As Spring Training drew to a close for 2019, the Cleveland Indians traveled from Arizona to Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, for a two-game set. Along with the expected Major League roster, the club took along a handful of players expecting to start their seasons in the minor leagues.
For one of these players, High-A Lynchburg’s Luke Wakamatsu, the two games would mark a special occasion. On Monday, March 25, Luke got to stand across home plate from his father while lineups were exchanged. The 6’3” tall, 185 lb. fifth-year professional would be playing against the team on which his father serves as bench coach.
“It was amazing,” said Luke. “I wanted to try and beat him so bad, so that I could talk smack to him.”
Jared Robinson is a Carolina League veteran. A member of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats for all or part of the past three seasons, he understands the challenge and demands of professional baseball. With experience comes established success and a chance to climb the organizational ladder towards the Major Leagues.
Hailing from West Covina, the 23-year-old right-handed pitcher is a southern California native. Robinson’s interest in baseball began when he was very young, watching his older brothers play.
“I liked watching their games,” he said. “I think that’s where it all started, visualizing being out on the field in front of all the fans.”
Every ball player has a different journey. For Robert Charles Orlan, who goes by R.C., it started in Pennsylvania. Born in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, his family moved to Houston, Texas, and it was there that baseball became a part of his life.
“I had this plastic tee growing up, basically a big wiffle ball attached to a piece of string so I could hit all day, my parents didn’t have to do anything,” he said in a kind of self-deprecating tone of voice.
Imagine traveling over 8,000 miles away from home for your career. Beyond the distance, you learn a new language, you must become exceptionally proficient at your job, and when the journey began, you were only 18 years old.
This is the odyssey of High-A Lynchburg Hillcats catcher Li-Jen Chu. A native of Taichung, Taiwan, he has been playing baseball as a professional since signing with the Cleveland Indians organization in 2012. Now 24 years old, Chu shows signs that his performance is catching up with his talent.
If you meet the 6’0″, 170 lb. Ernie Clement out of uniform, you might not know that he is one of the Cleveland Indians’ Top 30 Prospects, as determined by Baseball America. He came in at 24 in their preseason rankings. Currently, MLB Pipeline has him in the number 28 spot.
Raised in Rochester, New York, the 22-year-old has been playing baseball since the age of three. His parents encouraged him to play other sports – he excelled at hockey – but he always returned to his first love, baseball.
“I love the team aspect and everybody coming together for one common goal,” said Clement about his deep passion for baseball. “All of my friends played baseball so that made it really fun.”
Right-handed pitcher Eli Morgan began his professional baseball career a little more than one year ago. Now the number 29 ranked Indians prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is in his first full season. Morgan has reached the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats working as a starting pitcher. This path to a career in baseball is a recent development.
“Through high school, I wasn’t even sure about college baseball,” said Morgan. “I wasn’t getting looked at.”
Dalbert Siri is a solidly built right-hander out of Moca in the Dominican Republic. The 6’2”, 190 lb. 22 year-old reliever, signed when he was 19, rather late for players coming out of the Caribbean. The strongest prospects usually ink a contract the day they turn 16, the earliest legal age they can sign with a Major League organization.
Those top international signings often have the benefit of playing at one of the various training centers where they go to school, play ball, and get exposure to one or more Major League organizations. Siri, on the other hand, only started to play baseball at the age of 14 in Little League.
“I had to do a lot of hard work to get noticed,” Siri said. “My mother paid to have someone teach me baseball, so I took it seriously and played every day.”
It is not often that a player marks two rare baseball achievements before becoming a professional. For High-A Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Zach Plesac, this happened in high school. The nephew of former three-time All-Star reliever Dan Plesac went to the mound for the first in-conference game of the 2012 season for Crown Point, Indiana, High School. In the ninth inning, their opposition, Chesterton, led 2-1 from a combination of a hit batter and errors, but had no hits.
“I came to bat in the bottom of the ninth and hit a three-run homer over the left field wall,” recalled Plesac. “It was just incredible. It was one of those things you dream about.”
At first glance, second-year High-A Lynchburg Hillcats first baseman Anthony Miller appears to be your stereotypical corner infielder. He is big, standing 6’5” tall, and weighing in at 240 lbs. You would be wrong in assuming he is a slow, classical power hitter.
“Defensively, he’s very good,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor. “He’s done a good job and just needs to continue to improve his at-bats, making sure he gets good pitches to hit.”
You won’t find the name James Karinchak listed at Cleveland’s MLB pipeline page, or see it included in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook coverage of the Cleveland Indians. It is likely he will join those ranks next year. Since the start of the season Karinchak has significantly improved his pitching and on May 3, he earned a promotion from Low-A Lake County to High-A Lynchburg.
The numbers between his first season as a professional and those of his second season are radically different. The 6’3” power right-hander out of Bryant University began his professional career with the short-season Mahoning Valley team after being a ninth round selection in 2017. In ten games, six as a starter, he posted a 5.79 ERA over 23 1/3 innings, with a 2-2 record.
These are not the numbers you want to post to move up into prospect status, but Karinchak bore down and made some adjustments on the mound.
If you have the chance to attend a High-A Lynchburg Hillcats game this season, you are likely to find Alexis Pantoja (pronounced Pant-Oh-huh) taking up station at one of the infield positions. He has played second base, third base, and shortstop for this edition of the Hillcats, and his glove is his calling card as a baseball player.
“My first [role] model was Derek Jeter,” said Pantoja about what player he watched growing up.
Starting at three years old, he spent every waking moment on the baseball field if possible. His older brother had played in college and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“My mom would say, ‘Take it easy, take it easy’, but every time I would go play,” he said. “This is the reason why I love baseball.”
For three consecutive years, Dillon Persinger was selected in the summer’s annual amateur entry draft, the Rule IV draft. In his first trip through the draft, the Cleveland Indians selected him in the 31st round of 2015, following a season at Golden West College, a junior college in Huntington Beach, California.
“The first time was a little bit of a shocker, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Persinger about his three trips through the draft process. “As the years went on, there was a little less anxiety each time.”