .119), but some of that was due to the parks he played in this season and also that focus on his approach. He also became a better runner on the basepaths combining his athleticism, solid speed and smarts to affect games on the bases.

Where Gonzalez probably made the biggest stride is with his defense. He had always been viewed as a guy who could play anywhere on the diamond because of his athleticism and versatility, but he showed some things last season which caught the Indians attention and forced them to lock in on him and give him every day shortstop opportunities...and he soared this season. The growth he has made at the shortstop position is exciting and he has solidified himself as a legit Major League option and someone who can be an everyday shortstop at least from a defensive perspective. He even rivals Francisco Lindor as the organization’s top defensive shortstop as many consider Gonzalez to be on par or just below Lindor defensively.

Gonzalez reminds me some of Alexei Ramirez with his plus defense, athleticism, pop in his bat and questionable plate discipline skills. Whether or not he becomes that kind of player remains to be seen, but for now he has established himself as a legit Major League option at some point next season. With three shortstops in Gonzalez, Lindor and Jose Ramirez ready to help next season, that is a great problem to have for the Indians and will be interesting to see shake itself out.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Vic Venom
October 24, 2014 - 11:26 AM EDT
Yall are hyping up this Gonzalez dude like he's the next Alex Rodriguez
Jake D.
October 21, 2014 - 4:54 PM EDT
I couldn't have timed my internship with the RubberDucks this season any better. Among other intriguing developments, I finally got an extended look at Francisco Lindor, at least up until he went to Columbus. But then, look out, here comes Erik Gonzalez! I loved what I saw in Lindor, as many scouts and analysts have, but I've really become a "Gonzo" fan based on what I saw in the 2nd half of the season. Obviously Lindor is still the superior prospect, but what I like in Gonzalez more than Lindor is his athletic ability in a larger size and build, which could make him a more durable player.

What will be interesting this offseason is if the Indians utilize their deep stock of middle infield and outfield prospects as trade chips. Generally speaking, I don't really like trading prospects, but realistically, I know monetary assets are limited and we could see some wheeling and dealing from Chris Antonetti, who has had success on the trade front in recent years.
October 21, 2014 - 10:15 AM EDT
Call me a hater, but I still don't see it with EGonzo's bat. His approach hasn't improved much and is still an issue. You can throw his BA and OBP out the window because of incredible BABIP luck. At a normal .300, he'd be the .250ish hitter he was the 3 seasons before that. I also don't see Tony's argument that his BABIP can be explained with harder contact, but then his ISO went down significantly? Doesn't make sense to me. He got lucky, that's what most probably happened, let's not try to sugarcoat it. Sell high.

He will open at a higher level for the first time next season at age 23.5. Both Lindor and JRam are younger, have produced more consistently at higher levels. He's a borderline Top 20 guy for me, a really fine prospect, who maybe could be considered a top 10 in a weaker system with no other MIF specs, but with Lindor and JRam in the system Gonzalez does not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as both these guys in my opinion. I really hope he's the one that gets dealt this offseason and I hope he's not the reason why the Indians feel they can trade one of the other two. That would be a big mistake in my opinion.

Urshela should have won this. From periphery to consensus top 10 and better, he's top 3-5 for me.

Still a good read of course, thanks Tony.
October 21, 2014 - 9:27 AM EDT
Gallas is an interesting case. He had a great year but his prospect value I'd still rather limited. I hope he gets a chance in Cleveland but the odds are long. His limitations defensively to pretty much LF only hurts him and his advanced age. He's viewed more of a Jared Goedert type right now which is as upper level power depth.
October 21, 2014 - 9:06 AM EDT
I would think Mitch Brown might qualify more for bounce back / comeback player of the yr.

As for Anthony Gallas, he's definately got interesting power, maybe he's a late bloomer, maybe it's been injury that's slowed his development, honestly I'm not sure. Gallas is probably best suited as a LF / DH
October 21, 2014 - 8:59 AM EDT
Bobby, I think they'll lose Arajuo in FA. I'm not sure if he's rule 5 eligible, but I think he'd be picked if he was. Teams are always looking for LH pitching. The Indians will be in a tight spot with the 40 man roster. Guys like Urshela, Anderson, Wolters, Merritt, and Armstrong need added then there's guys like Colon, and Roberts that would be fringe adds.
October 21, 2014 - 8:02 AM EDT
Mitch Brown and Luis Lugo were already pretty well established they did not "breakthrough" and thus were not listed.
October 21, 2014 - 4:04 AM EDT
Surprised that Mitch Brown wasn't included in the nominees. I thought he had a superb year and he has a pretty high prospect status.

Also kind of surprised Lugo was omitted. You were pretty high on him during the season, do you still view his year as a success?
October 21, 2014 - 3:20 AM EDT
OK Tony, remember last spring when I TOLD YOU SO? This guy is going to be a big timer, 10 year starter type!
October 20, 2014 - 6:10 PM EDT
Ordinarily I'd look past a 26-year old player's number at Double A but Gallas is a right handed bat. And 24 home runs in a pitcher's park like Akron is impressive. Power is in short supply in MLB these days. Can Gallad handle CF or is he strictly a corner OF?
October 20, 2014 - 6:04 PM EDT
Well deserving award..this kid can play.. and play well..

btw.. tony.. strikeout to walk ratio for Castillo.. not walk to strikeout ratio (which would be 0.086)
October 20, 2014 - 2:33 PM EDT
You would think the Indians would roster Araujo now so as to avoid losing him to free agency, no?
October 20, 2014 - 12:19 PM EDT
Wow, the Indians are loaded with shortstops. And suddenly they have some nice position player depth at the AAA/AA level. I'm excited to see what Gonzalez and Urshela do in 2015!

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