WINTER HAVEN, Fla.–The mood around Indians camp certainly is different than it’s been in a long time.
From the huge crowds heading to Chain O’ Lakes Park to the hundreds of “PRONK” t-shirts to the buzz around minor league camp as fans circle the four fields at the complex looking for autographs, there is an obvious expectation to win.
And win now.
Coming off a 93-win season, general manager Mark Shapiro’s five-year rebuilding plan is officially over. Now it becomes a matter of balancing out new free agents with the boatload of talent the Indians have waiting in the wings, particularly in Triple-A.
“I think we had expectations (last year), probably greater for ourselves last year than anybody else had for us,” Shapiro said. “This year, there’s a greater sense of more genuine confidence and more resolve because these guys knew how close we came last year. They knew we won 93 games and they knew if we had gotten in we would have been a force to be reckoned with. It’s a big difference.
“Last year we had guys fighting for jobs–core jobs, everyday jobs. This year, everyone’s a year further and a year established with a valuable year of experience under their belts.”
That assessment includes the minor leagues, where the Tribe will have plenty of players nearly ready to make the jump at Triple-A Buffalo–the level farm director John Farrell refers to as “the first line of defense” for the big league club.
The rotation will feature lefthander Jeremy Sowers, along with righthanders Fausto Carmona, Jason Stanford, Jake Dittler and Jeremy Guthrie.
Carmona, 22, separated himself this spring with outstanding command of his 95 mph fastball, and he has tightened up his slider. He might not ever rack up huge strikeout numbers, but Carmona gets outs by consistently pounding the zone and keeping the ball down.
“He really put himself in a different place with the way he pitched this spring as far as poise, command and control and just the way he went about his business,” Shapiro said. “There wasn’t any outward sign of how old he is or how much experience he had coming in. That said, because he’s so young and because we have quality pitching at the big league level not only with who we brought in during the offseason, but with the homegrown pitchers here–he needs some more time in Triple-A.”
The position players on the roster are led by third baseman Andy Marte, outfielders Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco and Jason Cooper, and first baseman Ryan Garko.
“This might be one of the best Triple-A teams I’ve ever seen,” said new hitting coordinator Dave Hudgens, who spent the majority of his coaching career as a coordinator with the Athletics. “There is going to be a lot of talent in Buffalo this season and I know these guys are just looking forward to going full-go because they know they’re just a step away from contributing on our big league club.”
• Speaking of Hudgens, don’t underestimate the affect he’s going to have on the organization in terms of hitting philosophy. While former hitting coordinator Derek Shelton implemented an emphasis on strike-zone management before landing the major league hitting coach job when Eddie Murray was fired last season, expect that emphasis to be intensified with a more Oakland-like approach at the plate throughout the system.
“When Derek was in here, that was clearly a criterion that we put in,” Farrell said. “It wasn’t a hard fast number that you had to walk 10 percent of the time to move up, it was a goal. And it was a performance-indicator that a player was taking an aggressive approach that was clearly under control. The walk becomes a byproduct. It’s not the ultimate goal.
“Sometimes I think people think we’re in this to draw walks. Well, our approach is to be aggressive inside that defined zone, to challenge pitchers early in the count if the pitch shows up that they can handle. And then earn a respect that pitchers now become a little more careful early in the count, getting into a better hitter’s count. You have to make them work.”
• Indians pitchers will use a slightly more technologically advanced approach when charting games this season. Several teams have implemented electronic charting, so you’ll no longer see pitchers walking through the stands carrying a clipboard and a radar gun. That clipboard has been replaced by a laptop by a few organizations and Cleveland is one.
“In the past we’ve been traditional, charting with pen and paper,” Farrell said. “Those were faxed back in (to Cleveland) and we had a team of interns inputting that data. This just streamlines that whole approach. So it’s charted as it is and then downloaded in our system back in Cleveland. So the result is if (pitching coordinator) Dave Miller wants to know what Jeremy Sowers’ pitch breakdown is–percentage-wise, what guys hit in certain counts, what guys hit against his breaking ball–we can query that information instantaneously.”
• Middle infielder Brandon Phillips’ Indians career is basically over; he left big league camp and cleaned out his locker in anticipation of a trade or being placed on waivers. Acquired in the Bartolo Colon deal in 2002 along with current Indians stalwarts Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore, Phillips has hit just .206 in 432 major league at-bats with a 19-92 strikeout-walk ratio. He also hit just .256/.326/.409 last season at Buffalo.
• Switching over the Dodgers, vice president of player development and scouting Roy Smith is confident that the players making the jump from winning the Southern League title in Jacksonville last season can go on and win in the Pacific Coast League at Triple-A Las Vegas this season. But he’s cautiously optimistic, given the recent pitfalls of players–particularly pitchers–who sometimes struggle in the hitter-friendly league.
“I don’t think you can expect the same thing as what happened last year in Jacksonville, because of the league and the learning curve,” Smith said. “They’re going to be facing a lot more veteran guys. I could be totally wrong. They’re confident and they’re used to winning, which is big. We certainly have confident players–we don’t lack in that department.”
• Twins second baseman/outfielder Juan Portes will begin the year in extended after slipping on ice and breaking his thumb this winter. Portes, a 15th-round pick in 2004, batted .286/.349/.494 in 245 at-bats at Rookie-level Elizabethton last year.
• Nationals righthander Devin Perrin had a solid camp and should open the year at Double-A Harrisburg. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Perrin, a seventh-rounder out of Grand Canyon in 2003, will start in the rotation, but still likely projects as a reliever. Perrin, 24, went 3-7, 4.99 in 92 innings at high Class A Potomac last season.
“Devin’s got good life to his fastball,” farm director Andy Dunn said. “He’s a big kid; another kid I think that is going to help us as he moves forward, but again, he needs to continue to improve his command. We haven’t made a decision on what role he will be best suited in, but the bullpen is probably an option. But it’s so early, that we’re not crossing anything off the wall yet.”
• Time might be running out for Braves outfielder Gregor Blanco, despite having youth on his side. Blanco spent back-to-back years at high Class A Myrtle Beach before moving to Double-A Mississippi last season where he hit .252/.367/.384 in 401 at-bats. He has cracked the century mark in strikeouts in each of the last four seasons. The Braves are moving him to Triple-A Richmond this year in what is a crucial year of development for the 22-year-old Venezuelan.
“This time last year he’d have been a senior in college,” assistant GM Dayton Moore said. “Is he striking out a little too much? Probably. He’s working hard to (develop a) two-strike approach and he’s working hard on eliminating an upward path to the ball. He can really play defense. He’s our closest center fielder to the major leagues. He plays hard, he’s aggressive, he can bunt. He needs to incorporate the bunting aspect and the small game a little more, though he does have some power to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He’s a guy that we still have a lot of faith in because youth’s on his side.”