Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cleveland Indians: A Look at Baseball America's 2009 Top Prospect List

Baseball America recently released their Top 10 Cleveland Indians prospects for 2009. Along with the top 10 list is a list of the Indians best tools, and an always-fun look at what the Cleveland lineup may look like a few years in the future.

This year BA projected what the Indians may look like in 2012, and like their current prospect list their were some surprises.

The Prospects List

The biggest surprise to most, I'm sure, is that catcher Carlos Santana tops outfielder Matt LaPorta, who many thought to be one of the top prospects in any organization. LaPorta struggled with the Mendoza line in double A, the Olympics, and the Arizona Fall League, no doubt feeling the pressure of being "that guy from the CC Sabathia trade."

Meanwhile, Carlos Santana broke out at all levels this year. Indians fans lamented the journey of catcher Max Ramirez, who went from Atlanta to Cleveland for half a year of Bob Wickman in 2006, then to Texas for half a year of Kenny Lofton in 2007, then blossomed into a Major League-ready talent in 2008. Well, the Tribe got their payback when they traded half a year of Casey Blake for Santana, who now ranks just ahead of Ramirez in Project Prospect's latest Top 10 Catchers Under 25 ratings. Oh, and Santana is a full year and a half younger than Ramirez.

The article that accompanies Baseball America's Top 10 list correctly assesses Mark Shapiro when it comes to evaluating young talent. While Shapiro has come up short in the draft - often with questionable picks - he excels at acquiring minor league talent from other organizations, and complements that with free agent signings from Latin America. The list reflects that assessment, as Santana, LaPorta, and Michael Brantley find themselves among the Indians best prospects after starting this year in another organization. (Brantley was the player to be named later in the Sabathia trade.)

However, Shapiro is starting to show a knack for finding diamonds in the rough during the draft as well, as Cleveland's top three picks over the last three years - David Huff, Beau Mills, and Lonnie Chisenhall - find themselves at eigth, fifth, and sixth on the list. Mills, from a northwestern junior college, and Chisenhall, who until that point was most famous for getting kicked off of the University of South Carolina's squad for theft, were both considered overdrafts, but have flourished so far in the minors. Adam Miller and Canadian hero Nick Weglarz are also Shapiro draft picks.

This Year's List vs. Last Year's

Of the players who made both lists, Nick Weglarz was the biggest gainer, going from sixth in 2008 to third in 2009. Adam Miller and Beau Mills both fell, from first to fourth and third to fifth respectively. Miller's injuries notwithstanding, the two's new status is less a reflection of their own regression and more a reflection of the increased talent at the top of Cleveland's pool.

Chuck Lofgren and Jordan Brown fell off the list entirely from last year, and perhaps not surprisingly were left exposed in the upcoming Rule V draft. Lofgren especially deserves a second chance, as his poor 2008 was a result of injuries and his mother's battle with cancer.

Wes Hodges also fell from the list from his number four spot, but he continues to be Cleveland's projected third baseman, for at least 2010 and 2011. (For more on the 2012 lineup, keep reading.) David Huff stays the same at number eight. Aaron Laffey, Ben Francisco, and Jenson Lewis, meanwhile, all "graduated" from their prospect status in 2008.

Best Tools

I didn't get to see any of these prospects in action in 2008, so I'm not in a position to agree or disagree with anything BA said. However, there are some promising signs to point out.

Michael Brantley has immediately become the team's best hitter for average and best athlete. That's great for someone who's expected to be the team's leadoff hitter of the future. That's especially great on a team that's been starved for athleticism as of late. Matt LaPorta, predictably, is the team's best power hitting prospect. Finally, it's nice to see that despite all his struggles, Adam Miller is still considered to have the best fastball and slider in the organization.

Cleveland Indians Projected 2012 Lineup

Indians fans will notice quite a few exceptions from 2008 on this list: Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Garko, Asdrubal Cabrera, Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco, and Aaron Laffey stood out for me.

Garko, Gutierrez, Francisco, and Laffey, while decent, are also easily replaceable. Victor Martinez's current contract is up before 2012, and Baseball America surely took that (and Victor's age) into account.

But what about Shoppach and Cabrera? The Indians recently added Carlos Santana and Chris Gimenez to their 40-man roster, who along with Martinez, Shoppach, and Wyatt Toregas give the club five catchers. Some say that is a clear sign the Indians will use Shoppach as trade bait to fill in a key need this offseason.

Cabrera is the mystery, though. For the past several months, I've campaigned to move Jhonny Peralta to second base, both because his defense isn't good enough for short and his offense isn't good enough for third. I was just about to give up (hey, we can move him to third and sign a good offensive second baseman to make up for it) when Baseball America sparked the debate again. That leaves the shortstop position open to Cabrera and Carlos Rivero. I don't know much about Rivero, but I'll take the experts' word on him for now. After all, it is just harmless speculation.