Baseball America

Indians’ Draft Struggles Come Back To Haunt Them

When the 2012 season began, few things seemed more likely than the Orioles missing the playoffs. Yet after 14 straight losing seasons, Baltimore won 93 games and a wild card playoff spot.

The Athletics weren’t supposed to make the playoffs either, but they won 94 games and captured the American League West.

After a 68-94 season—their fifth straight without breaking .500—the Indians will hope they can deliver a similar surprise turnaround in 2013. They do have building blocks in the lineup. Between catcher Carlos Santana, center fielder Michael Brantley and a middle infield of Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, the Indians have a group of quality players in their mid-20s who should be entering their primes, in addition to right fielder Shin-Soo Choo.

“We think we have a very good nucleus around which to build,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. “A lot of that is up-the-middle talent. It’s catcher, second base, shortstop, center field, which is a good starting point for building a very good major league team. Now we need to complement those guys with the right players around them. Obviously Choo’s been a very productive right fielder, we think Lonnie Chisenhall at third base has a chance to be a very good player, but at some of the other corner positions, we need to identify some guys and improve in those areas, because I think those are the areas where we fell short of our own expectations.”

While the front office remains largely intact, the markers of future success are pointing in the wrong direction. The team ranked 29th in the majors in runs allowed in 2012, thanks largely to a disaster of a rotation. Among the seven pitchers who made the most starts for the Indians, Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez and Corey Kluber all had ERAs north of 5.00. Justin Masterson went backward and nearly joined them (4.93). Zach McAllister, who profiles best as a back-end starter, led the staff at 4.24.

There’s little immediate help on the way from the farm system, which ranked 29th in baseball last year and again is among the worst in the game. The Orioles and A’s might provide hope, but the Indians’ inability to identify and acquire talent—particularly among amateur talent and starting pitchers—means the organization could just as well be set up for several more years of losing.

Little Production

The Indians selected righthander Jeremy Guthrie out of Stanford with their first-round pick in the 2002 draft. Guthrie should be a success story, but his career is emblematic of Cleveland’s poor track record of identifying and developing pitching over the last decade. They let Guthrie go to the Orioles on a waiver claim before the 2007 season, only to see him blossom in Baltimore.

Though they misjudged Guthrie while he was in their organization, he has been by far the best pitcher the Indians have drafted since C.C. Sabathia in 1998. Chris Archer, their fifth-round pick in 2006, might eventually challenge Guthrie, but it won’t be for the Indians, who included him in a trade to the Cubs after the 2008 season to get Mark DeRosa. Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp and now Cody Allen have provided quality bullpen arms from the late rounds, but the franchise’s inability to draft and develop even a mid-rotation starter has been a glaring weakness.

The Indians have received little production from their drafts from 2002-2007, both from pitchers and position players. Michael Aubrey, Brad Snyder, Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe and Beau Mills were all first-round busts. The later rounds delivered useful role players like Pestano, Sipp, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Garko—but no building blocks.

“To some extent, some of our drafts in the past, we didn’t balance them like we have over the past four to five years,” said scouting director Brad Grant, who has been running Cleveland’s drafts since 2008. “Where it was maybe more college-heavy in the past at times, now it’s making sure that we balance out the draft. So we’re still making sure we’re balancing at the beginning of the draft the risk/reward that comes with it, but at the same time opening it up and taking upside, athletic type players later in the draft.”

More recent first-rounders Chisenhall and Francisco Lindor should improve the Indians’ first-round track record. And the scouting and player development staffs both deserve credit for Kipnis, an outfielder at Arizona State who has quickly become a capable defender at second base with an above-average bat for the position.

Though Lindor may one day surpass him, the fact that Kipnis might be the best player the Indians have drafted and signed since Guthrie shows part of the reason why they’ve had so little recent success at the major league level.

“It’s been an evolution in how we’ve done things,” Antonetti said. “We’ve continued to try to learn both from our successes and also from our mistakes, and grow and evolve as an organization. We’ve made some of those adjustments, but it’s unlike in the NFL or the NBA, where if you make some of those adjustments the returns are evident the following year because those guys emerge right at the highest level. In baseball it takes three, four, five, six, seven years to see the fruits of that labor. I think as we start to look forward, we’re going to begin to see some of those talented guys work their way through the system and be contributing major league players for us.”

In Latin America, the Indians used to be a force. They signed Victor Martinez out of Venezuela in 1996, and when Rene Gayo ran their international program, the Indians signed Jhonny Peralta, Roberto Hernandez, Willy Taveras, Rafael Perez and Edward Mujica as amateurs. Perez was the most expensive of the group at $50,000.

Since Gayo left to join the Pirates in 2004, Cleveland’s Latin American pipeline has started to run dry. Other than Hernandez and Perez, the only other international player on the 2012 major league roster originally signed by the team was Gomez, a fringy righthander. The Indians may have found a future star in Dorssys Paulino, a $1.1 million signing from 2011, but he has yet to play in a full-season league. That was not the case when they paid $575,000 to a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop named Jose Ozoria in 2008, only to find out he was really a 19-year-old named Wuali Bryan. He played one season in the Dominican Summer League before he was released.

Dwindling Returns

When the Indians were a competitive team not so long ago, much of their core talent came through the trade market. They famously grabbed Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips as Expos minor leaguers in exchange for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew in 2002. Travis Hafner, Cabrera and Choo all joined the Indians in trades as well.

Cleveland’s track record in the trade market the last five years has been more of a mixed bag. The biggest win has been getting Carlos Santana from the Dodgers in the Casey Blake deal in 2008. Trading DeRosa to the Cardinals in 2009 to get Chris Perez has been a success, as was getting McAllister from the Yankees in August 2011 for Austin Kearns. The 2009 trade of Victor Martinez to Boston brought Masterson, who emerged as a quality starter in 2011, then regressed last season.

But the Indians have little to show for trading away a pair of aces. The centerpiece of the 2008 Sabathia deal was supposed to be LaPorta, but so far he’s been a bust. The best player from the trade has been Brantley, a solid center fielder who could become more intriguing if he can add power. The only hope to salvage value from trading Lee to the Phillies in 2009 rests on Carlos Carrasco, who missed the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery.

It’s true that trades for star players don’t usually turn into blockbuster hauls like the Colon deal, yet when the Indians tried to trade away prospects for major league pitching, they’ve also gotten burned. Drew Pomeranz and Alex White haven’t done anything noteworthy in the big leagues yet, but Jimenez, acquired from the Rockies in 2011 already in the midst of a decline, has been awful. Trading away Archer may also end up biting them.

“I think when you look at the portfolio of trades that we’ve made, we feel comfortable with the returns we’ve gotten,” Antonetti said. “We’d always like to do better, and certainly when you look at any individual trade you can find opportunities where you may have been able to select a different player or gone in a different direction, but on balance, I think organizationally we’ve done a good job when we’ve made those decisions.”

As the Orioles and A’s showed, with a few good moves and some good fortune, a team can turn around in a hurry. Maybe the Indians could turn out like the 2012 Orioles. Or maybe they turn out like the 2003 Orioles—five mediocre seasons in, with a long road of losing ahead.


BUILDING THROUGH THE DRAFT

Every team talks about being committed to scouting and player development, but the Giants have demonstrated how to go out and build the core of a World Series champion through the draft, while the Indians have struggled to extract value from the draft. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the Giants’ draft production from 2002-2008 has greatly exceeded that of the Indians, even with two fewer first-round picks (and no pick until the fourth round in 2005). The disparity is even more significant given that Guthrie provided no value to the Indians and players like Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner and Posey are likely to add value to the Giants for years to come. The only player with a chance to add value to the Indians from those drafts is Chisenhall. Players who accumulated a negative career WAR number have been counted toward the total, because it doesn’t make sense to penalize a player for reaching the major leagues.

Every team talks about being committed to scouting and player development, but the Giants have demonstrated how to go out and build the core of a World Series champion through the draft, while the Indians have struggled to extract value from the draft. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the Giants’ draft production from 2002-2008 has greatly exceeded that of the Indians, even with two fewer first-round picks (and no pick until the fourth round in 2005). The disparity is even more significant given that Guthrie provided no value to the Indians and players like Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner and Posey are likely to add value to the Giants for years to come. The only player with a chance to add value to the Indians from those drafts is Chisenhall. Players who accumulated a negative career WAR number have been counted toward the total, because it doesn’t make sense to penalize a player for reaching the major leagues.

Indians
Year First-round pick (WAR) Notable later picks (WAR) Total Draft WAR
2002 Jeremy Guthrie (15.6) Ben Francisco (1.9) 17.5
2003 Michael  Aubrey (0.2) and Brad Snyder (-0.2) Kevin Kouzmanoff (5.7), Ryan Garko (2.5) 10.5
2004 Jeremy Sowers (1.0) Tony Sipp (2.0) 3.6
2005 Trevor Crowe (-0.2) Jensen Lewis (1.9) 1.3
2006 None Vinnie Pestano (4.2), Josh Tomlin (1.0) 5.2
2007 Beau Mills (0.0) None 0.0
2008 Lonnie Chisenhall (1.1) None 1.1
Total first-round WAR: 17.9
Total draft WAR: 39.2
Giants
Year First-round pick (WAR) Notable later picks (WAR) Total Draft WAR
2002 Matt Cain (29.7) Fred Lewis (3.6), Clay Hensley (2.8) 37.7
2003 David Aardsma (1.7) Brian Wilson (5.4), Nate Schierholtz (3.3) 21.6
2004 No pick Jonathan Sanchez (2.3) 2.3
2005 No pick Sergio Romo (6.3) 6.4
2006 Tim Lincecum (21.5) None 22.3
2007 Madison Bumgarner (7.3) None 7.3
2008 Buster Posey (12.1) Brandon Crawford (2.8) 15.0
Total first-round WAR: 72.3
Total draft WAR: 112.6

Minors | #2012 #Prospect Pulse

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