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Indians Indians Archive Minor Happenings: Akron Closes In On Championship
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria
The 2009 minor league season is just about over. The single-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers fell just short of a championship. And the AA Akron Aeros are just one win away from an Eastern League Championship. Tony hits on the playoff exploits of those teams, chats with Akron pitching coach Ruben Niebla, hits on the injury to Jason Knapp, and wraps up the minor league season in this, his second to last Minor Happenings column of 2009. Look for Tony's popular season ending "Tony Awards" piece coming in the next couple weeks as well.

Josh Tomlin leads the Aeros"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.

Some last minute house cleaning this week as the minor league season comes to a close.  Next week I will have a very short Happenings piece before we put a close on the 2009 season with my Tony Awards the following week.

Last night, Paul and I had a chance to speak with Triple-A first baseman/outfielder Jordan Brown for about 25 minutes on our Smoke Signals radio show about his non-call to Cleveland and how he is handling it.  I also wrote a second piece on the situation earlier in the week.  Two other player profiles this week were posted on Bo Greenwell and Steve Smith.

Onto the Happenings...

Director's Cuts

Indians Farm Director Ross Atkins this week talked about a plethora of players up and down the Indians system, including several players not often talked about:

On Lonnie Chisenhall:  "He really is [the real deal].  Defensively he makes plays I think everyone in the organization takes a step back and says ‘we don't have a lot of guys who can make those plays'.  He is just really comfortable, very athletic, and has a lot of confidence in his ability defensively.  Offensively the numbers speak for themselves.  He has a very pure swing, he is gifted, has discipline, power and projection as he is only 21 years old.  We are as excited as we can possibly be about Lonnie."

On Kyle Bellows:  "He really did [impress this year].  Travis Fryman speaks of him in the same light as Lonnie Chisenhall.  He is athletic, has power, and an ease to his game.  He makes all the routine plays and can make the exceptional one.  He has some bat-to-ball and has some power, so it was a really impressive start to his professional career."Carlos Rivero

On Carlos Rivero:  "We really are [pleased with his development so far].  He is making progress and has gotten more and more consistent with his approach and with his defense.  He is along the lines of Jhonny Peralta who is going to make the consistent routine play and have some power to his game.  He is still developing, and once that confidence and belief comes that he belongs as a major league player and belongs at the level of play where he is I think the numbers will start to take off."

On Mark Thompson:  "He has an impressive glove and the confidence has started to hit with him and his bat.  He is a little more advanced in his career, and a little bit older and has played a little bit longer, so he is starting to take risks more often and those turn into home runs.  He lets the barrel go so to speak and is pulling the ball out of the ballpark.  It was an impressive year for him and he is an impressive player.  A middle infield prospect that can pick it and drive it out of the ballpark from time to time is valuable."

On Cord Phelps:  "Absolutely, [he is one of the best defensive second basemen].  He is very consistent and one of our more disciplined players all around.  Not just with his base on balls, but the way he goes about his preparations with his game altogether.  He is extremely disciplined.  He is very intelligent, very driven, and very athletic and he is off to a great start in his career with the numbers."Josh Rodriguez

On Josh Rodriguez:  "He was one of the players we were excited about coming into this year. He got off to a hot start.  He is extremely versatile as he can play in the middle of the diamond anywhere and he could go to the outfield if need be.  He can steal a base and has power.  The Akron ballpark is a big place, so it is hard to drive the ball out to right-center there, and he does it as well as anybody."

On Argenis Martinez:  "He is an impressive young player out of Venezuela and played in the Dominican Summer League last year.  He is of the mold of an Omar Vizquel as he can pick it and plays hard.  For guys who just start their careers you can dream on guys like Omar Vizquel, that's what is great about the youth in baseball.  Now it is a long way to go to before you become an Omar Vizquel, but he is a defensive specialist, he plays the game hard, runs the bases well, and it is fun to watch him play."

On Jordan Brown:  "Every challenge we have put in front of Jordan he has done everything in his power to answer the bell so to speak.  He is one of the best in our organization at making consistent, hard contact and is one of the best in our organization at answering challenges.  He plays a position where we have some depth and where the industry has some depth, so it is a hard position to crack into the major leagues.  Because of that he has made himself a more versatile player and moved out to the outfield and made some strides there.  But the bat-to-ball, the occasional power, and the ability to drive in runs is unquestionable."

On Beau Mills:  "Beau is one of our personal favorites in the organization, but unfortunately that does not do much for his career.  He is extremely driven, extremely hard working, and extremely talented.  He did not have a year that did not sum into a very successful statistical year, but he is committed to making adjustments and he still flashes above average power and the above average ability to hit.  Now it is just a matter of him getting consistent with it, and we think it has everything to do with him swinging at better pitches."

On Michael Brantley: "He really committed to every part of his game and became a better bunter and became an incredible base stealer being extremely consistent at stealing bases.  Defensively he has an ease to his game.  Offensively his at bats have transitioned nicely to the big leagues because he grinds them out.  He grinds out every single pitch and at bat.  He is an incredible athlete who will play for a very long time, and hopefully with the Indians for a long time."Nick Weglarz

On Nick Weglarz:  "He is a lot like Carlos Rivero where the batting average number [is not very high], but when you look at some of the isolated statistics like isolated power, his OPS, and his on-base percentage you see he is still getting on base at a .400 clip.  He has made incredible strides defensively.  He is a very physical, strong, young athlete, so he has to work hard to be athletic and versatile in the outfield and he has done it.  He is a very good base-runner objectively and subjectively.  The proof is in the power and the discipline and we just keep preaching to him he needs to stick with that and it will pay off for him."

On Matt McBride:  "He was fun to watch this year.  He is easy to pull for as he plays the game the right way and plays extremely hard.  He has a lot of bat ability pull side as he can drive the ball into the left field gap as good as anybody. The athleticism plays on the basepaths, and being able to catch and go to first and play left field is an asset to us."

On Jason Kipnis:  "He is athletic and can play any outfield position.  He can steal a base for you, has some power, and some incredible bat-to-ball ability.  He got onto that team [in Mahoning Valley] and that team took off."

On Carlos Santana:  "He has nothing we would call a weakness.  Every way that he impacts the game he executes, whether it is throwing a runner our, running the bases, driving the ball into the gap or out of the park.  He is as versatile and as talented as anyone we have."Roberto Perez

On Roberto Perez:  "He is absolutely the most improved player in our system from 2008 to 2009.  The strides he has made defensively and offensively [has been great].  He applied everything that our instructors asked him to do, whether it was our roving catching instructor Tim Laker or the managers that he touched this year at three different levels.  He definitely has some impressive raw ability that has turned the corner in a hurry."

On Hector Rondon:  "He is still very young, and it is very early in his career.  There is a lot of power and youth in his fastball, and he is one of the guys by far that we are very proud of from a scouting and development standpoint.  He has done it, has been consistent and durable, and the thing we always talk about is he puts the ball on the plate.  Two things allow that, his athleticism in his delivery and his confidence."

On Alexander Perez:  "He has a great feel for his breaking ball and his changeup, and he puts the ball on the plate.  His secondary pitches are exceptional and above average already, so if that fastball comes and he is consistently sitting at 90 MPH - he doesn't need to be consistently sitting in the mid-90s - he will be a consistent major league pitcher."

On Clayton Cook:  "When guys come out of high school and are as driven and as focused as he is with his ability, it is what makes going to work in Player Development a ton of fun.  He is talented, puts the ball over the plate with a nice mix of three pitches, and has tons of projection.  He pitched at a level with a lot of advanced hitters in the NY-Penn League, and had a great year going to the All Star game and pitched great throughout the whole season."Eric Berger

On Eric Berger:  "What an awesome draft that was.  That's what we look at, as he was in the 8th round and is in Double-A already for us.  He is extremely competitive, and he is moving quick.  He is the most athletic pitcher in our system just objectively and the measures we use to study that.  That showed as at the end of the season he was getting stronger, and his last outings of the season have been some of his best."

On T.J. House:  "Wins and losses are always deceptive, especially in the minor leagues because we limit guys even more than major league pitchers because their pitch counts are lower.  So they are just coming into the fifth and sixth inning before they are coming out.  T.J. was really impressive with what he accomplished.  He showed an above average fastball, flashed an above average breaking ball, and he has the drive and courage to do what it takes to be a major league pitcher."

On Kelvin De La Cruz:  "He is the type of player where when people walk into the stands they say ‘who is that?'  Everyone is asking ‘what's his name and when is he going to be there?'  That's because he is 6'5", left-handed, has been up to 95 MPH, and has a plus slider.  He looks the part and executes the part, and now it is just our job to finish him off."

On Steve Smith:  "It is really impressive what he has done, essentially with just a two-pitch mix.  His changeup is a trick pitch.  No one can hit it, and he proved it this year as A-ball hitters had a hard time making consistent contact.  He will be interesting to follow."Steven Wright

On Steven Wright:  "He was the best in our minor league system leaving guys on bases from other starters and relievers.  So, his ten wins were not vulture wins for him.  He is an impressive strike thrower with a really nice fastball, cutter, slider mix that has had Double-A and advanced success, and we are optimistic that will continue."

On Josh Judy:  "There is a lot of hope and a lot of guys I would like to name, but I think one guy that has been one of the more encouraging stories for us in Player Development has been Josh Judy.  With just how consistent he has been with having consistently above average stuff as a relief pitcher.  He has an above average ability to put the ball on the ground and an above average fastball.  So he is someone I think could potentially impact the team next year in 2010.

Akron One Win Away From A Championship

Since the last Happenings update, the Double-A Akron Aeros polished off a three-game sweep of the Reading Phillies with a 9-4 victory at First Energy Stadium Saturday night, booking a trip to the Eastern League Championship Series for the fifth straight season.  First baseman Beau Mills gave Akron the lead with a two-run homer off rehabbing Phillies starter Clay Condrey in the top of the first, and then turned a beautiful unassisted double play to get left-hander Eric Berger out of a jam in the bottom of the inning.  Akron tacked on two more runs in the third with RBI doubles from second baseman Josh Rodriguez and Mills, and struck for three runs in the fourth to jump out to a 7-0 lead.  Reading got two runs back in the bottom of the fourth before Berger slammed the door with consecutive strikeouts.  Right-handed reliever Zach Putnam stranded runners on the corners in the seventh, and Rodriguez then put the game away with a two-run single in the eighth.

The Akron offense was hitting on all cylinders in the series against the Phillies, racking up 24 runs and 38 hits in the three games while not trailing for the final 23 innings. The Aeros hit .345 with a whopping 12 doubles as a team in the series, paced by third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall who batted .636 (7-for-11) with two doubles and four runs scored. Left-fielder Jerad Head was tremendous from the ninth spot in the order in batting .417 (5-for-12) with four doubles and a team-high eight RBI, while right-fielder John Drennen (.417), Rodriguez (.333) and center-fielder Jose Constanza (.308) all hit over .300 in the series.

With the Championship Series now in full swing, Akron won the first two games on the road on Tuesday and Wednesday night in their best-of-five series against the Connecticut Defenders.  In Game 1 on Tuesday night Akron won 7-2 and right-handed starter Josh Tomlin delivered his second outstanding start in the playoffs surrendering just two runs on five hits over seven strong innings.  The offense also got him plenty of support early, jumping out to a 5-0 lead with the key hit coming off the bat of Mills who socked a two-run homer in the fourth.  In Game 2 on Wednesday night Akron won it late 7-6.  With the score tied 4-4 in the 9th inning, Rodriguez crushed a three-run home run to dead center for a 7-4 lead, though right-handed closer Josh Judy walked the tightrope in the bottom of the inning allowing two runs and stranding the tying run at third for the save.  Right-hander Jeanmar Gomez started the game and batted his way through five quality innings allowing two runs on six hits, three walks, and had five strikeouts.

After an off day on Thursday for travel, the series gets back into gear with Game 3 tonight in Akron.  In fact, the final three games of the series are all scheduled to be in Akron, so they only need to win one game at home this weekend to finish off their championship run.  They are as hot as can be as they have won a franchise record 13 straight games, winning their final eight games of the season and their first five games of the playoffs.  They just need that one last win to finish off one of the best seasons in franchise history and earn their third league championship.

Coaches Corner: Ruben Niebla

Double-A Akron Pitching Coach Ruben Niebla took some time to sit down with me before their last playoff home game last week to talk about some of the pitchers on his staff we have not talked about this year.Ruben Niebla

On Connor Graham:  "He has a good power fastball.  The ball jumps out of his hand and he pitches at 92-93 MPH usually as his average but he gets it all the way up to 97 MPH.  He has shown [the makings of a] swing-and-miss slider as well, and just recently started throwing a spilt-finger fastball which he had in college but he hadn't thrown since.  He touched 97 MPH I think only once, but it's definitely in there.  It is late in the season too and he has accumulated a lot of innings over the past few years.  I think it has something to do with him settling in around 92-96 MPH in most of his outings.  [This offseason] we just want to get him in good shape and the delivery stuff will come in due time.  I think just giving him that exposure and experience in the Arizona Fall League is really going to help him I think, and I think he is ready for it as well."

On Josh Judy:  "Without a doubt he has probably progressed the most out of [all the relievers here].  He got off to a little bit of a rough start at the beginning just adjusting to the level more than anything.  I knew the stuff was there as I saw him in Lake County and I knew the fastball and the ability to spin the ball was there.  So once he got adjusted and got his feet under him he has run away with putting together a very good year."

On the Akron bullpen:  "You can go up and down the line.  You look at these guys' numbers the second half of the season and they are very greedy with giving up anything.  Wagner, Judy, Stiller, Smith, Wright and even Putnam the last month and a half has really come around.  I think that they all kind of got comfortable, settled in and ironed out some delivery stuff and their command is now kicked up and we can see their stuff playing up now as well.  We are very excited about the group here.  It is exciting when the kids put themselves in a situation to make a tough decision for the front office and that's exactly what these guys are doing this year."

On Eric Berger:  "He has had his ups and downs.  Again it is another thing [example] of getting adjusted to the level.  I think in the last two or three outings he has really solidified himself into a guy who is going to go out there and give us some innings and keep us in the ballgame.  That's what we are looking for out of him.  He is doing a much better job of changing speeds.  Not only changing speeds, but executing was the biggest thing when he got up here as he wasn't executing his secondary stuff.  So now he is, and he has had success here lately."

On Carlton Smith:  "I think Smitty is one guy who has really gotten a lot better with improvement from day one to right now.  I mean we could go up and down the roster.  It's just that everything started to come together here.  It seems like his slider is more consistent in the zone.  You find out a lot of things about his pitches too as in Kinston at times his slider might be an out pitch and all of a sudden he comes here using the same pitch and it is put in play a little more consistently. [He made] the adjustment to say 'okay I need to tighten it up and I need to make sure that I locate better'.  I think that is where we are with him."

Scrappers Fall Just Short Of Title

Short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley fell short of their quest to win the NY-Penn League Championship with a loss to Staten Island on Wednesday night in Niles, OH.  Over the course of the season Mahoning Valley had proven to be Superman to the rest of the league going a league best 49-27, but in the end Staten Island proved to be their Kryptonite as they finished 5-1 against them on the season in six total games played (including postseason).  Staten Island swept them in their only regular season meeting, and won the championship series 2-games-1. 

Mahoning Valley lived on the edge the entire postseason as they relied on great pitching and defense since their offense was nearly non-existent the entire postseason.  In five playoff games, as a team they hit just .205 and scored 11 runs.  On the flipside, the pitching until really the late innings of the final game was outstanding as they put up a 2.35 team ERA in the five games.  In their first four playoff games they did not allow more than three runs in any game, allowing just 1, 1, 3, and 2 runs in each game respectively.  Unfortunately, in those same four games the offense struggled and they did not score more than three runs in any game as they only scored 3, 3, 0, and 3 runs in each game respectively.  In Game 3 of the Finals on Wednesday the offense once again scored under three runs as they only managed to put two on the board, but the pitching faltered for the first time in allowing more than three runs for the first time in the playoffs.

First baseman Ben Carlson (.438) led the offense, but several regular season stalwarts disappointed like outfielder Jordan Henry (.143), third baseman Jesus Brito (.158), outfielder Greg Folgia (.083), second baseman Casey Frawley (.125), outfielder Jason Kipnis (.235), and shortstop Argenis Martinez (.222).  The loss does not diminish the outstanding season the team had, a roster mostly filled with college players from this year's draft.  They all had their first taste of pro ball, and can certainly use this as a learning experience for next year and beyond.  Also, when a lot of these guys look back on their career, this will be one of the best - if not the best - season of their career to be a part of as a team.

Instructional League Begins

The minor league regular season may have come to an end almost two weeks ago, but the minor league season as a whole for many of the Indians farmhands is still in full swing as the Fall Instructional League started up this past Wednesday out in Goodyear, Arizona.  To view the roster, click here.

Almost all of the Indians 2009 Draft class is present in camp as the Indians will begin work with them and make some adjustments after having a half season to evaluate them in the system.  It will also provide a taste for the new players what spring training will be like for them when they participate in that next March.

Instructional League runs for about four weeks from Wednesday September 16th through Thursday October 15th.  Once Instructs finish up, players will go home for the fall/winter and take time off working out on their own before coming back next March.  Very few of the players in Instructs will play in any offseason leagues.

Random Notes

As I noted about two weeks ago, after an MRI was performed the Indians found some bone chips in Low-A Lake County rightJason Knapp-hander Jason Knapp's shoulder.  No surgery was scheduled when the "loose bodies" were initially found as they took precautionary measures to seek a few other opinions on the test results and continue to gather information on the injury.  This week they decided to have the surgery to scope out the loose bodies in his shoulder and he is now recovering and should start rehabbing soon.  The injury is not considered serious, though it is a cause for some alarm.  It will be interesting to see how he comes back from it and if anything else comes up.  He is expected to be 100% ready to go well before the start of spring training.

Double-A Akron right-handed starter Josh Tomlin was awesome in his two playoff starts this postseason.  As the Game 1 starter in both of Akron's playoff series' this postseason he pitched very well and deep into the game in helping lead the team to a victory.  In his two starts he was 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA, going 14.0 innings and allowing just eight hits, no walks, and racking up 15 strikeouts.  The most impressive part of his performance was that he pitched through seven innings in both starts, which at this time of the year is noteworthy since guys are typically tired from the heavy regular season workload.  He also had no walks in both games, which to go along with the 15 strikeouts is one heck of a walk-strikeout ratio.  Tomlin has shown such a good feel for pitching this year and really knows how to attack hitters, and looks to be in the mix for a roster spot with the Indians this offseason.

Double-A Akron left-handed starting pitcher Eric Berger was terrific in his first taste of the post-season last week, and has not skipped a beat since a rough introduction to the Eastern League on August 7th. In his Double-A debut on August 7th he was Chun Chenrocked for eight runs (five earned) and a season-high 13 hits in just 5.2 innings, but in six starts since he has gone 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA (including his playoff start).  In his playoff outing against Reading last Saturday he went five innings and allowed one earned run on four hits, no walks, and had a season high eight strikeouts.  He takes the hill tonight in Game 3 of the Eastern League Championship Series and has a chance to close out the series and lead Akron to a league championship.

Short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley catcher Chun Chen had the moment of his career on Tuesday night when he hit an 11th inning walkoff solo home run in Game 2 of their Championship Series with Staten Island.  It was a disappointing season from a stat perspective for Chen who only hit .215 with 1 HR, 19 RBI and a .635 OPS in 59 games with Mahoning Valley this year.  The Indians were high on Chen going into the season, and his struggles were somewhat of a surprise to them as they think he is a better hitter than he showed and he will come around.

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