Home Grown Talent a Key to Indians’ Future Success

As the baseball viewing portion of the world watches the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants play for a World Series crown, the Cleveland Indians are already hard at work towards next season and the years to follow.

Plenty of criticisms can be found for the Indians’ lack of success this season. At the top of the list, lack of sufficient offseason spending following an American League Wild Card berth in 2013, injuries, ineffectiveness from key names on the team, high priced stars not contributing, and failing to add to a team in contention at the trade deadlines are all valid arguing points.

For a team playing within the restrictions of small market spending, the Indians cannot afford to have so many things go wrong and expect to compete. On the brighter side of things, the club did put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the team posted eight straight winning campaigns from 1994 to 2001, and the window of opportunity for success is still cracked open, despite the Royals finally reaching their potential this season. But in order to catch up and surpass the likes of Kansas City and Detroit while staying ahead of the young Chicago and Minnesota clubs, Cleveland will need to see contributions from their own home grown prospects to allow the front office to spend wisely on key veteran needs, rather than to constantly fill gaping holes on the roster.

Both the Giants and the Royals are examples of the importance and the benefit of being able to promote from within, having found their success by building the core of their rosters from their own farm systems.

Each team has 13 players on their 25-man playoff rosters who were either drafted by their parent club or were originally signed by them as amateur/international free agents. For the non-math majors out there, that means that more than half of the players on each team’s playoff roster, the collection of each team’s most valuable roster pieces, were developed within and have paid direct dividends on their club’s investments.

And these pieces are, by no means, roster fluff and fill ins. They make up some of the biggest names on their respective teams.

Twelve of the Giants’ 13 home grown representatives were originally drafted by the club. Their entire starting infield for the postseason – Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Pablo Sandoval – all entered professional baseball in the Giants organization. Pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Sergio Romo, and Ryan Vogelsong and the injured top of the rotation piece Matt Cain also were initially acquired by San Francisco. Postseason hero Travis Ishikawa, outfielder Juan Perez, and bench players Matt Duffy and Andrew Susac round out a Giants roster built by players who grew up together in the San Francisco farm system.

The Giants are in a larger market than the Indians and can afford to spend a little bit more liberally. They have supplemented their roster through free agency and trades with the likes of Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Javier Lopez, Michael Morse, and Hunter Pence to build a roster just games away from a title.

The Royals, who like the Indians cannot afford to spend like the big boppers of baseball, have a roster full of key names who were found and grown by the KC organization.

The names are familiar enough to Cleveland fans. Billy Butler. Danny Duffy. Jarrod Dyson. Alex Gordon. Kelvin Herrera. Greg Holland. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas. Salvador Perez. Yordano Ventura. Six of the 13 home grown players on their playoff roster were former first round draft picks, including reliever Brandon Finnegan, who is pitching in the MLB World Series after pitching in the College World Series earlier this year.

Like the Giants, they added pieces to their mix to push them over the top. James Shields and Wade Davis came in from Tampa Bay in exchange for several young top prospects. Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Nori Aoki all came to town in two separate trades with Milwaukee. Pitcher Jason Vargas and infielder Omar Infante were free agent acquisitions and pitchers Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Frasor, and Tim Collins were acquired in trades.

Meanwhile, the 85-77 Indians employed 16 players on their year-end 40-man roster who were originally drafted or signed by the team. Fourteen of the players actually saw time on the active roster during the season.

Seven pitchers on the 40-man roster were developed by the Indians farm system (starting pitchers Danny Salazar and T.J. House, starter/longman Josh Tomlin, and relievers Austin Adams, Cody Allen, Kyle Crockett, and C.C. Lee). Catchers Chris Gimenez and Roberto Perez, infielders Jesus Aguilar, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, and Jose Ramirez, and outfielder Tyler Holt made up the remainder of the roster who played in the Majors this season. Infielder Erik Gonzalez and outfielder Carlos Moncrief have not made their debuts yet.

Unlike the Royals and their six first round picks on their playoff roster, the Indians have just one of their own first rounders on their 40-man roster, third baseman Chisenhall.

Had the Indians reached the postseason and needed a playoff roster, only a small number of those players listed would have likely been in action for October baseball.

It is pretty common knowledge at this point that the Indians’ drafts of the 2000’s left plenty to be desired. The few top end prospects that reached the Majors for the club failed to produce at a level expected of a top-tier talent.

The 2007 draft, for example, was a historically poor draft. Of the 48 players selected by the club, just 17 signed. Only one of the signed players (reliever Josh Judy) reached the Majors with the Indians. One other player who was drafted and signed by the club, pitcher T.J. McFarland, was a Rule 5 pick by the Baltimore Orioles and has been a part of their big league bullpen for the last couple of seasons. Three other players in the Indians draft class that season, Matt Hague, Bryce Brentz, and Eric Jokisch, did not sign with the team and have since made their professional debuts with the teams that drafted them in later years, albeit in a combined 46 games between the three.

