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Indians Indians Archive Minor Happenings: Pino, Espino Come Up Big In Playoffs
Written by Tony Lastoria

Tony Lastoria

Yohan Pino"Minor Happenings" is a weekly column which 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.

Here is the final regular Minor Happenings of the season with all the last minute nuggets from my notebook as well as updates on the minor league playoffs and comments from Farm Director Ross Atkins.  While this is the last regular edition of the Happenings, there will still be a few more smaller pieces posted before the end of the month with any last minute news and notes.

This is also probably a good time to announce that the Minor Happenings as we have come to know it over the past five to six years is due for a major change next season.  With technology changing by the day, it just makes no sense to sit on some of these items all week to post in a weekly recap.  With that said, the piece will continue to evolve like it did this year with the separate team notebooks posted weekly.  The same information will still be posted, but the piece will likely be broken up into two to three pieces over the course of the week.  More on all that next year when we get set to open the 2011 season.

Next week I will be posting a special edition of the Happenings with a year end discussion with Ross Atkins.  If you have a burning question you would like asked about a player or anything else, please e-mail me at tlastoria@indiansprospectinsider.com.  I can’t guarantee your question will be asked, but I will certainly consider it.

Also, we are getting close to the 5th annual Tony Awards, which is the year end piece which profiles all the big performers and big disappointments in the season that was.  I will be doing it a little different this year where instead of one big posting, I will be unveiling the awards separate in successive days for Offensive Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, Reliever of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Biggest Breakthrough, Biggest Disappointment, and my All-Indians Team.  Look for that at the end of the month.

I will be in Lake County this weekend to see the Captains hopefully win the Midwest League championship, so Go Captains and hope to see some of you there cheering them on!

Onto the Happenings

Pino, Espino Shine

Triple-A Columbus is on the verge of the International League Championship, but they would not have gotten this far without the return to form of right-handed pitcher Yohan Pino and the emergence of right-hander Paolo Espino.

Pino struggled through his first full season in the Indians organization going 10-9 with a 5.75 ERA in 26 starts (145.2 IP, 175 H, Yohan Pino47 BB, 114 K).  The Indians received Pino as the player to be named later from the Twins in the Carl Pavano trade last year, and it was thought that he could potentially provide some depth to the big league team this year.  But, after a great April start where in four starts he was 3-0 with a 3.47 ERA, things quickly went downhill from there in May ( 6 starts, 5.45 ERA), June (5 starts, 7.36 ERA), July (4 starts, 5.47 ERA), August (6 starts, 6.09 ERA), and September (1 start, 9.00 ERA).

Of course, after all those struggles and the start of the playoffs, what does Pino do?  He goes out and pitches two gems in the postseason.  He picked the right time to get his game back on track with his best two outings of the season where in his first playoff game last Friday he went 7.0 one-hit shutout innings and then followed that up with an extraordinary 8.0 innings outing where he allowed one earned run on three hits.  The key to his success is his ability to command and locate his fastball, and for the better part of the season it was very flat and he was just leaving it out over the plate, but it has had a lot more life of late.  A lack of truly dominant stuff leaves him little room for error, and it looks like at this point he will be depth option once again at the Triple-A level for the Indians next year.

Espino has had a very good, consistent season, one where he has filled a need in the rotation both at Columbus and Double-APaolo Espino Akron.  He showed his versatility to pitch in any role this year with Akron as he pitched both as a starter and reliever and in 21 appearances (15 starts) he was 9-4 with a 4.00 ERA (101.1 IP, 95 K, 35 BB, 92 K).  He was promoted to Columbus on August 3rd to fill a starting pitching need there because of a staff ravaged with the callups of right-handers Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez and also with Carlos Carrasco temporarily sidelined with a forearm issues.  Since arriving in Columbus he has helped stabilize a staff in need of it and in seven starts went 3-3 with a 5.62 ERA (41.2 IP, 43 H, 12 BB, 32 K).

