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Indians Indians Archive Welcome To The GCL
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria
The Gulf Coast League (GCL) is minor league baseball in it's rawest form. The GCL Indians roster is littered with draft picks out of high school from the two most recent drafts, as well as several young Latin American players experiencing professional baseball stateside for the first time. Tony ventured down to Winter Haven, Florida back in late-July for his fourth stop on his minor league road trip to checkout the rookie-level GCL Indians, talk to a few players, and most importantly get a sense of what goes on down there and in extended spring training. What an interesting experience it was.

Chain of Lakes Park mapThis is the fourth in a series of six articles where by the end of August I will have visited all six of the Indians minor league affiliates in seven weeks. I'll recap each stop in Winter Haven, Mahoning Valley, Lake County, Kinston, Akron and Buffalo with a short writeup consisting mostly of video and pictures, and also write several separate articles on players I talk to during my visit.

Welcome to the Gulf Coast League (GCL), where the Cleveland Indians lowest level affiliate the rookie-level GCL Indians reside. It is professional baseball in its rawest form, with a roster littered with draft picks out of high school from the two most recent drafts, as well as several young Latin American players experiencing professional baseball stateside for the first time.

I ventured down to Winter Haven, Florida back in late-July for my fourth stop on my minor league road trip to checkout the GCL Indians, talk to a few players, and most importantly get a sense of what goes on down there and in extended spring training. What an interesting experience it was.

Whether you go to Buffalo to watch the Indians Triple-A affiliate in action, or you go to Mahoning Valley to catch the Indians short-season Single-A affiliate in action, you always catch the game in a stadium with fans in attendance. That's not the case for the GCL Indians. When the games are being played, you would think you were watching a high school baseball scrimmage. They play on the Indians Triple-A practice field located adjacent to the minor league clubhouse at the Indians spring training complex at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida.

If you take a look around, there is definitely a feeling of isolation. There is no one working in the administration buildings. No front office. No open concession stands. No restrooms. No press box. No fans. The only applause you hear when the home team makes a nice play, makes a good pitch, or gets a hit comes from the coaches and players in the dugout.

Just to give you an idea of how different it is at this level, the "front office" is the trainer Teddy Blackwell. That's it. There just is not anything there, except a handful of coaches and roughly 50 players who make up the GCL team and others from various parts of the organization on rehab assignments, and the trainer. That is your GCL Indians organization.

The ticket office where patrons would normally buy tickets during spring training is all closed up, and in fact the entire facility is in a state of hibernation until next spring training. All except the minor league clubhouse and the practice fields. Here are a few pictures of the field, dugout and practice field:

The setup of the Winter Haven facility where it basically is only fully operational for two months out of the year is a big reason the Indians are moving their spring training operations to Goodyear, Arizona at the start of the 2009 season. At Goodyear, the Indians will have a brand-new state of the art training complex that should be fully (or at least nearly) operational year round. It will become a true sister operation to the team headquarters in Cleveland located at Jacobs Field.

The GCL team is just a temporary home for the Indians rookie-level prospects. The GCL team was started up last year, and ended up replacing Burlington by year's end as the Indians affiliate where most of their recent high school draft picks and Latin American players get their first taste of professional baseball. The GCL team is temporary because when spring training operations move to Goodyear, Arizona in 2009, the GCL team will be scrapped and the Indians will have a rookie-level team in the Arizona League in 2009.

The environment is one that a lot of these players get used to, as many have been in Winter Haven since spring training opened in February. After the big league club and full-season minor league clubs break camp at the end of March, the players left behind in extended spring training are those rehabbing injuries and others who will play on one of the Indians short-season league teams in the GCL or at Mahoning Valley. Short-season leagues do not startup until mid-June, so for two and a half months from April to mid-June, the players left behind play in inter-squad scrimmages and get lots of practice work in on the diamond, and some in the classroom.

Also, sometimes pitchers are sent to extended spring training to work on new things with their game, whether it be developing another pitch, working on their fastball command, or a new delivery. During my stop in Winter Haven, right-handed reliever Cody Bunkelman had just been sent to extended spring to work on a new arm slot. Bunkelman is hanging on by a thread in the organization, but because he throws a mid-90s fastball they do not want to give up on him yet.

So, to my surprise, when I was there I caught Bunkelman's first workout learning how to drop down and throw sidearm. Here are two videos of him in action:

Video 1: Bunkelman bullpen session
Video 2: Bunkelman bullpen session (homeplate view)

Also, here are some pictures of him throwing during his bullpen session:

Cody Bunkelman with pitching coach Steve LyonsCody Bunkelman
Cody Bunkelman working with pitching coach Steve LyonsCody BunkelmanCody Bunkelman

While players are in extended spring working on refining their game, the main focus right now is the games that are being played. The gameday experience is much like anywhere else in the Indians system, minus of course the big stadiums and fan support, and also the players are still very raw. Here are some players working out before the game:

One of the biggest prospects playing for the Indians in the GCL is catcher Robbie Alcombrack. He did not play the day I saw them play, but I still got a chance to watch him workout and also catch Bunkelman during his bullpen session. I also sat down with him for about 15-20 minutes and talked about life in the GCL as well as how he is doing, which I will have an article on the site soon.

Here are some pictures of Alcombrack:

Robbie AlcombrackRobbie Alcombrack

The top pitcher for the GCL Indians is right-hander Santo Frias from the Dominican Republic. In nine starts for the GCL, Frias is 2-3 with a 1.88 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .207 batting average. According to pitching coach Steve Lyons, Frias has a three-pitch mix with an 88-92 MPH fastball, slider and changeup. He was just called up to Lake County, but here are some videos of him in action with the GCL Indians:

Video 1: Santo Frias on the mound
Video 2: Frias pitches from the stretch

Also, here are some pictures of Frias on the mound:

Santo FriasSanto FriasSanto Frias
Santo FriasSanto FriasSanto Frias

At 6'4" 230 pounds, first baseman Chris Nash is an impressive physical specimen at 20-years of age. He is also having a fine season at the plate hitting over .300 with an .847 OPS. Here is a video of him at the plate:

Video 1: Chris Nash at the plate

And, here are some pictures of Nash in action on the diamond:

Chris NashChris NashChris Nash
Chris NashChris NashChris Nash

Infielder Jason Smit is the youngest player on the team and one of the youngest in the league at 17 years old. He was signed last year as an international free agent out of Australia, and this is his first year playing professionally for the Indians. I sat down with him and talked at length about how things are going, and will have an article on him up soon. Here is a video of Smit at the plate:

Video 1: Jason Smit at the plate

Also, here are some pictures of Smit:

Jason SmitJason SmitJason Smit
Jason SmitJason SmitJason Smit

Catcher Richard Martinez looks an awful lot like Ronnie Belliard at the plate, see for yourself:

Video 1: Richard Martinez hitting

And, here are some pictures of Martinez:

Richard MartinezRichard MartinezRichard Martinez
Richard MartinezRichard MartinezRichard Martinez

Here is a video of outfielder Angel Rodriguez:

Video 1: Angel Rodriguez at the plate

And, some pictures of Rodriguez in action:

Angel RodriguezAngel Rodriguez

And, finally, here are some random field action shots and players in action (scroll over the picture for the player's name):

Corteze Armstrong (#22)Chris Nash (#56)
Karexcon SanchezRonald RivasRamon Hernandez (#30) hurt after a collision

The trip to Winter Haven to see the GCL Indians in action turned out to actually be the most interesting stop for me yet on my minor league road trip. Not because it was a great venue, or the games were exciting, but because of how raw the level is and how isolated the players seem to be from the world. Also, with how far away they really are from the majors let alone Mahoning Valley and Lake County (the next steps up). A lot of these players will not even make it out the GCL and be cut from the team this offseason or next spring, while some of these players will be in Lake County next year.

Next week, I will recap my visit to Buffalo to see the Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons, whom I visited this past weekend. Also, the minor league road trip wraps up the following week when I recap my weekend trip to Kinston the last weekend of August, which has been and still is my most anticipated visit of all the affiliates.

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