Dispelling the Indians’ Draft Woes
By Bob Toth
The Cleveland Indians have developed a reputation as a team that does not draft well.
That was certainly the case for the earlier portion of the first decade of the 21st century.
Poor drafts and talent evaluation problems helped to deplete the Indians’ minor league system of valuable prospects. The team was forced to acquire new young prospects through the trades of some of the team’s most popular and productive players or other expendable veteran parts. Moving these players early, instead of allowing them to potentially leave at the end of their contract with the club, ensures that the team procures future talent.
This week’s trade of Shin-Soo Choo and others to Cincinnati and Arizona was no exception to that norm. In fact, such a trade in 2006 with the Seattle Mariners was how Choo arrived on the scene with the Cleveland organization.
Successful trades have become so much more integral to the running of the Indians’ ball club due to the mistakes made in recent drafts. When trying to run a club fighting a “small market” moniker, an organization needs to have consistent success in three areas – the amateur draft, international signings, and in trades. Due to the poor showings in the amateur drafts while the team attempted to rebuild, the Indians were forced to embrace the purging of their stars and desired trade chips to bolster the farm system with potential major league caliber prospects for the future.
“I think the last three years, our drafts based on the expected value of our picks have been very good,” team president Mark Shapiro said. “The prior five to six years before that, certainly we did not have good drafts. And we’re suffering for that now to some extent. Yet you evaluate our trades compared to other trades, we were very successful in our trades. Among the more successful teams. Internationally we’ve done well. We need to do very well on every side of player acquisition. We can’t do well in two out of three.”
Some of the trades have worked, albeit at the expense of the team’s approval ratings in the public eye. Decreased attendance over the last several years may express the sentiments of some fans regarding their true feelings on the matter.
When looking at the core of the present Indians roster, the team is built largely with the same prospects acquired in the trades of the Indians’ most valued commodities, which has helped some to make up for what was lacking in the minor leagues.
While the front office has done well to build a core of players by raiding other organizations for their talented players, the team still has struggled with a lack of organizational depth at several key positions. The squad in Columbus last season, for example, was not filled with prospects waiting to knock down the door into the major leagues as much as it was filled with castoffs and other 4A-type ball players too good for Triple-A but not good enough to cut it consistently in the majors.
Looking back at the start of the 2012 season, the Indians’ 25-man roster included just four players (Jason Kipnis, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Josh Tomlin) who were originally drafted by the team. As the season went on, Lonnie Chisenhall and Cody Allen joined the major league roster and, in September when the rosters expanded throughout the league, Cord Phelps joined them in the majors. By that time, Tomlin was already lost for the season and most of next year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Even the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, both teams who could buy any player under the sun, played most of the 2012 season with more of their own drafted players on their roster (7) than the Indians did.
Shapiro stated that the amateur drafts of the last few years have been much better than the five to six years prior. Taking a more in depth look at the ball club, he may be right.
With the trade of Sipp (draft class of 2004 – 45th round) to Arizona, Pestano (2006 – 20th round) becomes the longest-tenured active Indians’ player originally drafted by the club. The status of left-hander David Huff (2006 – 1st round) will be decided by the end of Spring Training. When Tomlin (2006 – 19th round) is able to rejoin the team, he will join Pestano and possibly Huff with that honor.
The only other drafted player with that many years of experience within the organization currently is Paolo Espino (2006 – 10th round), a 25-year old right-handed starting pitcher who spent all but two starts in Double-A Akron.
With such a small handful of carryovers from the drafts of the mid-2000’s, it may be safe to say Shapiro was correct in his assessment that those drafts were bad. But have we seen notable improvements in more recent drafts?
Look at the draft classes from 2008 and on.
Pestano, Chisenhall (2008 – 1st round), Kipnis (2009 – 2nd round), and Allen (2011 – 23rd round) should all be locks for the 2013 roster. Phelps (2008 – 3rd round) has spent time in the big leagues in each of the last two seasons while behind Kipnis on the organizational depth chart at second base.
During 2012, recent picks Tim Fedroff (2008 – 7th round), Eric Berger (2008 – 8th round), Matt Langwell (2008 – 11th round), Tyler Sturdevant (2009 – 27th round), Matt Packer (2009 – 32nd round), and Cole Cook (2010 – 5th round) all saw time at Triple-A Columbus.
Another handful of a half-dozen or so players drafted between 2008 and 2011 spent portions of their 2012 seasons at Akron and may not be too far from making the move to Columbus, including Trey Haley (2008 – 2nd round) and T.J. House (2008 – 16th round), who were both added to the 40-man roster on November 20th.
