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Indians Indians Archive Minor Happenings: De La Cruz Breaks Through
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria
Tony's "Minor Happenings" column has been a weekly staple on Thursdays during Indians season for us for a couple years now, and T is back at it again in '08, coming out of the gates with an excellent piece.  Tony talks about his first of several road trips he'll make this season to go see the Indians minor league affiliate in action.  He announces his first Minor League Player of the Week.  Gives us his Directors Cuts quotes from Ross Atkins.  And talks about a couple of the guys who may be the Aaron Laffey's and Jensen Lewis's of 2008 for the Indians.  Enjoy!

Minor Happenings"Minor Happenings" covers the important developments and news in the Indians farm system.  While most of the information in this report is from my own research and through interviews I have conducted with organizational personnel, some information in this report is collected and summarized from the various news outlets that cover each team.

Welcome back folks to another year of Happenings down on the Indians farm.  This is the only place you need to be for your minor league fix, as you'll get no better coverage elsewhere.

I'll be making my first minor league pit-stop of the season when I travel to Woodbridge, VA tomorrow (Friday) to take in the Kinston/Potomac game at Pfitzner Stadium.  I'm going to try and nail down as many guys as I can for interviews since Kinston will be the team I see the least this year, so check back over the weekend and throughout next week for some interviews I did with the players.  I'll be hitting up all the affiliates at least three times this year, so there will be many player articles coming down the pipeline throughout the season.  Also, I plan to do a couple "Where Are They Now" features on some long lost prospects.

Also, I started up a blog this past October, The Cleveland Indians Minor League Insider.  Those who want up to date news and information should go there as I will be updating my blog almost daily with any news and developments as I get them.  This information will still be included in Minor Happenings, but since it only posts weekly this is an option to get the news much more quickly.

It's good to be back....

Indians Minor League Player Of The Week
(for games from April 3 through April 9)

Kelvin De La Cruz - Left-handed pitcher (Lake County)

Lake County left-handed ace Kelvin De La Cruz is certainly going out of his way early in the season to make me look good.  Many publications did not give De La Cruz much fanfare this offseason in their rankings of the Indians prospects, but from the people I Kelvin De La Cruztalked to last year there was a lot of excitement for this 20-year old not only in the Indians organization, but from people outside the organization as well.  So far, in two starts at Lake County, De La Cruz has been dominant.  Working on an 85-pitch count that limits him to five to six innings a start, in two starts he is 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA and in 10 innings has allowed eight hits and three walks while striking out 14.

De La Cruz was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in December of 2004.  Last year, De La Cruz showed much improved arm strength as his fastball velocity jumped up to 88-92 MPH and topped out at 93 MPH, where the previous year it was only 84-86 MPH.  His fastball velocity could still increase because he is still young and getting bigger and stronger, and he compliments it with a plus changeup and average curveball.  He has the size, the pitches, and the intelligence to grow a lot in the coming years, and projects as a starter in the big leagues.  In a lot of ways, his build and pitching style is reminiscent of Fausto Carmona when he was with Lake County in 2003.

Honorable Mention: Josh Judy (RHP - Lake County), Armando Camacaro (C - Akron), Ryan Edell (LHP - Akron), Andy Gonzalez (IF - Buffalo)

Director's Cuts

Indians Farm Director Ross Atkins has been in Single-A Lake County this week taking in the action and watching his young players, and provided some insight into the Lake County team as well as all sorts of other things:Ross Atkins

On the Lake County starting rotation:  "Kelvin De La Cruz has really looked good and thrown the ball well.  A 19-year old 6'5" left-handed pitcher who throws 93 MPH is really fun to watch.  Chris Archer, Ryan Morris, Ryan Miller, and Santo Frias have all been encouraging, and coming out of spring training it is the first time some of them have pitched in cold weather and they have handled it well."

On the "prospect" label:  "I'd say [Lake County] is one of the first thresholds where you really start to put the true prospect label on them.  Those bottom feeders like myself in the minor leagues can put prospect labels on guys that are 16-17 years old, but once you get to the GM level to earn that prospect status you have to have at least participated in a full season.  This is definitely one of the first thresholds.  You have to use every piece of information that you have.  It is all about projection and all about what the guy's ceiling ultimately is.  Age and action of pitches both play a role.  A guy like a Kelvin De La Cruz who is 6'5", 19 years old, arm strength, durability, and a competitor, there is not much not to like."

Early first impressions of the position payers:  "A couple guys, like Karexon Sanchez, have looked good.  He has started the season off hot, as well as Lucas Montero.  Mark Thompson is an exceptional defender in the middle of the field, and he reminds us a lot of John McDonald.  He could be of that type of mold like a John McDonald or Marco Scutaro.  Adam White is another player who is an eighty runner, which is the best on the scouting scale.  He flies."

On guys being sent down to Triple-A and responding well:  "They have and that is always good to see.  None of them are happy about it, and that is just how we want it.  We don't want anyone to be happy about playing in Triple-A.  We want every single one of them to want to be in the major leagues.  There are guys in the game that can pout and sulk and be negative energy in a clubhouse, but ultimately if the guy is a true pro he recognizes where the money is made and he needs to get out of there.  Guys as young as them typically don't pout too long because they realize ‘wow, if I am not performing then I am not going to get back to where I want to be'.  But they have handled it professionally, and I think you can see in their performances that they have not pouted about it.  It is never news they want to hear or that we want to deliver for that matter, but it is just the nature of having some depth."

On Scott Elarton's veteran presence:  "He not only has the information for people to tap into, but has the confidence to deliver it when need be and let people know ‘hey, this isn't the appropriate behavior' or ‘that is not the right way to handle this' or just put someone in line so to speak.  That is invaluable, as it is one thing to come from a staff member, but to come from a peer it is much more powerful.  He has actually embraced [the bullpen role] and it is where he wants to be.  He feels it is where he can have the most success."

On Michael Aubrey:  "He has been injury free for awhile now, from Arizona and throughout the majority of spring training and is off to a good start.  He is as good as almost anybody we have with making hard contact, and that is the hardest thing to do in the game.  So if he stays healthy we could certainly see him contributing to the Cleveland Indians at some point."

On moving Aubrey up:  "It all depends on what is happening around him and above him, but not what is happening below him.  Also, with him not only sustaining health but sustaining success.  There are a lot of variables in that, and I think the major league team is the first variable with the second variable being Jordan Brown in Triple-A.  There are some pretty good assets [in Cleveland] when you talk about Ryan Garko, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner.  And we even have Alex Gonzalez who can play first base, so there is not a need at this point."

On Alex Gonzalez:  "He is a good player.  We are certainly glad to have him as a minor league free agent because he is definitely someone who can contribute at the major league level.  He is very athletic and plays shortstop.  Most big strong shortstops can do just about anything you ask them to do because they are typically the most athletic guys on the field."

On Carlos Rivero:  "He is a lot of fun to watch because of his youth and the athleticism and strength.  He has above average ability defensively from a hands and arm standpoint.  His range is not above average, but he has been a lot of fun to watch develop over the last couple years and now you can dream a little bit.  You never want to put a ceiling on a guy and say he can't do this, but he is one of those guys you can dream on."

On the comparison of Rivero to Jhonny Peralta:  "They are very similar players.  At this point in Carlos' career relative to where Jhonny Peralta was four to five years ago they are in very similar places in their career.  They are slightly different in that Rivero may be a little more athletic at this point than Jhonny was, but Jhonny had better hands and they both have similar power.  It just depends on how committed and how focused Rivero is over the next four or five years."

On Rivero staying at shortstop:  "He is definitely someone who can play shortstop.  His power will dictate whether or not he can also be a third baseman depending on the makeup of your team.  If you had an Omar Vizquel type then you might consider moving someone like Jhonny Peralta to third base.  That could be Carlos Rivero.  He is very young, and turns 20 this year at some point this season.  He has a full season under his belt already, two half seasons in the Dominican and one in the Gulf Coast League."

On their Kinston relationship:  "It is a great place.  We love being there, and it is all baseball.  There are no distractions and it has an old time feel to it.  It is much like the movie Bull Durham and is a lot of fun.  It is a great experience for the players and the front office."

Even Stevens

By now, many Indians fans know that Akron right-handed reliever Jeff Stevens is a prospect on the rise in the system, and a pitcher with so much helium he could be in Cleveland sometime later in the year.  The excellent command he shows with his fastball that Jeff Stevenssits around 93-94 MPH and the good secondary stuff he has to compliment it has many scouts and Indians personnel excited about him.

But, probably the most exciting attribute about Stevens is his exceptional poise and makeup on the mound.  For a relief pitcher, particularly one who pitches late in games, this is a must as you have to be unflappable when faced with adversity and high pressure situations.  This is what separates the great relievers from the good ones, and Stevens has it.

Stevens made his season debut in the season opener last Thursday and was thrown right into the fire as he relieved struggling starter Chuck Lofgren in the 4th inning with the bases loaded and one out.  He got the first batter he faced to ground into a double play to end the inning with no further damage, and then proceeded to go three more innings of shutout no-hit ball the rest of the way.  In two appearances so far this year, Stevens has inherited five runners and stranded all five, and last year stranded 10 of 17 inherited runners between Kinston and Akron.

To date, Stevens is 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA and in 4.1 innings has yet to yield a hit or walk while striking out five.  It was thought that Stevens would start the year in Triple-A Buffalo, but because of the crowded bullpen situation there he returned to Akron to start the season.  Plus, the Indians want to see him get more work with developing his inconsistent curveball.  However, if Stevens continues his hot start, he could be in Buffalo by late-May.

So Far So Good

Oft-injured first baseman Michael Aubrey and Matt Whitney made it through the first week of the season at Akron healthy.  This isMatt Whitney notable because both players prior to last season had trouble staying healthy.  Aubrey has battled back and hamstring ailments since 2005, but last year managed to stay relatively healthy and put up 256 at-bats on the year and hit .277 with 12 HR, 45 RBI, and an .813 OPS.  The at bats were the most he had in a season since 2004.  Whitney, meanwhile, suffered complications for years from a gruesome leg injury that he suffered in 2003, but came back last season at full strength to hit .299 with 32 HR, 113 RBI and a .909 OPS between Lake County and Kinston.

In the season opener, Aubrey hit a three-run homer and is hitting .280 with 2 HR, 4 RBI and an .853 OPS through the first six games of the season.  Whitney looks to be suffering no ill effects from being returned to the Indians by the Washington Nationals after being taken in the Rule V Draft.  He is quickly showing last season may not have been an aberration or career year as he is off to another good start hitting .320 with 2 HR, 2 RBI, and a .970 OPS in six games.

Some Early Concerns With Lofgren

Akron left-hander Chuck Lofgren had a rough go of it in his first start last Thursday (3.1 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 5 BB, 1 K).  How he gave up Chuck Lofgrenonly two runs in three+ innings of work while allowing 12 base-runners is a miracle, although he was helped in large part by right-handed reliever Jeff Stevens coming in the fourth inning and slamming the door with the bases loaded and not allowing any inherited runners to score.  In contrast, here is Lofgren's stat line from his first start last year: 5 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 4 K.

What is concerning about Lofgren is he is repeating at Double-A, and through two starts he has struggled.  Lofgren was wild all night, and really was ineffective all spring.  In his follow up start last night, he managed to go six innings, but he gave up four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out only three.  Hopefully this is but a small bump in the road and Lofgren gets things going on the right track.  I am not saying he is hurt, but I wonder if his arm is tired or is bothering him some.  It always seems like when a pitcher is all of a sudden this ineffective that something is wrong, and they usually go on the disabled list for elbow inflammation or tendonitis.  Again, I am merely speculating.

A Tale of Two Bullpens

The Lake County bullpen is loaded with impressive arms where everyone has the ability to throw the ball at 90 MPH or above.Mike Pontius  Right-hander Josh Judy (0.00 ERA, 5 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 7 K), right-hander Dallas Cawiezell (0.00 ERA, 4.1 IP, 3H, 2 BB, 0 K), right-hander Mike Pontius (0.00 ERA, 4 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 6 K),  and right-handed closer Vinnie Pestano (0.00, 2 saves, 2 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 5 K) had a great first week.  Also, while right-hander Jonathan Holt struggled in his first two appearances (21.60 ERA, 1.2 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 0 K), he is still a highly regarded bullpen arm.

On the other hand, the Buffalo bullpen is loaded with a lot of suspects, although that is what you get when you have a collection of career minor leaguers or guys hanging onto their baseball careers in Triple-A.  On Sunday, Buffalo had an 8-3 lead going into the bottom half of the last inning of the game, but right-handed closer Eddie Mujica imploded (1.2 IP, 7 R, 7 H, 2 BB, 1 K).  There are some ugly stat lines early in the season for several Buffalo relievers, led by Mujica (15.43 ERA, 4.2 IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 3 K), left-hander Rich Rundles (7.20 ERA, 5 IP, 8 H, 4 BB, 6 K), right-hander Tom Mastny (7.71 ERA, 4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 7 K), and left-hander Reid Santos (6.00 ERA, 3 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 2 K).

The Game Of His Life

On Sunday, Akron backup catcher Armando Camacaro celebrated his 29th birthday in style by going 3-for-5 with a double, two Armando Camacarohome runs, and seven RBI.  One of the home runs was of the grand slam variety, and in the eighth inning he had the bases loaded again and just missed another grand slam when he flied out to the warning track in right-center field.  It was an incredible game for a guy who in nine seasons prior to this year had 18 home runs in 1293 career at bats.

This is Camacaro's tenth season with the Indians as he originally signed back in 1998 as an undrafted free agent out of Venezuela.  Camacaro is one of those organizational guys who fill gaps in the system and has always been a backup, but he never complains and goes out and does his job.  He gets along with his teammates well, is very good defensively, and handles the pitching staff exceptionally well, which is why the Indians have kept him on board for so long.  He still dreams of making it to the big leagues, and maybe with a more focused offensive approach he could realize that dream some day.

Size Does Not Matter

One of the interesting developments at the conclusion of spring training was how many high profile picks from the 2005 and 2006 Draft the Indians released.  There were some guys released who received a considerable bonus, some around $1 million.  Usually, because of the money invested in these players, they are given more of a chance than some of the lower profile guys or undrafted signings who received as low as a $1500 bonus.  But, the Indians showed they are paying attention to results and projection and not just bonus size, which ultimately is a good thing.  In fact, if you look up and down the rosters at Akron and lower there are undrafted free agents all over the place.  The Indians have really done well in this area.

Speaking of money, one of the interesting things learned while I was in spring training is the non-roster invites from the minor leagues who are up with the major league team early in spring training not only enjoy the chance to pitch with the major leaguers, but see a substantial increase in their paycheck.  Minor leaguers get $12 a day in spring training, good for about $144 a week.  The non-roster minor leaguers who are up in major league camp get bumped to $115 a day and about $830 a week.  With the major league camp you get more amenities as well with things like a nicer hotel and much better food and drinks in the clubhouse.

Slim Pickens

Lake County catcher Doug Pickens was the Indians last pick in the 2007 Draft, taken in the 50th round out of the University of Michigan.  Anyone taken in the last round of the draft in any professional sports league faces a tough road to hoe to stick, especially in baseball.  Pickens left Michigan after his junior year when he hit .338 with 5 HR and 41 RBI, and seriously considered returning to Michigan for his senior season.  But, the Indians showed a lot of interest in signing him, and negotiations worked well to where he was eventually signed.

Pickens is a good line drive hitter and is going to be looked upon as a leader to help guide a very young Lake County pitching staff this season.  He has a strong arm and is a solid receiver with good makeup.  Pickens is making his professional debut this season as he did not play last year after being drafted.  He is off to a slow start, hitting only .053 (1-for-19) with 3 RBI.

Infirmary Report

Those wondering why right-hander Adam Miller is missing from the Triple-A Buffalo roster, he is still in Winter Haven ramping up his pitch count to where he can effectively pitch late into a game without taxing the bullpen.  Miller got a late start in spring trainingTrevor Crowe because a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand sidelined him for a few weeks, so he is just now progressing to a normal pitch count.  On Monday, Miller threw a 64-pitch simulated game in extended spring training.  He is healthy and ready to go, but he needs at least one more start to get to 85 pitches before he can be activated in Buffalo.  He is scheduled to pitch again on Saturday.

Also on Monday, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo had four at bats at DH in a simulated game and went 1-for-4.  He is scheduled to start playing the outfield in about two weeks.  Outfielder Trevor Crowe has been out of the Akron lineup for the past few days because of back tightness.  He is currently considered day-to-day.  Lake County catcher Michael Valadez injured his thumb in a homeplate collision over the weekend, and is day to day with a sprained thumb.

Prospect TV (PTV)

I finally got around to uploading all the remaining videos I shot in spring training of several of the Indians prospects in action.  Here are the ones I had not mentioned previously in my daily spring training updates a few weeks back:

Latin Hot Potato part one and part two
Catcher Chun Chen
Mike Pontius
Chuck Lofgren
Paolo Espino vs. Nick Weglarz
Kelvin De La Cruz
Jeff Hehr
Brock Simpson
Matt Brown
Robbie Alcombrack
Brian Juhl
Rich Rundles
Erik Stiller
Jared Goedert
Jerad Head
Dustin Realini and Michael Valadez
Kyle Landis
Bo Greenwell
Adam White
Doug Pickens

Affiliate Notebook

Buffalo BisonsBuffalo Notes (3-4, 3rd place):  It does not matter what level first baseman Jordan Brown plays at, the man can flat out hit.  In his Triple-A debut on Thursday he had three hits and so far this season he is hitting .321 (9-for-28) with 0 HR, 5 RBI and an .816 OPS. ... Brown is also doing an on-line journal for all season, and posted his first entry about a week ago. ... Buffalo has strung together eight consecutive winning seasons, but they have missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. ... Utility player Andy Gonzalez is off to a hot start with the Herd.  Gonzalez can play almost any position, and is hitting .500 (11-for-22) with 1 HR, 7 RBI and a 1.441 OPS.  If Andy Marte struggles in Cleveland, Gonzalez is someone who looks likely to take his utility spot on the bench. ... Outfielder Brad Snyder is hitting .300 (6-for-20) with 1 HR, 4 RBI and a .925 OPS.

Akron AerosAkron Notes (2-4, 4th place):  Left-hander Ryan Edell was excellent is his Double-A debut on Monday night.  Edell scattered five hits in six scoreless innings, but he did not figure in the decision as Akron lost 1-0. ... Left-hander David Huff and right-hander Frank Herrmann did not have as good an experience in their Double-A debuts.  Huff lasted just four innings and gave up four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks with one strikeout.  Herrmann was shelled for five runs in the first inning, but settled in to finish the game by going 5.2 innings and allowed eight runs on eight hits and walked one while striking out two. ... Third baseman Wes Hodges is off to a good start in his Double-A debut.  In six games, he is hitting .360 with 2 HR, 4 RBI and a 1.025 OPS. ... Shortstop Josh Rodriguez and outfielder Jose Constanza have had a rough go at it early on.  Rodriguez is hitting .048 (1-for-21) and Constanza is hitting .042 (1-for-24).

Kinston IndiansKinston Notes (0-2, 4th place):  Kinston was one of the last teams around minor league baseball to get their season started.  While other teams kicked off last Thursday, Kinston did not get their first official game in until Tuesday night after a power outage on Friday night, two rainouts on Saturday and Sunday, and a scheduled off day on Monday.  The power outage on Friday made for a strange opener.  Up 3-0 and batting in the bottom of the third inning, the game was delayed for about an hour after a citywide power outage affected the baseball outfield lights.  A breaker failed at a substation, which created a complete or partial power outage for almost all of the Kinston area. ... The K-Tribe has won 336 regular season games over the last four seasons, which is the most in all of minor league baseball.  In fact, only one team in all the minors has won more regular season games than Kinston (248) over the past three seasons, and that team is Akron (251). ... They have only played two games, but outfielder Nick Weglarz has already walked six times, first baseman/third baseman Beau Mills is hitting .571 with a HR and 3 RBI, and shortstop Carlos Rivero is hitting .500 with 3 RBI. ... In the two games the pitchers have struggled, that is, except for right-handed reliever Erik Stiller.  Last night, Stiller went two shutout innings allowing one hit and no walks while striking out four.

Lake County CaptainsLake County Notes (4-2, 2nd place):  Right-hander Chris Archer, 19, was sensational in his first start over the weekend, throwing five innings without allowing a hit or run and walked two while striking our four.  He only threw 75 pitches in the start, but was not brought back out for the sixth inning because of his 85 pitch count.  If a pitcher does not have at least 15 pitches left in their pitch count, they are not sent out for another inning. ... Left-hander Ryan Miller had an impressive first outing on Sunday by going five strong innings and giving up only one run on four hits while walking two and striking out five. ... In Lake County's first four games, all four starters went at least five innings.  In those four games they gave up only three total runs in the first five innings of their starts, with Ryan Morris the only starter to go into the sixth inning where he gave up two runs. ... Right-handed closer Vinnie Pestano had a great first week on the job, notching two saves in two appearances.  A 20th round pick in the 2006 Draft out of Cal St. Fullerton, Pestano has experience in the role and is comfortable in it as he was predominately a closer in college.  His fastball sits in the low 90s, but as he continues to regain health from Tommy John surgery over a year ago he is expected to add another 2-3 MPH on his fastball. ... Former Lake County pitcher Mike Eisenberg signed with the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League.  Eisenberg was released near the end of spring training this year, and he will be in the starting rotation at Washington.

A Final Shout Out

I'm looking to get into contact with "Rob".  I met you down in spring training while I was down there (you always wore a tank top), and you took a lot of photos of players.  While I know you read my stuff per our discussions, I unfortunately never got your contact info.  Someone I know wanted to get in contact with you about some pictures you took while down there, so if you can, please e-mail me at so we can discuss.

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