With less than three weeks to go until the start of the Major League Baseball regular season schedule, the Indians have started to trim away at the long list of camp candidates in Goodyear, Arizona, looking for a job with Cleveland.
The Indians optioned infielders Willi Castro and Yu-Cheng Chang to Double-A Akron on Friday prior to the team’s action against the Colorado Rockies. Right-handed pitcher Cole Sulser, left-hander Robert Zarate, and first baseman Nellie Rodriguez were also re-assigned to minor league camp.
Castro and Chang represent the next wave of middle infield depth in the Indians organization, a path that is currently roadblocked by the presence of Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and even Jose Ramirez up the middle for Cleveland. The two youngsters were added to the 40-man roster following the season to protect them from December’s Rule V draft.
The 20-year-old Castro spent last season at High-A Lynchburg and put up some of the best numbers of his career. He hit .290 with a .337 on-base percentage, 24 doubles, three triples, eleven homers, and 58 RBI in his fourth season in the minors for the Tribe. The switch-hitter appeared in seven games for the Indians this spring, getting four singles in 13 at bats (.308). Five of those at bats ended in strikeouts. In the field, he worked exclusively at shortstop for the Indians, making one error in eleven chances over 31 innings.
Chang, 22, had a healthy spring in limited action at the plate. He hit .417 with three singles and two doubles while driving in one run. He worked solely on the left side of the infield during Cactus League play, logging 13 errorless innings at third base and making one error in 16 total chances in six games and 20 innings at shortstop.
He has logged four years of action in the Indians farm system, putting up a combined .249/.325/.446 in his minor league career. Last season at Double-A Akron, he hit a career-high 24 homers, but batted a career-low .220 with 134 strikeouts in 126 games.
The pair appear to be heading to Akron together when minor league play begins in April, but it is unknown how the workload will be divided for the pair, who are both primarily shortstops.
There was no surprise in Sulser being re-assigned to minor league camp as he had yet to appear in a Cactus League game for the Indians after reporting to Goodyear with a broken rib. He reportedly suffered the injury helping his parents move during the offseason.
The 27-year-old right-handed reliever spent part of the offseason pitching in the Dominican Winter League. He made ten appearances for Estrellas de Oriente, earning a win and a loss in nine and one-third innings of work. He struck out nine and walked two while holding opponents to a .200 batting average and posting a 0.96 WHIP.
Sulser was a 25th round pick by the Indians out of Dartmouth in the 2013 draft. He spent last season between Akron (ten games) and Triple-A Columbus (31 games), posting a combined 3-1 mark with three saves, a 2.70 ERA, and a 1.41 WHIP.
Zarate, 31, signed with the Indians in January after being out of the professional game for several years. He had previously spent time in the Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh organizations, and he had also pitched in Japan and in the Venezuelan Winter League (LVBP).
He threw over the winter in the LVBP, making eight starts and two relief appearances for Aragua while going 1-2 with a 4.46 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. He came to camp as a non-roster invite on a minor league deal.
The 23-year-old Rodriguez has appeared in 12 games for the Indians this spring, slashing .412/.565/.647 with five singles, a double, a homer, and eight RBI while showing an improved eye at the plate, drawing six walks while striking out five times. His home run was a monstrous clout, as he drove a 91 MPH two-seamer 442 feet with an exit velocity of 111 MPH at a 36 degree launch angle.
The strikeout has been a big problem in the development of the mashing right-hander, who whiffed 181 times in 120 games at Columbus last season after striking out 186 times the season before in 132 games at Akron. One of the team’s top first base options in the farm system over the last few years, he slashed .170/.271/.342 in his activity at Triple-A last season, hitting 14 doubles, 17 homers, and driving in 49 in one of the worst offensive seasons of his pro career, one that began when he was selected in the 15th round of the 2012 draft out of high school.
Rodriguez has hit .239 with a .333 OBP in his six years in the Indians’ minor league system with 100 career home runs.
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