I've been noticing the names of a few former Cleveland Indians prospects on "Baseball Tonight" box scores lately. Things like Milton Bradley 2-3 2HR and Ryan Ludwick 2-4 2HR tend to standout. This got me thinking if I could put together a major league team with former Indians prospects (note: I'm talking prospects here, not guys like Omar Vizquel, Jason Michaels or Kevin Millwood who left due to free agency or were ineffective at the big league level). Anyway, not only could I put together a team, but it's a pretty good team, check it out (2008 stats in parenthesis):
1B - Ben Broussard (ave .159, obp .225, slug .268)
2B - Brandon Philips (.273/.319/.496)
SS - Joe Inglett (.281/.347/.391)
3B - Kevin Kouzmanoff (.266/.311/.405)
RF - Ryan Church (.300/.365/.522)
CF - Brian Barton (.242/.339/.343)
LF - Ryan Ludwick (.310/.379/.647)
C - Chris Coste (.315/.374/.556)
DH - Milton Bradley (.338/.456/.642)
SP - Jeremy Guthrie (era 3.40, whip 1.20, k/9 5.9)
SP - Tim Lincecum (2.15, 1.22, 9.0)
RP - Brian Tallet (2.49, 1.38, 7.8)
RP - Andrew Brown (2.45, 1.20, 7.4)
Others: John McDonald, Maicer Izturis, Josh Bard
Ok, a couple of things. First, I hate putting Ben Broussard on this list, he's awful, he was awful in Cleveland and he'll probably be awful for years to come. Fortunately for the Indians, they made the right choice with Ryan Garko and Broussard is their best former first base prospect currently in baseball.
Second, adding Tim Lincecum to the list is kinda unfair. He was drafted by Cleveland in 2005, but didn't sign (rumor has it the difference between the two parties was a few $100k). This happens pretty regularly with top college prospects/guys that are tough to sign, so it's probably something every team has done. We won't be mentioning him any further.
Third, I was floored by the raw number of former Indians prospects currently in the bigs. I could have also included guys like Jody Gerut and Russell Branyan, but I don't think that really changes things. Still, I've listed 15 guys (16 minus Lincecum) and that seems like alot.
Ok, so what does this all mean. First, the Indians have a great minor league system. I don't think any baseball people will disagree with that. Almost all of their recent success has come from the cultivation of prospects like Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Fausto Carmona. In the course of evaluating talent there are going to be some hits and misses, so even the best GMs (Ok, maybe not Billy Beane) are going to have "the one that got away". But look at that list again, there are 5 guys slugging near or over .500, there are two guys with OPS over 1.000, there is one guy that represents half of the second basemen ever to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. That's not missing on a few guys, that's a disaster.
Of course, if the Indians already have talented players in place even top-prospects will have to be traded away to "win now" or will simply run out of options with the club and be forced to move on. That is not the case here. Take a look at the Indians depth chart here. According to my high tech calculations, the current Indians position players are much better than the guys listed above at three positions (C, 1B and CF) and the rejects are much, much better at four positions (2B, RF, LF, DH). Jhonny Peralta is more proven than part timers Joe Inglett or John McDonald, so he gets the nod at SS (although if Peralta is going to hit .230 and be a defensive liability, one might wonder "why not go with a defensive guy?") and Kevin Kouzmanoff is better than Casey Blake. So the grand total is 5-4 in favor of the rejects. Not good.
But like I said above, if the Cleveland front office traded away these prospects in the name of winning in the moment it would be tough to blame them. It would also be tough to criticize if these guys were traded for better or more "sure thing" prospects. Again, this is not the case here. Of the 15 guys listed above, five were waived or unprotected (Inglett, Ludwick, Barton, Coste and Guthrie). For the other ten, the Indians currently have five major leaguers to show for it and it's tough to classify these five guys as major league quality. They are: Shin-Soo Choo, Josh Barfield, Franklin Gutierrez, Andy Marte and Kelly Shoppach. In fact, Marte and Shoppach were dealt from Boston for Coco Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard, so it's very tough to say they were aquired for Bard (note: Crisp could have been considered as a prospect, but with three seasons with 400+ ABs in Cleveland I felt like he was pretty well established, and he sucks. Riske is also a major leaguer, but, again, established.). The "franchise five" are hitting a combined .232 with a whopping 5 home runs and 25 RBI in 111 games. Of these five, none are better than the "rejected" player at his corresponding position (if you consider all outfield positions equal, Gutierrez and Brian Barton are pretty similar, but to the best of my knowledge, Gutierrez has never been considered one of Baseball America's Top 100 prospects like Barton was in 2007). So to summarize, that's 15 major leaguers with Franklin Gutierrez to show for it.
As an Indians fan, it's tough to look down that list and wonder if one of those 15 players could have been parlayed into a player that would have pushed them over the hump from being a team that went to game 7 of the 2007 ALCS to American League Champions (even more frustrating is that maybe they only needed one player to give them one more regular season win to finish with a better regular season record than Boston, pushing game 7 to Cleveland instead of Beantown). It's also frightening that Indians management has a history of giving up on highly ranked prospects when they struggle early in their careers (especially with the current ineffectiveness of once revered prospects Josh Barfield and Andy Marte). For a small market team that acknowledges that they can't afford to make mistakes, I see too many in the past of the Cleveland Indians and, even worse, I see the potential for more in the near future.
Of course maybe I'm blowing this all out of proportion, maybe this happens all the time in baseball and maybe I'm only seeing the Indians failures because they are the team I'm most attuned to. With that in mind, I'm going to make this a mini-series here at Joe and Joe Sports, looking at two more teams: the low-budget hero Oakland A's and the mid-market disappointment Baltimore Orioles. Hopefully, this will add some perspective to the Indians situation as well as give some insight into the success rate of front offices around the league. At the end I'll try to bring everything together and provide some conclusions (or maybe not), so check back soon.
(This post was started in August; I lost direction for a while, and obviously we've got some new information, a la the actual gameplay, ...
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