Chisenhall was the top pick for the club in the 2008 draft, but little else has panned out of the 50 players taken that summer. House was a 13th round pick and Perez was selected in the 33rd round. Third round pick Cord Phelps played 53 games over three seasons with the team before he was selected off of waivers by the Baltimore Orioles. Fifth round pitcher Zach Putnam appeared in eight games while eleventh round pitcher Matt Langwell played five games with the team.

The 2009 draft has netted the Indians their former All-Star second baseman Kipnis and reliever Adams, who made his MLB debut this season. Minor league pitcher Joseph Colon may be the best of the prospects remaining with the team from this class.

Holt, who appeared in 36 games while hitting .268 this season as a reserve outfielder, was the club’s tenth rounder in the 2010 draft and the only player who signed that season who has appeared in the Majors in an Indians uniform. Cleveland’s top pick that season was Drew Pomeranz, who was jettisoned in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

Closer Allen has been the star of the Indians’ 2011 draft thus far. The 480th overall pick and the Indians’ 16th rounder in the 2010 draft returned for another year of school and was selected in the 23rd round with the 698th pick the following season. He has saved 26 games in 180 games with a 2.50 career ERA. Shortstop of the future and eighth overall pick that season, Francisco Lindor, looks to join him on the MLB roster at some point during next season.

Out of the last three draft classes, only rookie left-handed reliever Crockett (fourth round of the 2013 draft) has appeared at the MLB level.

Needless to say, the home grown talent the Indians have on the roster does not quite compare to the star power and production provided by the majority of the players on the rosters of the two league pennant winners.

One of the unintended consequences of the bad drafting has been a lack of highly touted, valued prospects or even quality big leaguers who the Indians could turn into future pieces on the trade market, just as they did through the C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez trades.

Despite that, the Indians have been fairly successful in the last ten years at securing talent from other ball clubs to compensate for their poor drafting and internal development.

Many of the most utilized and productive players on this year’s roster were brought in from elsewhere. Trevor Bauer (Arizona Diamondbacks), Michael Brantley (Milwaukee Brewers), Carlos Carrasco (Philadelphia Phillies), Yan Gomes (Toronto Blue Jays), Corey Kluber (San Diego Padres), Carlos Santana (Los Angeles Dodgers), and Bryan Shaw (Arizona) were all young prospects or had little time in the Major Leagues when Chris Antonetti acquired them.

The ability to land several key pieces of the present and future in dealings with other clubs helps to compensate for the lack of production gained from those earning the big bucks on the roster.

The money spent on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in free agency following the 2012 season has handcuffed the Indians ability to spend now in the open market. With both players spending an unacceptable amount of time either hurt or underperforming, those contracts have become albatrosses around the necks of the front office. Because so much money is now tied up in these two players, the Indians become that much more dependent upon the depth in their farm system or finding steals on the trade market, a la Gomes in recent memory.

Attempting to build a solid roster by fleecing other teams is about as unlikely as finding consistent producers via free agency who actually live up to every penny paid.

The Indians will need to continue to lock up young talent, as they did with Gomes, Brantley, and Kipnis prior to the season, on affordable contracts before arbitration and free agency. Doing so is essential to the long-term health and sustainability of the organization.

But even doing that comes with a certain amount of risk. Young players may still be unproven and unrefined. While Brantley played above the contract this season, early errors made it possible to question the Gomes deal in the first few months of the season, and Kipnis had an injury-effected season that seemed to deprive his bat of all extra base potential.

Everything comes back to signing cautiously and intelligently through amateur and international free agency and the draft and building a deep and strong developmental farm system.

The Indians’ drafts in the last few years at least appear to be providing some hope for the future. Lindor has been the top prospect for years and his time is nearly upon him to become a contributor at the Major League level. Other recent top picks, including outfielders Tyler Naquin (2012), Clint Frazier (2013), Bradley Zimmer (2014), and Mike Papi (2014), infielders Bobby Bradley (2014) and Joe Wendle (2012), and pitcher Justus Sheffield (2014) will all be looked at and groomed to be top performers in the years to come.

The Indians will need several, if not all, of these draftees to develop into bona fide professional ball players in order to keep pace or even surpass the Royals and Tigers at the top of the American League Central Division. In addition to the new blood, the newest batch to come off the farm, including Ramirez and Lindor, will need to continue to develop while others, like Salazar, Chisenhall, and Kipnis, will need to trend more regularly in a positive direction. The Indians as an organization cannot afford to go out and buy replacement parts to cover up their mistakes in scouting and development if further home grown pieces do not develop into the talent they are hoped to be.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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