Fresh green grass. The crack of the bat. A bright warm day requiring sunscreen and a ball cap. These are sure signs of spring training and an impending new season. While Cleveland Indians farm hands were working out in balmy Arizona, fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats were enduring a March of temperatures in Central Virginia ranging from a low of 22°F to a high of 78°F. Opening Day usually marks a point when winter fast retreats in the rear view mirror. This year, winter decided to hang around a bit longer.
Under clear, sunny skies, a game time temperature of 59°F paired with a steady breeze out of left field. A mix of old and new Hillcats trotted out onto Calvin Falwell Field for the season opener. Newcomer Sam Hentges would get the nod as the Opening Day starter for the Hillcats.
The commissioner’s office announced on Friday that Cleveland Indians’ minor league pitcher Alsis Herrera has been suspended for 80 games without pay after violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Herrera, 25, tested positive for the banned substance Stanozolol. He was expected to start the season at High-A Lynchburg.
While plenty of focus has been given to the big name free agents departing the Cleveland Indians organization this offseason, there has been plenty of movement down on the farm for the club’s minor league free agent class.
The names are nowhere near as big as Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, and Joe Smith, who have all signed lucrative contracts in Philadelphia, Colorado, and Houston, respectively, nor are they as big as Jay Bruce, who is still testing the free agent waters while waiting for the right deal, but the moves cut into some of the existing depth in the team’s minor league system.
The annual Winter Meetings wrapped up on Thursday from Orlando, Florida, with the completion of the Rule 5 draft.
Despite having an open 40-man roster spot, the Cleveland Indians did not make a selection during the Major League portion of the procedures, but the club did lose right-handed pitcher Jordan Milbrath to the Pittsburgh Pirates with the eighth pick in the draft.
During the minor league phase, the Indians selected left-handed pitcher R.C. Orlan from the Washington Nationals farm system during Round 1 of the Triple-A phase. The Tribe lost two more minor leaguers, when outfielder Junior Soto was nabbed by the New York Yankees several picks earlier in the round and shortstop Ivan Castillo was selected with the 41st pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in Round 3.
Minor league infield prospect Willi Castro put together a career year on the farm for the Cleveland Indians and headed to the Dominican Republic to participate in offseason activity in the Dominican Winter League. But after a hot start there, the 20-year-old shortstop has seen his last game action for 2017 as he has been shut down with a left knee injury sustained in the competitive offseason league.
Castro injured the knee on a slide in the third inning of a game against Los Gigantes de Cibao on October 24. He returned to Cleveland to be examined by a team doctor the following Monday, with an announcement by the club a week later confirming that he had sprained the MCL in his knee.
The Cleveland Indians’ season may be over and the World Series nearly half way complete, but competitive baseball continues to be played at spots across the globe.
Eight different Tribe prospects are in Glendale, Arizona, working in Arizona Fall League play. Four more have headed to South America to work in the Venezuelan Winter League, while nine more have taken up temporary residence in the Caribbean while participating in the Dominican Winter League.
Three different Tribe position prospects and six pitchers are scattered throughout the six-team Liga de Beisbol Dominicano.
Arizona Fall League play is under way as some of the top prospects around the minor league landscape pair up for competition in the annual six-team offseason league.
Hopeful prospects are a week into the six-week schedule as players work to hone their craft against a collection of some of the best up-and-coming names working their way through the levels of professional baseball. The Indians are well represented in their home-away-from-home in Arizona, where eight of their minor leaguers help make up the roster of the Glendale Desert Dogs.
Those eight Indians prospects have teamed up with representatives from the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates for league action in Glendale this year, after Cleveland players worked with different clubs while playing for the Mesa Solar Sox last October and November.
The Lynchburg Hillcats were the dominant team in the High-A Carolina League. They won both halves of the Northern Division and finished the season with an 87-52 record. The next closest team was the Buies Creek Astros at 74-65, who failed to qualify for the playoffs in either half of the Southern Division.
One significant contributor to the Hillcats success was the stability of their roster. Of the 12 position players on the Opening Day roster, only one was not with the team when the season ended on September 9 (infielder Yonathan Mendoza, who received a promotion to AA Akron on July 6). Seven of the original 13 pitchers also lasted the full season on Lynchburg’s roster. For a minor league team whose primary goal is player development, that level of stability is unusual.
The Lynchburg Hillcats put up four runs in the third and three more in the sixth to coast to a 7-1 victory to take the rubber match of the Carolina League’s Northern Division Championship Series from the Frederick Keys on Saturday night.
The victory gave the Hillcats a share of the Carolina League championship, an honor that they will share with the Down East Wood Ducks, who won their series on Friday to claim the Southern Division Championship Series.
The Carolina League plays a split season schedule, with the winner of each half gaining entry into the postseason festivities. The Lynchburg club earned a spot by winning the first half in the Northern Division. Finishing out the season strong by sweeping its final three home games against the Potomac Nationals, and then traveling to Wilmington, Lynchburg completed a four-game sweep against the Blue Rocks to conclude the season and win the second half Northern Division crown. Overall, the team finished its season with a league best 87-52 record, posting the best winning percentage for a Lynchburg team since they were a Mets farm club in 1985.
Looking at the roster for that Mets club, the most recognized name is shortstop Kevin Elster. He would go on to play for the Mets’ 1986 World Series Championship before establishing himself as their everyday shortstop in 1988. This year’s edition of the Lynchburg team is similar in that few players are top draft picks or rising stars. Instead, the Hillcats play as a team in the truest sense of that word.
“That’s kind of how we are built,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “At the beginning of the year, coming here, we thought we’d have pretty good pitching. That’s held true. The rest of it we weren’t so sure, no big strengths team wise.”
Pitching is an inherently difficult activity. It takes many years to master the art of hurling the baseball over home plate with consistency and accuracy. The minor league system provides opportunities for pitchers to hone their craft. For Dominic DeMasi of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, his journey through the Indians farm system has been about developing that consistency.
“When I got drafted I was actually more over the top mechanically,” said DeMasi. “I throw a sinker, cutter, and slider. I’m just trying to repeat the same stuff. The change from when I was drafted is now just getting repetition.”
Thirteen pitchers have started a game for the 2017 edition of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. That much turnover in the starting rotation usually indicates that successful pitchers have moved up to a higher rung in the developmental ladder or injuries have forced pitchers into the starting rotation. In either case, that much turnover would indicate a variable level of performance from the pitching staff. The starters’ success has been a prime contributor to the rotation’s turnover, but for each player who has moved up to AA Akron this season, another one has stepped in and successfully contributed.
At the head of this year’s standout starters is Brock Hartson. He began the season pitching out of the bullpen while taking the final steps in his recovery from offseason hip surgery.