Espino’s numbers in Columbus are a little deceiving as he had two disastrous outings against Toledo where he went 4.0 innings and allowed 8 runs in each, but in his six other starts (including one playoff outing) he allowed 2 runs or less in each outing and in five of those six outings has gone at least 7.0 innings.  His success is based on his ability to consistently throw strikes, his no-fear approach, and a deadly curveball that when it is on can be unhittable.  Having his cousin catcher Damaso Espino around this year both at Akron and Columbus has also helped him relax and pitch to the best of his abilities.  He's eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason, so it will be interesting to see if his recent success brings interest from the Indians or another team to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Director's Cuts

Indians’ Farm Director Ross Atkins has been taking in a lot of the playoff action around the Indians’ system the past week, and this week offered up some comments on the postseason as well as some players still playing and some who are done:

On David Huff: "He really has [accomplished some things in Triple-A].  It is really one of the most challenging things that we Ross Atkinsexperience in player development helping that young major league player who is coming back to the minor leagues to focus on a goal with the right outlook and energy, and he has done that.  It reminds me of Cliff Lee in 2007 when he came back to Buffalo and had to do some similar things.  Some of it is based on just performance which is typically related to adjustments that need to be made on the fundamental or mental side.  It's a struggle and is really tough for those guys, in comparison to the young 22-year old who has never tasted the major leagues and has nothing but up to go.  I think after the initial transition, since then he has been remarkable.  The initial transition was tough, but he has been incredible his last two starts I think from a mental and performance standpoint just how he is going about it, the work he is putting in, the adjustments he is making, how open-minded he has been, and just how consistent his effort has been.  He has been a leader throughout the playoffs for that team.  There were a couple of adjustments and some things that we wanted as an organization that were uncomfortable for him, and that is very normal.  It is usually more rare when a player takes to an adjustment immediately, especially when they have had such incredible success in the minor leagues.  It is hard as you want to use what brought you there, and then you realize what you have at the major league level is not quite good enough and to go back to the minor leagues and make subtle adjustments is tough.  He has done that.  He has moved over on the rubber, he is using his breaking ball better, and his fastball command has been much better as it is on the plate and he is getting it in on right-handed hitters better and I think more firm than it was earlier in the season."

On Alex White: "Alex has been everything we could have possibly imagined in a person, a performer, and a pitcher and then some.  His strength and maturity, how he approaches each time he throws and in-between just warming up out to 60-90-120 feet just playing catch to begin his day, he takes it very seriously.  We try to teach that and instill that in all of our players and he came with that innately.  Just like with any professional if there is anything they try to excel at and be the best at what they do they have to take it very seriously, and he does.  On top of that he has a ton of ability.  He really has been impressive, has been very open-minded about suggestions, and has handled the progress and process of development as well as anyone we have ever had."

On shutting down White: "The first thing that comes to mind is his workload as he reached his workload in the minor leagues and made strides that were positive.  The second thing to talk about is what puts us in the best position to get to the World Series and sustain it, so you always have to think big picture and long term.  With Alex we are going to do the best that we can to get the most out of the minor leagues and put him in the best position to have long term success.  I think this year was a very good step towards that.  Next year he will come into spring training and be in the major league mix.  I think there are still some strides to be made this offseason and it will be a productive one for Alex.  We are working through a delivery adjustment where in some cases it would be considered significant, but because of his athleticism it is really not a significant one."

On Matt Packer: "We really have had some good stories in player development this year, which is really a combination of scouting a player development.  Packer was not really highly touted in the 2009 Draft.  In 2008 he led all of college baseball in ERA and was the collegiate pitcher of the year, but in 2009 did not have quite that year and lost some velocity and fell in the eyes of most amateur scouts.  This year he recouped some of that velocity and got back to pitching the way he was in 2008 and all the while developed.  He added a great pickoff move and controlled the running game, and showed an elite feel for three pitches with a developing curveball.  His fastball-slider-changeup combination is as good as Jeremy Sowers and Scott Lewis was, and his curveball is another weapon.  He is similar to where those guys were starting early in their careers with really much less of a profile and pedigree to start his minor league career."

On Lonnie Chisenhall: "If you eliminate the one month he had where he was playing with some pain in his shoulder and just look at the other months, he really had an exceptional year.  He finished the year with an .800 OPS and had a .900 OPS the last month when it is the hardest time to do it at the end of the year.  At 21 years old turning 22 that is exceptional at the Double-A level.  Absolutely a very positive year, and I think a year of growth for Lonnie.  Very good results in 2010 as far as we are concerned and I feel like a lost of positive steps forward."

On the importance of playoff games: "They are great and a great develop opportunity.  Any start is valuable for a young, developing pitcher.  When you only get to play every five days and get those 105 pitches, they are priceless.  Then you take them into an environment where regardless of what you have done or where you have been where it could potentially be one of the last games of the season and could turn into a ring, there is a heightened anxiety level and a heightened level of pressure and anticipation.  So how that is handled and how effective they are in those environments makes for great development."

On the value of OPS: "Really what it comes down is what historically people seek in batting average.  All stats are valued, just some are more significant than others.  I think the OPS stat is a more encompassing stat and tells you the whole picture.  You look at a player like Travis Hafner as a great example and this is a down year for him.  He has a similar batting average as he has had in years past, but there is a 200-300 points difference in OPS which is on-base and power.  You add those facets to batting average, how much power do they have and the slugging percentage and how much they get on base and then you have OPS.  That is just a more telling stat of overall production than batting average, although batting average is very much an important stat.  So it is easy when you are generally speaking about a player to just to go to OPS because of it being more indicative of their overall production for any given year."

Abrupt Ending For De La Cruz

Double-A Akron left-handed pitcher Kelvin De La Cruz sat out the final two weeks of the season as he had reached his 125-130 inning threshold.  Coming off a severe injury scare last year with his elbow, the Indians really wanted to monitor his innings Kelvin De La Cruzworkload this season.  While he was shutdown he remained with the team and continued to workout with them throwing bullpens, doing delivery drills and working on his conditioning.

The sudden end finished off an up and down, inconsistent season for the 22-year old De La Cruz where he impressed in the early going at High-A Kinston where in six starts he was 2-2 with a 2.91 ERA ( 34.0 IP, 22 H, 8 BB, 28 K), but upon moving up to Akron in mid-May he went 5-6 with a 5.77 ERA in 20 starts (93.2 IP, 98 H, 64 BB, 77 K).  He pitched well in his first two outings with Akron going 1-1 with a 1.64 ERA, but then the wheels fell off on his season as his performance declined and he really struggled with his command in just about every outing the rest of the way.

De la Cruz really struggled with the walks the last three months of the season, a problem that the Indians felt was just as much mental as it was mechanical.  They worked on some things to help his composure and pace on the mound, and though the results did not show in his performance at the end of the season, he showed better composure and balance with pitching through the ball.  While the numbers were not up to the standards expected from a top pitching prospect, the Indians felt like he showed progress this season, especially off the field with his preparation and routine between each start and his mental approach to those starts.

Ultimately, considering De La Cruz had missed almost all of last season with a left elbow strain, the most important matter this season was that he remained healthy all year.  His command was absent for most of the year and was something he really struggled with, though any time you have a player coming off of a serious elbow injury the command can often be the last thing to return.  Everything else with the physical tools and abilities were very much present, and he still has some very good stuff.  It just all boils down to him getting that command back, something that will be his number one focus this offseason and in spring training next year.

Hagadone's Command Blues

Double-A Akron left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone had a sub par season going 3-5 with a 3.57 ERA in 29 combined appearances (17 starts) with High-A Kinston and Akron.  It was sub-standard mostly because while he was hard to hit (.226 Nick HagadoneBAA) this year and averaged more than a strikeout an inning with 89 in 85.2 innings (9.4 K/9), he gave up way too many walks with 63 in 85.2 innings pitched (6.6 K/9).  His command problems plagued him all year, and to help counteract the problem the Indians completed a pre-planned move to the bullpen with about six weeks left in the season.  After moving to the bullpen, Hagadone finished the year going 1-1 with a 3.68 ERA and .229 BAA  in 12 relief appearances (22.0 IP, 19 H, 16 BB, 18 K).  The walks were still there, but the quality of his stuff improved.

The move to the bullpen was something the Indians told Hagadone back in January that he would transition into late in the season.  The Indians feel Hagadone is best suited as a bullpen guy because he is such a highly intense competitor.  As a starter his consistency with repeating his delivery for five to six innings and 80-90 pitches was a constant battle because he has a lot of effort in his delivery, but as a reliever the need to consistently repeat his delivery is less important.  He also has had inconsistent command, which is typically easier to cover up in the bullpen over one or two innings rather than as a starter going five to seven innings.  His stuff is still not all the way back to where it was prior to Tommy John surgery in June of 2008, but it is close.  The command is usually the last thing to come, but it did show signs of improvement in the bullpen, so it will be interesting to see how he fares next season, likely at Triple-A Columbus to start.

Inconsistency Hinders Berger

It was a year of inconsistency for Double-A Akron left-handed pitcher Eric Berger who in 23 combined appearances between Eric BergerTriple-A Columbus and Akron went 5-6 with a 4.90 ERA (112.0 IP, 109 H, 72 BB, 90 K).  He started the season off on the wrong foot as he came down with an intercostal strain at the end of spring training which caused him to miss about the first six weeks of the season, and when he returned he spent the next several weeks scrambling to get caught up and back to where he was physically in spring training.

Berger, 24, got a surprise call to Columbus in July mostly because the Indians had limited options, and his command issues were exposed with 20 walks in 24.2 innings over five starts.  He worked on his mechanics all year to improve on the inconsistency with his command since he has a tendency to rush his delivery which causes his arm to lag, and in the end showed some improvement.  After leading the organization with a 2.50 ERA last season, it was a frustrating year and in some ways a cold dose of reality of how injuries and moving up the minor league ladder can affect performance in a negative way.

Perez A Defensive Gem

Low-A Lake County catcher Roberto Perez had a solid first full season hitting .217 with 6 HR, 38 RBI, and a .699 OPS.  The 21-Roberto Perezyear old catcher obviously needs to work a lot on being better with his bat-to-ball, but he showed good strides with his approach at the plate this year.  He walked 80 times, and while he only hit .217 he got on base at a .360 clip which is exceptional for a defensive-minded catcher.

Perez, 21, flourished defensively behind the plate this year, and is now one of the most highly regarded defensive catchers in the minors.  He handled the Lake County pitching staff exceptionally well all year, called a good game, was a leader on and off the field, and showcased a lot of good major league skills behind the plate.  He led the Midwest League with a .997 fielding percentage and was second in the league throwing out runners at 40% (50-for-125).  His quick, powerful, accurate right arm and ability to control the running game is definitely an asset.  One area that he is still refining defensively is his pitch calling in situations he knows a team will run, as well as maintaining good tempo and footwork with his throws.

Packer On Standby

Double-A Akron left-handed pitcher Matt Packer has been working out and traveling with Columbus since the early part of this Matt Packerweek.  He has been in Columbus mostly as insurance in the event an injury occurs or a pitcher is called up to Cleveland.  It is not a coincidence that he arrived in Columbus right after right-hander Mitch Talbot came up lame in his last start, as the Indians appeared to really be considering adding a pitcher from Columbus to assume Talbot's spot in the rotation for however long he was out.  They instead decided to move Justin Masterson back into the rotation for Talbot's next start on Saturday, and then Talbot is expected to be back for his next start.

For now Packer, 23, is just taking in the Columbus title run as a spectator and very likely will not pitch in either of their two possible remaining games.  He finished the season 9-7 with a 2.04 ERA in 30 combined appearances (18 starts) between Low-A Lake County and Akron.  His 2.04 ERA was second best in all the minors, second only to Brandon Beachy of the Gwinnett Braves (1.73).

Playoff Update

Triple-A Columbus and Low-A Lake County are currently in the final round of their respective league's postseason.

Columbus currently leads 2-1 in their best-of-five series with Durham, and can finish off the series and win the Governor's Cup Columbuswith a win tonight in Durham.  Here is the remaining schedule for the two possible playoff games:

Game 4: Friday 9/17 @ Durham (RHP Paolo Espino), 7:05PM EST
Game 5: Saturday 9/18 @ Durham (RHP Corey Kluber), 7:05PM EST (if necessary)

If Columbus is able to close out the series with a win, they will move on to the Triple-A championship game this coming Tuesday in Oklahoma City against the Pacific Coast League champion.  It would mark the first time in Columbus franchise history that they have played in the game.

Lake County's series is tied 1-1 in their best-of-five series after last night's marathon loss that went 18 innings.  No matter what, a league champion will be crowned in Lake County this weekend as the final three games are in Lake County (hopefully it is the Captains celebrating).  Here is the remaining schedule for the final three possible playoff games:

Game 3: Saturday 9/18 @ Lake County (LHP Giovanni Soto), 6:30PM EST
Game 4: Sunday 9/19 @ Lake County (RHP Brett Brach), 6:30PM EST
Game 5: Monday 9/20 @ Lake County (LHP Vidal Nuno), 6:30PM EST

Development Contracts Extended

The Cleveland Indians on Thursday announced that they have extended the player development contracts for both High-Kinston and short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley for two years through the 2012 season. 

The 2011 season will be the 25th for Kinston as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, which is the longest relationship in the Carolina KinstonLeague.  In the K-Tribe's 24 years (1987-2010) as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, they have enjoyed 19 winning seasons, 17 playoff appearances, 11 Southern Division Championships and five Carolina League Championships. In 24 years, more than 115 former Kinston Indians players have reached the Major Leagues. During the K-Tribe's 24 years as a Cleveland affiliate, the Indians have missed the Carolina League Playoffs in back-to-back seasons only once.

The 2011 season will be the 13th for Mahoning Valley as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, a relationship that has been in existence since Mahoning Valley’s inaugural season in 1999.  Forty-six former Scrappers have played in the major leagues, 21 of which are currently on active MLB rosters, including C.C Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Ben Francisco, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ryan Church. Nine former Scrappers are on the Indians active roster including Fausto Carmona, Jensen Lewis, Tony Sipp, Josh Tomlin, Chris Gimenez, Jordan Brown, and Trevor Crowe. Asdrubal Cabrera and Mitch Talbot, also on the Indians active roster, played in Mahoning Valley during the 2010 season on rehabilitation assignments.

For those wondering, the player development contracts for Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus are through 2012 while Low-A Lake County is through 2014.

Random Notes

Low-A Lake County right-handed pitcher Brett Brach had another very good year going 5-9 with a 3.46 ERA in 24 combined appearances (22 starts) between High-A Kinston and Lake County (122.1 IP, 119 H, 29 BB, 92 K).  He picked up right where Brett Brachhe left off from last season in his pro debut where at short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley he went 5-2 with a 2.19 ERA in 15 starts (78.0 IP, 62 H, 20 BB, 61 K).  He had a better second half of the season (5-5, 3.20 ERA) than first half (0-3, 4.03 ERA), and the uptick in his performance in the second half was helped by a subtle change in his delivery where he kept his eyes fixated on home plate during his delivery, something he was previously not doing as he would dart his eyes just before he made his motion to home plate.  The small change allowed him to be a little sharper spotting his pitches.

There are a lot of similarities between Low-A Lake County left-handed pitcher Giovanni Soto and right-handed pitchers Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez when they were in Lake County three year ago. All three pitched at the Low-A level at 19 years of age and have a rail thin physique, though Soto is the only one of the three who actually performed well.  Soto doesn’t have the fastball either of those two had at this stage, but his secondary stuff is more advanced.  He is also a little better of a strike thrower than Rondon and Gomez were at Lake County, and the advanced command and feel for his secondary stuff really takes advantage of the hitters in the Midwest League where they mostly have poor discipline, hence the very good numbers this year.

High-A Kinston left-handed pitcher T.J. House had an unspectacular, but solid season going 6-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 27 starts (135.2 IP, 135 H, 61 BB, 106 K)..  In a lot of ways, his performance this year largely went under the radar.  His command was T.J. Houseinconsistent all season, but even though he often labored through many of his innings and starts he found a way to keep his team in games.  In addition, for a 20-year old in the Carolina League he held his own and has proven to be a durable, reliable starter.  Next year he should open with Double-A Akron, which is where his prospect mettle will truly be tested.

High-A Kinston right-handed pitcher Travis Turek had a good season going 4-3 with a 3.73 ERA in 41 relief appearances this year (79.2 IP, 82 H, 30 BB, 45 K).  He is a sinker-baller who doesn't strike out a lot of batters because he pitches more to contact, as evidenced by his below average strikeout rate (5.1 K/9) but high ground ball rates the past two seasons with a 2.31 GO/AO this season and 3.03 GO/AO last year.  The Indians worked with him this year on some of his game preparations such as to be more prepared in knowing his opponent better.  He is a former high school middle infielder who had limited experience pitching before he turned pro, and had a two year detour in his career after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006, so he is still picking up on some of the finer points of pitching.

Low-A Lake County has had some late season injuries which have taken away from some of the depth on the pitching staff with several pitchers out for the rest of the year.  Right-handed reliever Nick Sarianides is out with a strained rib cage muscle and back, right-handed pitcher Antwonie Hubbard is out with a sore right elbow, right-handed starter Clayton Cook is sidelined with a sore shoulder, and right-handed reliever Jeremy Johnson has a fractured back though amazingly is pitching through the injury after he was told no further damage could be done pitching with it.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI.  His new book the 2010 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is also available for purchase on Amazon.com or his site.

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