With the off-season coming to a close, baseball fans everywhere are starting to get excited about the prospect of pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona in less than two weeks and the prospect of prospects themselves. The offseason is a chance for players who have already “made it” to the bigs to continue to improve their stuff and maintain their dominance, and is also an opportunity for younger guys to put together the performances that will prove their worth during spring training. Whether prospects and players in the minor league ranks have invited to big league spring training or not, the Arizona pre-season is still their chance to prove where they should be in the system, and, perhaps more importantly, why they should still be there.
All organizations obviously have those players that they predict will make it far within the system. Whether it is breakout stars like Giovanny Urshela or Ryan Merritt, who recently were awarded the Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller awards, respectively, for their minor league performances, or highly-touted prospects like Francisco Lindor and Clint Frazier, there are players throughout the minor league ranks that the Indians are preparing for a career with the big league team. One such step in this preparation is the annual Winter Development Program.
The Indians Winter Development Program, Mark Shapiro’s brainchild in 1996, is a chance for a handful of minor league prospects to travel to Cleveland and become acquainted with the big league city, facility, and opportunities, as well as continue to hone their skills on the diamond. They participate in physical conditioning and baseball fundamentals throughout the week-long program designed for players who are expected to soon make their Major League debut, have been recently acquired by the organization, or are high-level prospects in the system.
This year, thirteen players will take part in the program: pitchers Dylan Baker, Michael Clevinger, Louis Head, Jeff Johnson, Nick Maronde, Merritt, Shawn Morimando, and Grant Sides, and position players Yandy Diaz, Anthony Gallas, Alex Monsalve, James Ramsey, and Jordan Smith.
Not only do players get to your the stadium (and spend time on the snow-covered field), but they have the opportunity to listen to presentations for Cleveland sports personalities, as well as speakers from the larger sports world as a whole. In past years, this has included individuals such as Buster Olney and speakers from the Indians organization itself, such as Chris Antonetti and Shapiro. This year, player development staff such as Tim Belcher, Travis Fryman, Edwin Rodriguez, and Jason Bere will be presenting to the players, as well.
Players also have the opportunity to explore Cleveland and get acclimated to the city during their time in Cleveland.
Not only do players have the opportunity to get used to Cleveland weather (likely one of the most terrifying changes for players from warm areas of the country and the world), they also have a chance to meet and become familiar with local fans who will be supporting them throughout their minor and, hopefully, eventual major league careers. Some players are included in the now-annual Tribe Fest lineup, and many also take part in local minor league Hot Stove Dinners.
Tonight, a number of players will travel to Niles, Ohio, and Eastlake, Ohio, to participate in the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and Lake County Captains Hot Stove Dinners. Players who have attended such dinners in the past have included Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Danny Salazar, and Michael Brantley.
Fans have a chance to purchase special event tickets for a pre-dinner meet and greet in which they can rub elbows with the invited players, taking autographs and pictures with their favorite prospects. Following this special event is the dinner itself, with talks by team personnel, team managers, and a featured speaker. This year, Lake County is featuring Indians radio legend Tom Hamilton.
There is also a question and answer session with the players and personnel following the dinner and speeches.
Although it may be too late for fans to buy tickets for tonight’s Hot Stove events, they are certainly opportunities to keep an eye on in coming years. Hot Stove dinners give local fans the chance to meet and interact with players whom they may be watching in a Major League game at the ballpark or on TV in the coming seasons. There’s no better way to celebrate a young prospect’s rise to success than being able to remember when he was sitting in a minor league clubhouse, talking about what he was going to do to make it in the bigs. It’s what Winter Development and the Hot Stove is all about – giving players the opportunities and encouragement that their dreams may soon become realities.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer