Avoiding Deep Valleys
Back in the days of Jon Rauch, the Chicago White Sox were generally thought to have the best farm system in baseball. In the same time period, the Houston Astros were flush in minor league talent. The Seattle Mariners had a slew of young arms, most notably Ryan Anderson, that gave their farm system much clout.
More than anything else, this memory should remind us that minor league talent is a cyclical trait among organizations. Asking any scouting department or development staff to consistently rate among the league's best is very tough. While we generally think highly of teams like the Braves and Twins for developing youth well, even these organizations have had their valleys in terms of young talent.
Currently, organizations like the Dodgers, Angels and Diamondbacks are (deservedly) considered the best in the Major Leagues. However, this is unlikely to be true five years from now, as even Logan White cannot keep consistently drafting with such precision. Part of having a farm system is accepting the dozens of busts that will come along the way. Simply put, don't expect the Angels to be so loaded once the current class shows its true colors.
This has happened in Cleveland, where much of the players that formerly made up one of the best systems in baseball have graduated. Victor Martinez at catcher, Hafner at DH, Peralta at short, Sizemore in center, Cliff Lee on the mound, Brandon Phillips' prospect status in shambles. All of these players made up a great system of yesteryear.
Now, however, the Indians don't possess such minor league talent. This is not meant to be damning to an Indians front office that was so influential in building the current crop of young players, for many of the reasons listed above. Thanks to busted (yes, probably too early to use that term) first-round picks like Michael Aubrey and Jeremy Guthrie, the Indians are caught in a bit of a valley. Just three Indians -- including the newly acquired Andy Marte -- were among my top 100 prospects. Baseball America is no different.
As a result of this newfound pessimism in the farm system, I wanted to use a magnifying glass to look at a solid, if not superbly top-heavy, farm system in a forward thinking organization. New Baseball Prospectus columnist Kevin Goldstein -- a long-time friend of mine that deserves congratulations for his new role -- beat me to the punch here, so I merely mean to expand upon his overview.
I mentioned above that three players were on both mine and Baseball America's top 100, and the three undoubtedly are the jewels of the organization: Andy Marte, Adam Miller and Jeremy Sowers. Marte is certainly a cut above the other two, and should be the Indians third baseman prior to the All-Star Break. I've mentioned that he has Paul Konerko (or better) potential at the plate, and at the very least should be a steady, solid player. Sowers and Miller are interchangeable in the 2 and 3 slots, depending upon whether you want someone with potential (Miller) or a sure bet (Sowers).
As we mentioned in our AL Central Preview at this site, Sowers should be among (with Marte) the first call-ups the Indians make in 2006. His quick rise up the farm system is enviable, and he has all the makings of a solid #3 starter. I fell in love with Miller prior to his arm injuries last year, but have backed off since seeing a lot of inconsistency when he returned. His arm has ace potential, and as a result, I feel he's a bit overrated at this point. Mark Shapiro has stated he wants to land a big name via trade during the season, and if it means parting with Miller, the Indians should probably consider it.
Predictably, this is where disagreements between myself and Baseball America start to increase. The second tier of the Indians, those that garnered consideration for my list, has just three names: Fernando Cabrera, Ryan Garko and Chuck Lofgren. Cabrera has the potential to be a dominant reliever at the next level, and is so close that it's a good bet he'll make some sort of a difference. Garko is just as close, and should be up midseason as another bat in the mediocre (besides Hafner) 1B/DH logjam that the Indians have built up.
Lofgren is the anomaly, the player Baseball America did not rank in their top ten, but whom I would give the six slot in the organization. I will talk about him more in the coming weeks -- in a future expansion upon my breakout prospects of 2006 -- but needless to say, there is a lot to like. He showed a lot of potential last year, and given his insane athleticism and increasing pitchability, there is a lot of upside.
After this there is a lot of gray area, when we see a world where prospects with significant flaws bleed through. Franklin Gutierrez gets the nod for seventh on my list, a former top prospect with a bad season. In his series analyzing the minor leagues through PECOTA, Nate Silver had a good reference to Gutierrez, trying to downplay the off year that the talented player had. Gutierrez still has a ton of potential, and given his wide array of skills, has downside as a solid fourth outfielder capable of all three spots.
It's nearly impossible to rank the next four slots, all hitters (alphabetically): Michael Aubrey, Trevor Crowe, Stephen Head, Brad Snyder. Crowe probably gets my nod, as he's higher thought of coming out of college than Snyder and Head were, and doesn't have the injury history that Aubrey does. In a close battle, Stephen Head would come next, as I think he has more upside than Brad Snyder. The latter I think is a greatly flawed prospect, a tweener with bad contact skills and an unknown amount of power. Shipping out him on a high note would be a good idea.
After Aubrey in the eleventh spot come a host of pitchers, where you would also need a spot for John Drennen to be thrown in. The pitchers: Tony Sipp, Andrew Brown, Rafael Perez, Cody Bunkelman, J.D. Martin. I like Sipp the best, who is probably the one who I can say right now is probably not a future reliever. Brown and Perez almost definitely are, and Martin and Bunkelman are question marks. Sipp has a lot of potential for success, and would rank twelfth on my list.
If nothing else, this is an extremely deep system with hosts of flawed prospects. The remaining pitchers all offer something I like, but mix it with a lot of reason to not believe they will succeed: Fausto Carmona, Nick Pesco, Sean Smith, Bear Bay, Dan Denham, Justin Hoyman. Of this group, I actually like Smith the best (who BA did not include in their top 30, apparently), a sleeper with a lot of potential as a future reliever. As far as the hitters go, Rule 5 options Jason Cooper, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Mulhern all have flaws that outweigh the slugging strengths they bring to the table.
Getting into the business of team prospect lists is dangerous, and a prospect I want to generally avoid. However, here is how I would capture my top 15 Indians prospects:
1. Andy Marte - 3B
2. Jeremy Sowers - LHP
3. Adam Miller - RHP
4. Fernando Cabrera - RHP
5. Ryan Garko - DH
6. Chuck Lofgren - LHP
7. Franklin Gutierrez - OF
8. Trevor Crowe - OF
9. Stephen Head - 1B/OF
10. Brad Snyder - OF
11. Michael Aubrey - 1B
12. Tony Sipp - LHP
13. John Drennen - OF
14. Andrew Brown - RHP
15. Cody Bunkelman - RHP
Deep Sleeper: Sean Smith - RHP
The above prospect list is nothing that you will see teams drooling over, or even, envying. This won't earn the Indian staff any awards, and doesn't create a lot of buzz for sustained future success. But as I've tried to prove today, while Cleveland isn't quite as flush in talent as they once were, there are a lot of things to like in this system. For teams that can't fix all their holes by spending seven figures, having a host of players with certain, specific skills is a good thing.
It will be a few years before the Indians are again atop organizational rankings. These things are cyclical. And it helps, of course, to have a staff that even in down years, produces a lot to be proud of.