Four more draft picks during these years have reached Cleveland previously or have made it elsewhere after being traded away. More prominently, Drew Pomeranz (2010 – 1st round) and Alex White (2009 – 1st round) were traded to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade of 2011. Pomeranz made his major league debut later that season. White, who had appeared in three games for the Indians prior to the trade, appeared in 30 games for the Rockies in a year and a half before being dealt this offseason to the Houston Astros.
Colorado acquired Zach Putnam (2008 – 5th round) last offseason from the Indians in exchange for Kevin Slowey. Putnam appeared in eight games in 2011 for the Indians and another two last season for the Rockies. He was claimed off waivers by the Chicago Cubs after the season and then non-tendered less than a month later, making him a free agent.
Reliever Cory Burns (2009 – 8th round) appeared in 17 games with the San Diego Padres last season after being traded the previous December by the Indians for outfielder Aaron Cunningham. He was traded again less than three weeks ago by the Padres to the Texas Rangers.
Focusing in on the 50 players drafted in 2008 gives us a look at a group who should have had enough time to progress through the minor leagues. Four players – Chisenhall, Phelps, Putnam, and pitcher Adam Warren (36th round pick who did not sign with the Indians; was drafted in the 4th round in 2009 by the Yankees) – have made it to the majors. Fedroff, Berger, and Langwell all reached Columbus. Haley and House are both with Akron, playing alongside fellow classmates Jeremie Tice, Adam Abraham, Bryce Stowell, and Roberto Perez. Former Indians’ prospect Donnie Webb, who reached Columbus in 2011, was in Double-A Jacksonville in the Miami Marlins’ organization. Another, Marty Popham, played for Double-A New Britain in the Minnesota Twins’ organization after spending parts of 2010 and 2011 between Akron and Columbus.
Twenty-one players did not sign from that draft class, including Warren. Fourteen of the remaining 29 players have made it to Double-A or above within their respective organizations. Nine of the Indians’ first eleven picks in that draft have played in Akron or higher, with the exception of their 4th round pick David Roberts, who did not sign with the team, and 9th round pick Clayton Cook, who missed nearly all of 2012 with an injury but was expected to play in Akron at some point during the year.
When compared to the 2007 draft, the 2008 one looks stellar.
The Indians drafted 48 players in the 2007 draft, down from the usual 50. They lost their 2nd and 3rd round picks as compensation for the free agent signings of reliever Roberto Hernandez and outfielder David Dellucci.
Despite having an extra year to develop, only two players drafted that year by the Indians have reached the major leagues. Matt Hague, an 11th round pick who failed to sign with the team, was drafted the next year by the Pirates. He was called up to Pittsburgh in 2012 and played in 30 games. Josh Judy (34th round) appeared in 12 games for the Indians in 2011 and is no longer in the organization.
A total of just 17 players of the 48 drafted signed. Only two have a chance to reach the big leagues with the Indians, and one is much farther away than the other.
Bo Greenwell (6th round), son of former major leaguer Mike Greenwell, has yet to surpass Single-A, despite six years in the organization. Kyle Landis (18th round) spent 2012 in Akron, with the exception of one three-inning appearance in Columbus early in the season.
First-rounder Beau Mills was traded to Cincinnati after struggling in two stints at Columbus. T.J. McFarland (2nd round) split last season between Akron and Columbus and will get a shot in the major leagues this season after being selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Chris Jones (15th round) was traded to the Atlanta Braves in the Derek Lowe trade last season and reached Double-A there for the first time in his career.
Daniel Morales (14th round), Garrett Rieck (29th round), and Brian Juhl (35th round) were out of minor league baseball after the 2008 season. Jonathan Holt (3rd round), Mark Thompson (8th round), Adam White (9th round), Heath Taylor (10th round), Garrison Campfield (12th round), and Matt Brown (13th round) were done after the 2009 season. Kevin Rucker (47th round) lasted until the end of the 2010 campaign and Joey Mahalic (32nd round) made it into the 2011 season, but neither of them advanced beyond Single-A.
The team could not have drafted much worse than it did in 2007 and the prospects on the field from that class show it. Shapiro was right to believe that the drafts that have followed have been marked improvements. However, it would not have taken much to have exceeded the low expectations set in 2007.
Do the draft classes from 2009 and on show the level of improvement that the 2008 class did? Are these recent drafts comparable to other teams around the league? Check back next Sunday to see how some of the other Indians’ drafts stack up.
Photo: Hannah Foslien / Getty Images