Spring Training Dish: Cleveland Indians

WINTER HAVEN, Fla.–Third base wasn’t exactly a significant weak spot in the Indians system heading into this season, but there were certainly question marks before the trade that brought Andy Marte to Cleveland.

Kevin Kouzmanoff was the closest in terms of being major league-ready on the depth chart, and he missed two months last season with back problems. The club was never sold on Pat Osborn’s overall ability on the corner, and the jury was out on whether or not former first-round pick Matt Whitney would ever fully recover from a broken leg that sidelined him in 2003 and limited him in 2004 and 2005.

But fast-forward to the end of March, and third base is shaping up as one of the more interesting positions of depth in the organization.

With Marte in tow, the Indians feel they have a third baseman who grades out as above-average on the major league level for years to come. Behind Marte is Kouzmanoff, a sixth-round pick out of Nevada in 2003, who batted .339/.401/.591 in 254 at-bats at high Class A Kinston last season.

Kouzmanoff is the prototypical third baseman who makes all the plays on the corner, playing above his physical abilities. “He isn’t pretty, just solid,” infield coordinator Ted Kubiak said. “He’s what you want–he gets dirty, he plays at 100 miles an hour and has that presence about him that you want on your club.”

But Kouzmanoff had a hard time staying on the field last year. He injured his back during the Arizona Fall League in 2004 when he fell on the dugout steps going after a foul ball. He got off to a hot start with the K-Tribe last season, but the injury eventually wore him down. He went on the disabled list in June and didn’t return to the lineup until August.

Injuries have also been the story with Whitney, who broke his leg playing basketball during spring training in 2003, missed the entire year and was limited to DH duties in 2004. The break required two surgeries before he finally returned to the field during the second half of last season at low Class A Lake County.

There is little doubt that Whitney is the highest-profile third baseman in the system next to Marte. But because of all the missed time, his future was clouded with doubts and some club officials questioned whether he’d ever return to his debut season at Rookie-level Burlington where he mashed 10 homers in just 175 at-bats.

It’s been a different Whitney this spring and one who could be back on the fast track if he proves he can stay healthy. Needless to say, the bar has been set high yet again for the 2002 first-rounder.

“We are very encouraged by the way he’s played,” farm director John Farrell said. “He’s had a very good spring and watching the way he moves, there’s been no outward evidence of any past injury, any changes in his gait with the way he runs.

“He’s really hitting from a strong base for the first time in a long time. Last year I think it was a matter of getting all the movements back in the right spots. This year he’s come back with a little more explosiveness and there’s been no hesitation on his part.

He, along with (first baseman Michael) Aubrey have a chance to really impact the system as much as anyone in a positive way.”

All of this movement makes Osborn the odd man out. Coming off an AFL performance where he played in just seven games as a member of the taxi squad (only being activated for Wednesday and Sunday games), Osborn finds himself working on his versatility by playing third, both corner outfield spots and shortstop, his natural position in college at Florida.

“With Kouzmanoff being on the field every day, third base all of the sudden becomes a pretty good depth position,” Farrell said. “The addition of Andy Marte basically speaks for itself. But Kouzmanoff’s health and durability has really been the question here. So with him going to (Double-A) Akron, it gives us the ability to move Osborn around to create some versatility.

“We feel like for him to be able to break into the big leagues–because he hasn’t had that huge offensive year, that breakout, power-type year that many of us still anticipate him having–he’s going to have to create that versatility by playing multiple positions. We’re getting at a point where position players are starting to challenge for playing time and guys that have been profile draft picks, guys that have played their way to the upper levels, we’ve got to create versatility to create position space for a Kouzmanoff or a Marte that are equally important to the organization.”

SMOKE SIGNALS

• Another third baseman the club is high on is 2005 11th-round pick Nick Petrucci, who had corrective eye surgery done in the offseason and put himself on the radar this spring. Petrucci batted .246-8-29 in 211 at-bats at Rookie-level Burlington in his debut after signing out of Junior College of the Canyons (Calif.).

“Really, after a half-season, he’s come back to us a completely different player,” Farrell said. “When you put together the profile of a third baseman, he would fit that to a T. He’s got the body-type that’s similar to Marte, maybe a little bit more lean. He’s got above-average righthanded power and a very even-keeled demeanor. We’re excited for a 20-year-old that’s going to be out with a full-season club–we really like his upside.”

• The club is close to a deal with the city of Winter Haven to add a Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team for this season. That might seems like a contradiction in terms at first view, since general manager Mark Shapiro co-chaired the committee for Major League Baseball this past offseason to do away with both the GCL and Arizona League and implement other structural changes across the minor leagues. “I co-chaired the committee and there’s nothing happening,” Shapiro said. “And that really has nothing to do with moving forward with a team in the GCL. When we looked at it, the Appalachian League is becoming more and more of a college league, so we want to bring a team in where our younger picks and Latin players will be able to compete on a level playing field.

“It’s important to give those guys a strong base to build confidence and if you have a high school kid or a Latin player you just brought over from the Dominican and they’re facing college pitching, it’s not the same playing field. The Appalachian League has moved more toward college players and we need a place to develop the younger guys.”

• One Latin pitcher who has been raising some eyebrows in camp this spring is 21-year-old righthander Albert Vargas. Signed out of Venezuela in 2001, Vargas was the only pitcher below low Class A to be picked up by a winter ball club this past offseason and he pitched in the final game of the Caribbean Series for Caracas in January.

“That’s unheard of for a guy coming from short-season ball last year,” Farrell said. “In the two years he’s been here, he hasn’t been an overpowering guy in terms of velocity, but he has an assortment of pitches with command. The experience he gained this winter was invaluable. He’s not going to pop your eye from a physical ability standpoint, but he has three good pitches and a good feel for getting hitters out.”

Vargas spent his first two years in the Venezuelan Summer League before moving to the Dominican Summer League in 2004. Last season, he split the year between Burlington and short-season Mahoning Valley, where he went a combined 3-3, 3.00 with 29 strikeouts in 39 innings.

• High Class A Kinston’s roster looks to be heavily stocked with 2005 draft picks. Outfielders Trevor Crowe (first round) and Jordan Brown (fourth), first baseman Stephen Head (second) and righthanders Jensen Lewis (third) and Joe Ness (sixth) will all begin the season with the K-Tribe.

The organization is extremely excited about Crowe, who signed for $1.695 million out of Arizona–and along with Brown makes up two-thirds of a Wildcat-laden Kinston outfield. There was some talk of moving Crowe to second base in instructional league, but he will stay in center for now.

“A couple things have been factored in with that approach,” Farrell said. “One is he was an infielder when he went to Arizona out of Oregon high school, and the other is the depth of our outfield and the youth of our outfield at the upper levels–particularly in Cleveland obviously with Grady (Sizemore). But our approach this year is we drafted him because we thought he was a polished offensive player and he came in last year and was challenged a little bit just from the fact that he played a full college season.

“We bumped him up a level to Lake County. Our approach will be to really allow him to get his feet on the ground offensively, but I think this is something we’re going to consider in the future going forward. And if we were ever going to make that switch, we’d like to do it in instructional league where we’ve got time to focus day in and day out rather than just throwing him in during the middle of a season.”

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