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Indians Indians Archive 2006 Buffalo Bisons Preview: The Lineup
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria

Indians prospect Ryan Garko will likely make this years big league club, but there is still plenty of talent at Buffalo for the Indians this season.
Fans of the Indians should make it a point to watch what goes on in Buffalo this year.  Typically, a team’s AA club is laden with high level prospects, while the AAA club has a few high level prospects but mostly minor league vets and fringe major league players.  This will not be the case this year in Buffalo.

Five of the organization’s top seven prospects will be in Buffalo, with a sixth (Brad Snyder) only starting in Akron because of the logjam in the outfield at Buffalo.  In all, the Indians will have 10 prospects from their Top 30 list start the season at Buffalo, and also have several former top 10 ranked players on the team that are no longer on those lists.  The Bisons will be relatively young for a AAA team, but will be loaded with young major league impact talent up and down the lineup, starting staff, and bullpen.

In 2004, the Bisons went 82-61 and won the International League title.  The Bisons followed up their 2004 championship season by putting in another solid effort last year going 82-62, but lost in the semi-finals of the International League playoffs to Indianapolis 3 games to 2.  

The Bisons will go into the 2006 season with a new skipper as Torey Lovullo takes over for the departed Marty Brown.  Brown left the Bisons after three seasons, compiling a 237-193 record, to become the skipper of the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League.  Lovullo takes over as a hot manager candidate in baseball, having guided his teams to league championships in each of the last two years, first with High A Kinston in 2004, and then with AA Akron in 2005.  He is a name you will hear more of in the future as managing positions open up in the majors, or even to join Eric Wedge’s staff up in Cleveland. 

While the lineup right now is a projection since the Indians have not officially released the rosters for their minor league teams, the projected lineup is based on comments made by Farm Director John Farrell himself, or in many cases, information provided through e-mail conversations with talent scouts and some writers for various publications.  Also, all rankings are based on the Baseball America Top 30 list provided on the Indians in the “2006 Prospect Handbook.”

Here are the minor league affiliates, and the projected lineup at Buffalo (the lineup setup is my educated guess):

Minor League Affiliates:
Buffalo Bisons (AAA)
Akron Aeros (AA)
Kinston Indians (High A)
Lake County Captains (Low A)
Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Short Season A)
Burlington Indians (Rookie)

Projected Lineup:
1. Franklin Gutierrez CF
2. Ben Francisco RF
3. Ryan Garko 1B
4. Andy Marte 3B
5. Jason Cooper DH
6. Jason Dubois LF
7. Jake Gautreau 2B
8. Einar Diaz C
9. Ivan Ochoa SS

CF: Franklin Gutierrez
Gutierrez was acquired in an April 2004 trade with the Dodgers for the troubled Milton Bradley.  While Gutierrez comes in as the organizations 7th ranked prospect, two very mediocre seasons in a row have tempered the enthusiasm this corner has for Gutierrez.  There is no question about Gutierrez as a defender, as he is the best outfielder in the entire system, including the major league roster.  If and when Gutierrez ever sticks as an everyday starter with the Indians, he likely would supplant Grady Sizemore in CF and move Sizemore to LF.

Last season, Gutierrez battled minor injuries to his knee and left middle finger to play in 114 games and hit a combined .260 with 11 HRs, 49 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases at Akron and Buffalo.  In his 469 game minor league career, he is a .277 hitter and has 57 HRs, 244 RBIs, and 64 stolen bases.  Early in his career, Gutierrez did hit for more power, but an elbow injury in early 2004 affected his power.  It also should be noted that the Indians did make a concerted effort to get Gutierrez to be more patient at the plate and take the ball the other way more since he was such a dead pull hitter.  The work is starting to pay off, as in 2002, 2003 and 2004 Gutierrez had a strikeout to at bat ratio of about 3.5 to 1 on average, but in 2005 that was improved to a 5 to 1 ratio. 

Clearly the work the Indians have put into Gutierrez’s two strike approach and pitch recognition is paying off, but now Gutierrez needs to stay healthy and find that power stroke that made him such an appealing prospect.  If not, he could get passed by several other outfielders in the system, and may just end up a useful 4th outfielder.  For 2006, Gutierrez should be the first option to call upon to fill one of the roles in the outfield if Todd Hollandsworth struggles, or an injury befalls one of the starters.  In 2007, he could go into Spring Training in a dogfight for the starting RF job between fellow prospects Ben Francisco and Brad Snyder.

RF: Ben Francisco
The Indians drafted Francisco in the 5th round of the 2002 Draft from UCLA. Francisco’s development has been hampered somewhat because of injuries, but he has put up three good seasons in a row even after missing large chunks of the 2003 and 2005 seasons to various injuries.

At Lake County in 2003, Francisco hit .287 with 11 HRs, 48 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 80 games.  He followed that up with a solid 2004 campaign at Akron hitting .254 with 15 HRs, 71 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 133 games.  Last year, in a return trip to Akron and a few games at Buffalo, in only 87 games he hit .316 with 7 HRs, 49 RBIs and 16 stolen bases.  His standout performance in the Mexican Winter League, where he hit .296 with 13 HRs and 31 RBIs in 60 games (11 stolen bases), caught the attention of many in the Tribe organization.

Francisco can play all three positions in the outfield, and with his speed, right now he projects as a 4th outfielder. Francisco does have potential, as demonstrated by the NY Penn League batting title he won in 2002 by hitting .349, but his best opportunity to make it onto a major league roster in the near future is as a bench player.

1B: Ryan Garko
The Indians selected Garko in the 3rd round of the 2003 Draft out of Stanford University.  There is no question about Garko’s bat.  His senior season at Stanford in 2003 he hit .402 with 18 HRs and 92 RBIs, and then shot through the Indians system in 2004 as he combined to hit .332 with 22 HRs and 102 RBIs in three different stops at Kinston, Akron and Buffalo. He followed that up in 2005 by hitting .303 with 19 HRs and 77 RBIs at Buffalo.

Yes, the guy can hit.  His short swing, above average power and good plate discipline (6:1 AB/K ratio in the minors) make him a very attractive option for the middle part of the Indians lineup for years to come.  The problem is finding a position for him to play.  Originally drafted as a catcher, with his below average defense behind the plate combined with Victor Martinez having hold of the catching position in Cleveland for the next several years, the Indians moved him to 1B to find a way to get that potent bat in the lineup.  Even after the move to 1B, Garko will still continue to catch from time to time in order to keep him sharp so the Indians can use him as a  3rd catcher option when he is on the Indians roster.

Garko has been a Top 10 ranked player in the organization now for two years, this year being ranked 6th.  But, Garko will start the season in Buffalo mainly to work on his defense at 1B.  To date, the transition has gone well, and Indians GM Mark Shapiro even has mentioned he is further along than he thought he would be at this point.  If Garko continues to hit and adapts well to 1B the first month or two of the season, Garko could be up with the Indians by mid-season as a regular contributor.

3B: Andy Marte
Marte is the highly touted 3B prospect that the Indians acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Coco Crisp trade.  While he was not on the team when the Indians prospect rankings were released, it has been confirmed that had he been, he would have been the #1 ranked prospect in the organization.

The numbers Marte is putting up at such a young age is what has baseball people so excited, and he often draws comparisons to players like David Wright, Mike Schmidt, and Adrian Beltre by scouts and major league executives.  Marte typically has been one of the youngest players in his respective league every year.  For instance, in 2002 at low A Macon as an 18 year old he hit .281/.339/.492/.831 with 21 HRs and 105 RBIs in 488 at bats.  Or, last year, at AAA Richmond, as a 21 year old he hit .275/.372/.506/.878 with 20 HRs and 74 RBIs in only 389 at bats.  Overall, in his short minor league career, he has hit .274 with 82 HRs and 328 RBIs in 512 games. 

Marte’s acquisition fills a huge void in the system not only at 3B, but with a legitimate right-handed middle of the order bat and gold glove caliber defense.  If not for Aaron Boone and his guaranteed $3.75M salary, or the Indians being a contender, Marte would be the starting 3B for the Indians right now.  He is regarded as a top 10-15 prospect in all of baseball, and likely could start for half the teams in baseball right now.  In fact, before being traded by the Braves, he was in line to be their starting 3B this year.  There is no doubt Tribe fans will get a good look at Marte sometime this season; the only question is when and how soon.

DH: Jason Cooper
Cooper was taken in the 3rd round of the 2002 Draft from Stanford University, and has been one of the most disappointing prospects in the organization the past few years.  After being tabbed as the 7th ranked prospect in the system in 2004, Cooper struggled in 2004 at Akron hitting .239 with 14 HRs and 69 RBIs.  Cooper bounced back with an un-talked about good season in 2005, hitting a combined .255 with 25 HRs and 100 RBIs at Akron and Buffalo.

He enters 2006 as the Indians 23rd ranked prospect, and many talent evaluators look at this year as a make or break season for him.  His strikeout totals have climbed the last three years, going from 98 in 2003, to 122 in 2004, to 143 in 2005.  While he will play some outfield for Buffalo, he is a liability in the field and should mostly DH.  Unless he can improve his two-strike approach and become a more consistent hitter, his limitations as a runner and defender will make it tough for him to stick with the Indians beyond this season.  Cooper is a likely candidate to be dealt sometime this season or next offseason.

LF: Jason Dubois
The Indians acquired Dubois in a July trade last year with the Cubs for Jody Gerut, and he came as a highly regarded prospect, mainly because of his bat, as he was the Cubs #10 ranked prospect in 2005.  His last full season in the minors, he hit .316 with 31 HRs, 99 RBIs and a 1.019 OPS for AAA Iowa in 2004.  Overall, he owns a career .301 batting average and .940 OPS in the minors, and in 473 games has an impressive 95 HRs and 365 RBIs.

Unfortunately, in the limited time Dubois played with the Indians in 2005, he looked completely lost.  In only 45 at bats, Dubois hit .222 with 2 HRs and 2 RBIs and struck out an amazing 25 times.  On the season, he hit a combined .235 with 9 HRs and 24 RBIs with the Cubs and Indians, and struckout 81 times in 210 at bats for a horrid 2.6 to 1 strikeout ratio. While the strikeouts are not a surprise, he has struckout 447 times in 1703 career minor league at bats for a 3.8 to 1 strikeout ratio.  Players who strikeout once every 2-3 at bats are not going to stick around in the majors long.

2006 will be a very important season for Dubois, as he has fared well against minor league pitching, in fact dominated it, but has struggled at the major league level.  If these struggles persist, Dubois might just become another typical 4A player, which is a baseball purgatory of sorts as it means you are too good for the minors, but not good enough to stick in the majors.  Nonetheless, Dubois is still a player to watch in 2006 if for no other reason that he could become good trade bait to a young non-contending team looking for a potent bat.

2B: Jake Gautreau/Joe Inglett
Gautreau will get the lion’s share of playing time at 2B, and will also backup Marte at 3B.  Joe Inglett and Lou Merloni (if he accepts an assignment to Buffalo) will also get some playing time at 2B as well.  The Indians acquired Gautreau last year when they dealt disappointing 3B prospect Corey Smith to the Padres for him.  Gautreau had a good year in Buffalo last year hitting .253 with 18 HRs and 57 RBIs, and was named to the AAA All-Star team.  But, he faded in the second half of the year as most of that production came in the first half of the season.

Last year, Inglett hit .330 with 2 HRs and 40 RBIs at Buffalo, and owns a career batting average of .303 in the minors.  Inglett played 56 games at 2B, 33 games in the outfield and 3 games at SS in 2005, and he will continue to bounce around the field and play pretty much everywhere as the Indians look to develop him into a useful utility player.

C: Einar Diaz/Tim Laker
The Indians signed Diaz and Laker to minor league deals this past winter, and while the backup catcher job in Cleveland is still not decided, Diaz most likely will not win the job and be assigned to Buffalo.  Diaz owns a lifetime .253 batting average and .648 OPS in 670 games in the majors, while Laker has combined to hit .224 with a .599 OPS in 277 games in the majors.

These two should split time handling the catching duties at Buffalo, and provide a veteran presence to what really is a young prospect heavy Buffalo squad.  In addition, if Victor Martinez or Kelly Shoppach go down due to injury, the Indians will have two major league experienced receivers on call. 

SS: Ivan Ochoa
It is unknown at this time which one of Brandon Pinckney or Ivan Ochoa will get SS duties at Buffalo, but the best bet right now is Ochoa.  Ochoa was signed out of Venezuela (same home as Omar Vizquel) in 2000, and is arguably still regarded as the best defensive infielder in the system. Ochoa bounced back from two injury plagued seasons in 2003 and 2004 to have a healthy and decent year in 2005 at Akron, hitting .265 with 2 HRs, 30 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases.

He is considered major league ready with his defense, but with his offense a big question mark he projects as a backup infielder in the majors.  With Inglett and Ochoa, the Indians may have two in-house utility options to turn to this year or next year.  Jose Flores should also get some playing time at SS.

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