Any chance that Bradley Zimmer breaks camp with the Cleveland Indians at the end of spring training in 2017 may come down to how well he performs in Arizona this fall.
Zimmer, the Indians’ top prospect in the farm system, was one of eight minor leaguers named by Cleveland to participate in the annual Arizona Fall League as members of the Mesa Solar Sox. Joining Zimmer in the Mesa outfield will be Double-A Akron’s Greg Allen. High-A Lynchburg’s Yu-Cheng Chang will be on the roster at short. Three relievers – Trevor Frank (Lynchburg), Cameron Hill (Akron), and David Speer (Akron) – will get additional work in the Solar Sox bullpen, while right-handed starter Michael Peoples (Akron) will also be on the roster.
Akron’s Eric Haase is also on the club as one of the taxi squad members, activated just twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Zimmer missed out on a chance to play in the Arizona Fall League last season after it was discovered that he had played the final stretch of the season with a hairline fracture in his right foot. The missed opportunity to extend his season and get some more action in 2015 may have had a domino effect on how his 2016 season ultimately panned out.
He started the year in Akron, where he had played his final 49 games of the 2015 season. He overcame some inconsistent numbers at the plate by July, when he put together a solid .324/.422/.465 month, improving his contact and cutting back on his strikeouts some. He made the Eastern League All-Star Game, participated in the league’s Home Run Derby, and was promoted to Triple-A Columbus during the final week of the month. At the time he departed from the RubberDucks roster, he was hitting .253 with a .371 on-base percentage and .471 slugging mark with 20 doubles, six triples, 14 homers, 53 RBI, 58 runs scored, and 33 stolen bases in 46 attempts.
In 33 games with the Clippers entering action on Friday night, Zimmer is slashing .250/.364/.304 with three doubles, a homer, nine RBI, 16 runs scored, and five stolen bases in six attempts.
Allen will make his first trip to the desert for fall league action this season, looking to build upon a solid season in the Indians farm system. He returned to the High-A level to start the season after playing three games with Lynchburg in 2015. He found great success at the plate and on the bases for the Hillcats, appearing in 92 games while hitting .298 with a .424 OBP. He had 16 doubles, four triples, four homers, and drove in 31, but much more notable were his 38 stolen bases in 45 attempts and his 93 runs scored (still tops in the Carolina League despite not playing at the High-A level since his promotion on July 25).
Allen was joined by several teammates from the Hillcats roster on the Carolina League All-Star team and was promoted to Double-A Akron in the final week of July. With Akron, he has hit .294 with a .404 OBP, providing the RubberDucks with seven doubles, a triple, two homers, 12 RBI, 21 runs scored, and six more stolen bases.
The 23-year-old was a sixth round pick by the Indians in 2014 out of San Diego State University.
Shortstop Chang, 21, caught the eyes of plenty this season as he improved in nearly every offensive category in his third professional season. Signed out of Taitung, Taiwan, in 2013, he has made a steady climb from the Arizona League in 2014 to Class-A Lake County last season to High-A Lynchburg in 2016. His name was linked to several rumored trade deadline deals in July, and with his better numbers at the plate and the Indians’ wealth of middle infield prospects, that was little surprise.
Chang has appeared in 106 games entering play on Friday with a .262/.336/.470 slash. He was a Carolina League All-Star and participated in the league’s Home Run Derby. He was named the Carolina League Player of the Week on June 5 for his performance at the plate. He has hit 29 doubles, eight triples, 13 homers, and driven in 70 runs this season, ranking in the league’s top ten in each stat.
Frank, another Hillcat, missed nearly three weeks early in the season while on the disabled list, so a trip to Arizona will allow him to make up for some of the lost time on the diamond.
The 25-year-old right-handed reliever out of UC Riverside has had a steady year in the Lynchburg bullpen, posting a 1-1 record with 17 saves in 19 opportunities. He has a 2.53 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, and a .195 batting average against on the year with 43 strikeouts and just ten walks in 42 2/3 innings of work. He had worked ten consecutive scoreless outings and had saved 16 consecutive opportunities until allowing a pair of runs in a game on August 21 at Myrtle Beach.
Hill has had the chance to pitch at three different levels this season in the Indians farm system, but was used primarily at Lynchburg until his recent promotion to Akron.
A 17th round pick in the 2014 draft out of Redlands Community College, Hill posted a 6-1 record in 31 relief appearances with the Hillcats with three saves in five opportunities. The 22-year-old right-hander earned a 2.41 ERA there with a 1.16 WHIP and averaged more than a strikeout per inning pitched. He also worked two and two-thirds scoreless innings for the Clippers during a brief opportunity to plug a hole in their bullpen.
While with Akron, he has appeared in nine games, saving a pair while posting a 2.77 ERA and 0.92 WHIP.
Speer was just assigned to the Akron roster on Thursday after spending the bulk of his season at Lynchburg. Like Hill, he was temporarily transferred to Columbus on a pair of occasions to help out a depleted bullpen and went 1-0 with a 10.80 ERA and 2.20 WHIP in two appearances. With Lynchburg, he was 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 39 games (including one start) while saving three games in five chances.
The 24-year-old left-hander was a 27th round draft pick out of Columbia in 2014.
Peoples has put together a solid season for the RubberDucks, his fifth in the Indians farm system. The soon-to-be 25-year-old was taken by Cleveland in the 14th round of the 2012 draft out of Western Oklahoma State College. After spending parts of three seasons at the High-A level with Carolina and Lynchburg, Peoples was promoted this season to Akron and proved it was the right decision for the organization.
In 26 starts for the RubberDucks, Peoples is 11-6 with a 3.79 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP over 152 innings. He also made a spot start for the Clippers on June 7, allowing two runs on four hits with two walks and three strikeouts in six innings of work, earning his first Triple-A win in his first outing there.
In his sixth season on the farm, Haase, 23, has shown a power surge despite a low batting average this season. A seventh round pick in the 2011 draft, he struggled in the early going this year, hitting .197 in May, .125 in June, and .167 in July. He did supply some offense in May, hitting three homers, six doubles, and driving in 15 runs.
Haase’s August has been a different story, as the catcher has appeared in 14 games while hitting .298 with a .344 on-base percentage and .596 slugging. He has scored eleven times, hit three doubles, a triple, and four homers, all while driving in nine more runs.
The Arizona League has provided young ball players with additional time to develop their skills as they attempt to progress through the minor league system. Several former players, managers, and coaches with the Indians organization have been inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame, including Jason Giambi, Tony Pena, Grady Little, Eric Wedge, Brian Giles, Ron Washington, and current Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who was selected after coaching the 1992 Grand Canyon Rafters and managing the 1994 Scottsdale Scorpions.
Arizona Fall League action begins on October 11, 2016. The six-week long season runs through the league championship game on November 19. The Falls Stars Game is scheduled for November 5.
Games are played Monday through Saturday throughout spring training sites in the Phoenix area. The AFL is composed of an East Division (Mesa, Salt River, and Scottsdale) and a West Division (Glendale, Peoria, and Surprise).
The eight Indians players will be joined on the Mesa roster by members of the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago Cubs, and Miami Marlins.
Photo: Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch