Free agent moves of Major League players get the majority of attention in the offseason, but plenty of role players and other prospects still hoping for a chance at a big league pay day bounce around the country when their pro contracts come to an end. A handful of Indians farmhands were on the move over the winter, with several others still unsigned.
The Baltimore Orioles came sniffing around the Tribe’s former prospects, including snatching one up through a Rule 5 claim.
Catcher Martin Cervenka had a busy offseason and must have felt wanted after his contract with Cleveland expired. The 25-year-old Prague, Czech Republic, product signed two weeks after becoming a free agent with the San Francisco Giants but, less than a month later, he was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. He started his season with the Double-A Bowie Baysox and has performed well, hitting .357 with four doubles and five runs batted in over his first eight games.
Perci Garner, a 29-year-old right-handed reliever with eight games of big league service with the Indians under his belt, signed with the Orioles in December and received a non-roster spring training invitation. He made three spring appearances, walking two and striking out two in three scoreless, hitless innings, before being re-assigned to minor league camp. He has yet to appear in a minor league game in April.
The story was not as positive for Luis Lugo, a 24-year-old southpaw starter who spent six seasons with the Indians organization before signing a minor league deal with Baltimore in December. While he was expected to start the season at their Double-A affiliate in Bowie, Lugo instead was released at the end of camp.
Joe Colon, a long-time starter turned reliever, signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals in March. The 28-year-old was released at the end of spring training. In six years of minor league work, he appeared in 172 games (making 87 starts) while posting a 29-29 record with a 3.44 ERA. In eleven games for Cleveland in 2016, he went 1-3 with a 7.20 ERA. His minor league career has been slowed by right elbow and back injuries as well as several lengthy drug-related suspensions.
Yonathan Mendoza found a new home in the Pacific Northwest, far from his birthplace in Lara, Venezuela, as a member of the Seattle Mariners organization. A switch-hitting middle infielder and only 24 years old, he spent six years in the Indians minor league system, reaching the Double-A level in 2015 and again in 2017. He spent the majority of last season at High-A Lynchburg, however, hitting .307 with six doubles, two triples, two homers, and 30 RBI in 72 games. He has been almost exclusively a singles hitter throughout his career, as coming into the season, a total of 65 of his 491 career hits were for extra bases. He started this season at Double-A Arkansas for the Mariners.
Adam Moore, a 33-year-old veteran catcher who had spent the last three seasons at Triple-A Columbus, moved on to the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason. He was signed to a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training, but did not win a job in camp and instead has started his season at Triple-A Durham.
Luigi Rodriguez was one of the first players to sign in minor league free agency over the winter, joining up with the San Francisco Giants. The 25-year-old outfielder had struggled to stay on the field for the Indians during his pro career, with injuries and a PED suspension slowing his progression along the way. Last year, he hit .276 with 22 doubles, 13 homers, and 40 RBI in 82 games for Akron. He has begun his third season at the Double-A level, now playing for the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
Ronny Rodriguez inked a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training with the Detroit Tigers in the winter. The 25-year-old put up some of his best numbers of his seven-year pro career last year with the Columbus Clippers, slashing .291/.324/.454 in 117 games with 18 doubles, 17 homers, 64 RBI, and 15 stolen bases, and he even appeared at six different positions as a versatile utility man. He hit the open market after the season and joined Detroit, but did not break camp with the Tigers. He could get a chance with the rebuilding club over the course of the year, but until then, he will suit up for his third season of work at the Triple-A level, this time with the rival Toledo Mud Hens.
Several other farmhands have inked new deals with other baseball ventures around the world.
Thirty-year-old Diego Moreno has opted to head overseas this winter, signing on to pitch in Japan. He was a midseason waiver claim by the Indians and spent a month at Triple-A Columbus, posting a 1-0 record in nine games of relief with a 0.73 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP in 12 1/3 innings.
Jeff Johnson, a 28-year-old reliever who spent each of the last two seasons in the Clippers bullpen (posting a 6-2 record with five saves in seven chances in 98 games and 108 1/3 innings), signed on Saturday with the Acereros del Norte in the Mexican League. He saved as many as 27 games for Akron in 2015, but had logged just four years of minor league play after missing all of 2014 with Tommy John surgery.
Outfielder Jordan Smith spent his second straight season split between Akron and Columbus. A ninth round pick by the Indians in the 2011 draft out of St. Cloud State in Minnesota, he hit .212 with ten doubles, three homers, and 24 RBI in 97 games between the two stops a season ago. After seven seasons with the organization, the 27-year-old has returned home to Minnesota, signing in late February with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association (independent league).
The Indians returned free agents Juan De La Cruz, Carlos Frias, and Michael Martinez (the latter who will likely miss the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon at the end of January). De La Cruz, a 24-year-old catcher/first baseman out of Venezuela, was re-signed and is currently on the seven-day disabled for the Akron RubberDucks. Frias, 28, was signed to a minor league deal and returned to the Columbus Clippers, where he spent almost all of 2017 working out of the Columbus bullpen.
Jacob Lee, who spent four years in the Indians farm system, was marked as voluntarily retired from the organization on January 2. The right-hander, then 27, made 19 relief appearances last season, going 1-2 with a 7.88 ERA.
Of the team’s long list of free agents, a few remain unaccounted for, meaning formal deals have not been disclosed yet or the players are still awaiting contracts to continue their careers.
Robbie Aviles, a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher, wrapped up his sixth year in the Indians organization last fall. A seventh round pick in the 2010 draft out of Suffern High School in New York and the son of former minor league pitcher Brian Aviles, split the year in the bullpen for Akron and Columbus, posting a combined 7-4 record with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 41 games. His three games for the Clippers marked his first stint at the Triple-A level. He spent his offseason working as a pitching lab coach at Rockland Peak Performance in New York.
Travis Banwart, 32, returned to the Cleveland farm system last year after spending parts of three seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. He first joined the Indians in 2014, making 16 starts for Columbus that season. Last year, he worked at Akron and Columbus as both a starter and a reliever, going 3-5 with a 5.54 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP in 18 games (10 starts).
Infielder Claudio Bautista, a 24-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, had spent six seasons on the farm for Cleveland. He spent 2017 at High-A Lynchburg, hitting .216 with ten doubles, one triple, and seven homers. He previously reached the Double-A level in 2016, hitting .127 for Akron in 19 games.
Tim Cooney missed all of 2016 after being claimed on waivers by the Indians from the St. Louis Cardinals. Offseason shoulder surgery and a following left forearm strain kept the 27-year-old out of competition until mid-August, when he returned for four games for the Indians in Arizona Rookie League action, posting a 6.00 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP in four starts. He allowed two runs on three hits with three walks and four strikeouts in just three innings of work there.
Long-time minor leaguer Jarrett Grube spent the second half of last season with the Indians, marking his second stint with the organization after previously working for the Clippers during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The 36-year-old had started the year with Toronto’s Triple-A Buffalo affiliate before his trade to Columbus in June. He concluded his 12th season of minor league ball with a 5-6 mark with the Clippers, posting a 3.56 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP in 14 games. His best season was in 2015 after moving from the Mexican League to the International League, when he posted a 9-0 record with a 2.26 ERA and one save for the Clippers.
David Lough, a 32-year-old journeyman outfielder, spent four months with the Clippers but played just four games. The Akron, Ohio, native entered the pro game in 2007 when he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals. He has spent five years in the Majors with the Royals, the Orioles, and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Another established veteran, Chris Narveson, spent last year as a depth starter at Triple-A Columbus for the Indians. The 36-year-old went 6-7 with a 3.41 ERA in 20 games (17 starts).
Twenty-eight-year-old Enosil Tejeda became a free agent after the season. The right-handed pitcher had missed all of the last two seasons with injury. When healthy, he had shown promising numbers, striking out 324 in 296 1/3 career innings with a 1.94 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP.
The Indians received Josh Wilson last June in a trade with the Texas Rangers after he started the season strong at Triple-A Round Rock. His numbers did not continue at Columbus, where he hit just .206 over the rest of the season in 53 games. The 37-year-old, who entered the pro game in 1999, had spent parts of eight seasons at the Major League level.
Photo: Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal