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Tribe Happenings: Columbus has reinforcements in waiting

Tribe Happenings: Columbus has reinforcements in waiting
May 8, 2011
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Dave Huff is just one of many Columbus
players who should be in the big leagues.
(Photo: Lianna Holub)
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Tribe notebook…

Columbus is loaded

Not only are the Indians off to a very good start this season, but their Triple-A Columbus ballclub is absolutely dominating the minor league circuit (21-6) and considered the best team in all the minors.

The Columbus team is bursting at the seams with Major League quality talent.  Some of the talent is of the impact variety which is usual for most Major League teams, but the difference is almost the rest of the roster also has value as complimentary Major League players.  In some shape or form the Columbus team has an entire roster full of players who are ready to contribute at the big league for the Indians should a need arise.

This is unheard of as the typical Triple-A team may have a dozen or so true big league options.  Most Triple-A teams are filled with minor league veterans and those “4A” types to fill gaps and also give the Triple-A cities a better product.  The Indians signed very few “4A” players in the offseason, and most of the ones they did they released at the end of spring training.  They are relying on their own pool of players to fill the Columbus roster as catcher Paul Phillips is the only player currently assigned to the team who was an offseason minor league free agent signing that was not in the organization last year.

The Columbus roster has several impact variety prospects, but beyond the impact players the Indians have tons of good depth and complimentary level players at every position.

One impact pitcher in right-hander Alex White has already been called up, and prior to that right-hander Jeanmar Gomez was called up.  Another player of impact potential who is not even on the Columbus roster yet is outfielder Nick Weglarz.  He is still recovering from a knee injury in spring training though should be in Columbus by the end of the month.

On the starting pitching front right-handed pitcher Zach McAllister (5-0, 3.09 ERA) may never be a star but he has good potential as an innings eating third or fourth starter, and left-hander Dave Huff (3-0, 3.19 ERA) has big league experience and looks to be getting things back on track.  Right-hander Joe Martinez (2-0, 5.25 ERA) is good starting pitching depth with big league experience, and left-handed pitcher Scott Barnes (1-1, 5.40 ERA) is probably a year away but has middle-of-the rotation potential in the big leagues.  Right-hander Corey Kluber (0-3, 7.43 ERA) has struggled this year, but he is on the Indians 40-man roster and considered starting pitching depth.

The Columbus starting pitching does not even include right-hander Anthony Reyes who is stuck in extended spring training because the Indians do not have a place to put him.

In the bullpen Columbus has right-handers Frank Herrmann (0-0, 3.68 ERA) and Jensen Lewis (3-0, 3.86 ERA) who both have limited ceilings but have Major League experience.  Right-handers Josh Judy (2-1, 5.11 ERA, 5 saves) and Zach Putnam (2-0, 2.72 ERA, 3 saves) are the high ceiling bullpen prospects, and two pitchers Indians fans may soon see a lot of and pitching in high leverage situations.  Right-hander Carlton Smith (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 13.2 IP) has come on like gangbusters this year and thrown himself onto the big league radar, and while he is down the list some left-hander Eric Berger (3.2 IP, 2 G, 0 R) could be a bullpen option soon.

The Columbus bullpen does not include left-hander Nick Hagadone (2-0, 0.00 ERA, 17.0 IP) who is currently dominating at Double-A Akron and should be promoted soon.  He is the fire-balling lefty the Indians received in the Victor Martinez trade in July of 2009, and has big time impact potential as a backend reliever and could see time in Cleveland later this year if a need arises and he keeps up what he has done so far this season.

The infield is loaded.  Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.294, 2 HR, 17 RBI, .833 OPS) and second baseman Jason Kipnis (.263, 2 HR, 17 RBI, .819 OPS) are considered true impact players at the big league level, and underrated infielder Cord Phelps (.303, 2 HR, 12 RBI, .913 OPS) is not too far behind either one of them and can play almost any position in the infield.  Jason Donald (.280, 1 HR, 5 RBI, .840 OPS) has big league experience and the skills to be an everyday player or role player, and Luis Valbuena (.298, 4 HR, 16 RBI, .868 OPS) and recently returned Josh Rodriguez (1-for-6) both have a future as big league utility players.

Only first base appears to be a weakness as Wes Hodges’ (.163, 0 HR, 6 RBI, .456 OPS) career has taken a nosedive the past few years, but the situation at first base could change soon once Nick Johnson is soon activated.  Also, Travis Buck (.333, 1 HR, 13 RBI, .987 OPS) is playing a lot of first base now and really should be in the big leagues and likely will be right back up should a need arise at first base or in the outfield for the Indians.

The outfield provides a lot of depth.  Ezequiel Carrera (.316, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 12 SB, .779 OPS) should be in the big leagues as a fourth outfielder because of his good speed and excellent defense, but the Indians do not (yet) have a need for an outfielder.  Chad Huffman (.299, 5 HR, 20 RBI, .926 OPS) is a very good right-handed power bat, and he should be in the big leagues too and may soon be considered a replacement option for Austin Kearns.  Jerad Head (.378, 3 HR, 13 RBI, .954 OPS) is a long shot to get a big league opportunity this year, but he is arguably having the best season of any player in Columbus.

Finally, while Luke Carlin (.327, 2 HR, 13 RBI, .949 OPS) and Paul Phillips (.275, 1 HR, 4 RBI, .710 OPS) are not prospects and fit more into that “4A” mold mentioned earlier, both offer the Indians two suitable backup catching options should Carlos Santana or Lou Marson get hurt.

Bottom line, the Indians are loaded at the big league and Triple-A level.  Over the course of a 162-game season a team is going to have a lot of bumps and bruises along the way and it is very important to have strong depth to pull from.  Having reinforcements of the caliber the Indians have in Columbus is the envy of the other 29 teams in baseball, and is a big reason this team can sustain winning not only this season but for future years to come.

Trade ammunition

One of the great things about all that depth in Columbus for the Indians is they have several bullets to use - and some very big bullets if they want to go that far – as ammunition in a trade.

At this time of the year money is not the biggest form of currency.  Prospects are the hot commodity and are what other teams who are out of contention hope to attain in a deal, and the Indians are certainly rich in that regard.  Big league ready prospects are attractive to teams, especially those looking to get an early return on a prospect trade, sort of like what the Indians did in the Cliff Lee deal when they acquired Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, and Jason Knapp where three of the players were playing in Cleveland within a few months.

At this point the only players in the Indians minor league system who look to be untouchable are probably Lonnie Chisenhall and left-hander Drew Pomeranz.  Jason Kipnis is probably close to untouchable as well, but with Cord Phelps around if the right deal came up for the Indians to acquire a big time need and they had to give up Kipnis in the deal to complete it I would think they strongly consider it.

Either way the Indians have everything they need to complete some attractive trade packages where they can combine a Major League ready player at Columbus with a high upside prospect in the lower levels of their system to complete a deal for almost any available player.  Most importantly they are looking to deal as they have to start purging some of the incredible depth in Columbus, and teams will certainly be very interested.

Speaking of trades

It is too early to start making trades, but since the Indians have passed the 30 game mark it is time to start assessing the needs of the team.

If the Indians continue to win and show they are for real I would expect trade talks with other teams to really start picking up once mid-June rolls around.  When that time comes, the Indians are probably going to be looking for a bat or two.  Sure, the offense has been very good so far this season, but as we have seen recently when facing good pitching there are some holes in the lineup that are starting to be exploited.

First and foremost, they need a better right-handed hitting outfield alternative than Austin Kearns.  In the short term they may continue to play him, or release him and bring up Chad Huffman from Columbus.  But in the long term this season they may be best to look to another team to pick up a veteran right-handed hitting outfielder with power.  At this point I have no idea who that may be and who is even available, but that should be priority number one right now.

Next on the agenda should be to find an established right-handed setup man.  To take nothing away from Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith, I think the Indians could really use another good, experienced late inning reliever.  I find no harm in bolstering the backend of the bullpen and having to push a guy like Pestano into a 7th inning role if need be.  It would just mean you lop off someone at the front end of the bullpen like Justin Germano, which would be a good thing.

As for other needs, starting pitching is always something you look to acquire though at this point with how Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, and Josh Tomlin are pitching and all the depth the Indians have to fill the last two spots it is hard to see them picking up a starter.  Injuries and performance the next month or so will dictate where they go there.  It is also possible the Indians look to upgrade the utility spot.  While Adam Everett has filled that role well and provides excellent defense, the Indians may want a little more punch to add to the lineup.

The needs have not shown themselves yet because the team is playing so well; however, over the course of the next several weeks those needs will start to become more noticeable.  If the team is still contending come late June I expect them to use all the depth they have created at Columbus to fill some of those holes with a trade or two.

2001 Mariners redux?

Ten years ago the Seattle Mariners had the best regular season of any team in the history of baseball when they went 116-46 in 2001 and set the Major League record for most wins in a season.  They had made the playoffs the previous year, but after losing Alex Rodriguez in the offseason it was felt they would take a step back.  Instead, they took a giant leap forward.

The Indians are off to a similar unexpected hot start this year.  While no one is expecting the Indians to win a 100 games like the Mariners did that season and the Indians were not nearly as established of a contender as that Mariners team was, the same uncertainty exists early in the season this year for the Indians just like the Mariners that season.  All of the offseason moves the Mariners made with picking up Bret Boone, Ichiro Suzuki, Jeff Nelson and others paid off and everything went right during the regular season.  Much like the Mariners that year almost every offseason move the Indians made has paid off for them this year, the young players are performing, and the bounces seem to be going their way so far.

What the Mariners showed in 2001 and what the Indians are showing in 2011 is when it comes to baseball you just never know.

Choo arrested for DUI

Aside from another week of good baseball, the other big news surrounding the Indians this week was outfielder Shin-Soo Choo’s arrest early Monday morning for DUI.  It was yet again another example of a professional ballplayer making a poor choice when it comes to alcohol and driving as this year has really been the year of the DUI in Major League Baseball.  This is something I think the league is really going to start cracking down on because of the poor image it portrays as well as the danger involved to the players and the public.

The Indians and Choo’s agent Scott Boras opened dialogue in the offseason about a potential contract extension for Choo to stay with the Indians.  At the moment the Indians control him through the 2013 season as this season is his first of three arbitration years.  The dialogue did not last long as Boras publicly mocked the Indians situation and made it sound very unlikely that such an extension would ever be possible and that he would dive into free agency after the 2013 season.  With Choo’s poor start to the season on and off the field, I wonder if Boras is still in a mocking mood these days?

I also wonder if the contract extension talk is weighing on Choo a little.  Sure, he is almost three full seasons from free agency, but when you are going year to year with your contract through arbitration a lot rides on each individual season.  Maybe a long term extension with guaranteed money in exchange for an extra year or two of control for the Indians through 2014 or 2015 is exactly what Choo needs to give him peace of mind and get his head back in the game on and off the field.  Get it done.

Tough pitching decisions looming

The Indians have some tough decisions with their starting pitching that are looming.  Right-hander Carlos Carrasco looks to be about ready to come off the disabled list, and right-hander Mitch Talbot may not be far behind.

With right-handers Alex White and Jeanmar Gomez pitching well in their place, it will be interesting to see what decisions the Indians make when the time comes to activate Carrasco and Talbot.  All four pitchers are considered part of the Indians long term future, though of the four Talbot clearly has the lowest ceiling.

Injuries always have a way of “fixing” these roster issues, but if everyone remains healthy and continues to perform well it looks like Carrasco would slot back into the rotation and Gomez will be optioned out to Columbus.  Gomez could still use the seasoning and is more of a middle to backend starter anyway, whereas Carrasco (and Alex White) are considered more as frontend to middle of the rotation starters.

The big question may come when Talbot comes off the disabled list.  If White is still pitching well it seems unlikely they would send him back to Columbus.  With Talbot being out of options the Indians would have to trade him or try to sneak him through waivers in order to send him to Columbus.  Stay tuned.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his latest book the 2011 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is available for purchase for $20.95 to customers in the US (shipping and handling extra).

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