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Weekend Update 2/28: Minor League Camp Battles Loom

February 28, 2009
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A lot of the attention early in the Indians big league camp has been on the battles for the 5th starter, last reliever, and final bench player. But, there is another interesting battle brewing with the start of minor league camp just a week away.

There will be many position battles in minor league camp this spring, particurly on the pitching staff for Kinston and Lake County as close to 40-50 players could be vying for what should be just 24 pitching spots available (12 on each team). I'll talk about all of that in the coming weeks as minor league camp gets underway, but right now one of the big camp battles is shaping up to be at Triple-A Columbus where Stephen Head, Michael Aubrey, and Andy Marte are essentially battling for what looks like two available spots on the roster there.

The roster size in Triple-A and Double-A is only 24 players (one less than the major league 25-man roster), so since Columbus likely will have 12 pitchers it means they will have just 12 position players where not including the designated hitter it leaves you four bench players (one of them plays as the DH). One spot is already locked up on the bench to be whoever is not starting at catcher between Wyatt Toregas and Chris Gimenez. Another spot locked in is a utility infielder that can primarily play up the middle, which will be one of Andy Cannizaro, Brandon Pinckney, Wilson Valdez, Jesus Merchan, and Tony Graffanino. This leaves two bench spots, one that has to be for a player that can play outfield and be the fourth outfielder on the team.

Head would seem to be close to a lock to fill one of the open bench spots as he can essentially be the fourth outfielder and also split time at first base and designated hitter. With Trevor Crowe, Michael Brantley, and Matt LaPorta slotted to be the regular starting outfield and Jordan Brown slotted as the regular first baseman, while Head would be filling in a role on the bench he would still be a regular by playing five to six games a week still because of his ability to play the outfield and first base as well as DH.

However, while going into camp Head was all but certain to start the year in Columbus, Andy Marte has thrown a wrench into the works somewhat. With the Indians designating him for assignment earlier in the week and him clearing waivers, Marte is now in big league camp as a non-rostered spring training invite. He has no chance to make the Indians opening day roster, and if they don't trade him during camp at some point he will be reassigned to minor league camp. Although, the Indians may decide instead to keep Marte in big league camp until the very end of spring training with the hope that they can maybe showcase him some for a small trade to a team looking to fill a depth need at third base. When spring training ends many teams will have figured out what they need and where they are short on depth, so the hope for the Indians may be that someone could use a third baseman at the Triple-A level or a bench option for the big league club.

Now, having Gimenez on the team pretty much eliminates the need for a backup third baseman, as he can more than adequately fill in at third base when the regular starter Wes Hodges needs a rest. Because of the versatility of Gimenez, there is no need for an additional player on the bench who can play third base. Gimenez can also play some outfield and fill in out there, but likely won't play out there on a regular basis.

It is hard to envision the Indians actually sending Marte to Columbus, but if this scenario is to take place he would go to Columbus and be a bench player filling in at third base, first base and designated hitter. But if this happens, when you consider you already have Brown at first, and then Marte on the bench able to play first and designated hitter, it pretty much means Aubrey and Head could be considered redundant and one would not make the team. Aubrey would be released, or Head would open in Double-A Akron instead.

Head opening in Akron would not be a huge shock as the Indians have done this before as it happened to Trevor Crowe last year. The Indians may also surprise and actually have Crowe make the big league team out of camp, which if that happened it would make Head a slam dunk to be in Columbus since he would become the starting right fielder. This would also mean that both Marte and Aubrey could make the team as players on the bench. But, if the Indians do not go that route and Crowe opens the season in Columbus, then bottom line Head's versatility and talent should trump Aubrey and Marte and he should be on the team regardless, which would mean that final bench spot comes down to Aubrey and Marte.

Three years ago many would have laughed in my face if I said Aubrey and Marte would be fighting for a job at Triple-A. But, after years of disappointment (Marte) and injuries (Aubrey), this is what it has come down to for these once highly heralded prospects. To think both of these guys were at one time #1 or #2 ranked prospects in their organization and where they are now. In the end, if I had to make a prediction, I would say Head and Aubrey make the team and Marte is traded in a small deal at the end of camp. I just don't see how he fits in at Columbus and will get any regular playing time without getting in the way of the development needs of more promising players like Hodges, Gimenez, Head, and Brown.

Just to show you how crazy the bench makeup could be in Columbus, the Indians could even throw a curveball and choose to keep two of the utility infielders mentioned above, thereby leaving just one spot open for Marte, Aubrey, and Head.

Ah, yes, the joys of virtual GMing and the excitement as the start of minor league camp nears.

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Indians first baseman/outfielder Stephen Head was on our Smoke Signals program this past Thursday. If you have not yet listened to any of our interviews, this is one you have to check out as he was easily the best interview we've had on the show so far. That is not meant as any disrespect to any of our prior guests as all of them have been great, it is just based on the feedback from those who have already listened and how relaxed and engaging he was in response to the questions asked. His candor and insight was really nice on some of the things we talked about such as how he struggled through the 2006 season in Kinston. He had a hard time adapting to some adjustments to his swing that were handed down and he lived through what was really a bad year and many people hold that season against him, so his comments on that were spot on. Also, all the stuff he shared about being in big league camp was some really great stuff. Thanks again to Stephen for coming on the show.

This week (March 5th) we will have right-hander Steven Wright on the program. Wright is already in Arizona for early camp, so we should be able to get some insight into what goes on for those who report early as well as what he is up to.

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Baseball America released their Top 100 Prospect list this week and four Indians were on the list: CA Carlos Santana (#26), OF/1B Matt LaPorta (#27), OF Nick Weglarz (#58) and RHP Adam Miller (#82).

Baseball America also released their rankings at each position, and here are the Indians included in those rankings:

Catcher: Carlos Santana (3rd)
First Base: Beau Mills (11th)
Second Base: Luis Valbuena (5th)
Shortstop: Carlos Rivero (12th)
Third Base: Lonnie Chisenhall (10th), Wes Hodges (14th)
Corner Outfield: Matt LaPorta (4th), Nick Weglarz (9th)
Left-handed Starter: David Huff (17th)
Relief Pitcher: Adam Miller (2nd)

The Indians did not have anyone ranked in center field or for right-handed starter, although Michael Brantley and Hector Rondon were surely close on those lists....and arguably should have been included.

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This past week the Indians opened their new Player Development complex where they will hold all spring workouts. The 42,000 square foot complex provides a state of the art facility which will be used year round by the Indians as they will field an Arizona League rookie level team and also use the complex for extended spring training and Fall Instructional League, meaning there will be minor league activity there pretty much from the end of February to the end of October there nonstop every year. The complex features separate minor and major league clubhouses on each side of the facility that are split by a giant weight room and training/rehab center in the middle of the complex. Outside of the facility, they have six full practice fields, two half-fields, an agility field and six outdoor batting tunnels.

While some players have already reported for early camp, pitchers report to minor league camp on March 5th and position players on March 7th.

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