This season – the year of “Unfinished Business” and redemption, of proving that last season was only the beginning of a road to success. This notion, however, is not just limited to the Major League club. The Indians’ minor league affiliates are showing shades of the same theme heading into the 2014 season.
The 2014 Lake County Captains are no exception. Coming off a lackluster 2013, a season that fell below expectations and served to demonstrate the notion of “development over winning,” the 2014 Captains seem to be more in line for a successful season than they were this time last year.
The roster boasts a number of returning names, as well as some newcomers who spent 2013 with either short season Mahoning Valley or the Arizona League Indians. Surprisingly, last year’s first round draft pick Clint Frazier is missing from the roster, though it stands to reason that he will make his way to Lake County before the season gets too far underway.
Among those returning to Eastlake in 2014 are pitchers Robbie Aviles, Mitch Brown, and Jordan Milbrath, catchers Eric Haase and Richard Stock, infielders Claudio Bautista, Dorssys Paulino, and Nellie Rodriguez, and outfielders Cody Ferrell, Jorge Martinez, and Anthony Santander.
New names on the Lake County roster include starting pitchers from Mahoning Valley – Kenny Mathews, Dace Kime, Luis Lugo, and Caleb Hamrick – infielders James Roberts and Grant Fink, and outfielders Josh McAdams and Brian Ruiz. Pitchers Ben Heller, Wander Beras, Alexis Paredes, Adam Plutko, Trevor Frank, and Matt Whitehouse also join the team this season, as well as catcher Ryan Battaglia, who split 2013 between Mahoning Valley and Carolina.
The strengths in this 2014 squad seem to come from the pitching prospects, both the potential starters and the bullpen. According to Pitching Coach Rigo Beltran, this season’s starters will likely be Kime, Milbrath, Hamrick, Plutko, Brown, Whitehouse, Lugo, and Aviles. Beltran also said that pitchers will likely see an increased number of piggyback situations in the beginning of the season (Milbrath/Hamrick, Brown/Whitehouse, and Lugo/Aviles).
“It is unique [at this level to have so many piggybacks],” Beltran said. “But this is a good opportunity for them all to see how the system works as far as starting and the bullpen and starting again. I think it’s very beneficial for them at this age and at this level. I know the Houston Astros did it last year throughout their organization and it was very beneficial for some of them.”
Lake County’s new manager, Mark Budzinski, echoed the benefits of the piggyback options, saying it will give the pitchers good experience to be given the opportunity to lengthen the experience of a pitcher who may otherwise not have been a starter.
“But we’ll get everybody in there, we’ll mix everybody up,” Budzinski said.
Right-handed pitcher Aviles is one player to watch throughout 2014. He suffered a broken hand at the very end of the season, but spent the earlier portion of 2013 having arguably his best professional season. He went 4-5 with a 5.09 ERA, his best numbers of his professional career, and pitched 30 strikeouts in 69.0 innings. He earned his first professional win on May 19 with the Captains. In 2010, while still in high school, Aviles threw two consecutive no-hitters. He also finished his high school junior season with a 9-1 record and a 0.60 ERA, striking out 77 hitters in 46 innings. He started for the Captains during their exhibition game with the Akron Rubberducks on April 1, pitching three and one-third innings allowing six hits, two runs, and striking out two. The two runs which he gave up were solo home runs in the game’s second inning.
Kime is another pitcher to watch in the coming months, and is currently in line to be the Captains’ Opening Day starter on Friday, April 4. Kime spent last season with Mahoning Valley where he went 0-2 with a 2.92 ERA. He pitched 24.2 innings, including 26 strikeouts and 16 walks. He was drafted in the third round of last year’s draft out of the University of Louisville, where he went 6-1 with a 2.99 ERA. He posted one save and 83 strikeouts in 69.1 innings pitched, and was ranked 14th in the nation in K/9 IP with a 10.77 average. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana (home of the Tin Caps), Kime graduated from Defiance High School in Defiance, Ohio, and holds the school’s career records for ERA, doubles, and RBIs.
Plutko, who spent 2013 playing for the College World Series’ winning UCLA baseball team, is making his professional debut this season with the Captains. UCLA swept Mississippi State in a best-of-three games series to win their first NCAA National Championship in 2013, with Plutko playing a major role in the victory. Despite not having played at the professional level, Plutko’s performance with the Bruins makes him a pitcher poised to have a breakout season in 2014. He went 10-3 in 19 starts as UCLA’s Friday starter, compiling 81 strikeouts in 124 innings. He went 3-0 in four postseason starts, with a 1.00 ERA and a .206 opposing batting average, walking only five batters throughout the postseason. In the College World Series, Plutko went 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA and was named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player. Plutko finished his college career with the most postseason wins (7), games started (8), innings pitched (57.2), and lowest posteason ERA (0.94) in the school’s history. He was drafted in the 11th round of the 2013 draft and throws a fastball, change-up, and slider.
As for the team behind the pitcher, Lake County has brought back some power hitters, strong fielders, and players who are already asserting their improvements of the 2014 season. Bautista, who split last season between Lake County and Mahoning Valley, hit a grand slam in Classic Park last May against the Lansing Lugnuts and played as the New York Penn League’s All-Star second baseman during the 2013 NYPL All-Star game, where he also scored the winning run. Bautista hit .272 in Mahoning Valley with four homeruns and 24 RBI. At only 20 years old, the window is wide open for Bautista to continue his strong short-season showing at the Low-A level.
Santander is another young player in line to have a strong 2014 season. He enters the season as the Cleveland Indians’ Organization’s 20th Top Prospect, according to Baseball America. He was the #14 prospect heading into 2013, but ended the season on the disabled list with a right elbow injury. Prior to his injury, however, Santander hit .242 with five homeruns, 31 RBI, 13 doubles, and 53 hits in Lake County. He walked 13 times and was fanned 43 times during the season. He was signed at only 16-years old as a non-drafted free agent out of Agua Blanca, Venezuela. He comes into 2014 at only 19-years old.
Behind the plate, the Captains have brought back Haase and Stock and added the Australian native Battaglia to the mix. Haase is already off to a strong start, posting the only run (and a homerun, at that) that the Captains scored during the exhibition game on Tuesday. He led the 2013 Captains in homeruns (14) and finished 17th in the Midwest League in slugging percentage in 2013 with .439. He hit .250 in 2013, with 47 RBI, 23 doubles, three triples, 40 walks, and 117 strikeouts. Stock led the Captains in a hitting streak last season, hitting in 15 games from June 27 through August 2. His season suffered from peaks and valleys, as he hit .431 in July but suffered from a .250 average in August and .143 in September. He ended the season with a strong .280 average, with eight homeruns and 31 RBI. Stock has the potential to be a strong hitter, spending much of 2013 acting as the team’s designated hitter, but must learn how to control and maintain his power in order to produce continued results. Battaglia suffered from an injury to his left index finger during the 2013 season, showing him limited playing time with Mahoning Valley and Carolina. He had a total of 24 hits, 11 of which were extra base hits, and three homeruns.
Perhaps the most interesting storyline to follow in 2014 will be that of Paulino, the shortstop who surprised fans last year by racking up an individual record of 39 errors on the season. As a player who was described as being part of the future of the Indians organization, it was hard to see how the youngster on the field was going to become something even close to a Francisco Lindor. However, in just one appearance with the Captains against the Rubberducks, it seems as though Paulino is clearly an improved player.
“He’s worked hard,” Budzinski said of Paulino. “He looked great out there. He approached the ball well, coming in to get it. His hands looked nice and soft. Very pleased with his efforts.”
Although the Captains – and most Low-A baseball teams – are designed to develop and hone the skills of players, the 2014 Captains have the potential to produce players with strong sets of skills. Will they win enough games to make it to the Midwest League Championship games? Only time will tell, though, on paper, they seem to be a team full of potential, a team with unfinished business of their own.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer