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Indians Indians Archive The April Farmer's Almanac: Part 1
Written by Al Ciammiachella

Al Ciammiachella

Kipnis_5_723x800The Indians Farmer’s Almanac is a monthly feature here on TCF where we take a step back and look at how the entire system has performed over the last month. Who’s hot, who’s not; who’s been called up, who’s been sent down; who’s winning, who’s losing. In case you haven’t noticed (and judging by the page click count, you haven’t), I do a daily look at the performances throughout the system in my “Around the Farm” mini-posts on the Hitting the Fan section of TCF.

So whether it is short-term tactical analysis you’re looking for or long-term strategic outlook, we’ve got you covered here on TCF when it comes to the Indians minor league system. Since even I don’t have the attention span to sit here and read 8,000 words on Indians prospects in one sitting, we’re going to break this baby up into two installments. Today, we’ll look at Columbus and Akron and then tomorrow, on to Kinston and Lake County. In addition to recapping the last months’ worth of action, I’ll be naming my minor league pitcher and hitter of the month in tomorrow’s installment, so be sure and check back.

Please note that all of the records and stats below are through the month of April only. May’s stats are not included in these numbers.

Columbus Clippers (AAA)

At the end of the month of April, the Clip show sat alone in first place in the International League’s West division with a 17-5 record. They’ve been doing it with starting pitching, timely hitting and a strong bullpen. Despite some less than stellar performances from guys who were thought to be the strength of the team prior to the season, they’ve used some surprising performances from players they didn’t think they would need to count on to rise to the top of their division.  Sound familiar?

The top two hitting prospects in the system started the season for AAA Columbus, and neither set the world on fire in April. Second baseman Jason Kipnis closed out the month with a .253/.367/.453 line, with 2 HR and 11 RBI. Not horrible, but when you consider that he finished 2010 at .307/.386/.492, you have to hope for improvement as the season goes on. Kipnis has a 17/14 K/BB ratio, and has stolen 4 bases without being caught. The converted OF has made 5 errors at 2B so far.

The second player in the dynamic duo is third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall.  Chiz had a brilliant spring, hitting over .400 and causing lots of fans to clamor for his inclusion on the opening day roster. Those calls got louder when Jason Donald went down with an injury near the end of spring training. The Indians insisted that he wasn’t ready, that he needed to work on his defense and get more at bats against LHP. A month into the season, it looks like the Indians were right. He’s sporting a .247/.347/.395 with 2 HR and 12 RBI so far, and still struggling to hit LHP. He’s 7-37 (.189) on the season against lefties. He is 4-7 lately, with two of those hits coming off Atlanta’s highly regarded Mike Minor (a HR and a 2B) so he is showing signs of improvement. I expect him to be closer to his career line of .271/.342/.452 the rest of the way than to what he put up in April. He’s committed two errors in the field so far.

Phelps_7_761x800One top prospect who has lived up to his billing is infielder Cord Phelps. Phelps has seen time all over the diamond for the Clippers, playing 11 games at SS, 4 at 2B, 1 at 3B and DH’ing 4 times. Regardless of where he has been playing in the field, he’s been hitting. Phelps has a .303/.443/.447 line with 2 HR and 10 RBI in 2011. He’s shown a great approach at the plate, drawing a team-high 21 walks. I’ve made it pretty clear that I think that Phelps would be an upgrade over Orlando Cabrera right now, and really think that Phelps should be given a shot as the everyday 2B with Cabrera sliding into the utility infielder role.

Surprisingly, the Clippers infielder with the best numbers for the month of April was none other than Luis Valbuena. Louie V is 2nd on the team in HR with 4, and hit .300/.355/.543. I know how terrible he was in Cleveland last year, but he’s still just 25 and could possibly have a major league role as a utility infielder.

While the infield production has been spotty, the Columbus outfielders have been keeping the offense going. RF Chad Huffman started slow, but has been one of the hottest hitters in all of minor league baseball lately. Back on April 21, Huffman went 4-5 with 3 HR and 10 RBI for the Clippers, and has been hitting over .400 since then. Overall, he’s at .301/.435/.562 with 5/18.

Travis Buck didn’t begin the season in Columbus, but was sent down to make room for OF Grady Sizemore when he was ready to come off the DL. Give Buck credit for staying focused and working to earn his way back on the big club, as he’s gone for .325/.429/.586 with 1/10 in just 8 games for the Clippers.

He’s not much of a prospect anymore, but don’t tell that to Jerad Head. He’s tied for 3rd on the team with 3 HR, and boasts a .339/.377/.566 line. He’s 28 years old and has just one walk against 10 strikeouts, but you can’t argue with the way he has driven the ball this season.

Starting pitching has been a strength for Columbus in the early going, and no one has been better than 2009 1st round draft pick Alex "Case" White. White was 1-0 with a 1.90 ERA for Columbus, and was called up to Cleveland this past week for his major league debut.

Aside from White, David Huff was 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA, despite striking out 8 and walking 10 in 24 IP. There was some speculation that Huff would get the call to Cleveland since he is lefthanded and already on the 40-man, but the Indians opted to go with the youngster instead. Huff is really going to have to earn another shot at pitching at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as he’s been passed in the pecking order by Tomlin, Gomez and now Alex White as well.

Zach McAllister, still just 23 years old, was 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA and a 16/4 K/BB ratio. He was one of the top prospects in the Yankee organization just a couple of years ago, and I think people forget just how young he is. He’s still got at least back of the rotation potential, and if he can maintain that kind of K/BB ratio he could even be more than that.

Before he was called up to replace the injured Mitch Talbot, righty Jenmar Gomez went 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA for the Clippers. He doesn’t have the upside of an Alex White, but can be an innings-eater at the back end of a major league rotation. It will be interesting to see who goes down when Carrasco is healthy. My money’s on Gomez.

Power lefty Scott Barnes was called up from AA Columbus to replace Gomez, and started a pair of games, going 1-1 with a 2.31 ERA with 10 K in 11 2/3 innings. He has struggled with his control for the Clippers, walking 10 AAA hitters. But he’s got as much upside as any lefthander in the organization, and can really miss some bats. He had a so-so season with Akron in 2010, but was one of the best starting pitchers in the elite Arizona Fall League this past offseason.

The bullpen has been a bright spot for the team as well (with one major exception). Jensen Lewis went 8 2/3 without allowing an earned run. He started out the season as the closer, but was supplanted before too long by a couple other guys that we’ll cover in a second. Lewis did allow 12 baserunners in those 8 2/3’s, so the 0.00 ERA is not without a little luck.

Zach Putnam has been outstanding, throwing 14 1/3 innings with a 1.26 ERA, collecting 3 saves and posting a 12/3 K/BB ratio. Putnam isPutnam_change4_747x800 another option to be part of the ML bullpen at some point this year. The righty out of Michigan gets plenty of strikeouts and induces more than his fair share of groundballs with his sinking fastball and splitter. If Chad Durbin struggles, Putnam is one of the top candidates to get called up to replace him.

Also anchoring the back end of the bullpen is Josh Judy, with 4 saves of his own and a 3.48 ERA. Judy is right up there with Putnam in the battle to be the first reliever called up to the big club. Putnam’s numbers are a little better through the season’s first month, but Judy is older and has more experience in the back of a pen. I don’t think you can go wrong with either guy, and it’s great to have that kind of depth in the system.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle is Carlton Smith, who is battling with Lewis to see who can go the longest without allowing an earned run. He’s thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings, with 14 K and 2 BB. Smith is 25, and was a 21st round pick in 2004. Remember Corey Smith? Who’d have thought that his brother would have a better shot to someday make it to the show in a Cleveland uniform…

Remember when I said there was an exception to the bullpen dominance? The only bad apple amongst the bunch has been Jess Todd, with an ERA of 11.00 in 9 IP. Todd was removed from the 40-man roster when Alex White was added, and is further from Cleveland right now than ever.

In other transaction news, infielder Josh Rodriguez has been returned to the Indians and reassigned to the Clippers. He was a Rule 5 pick by the Pirates, but couldn’t stick in Pittsburgh. He had just one hit and 8 strikeouts in 12 at bats, and was offered back by rule because the Pirates needed to remove him from the 25-man active roster.

Akron Aeros (AA)

The Aeros finished April with an even 12-12 record, but sit just one game back of the 1st place Bowie Baysox (12-10). April was a cruel weather month for Akron, and it’s tough to get on much of a roll when you’re getting rained out every other game.

Chen_hitting2_800x533Catcher Chun Chen (CCC) was the highest-ranking position player prospect on my pre-season top 50. Chen was my #8 overall prospect, and that was a pretty aggressive ranking for a guy who was outside the top 50 going into last season. Chen had some trouble getting untracked in April, struggling to a .257/.268/.386 line. He hit 2 HR and drove in 9, but the most concerning numbers for CCC would be the 1/19 BB/K ratio he put up. For a guy walked more than he struck out in the high A Carolina League last year, those are numbers that I did not expect.  Chen heated up with the weather last year, and I’m looking for him to do the same in 2011. The long-term concerns with Chen continue to revolve around his defense, as he’s not seen by anyone outside the organization as even an adequate defensive catcher. His issues are with his receiving more than his arm; he allowed far too many passed balls last season. He only gave up one passed ball in April, so hopefully that trend can continue and CCC can stick behind the dish as he climbs the organizational ladder.

 Defensive specialist Kyle Bellows has been manning the hot corner for the Aeros. The reviews of his defense have been consistently sparking, much like they were last season in Kinston. The bat however, is struggling to keep up. Bellows hit just .183/.234/.283 with a total of 5 XBH (4 2B and a 3B) in the seasons’ opening month.  It’s great to have a gold glove quality defender at third, but if he can’t hit enough to stay in the lineup, his glove is irrelevant.

Juan Diaz is the top shortstop prospect in the organization almost by default. He came over from Seattle last year in the Russell Branyan trade, and put up a .716 OPS in high A. He’s a tall, athletic kid who will play the entire 2011 season at age 22. Diaz is hitting for more power this year than he did last year (3 HR in April as opposed to 8 in all of 2010) but isn’t getting on base quite as much (.275 OBP to .333 last season). His 3 HR in April actually tied for the team lead. If he can refine the 5/20 BB/K ratio he posted in April, he’ll really be a guy to watch in the organization.

Acquired from the Mariners in exchange for Aaron Laffey just prior to the season, 2B Matt Lawson has been steady, if not spectacular for the Aeros this year. He hit one home run, drove in four runs and went for a .277/.340/.426 line. He’s 25, and really more of an organizational player at this point with Kipnis, Phelps, and Donald all in front of him for playing time.

Speedy outfielder Jordan Henry did pretty much what we all expected him to do last month.  He got on base (.359 OBP), was a nusciance for the other team once he got there (6 stolen bases in 6 attempts) and didn’t hit for any power whatsoever (.291 SLG).  Henry is a classic leadoff hitter with a solid hit tool, plus speed and virtually no power. He’s a good defender, and if he can keep getting on base, he’s a solid prospect.

One pleasant surprise in the lineup has been outfielder John Drennen. The Indians very own Flyin’ Hawaiian is slugging well over his career numbers, and despite ending the month without a hit in his final three games he turned in a .265/.375/.500 line. He’s provided some pop in the middle of the Akron lineup with 3 HR and 11 RBI, and is the only guy besides Chen in that lineup that will slug over .450.

As inconsistent as the hitting has been for Akron, the pitching has really been strong across the board. Opening day starter Kelvin De La Cruz is 1-3, but he’s pitched well in all of his starts. He has a 2.88 ERA and struck out 32 hitters in 25 innings. He did struggle with his control, walking 16 including 6 in 4 IP in his last start. Opposing hitters are batting just .188 against him, so the walks haven’t killed him yet, but he really needs to shore up his control in order to succeed long-term.

One of my favorite guys in the organization is converted SS and now starting pitcher Austin Adams. Adams is an athletic kid who is shorterA_Adams12_800x757 than most right-handed starting prospects at less than 6’ tall. But he’s got plus velocity and a plus power curve, and has used both to post a 1-2 record and a 3.86 ERA in April. This despite giving up 3 ER in 2/3 of an inning for his final start of the month. He threw 16 1/3 innings, struck out 18 and walked 9 (3 in that disastrous final start). Adams has been referred to as a “sleeper” prospect, but I think he is a legit starting pitching prospect in an organization rich in starting pitching prospects. He’s a fun guy to watch pitch, and could easily be a top-10 guy in the organization going into next season.

Probably the most effective starter in the organization last year, righthander Joe Gardner was moved up to AA in his second full season out of UC Santa Barbara. Gardner was 12-6 last year in A ball, and big things were expected out of him in the move to Akron. Gardner has been challenged by AA hitters, going 2-1 with a 3.29 ERA, 7 K and 10 BB in IP. One really surprising stat for Gardner has been his GO/AO average, which was 3.29 last year and has dropped dramatically to just 0.82 this season. For a guy who lives and dies by the groundball, that’s a concerning ratio. Gardner needs to get his power sinker working again and get hitters to pound the ball into the ground again, or that ERA is going to take a big jump in the days to come.

The “worst” of the Akron starters has been Matt “Todd” Packer. Packer was 0-3 in his four starts, but didn’t pitch all that badly. He put up a 4.79 ERA, struck out 11 and walked just 3 in 20 2/3 innings. Look for that record to quickly improve if he keeps his peripherals in line.

Before he was called up to AAA Columbus, lefty Scott Barnes was carving up Eastern League hitters. In 2 starts, he was 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA, 17 K and 2 BB in 11 IP. Barnes was repeating AA, and very much earned his quick move up to the Clippers.

The replacement for Barnes in the rotation is young lefty T.J. McFarland. McFarland started the season at high A Kinston, and was called up on April 21 for his first of two April starts. He went 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA, striking out 10 and walking 7 in 9 1/3 IP for the Aeros. McFarland is a groundball machine, and unlike Gardner his groundball stuff has translated to AA (so far at least). His 3.25 GO/AO average helped him throw 5 shutout innings his last time out despite 4 walks. If McFarland can keep his K rate up along with those groundball #’s, you’re talking about the 22-year old as a real prospect.

In addition to the solid starting pitching, Akron has featured two of the most dominating relievers in the organization. Power lefty Nick Hagadone was lights out in April, throwing 13 2/3 innings without allowing a single earned run. The guy who has been referred to as a “taller Billy Wagner” struck out 18 and walked just one. He’ll be in Columbus before the all-star break.

The back end of the bullpen features Cory “Hurricane” Burns. With Burns nailing down the 9th inning for Akron, Aeros games were basically 8 innings long in the month of April. Burns recorded 7 saves in 7 opportunities, striking out 15 in 6 2/3 innings. Burns doesn’t have dominating stuff, but he uses a deceptive windup and a true closer’s mentality to get the job done on the hill. He gave up just one earned run (a solo HR) and walked one.

Lee_2_547x800One of last year’s breakout players in the system was reliever C. C. Lee, who dominated out of the bullpen for Akron. Like last year, Lee has struggled a little in the early going this season, going 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA, striking out 14 and walking 5 in 12 2/3 IP. Lee might just be one of those guys who warms up with the weather, as he was lights-out last year after the all-star break. I’ll reserve judgment on his performance until June.

Another high-profile arm that has struggled in the early going is righthander Bryan Price. Price of course came over in the Victor Martinez deal with the Red Sox, but he hasn’t found the same success in 2011 as Justin Masterson and Nick Hagadone. Price has a 1-1 record with a 5.73 ERA in the early going. He’s struck out 9 and walked 2 in 11 IP, and given up two HR.

Don't forget to check back tomorrow when we take a look at Kinston and Lake County, the two A-ball affiliates for the Indians. I'll also name my minor league pitcher and hitter for the month of April.

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