Minor Happenings: Bullpen Changes Galore For Indians
Today is a special edition of Minor Happenings, one that comes about as a result of the pretty significant news yesterday - from a farm system standpoint - that right-hander Hector Rondon has been moved to the bullpen. As fate would have it, I happened to have a scheduled visit to Akron last night and was able to get the scoop on the change from several people in the Indians organization.
In addition to the Rondon move, I was also able to get some comments on some of the other pitchers recently moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, namely right-handers Frank Herrmann and Zach Putnam. I was also able to get a better idea on how the Indians put together their Double-A and Triple-A rosters, why they have so many veterans in Triple-A, and why some guys tend to go up and down between the two levels.
Those who read Minor Happenings know I give it raw, to the point and straight from the horse's mouth. That's the same approach I have taken with it today as with so many quotes from the people I talked to last night, there is no need to color things up with lead in sentences and all that and instead just give the cuts from the front office personnel and coaches directly.
Also, here is some video last night of Hector Rondon and Zach Putnam in action:
Video 1: Rondon strikes a hitter out
Video 2: Rondon gives up a weak hit over shortstop's head
Video 3: Putnam with the strikeout
Indians Farm Director Ross Atkins spoke for a few minutes on some of the recent decisions to move three of their higher profile starting pitchers into bullpen roles. Here is what he had to say:
On Hector Rondon: "The thinking [with a move to the bullpen] is he has a very impressive arm and is someone who we feel can get major league outs. He showed that in major league spring training and he continues to show in Double-A the ability to do that. We do have some needs throughout the system for bullpen depth, so we are taking a look at Hector in that role to see if he could potentially help our major league team on the short term. However, we clearly view Hector having ability to one day be a major league starter. This is because he is more prepared to potentially help in the bullpen now because of where his secondary pitches are, so we are just taking a look at him in that capacity."
On Zach Putnam: "He is a guy we took in the draft last year out of Michigan who has a power fastball up to 95 MPH and has a strikeout splitter. He did have the ability to start in college and may have the ability to start in the major leagues, but we see him as having the potential to be a high upside bullpen arm. Sometimes you just make the decisions to develop them in those roles. Is it out of the question that he will never start again? No, it is not out of the question. But in the near future he is going to be developed as a bullpen arm. Obviously he is moving quickly as he was just taken in the 2008 draft and in 2009 he is already in Double-A. His first outing was better than his second, but he is showing plenty of ability. I think he has already touched 95 MPH in Double-A and gotten a couple of strikeouts with his split finger. He is extremely athletic with a great baseball pedigree. He is someone we are excited about."
On Frank Herrmann: "Frank is a guy who was taken out of Harvard back in 2005. He really has grinded it out in the minor leagues as a starter, and he has put himself on the map by being durable, consistent, and slowly his secondary pitches have come as he has always had good fastball ability. He really locates his fastball just about as good as anybody we have, especially down and away or opposite arm side. Frank has come up to Triple-A and already been better than just competitive. He has been pretty close to flawless since he has been there. He is really not intimidated by the bat as he attacks guys and comes after them with his fastball. Really he is a guy who has already exceeded expectations and is someone we feel will continue to do that."
Assistant Director's Cuts
Like I did with Atkins two weeks ago in Akron, I was able to sit down during the game with Assistant Farm Director Meka Asonye and talk at length about a myriad of topics concerning the Indians farm system. From the role changes of Rondon and Putnam, to how they setup their Triple-A and Double-A squads, why they sign so many veterans, and so on.
Also, during our conversation I learned that right-hander Bryce Stowell is about ready to be activated from extended spring training and likely will be in Kinston or Lake County in their rotation within the next week (likely Kinston).
On Hector Rondon: "I think the move is definitely prompted by a need at the big league level. We certainly see Rondon as a guy who can contribute sometime potentially in the near future and we feel like this gives him a chance to potentially impact our big league team. I don't want to say [his stuff] will play up because I think even as a starter you see the fact that even in the 6th and 7th inning he is still working 91-94 MPH. It definitely has a chance to play up in short stints, but I think with his stuff even as a starter he has maintained above average stuff throughout his outings."
On Rondon's ability to handle bullpen role: "Because of his weapons he is going to be fine in whatever role he pitches in. The same thing with Fausto Carmona, he was able to break in as a reliever before he was a starter. In spring training these guys do pitch out of the bullpen, so I don't see it really affecting him at all. He didn't really have a bad outing tonight (Tuesday). His stuff was still good tonight, he just had a couple bad plays behind him and a couple cheap hits."
On how Rondon prepares for the new role: "I think as a starter you know you are going every fifth day and when your bullpen sessions are. So there is a little more routine, but even in the minor leagues our bullpen arms still follow the same routine. It is a little bit different with the conditioning, the lifting, and how they throw, but we are still in the business of developing and working on their player plan. He still is going to be working on the same things even though he is not starting right now."
On Rondon's chances of being in Cleveland soon: "I think there is definitely a shot. Any guy at this level at Double-A is knocking at the door to the big leagues. When you look at a guy with Hector's stuff and the way he has started out this year, he has two plus pitches and another average one that he has average control with. He is definitely a guy we see who can impact our big league staff in the near future. Whatever that timeline is will be dictated by him."
On the chances others on the Double-A pitching staff have at getting a big league shot: "In any year, we see a lot of teams call guys up directly from Double-A. Any one of these guys could be thought of to be right on the cusp depending on the need in the big leagues, depending on how they are doing, and depending on how their development is going. They are all knocking on the door."
On who signs the minor league free agents: "It is all done organizationally, but it is usually Player Development [that does it]. We had a need at the Triple-A level, and we saw Blaine Neal as a guy who could get us some innings. You never know with the way things are going this year he might even be able to serve as major league depth. In-season and in the offseason it is mostly the Player Development Department, but it is a team effort. It comes from Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, Ross and myself. Everyone kind of has a hand in it. The Neal signing was mostly Ross, but we are all a team and all chip in."
On how such signings may affect the psyche of a player bumping them down in order to sign a veteran: "We like to say the minor leagues are the minor leagues. If you are not in the major leagues you are in the minor leagues and what you are doing is working on addressing your limitations to get you to the big leagues. Whether you are working on them in extended spring training, Double-A or Triple-A, as long as you are getting repetitions by getting outs and getting at bats, then you are on your way. Especially with the difference between Double-A and Triple-A so negligible because the talent level is so close. In Triple-A guys are a little bit older and a little more experienced, but Double-A teams are loaded with prospects. I don't think [the players sent down] need to take anything from it. Triple-A or Double-A, it is all the same right now. We feel like they can address their limitations the same down here [in Akron]."
On the makeup of the Triple-A roster: "We like to look at Double-A and Triple-A as major league depth, but we also have guys like Matt LaPorta, Wes Hodges and Michael Brantley in Columbus and a lot of the guys who were in major league camp like Nick Weglarz, Ryan Edell, Beau Mills, and others are [in Akron] as well. Any guy who is in major league camp [in the spring] we kind of feel like they are at some level a major league depth guy. In Triple-A the rest of the roster is filled out by minor league free agents who we feel like can come up and help the team. So if you look at some of the singings we made in the offseason, whether it is a Matt Herges or Vinnie Chulk, we feel like those are guys that serve as veteran major league depth. But we definitely have prospects at both levels. I mean, yeah, guys would probably rather be in Triple-A just because of where they are in their career, but the difference between whether it is a Hodges, Brantley, or Aubrey at Triple-A or at Double-A a Santana, Rondon or Mills, they are all right there."
On Zach Putnam: "It is tough to say what role he is eventually going to fill. I think just given the fact he has that sinker-slider-splitter, it kind of profiles as a reliever. But you never want to pigeon-hole a guy too early. I think he can handle any role, be it in the backend of the bullpen or as a starting pitcher. I think as time goes by we will figure out what that role is exactly for him, but we think [the move to the bullpen] is something that will help his development and possibly speed up his [advancement] to the major leagues. Sometimes you draft a guy and he is a little more of a project, but just coming out of that college program in Michigan he was a guy who knows how to pitch and is a little more advanced. So far here in Akron he has proven he is ready. I saw his first outing out here and he was throwing his fastball 91-95 MPH, he had the split at 82-83 MPH and it was in the dirt and guys were chasing it, and he mixes in a slider too. He is a great athlete too. When you have a guy with that many tools, the ability to command the strike zone, and the fact he is coming out of a college program where he has done it before, we feel a lot more comfortable sending him up here. He has certainly shown us he can handle it."
Coaches Corner: Ruben Niebla
I was able to sit down with Akron Pitching Coach Ruben Niebla for about ten minutes before the game yesterday to discuss Rondon's move to the bullpen and the Indians philosophy with making a pitcher a starter or reliever. I am often asked why they do not convert a pitcher to a reliever sooner, especially if they project as one. Obviously, a pitcher has more value to the organization as a starter, but I asked him what the general reason is behind keeping them a starter as long as possible. Here is what he has to say about that, Rondon, and some other players:
On Hector Rondon: "Us being here when we get the phone call we follow the process with whatever they want us to do. That was the phone call we got last night (Monday), and we are going to follow through [with moving him to the bullpen]. I think right now we are going day by day with it. He will pitch out of the bullpen today (Tuesday), and then we will see how he reacts tomorrow and bounces back. Now, let's not get caught up that Hector has not done this before as he did it in big league camp pitching out of the bullpen. I think there will be a transition, but he will be able to handle it. I think he will be good in any role. He has shown throughout his career that he can be successful as a starter, and he has shown he can be successful out of the bullpen. As far as stuff, he definitely has enough fastball to compete starting or relieving. He has gotten a lot better with [the slider]. I think he is aware of what makes that pitch good, it is just now a matter of doing it more consistently. [The bullpen role] is just a matter of seeing how he is able to adjust and make adjustments. I am sure he will be fine."
On starting vs. relieving: "It is the whole experience of being out there competing for multiple innings where the more hitters they face it gives us [more of an opportunity] to see what their pitches do and what they need to improve on. It also gives us information if we put them in the starting role on what they need to work on, how they need to improve, how their stuff plays out facing a lineup two times, how well they make adjustments, etc. There are just so many things [starting] can tell us about a player. When we see them as big league [options], we will make that decision [on a move to the bullpen] when the time is right."
On Jeanmar Gomez: "The stats speak for themselves. Everyone here has a process and has something to work on. Gomez is the same as everyone else. He has been great and commanded his fastball well, now it is a matter of being able to maintain it and being able to consistently get Double-A hitters out. There are certain things with his delivery we are working on still, certain consistencies with his offspeed pitches, but I think he is a solid competitor at this level at this point."
On Chuck Lofgren: "I think Chuck has taken that responsibility on himself to get himself in better shape which has allowed him to repeat his delivery a little better and be more athletic on the mound and be able to make adjustments as the game goes on. Chuck in the past has had success, and last year may have been one of those years. We are actually happy with what he is doing, but we knew he was able to do it."
On Zach Putnam: "He has great arm strength, and he is still working on his secondary stuff. Since the day he signed I think our scouting department saw him as a guy who could help out the major league team in the bullpen. He got his starts to be able to work on his delivery. I think he is in a pretty good spot right now and is a college guy capable of handling this level."
Just a quick reminder again, there will be no regular Minor Happenings this week as I am on vacation in Miami starting today. All photos courtesy of the team affiliates or myself.