What a scene it was. The Akron Aeros capped off their miraculous season with a sensational championship-sealing victory Saturday night against the Connecticut Defenders (San Francisco Giants). In holding on to win 10-6, the Aeros won for the 14th time in 15 games to end the year and capped off the third Eastern League Championship in just seven years for the Indians Double-A affiiliate. In fact, in the past eight years that is now three championships, seven pennants, seven playoff berths and now a record-setting five straight 80-win seasons.
I actually had the unique chance to be a part of this historic team for more than three months this season. Starting in early May after wrapping up my freshman year at the University of Dayton, I followed the team religiously as the media relations intern until heading back to school in mid-August. Since that time, many new and old faces rejoined the team but the success remained the same. All of the emotions and excitement were on display in the clubhouse and in the front office on Saturday, as described in Stephanie Storm’s latest gem of an article on the Akron celebration. It was an amazing time down there as I had the honor of shaking hands with Ross Atkins before watching the players go absolutely insane with their champagne, beer and the free roam of the clubhouse.
Thus, championship in hand, I will begin to dissect the pieces of the puzzle behind this championship winning team in 2009. An astonishing five players from this season’s Baseball America top 10 prospects for the Tribe were in the lineup by mid-August, and some are on their way up while the future of others remains in the balance. DP already mentioned some of the top players that should be heading towards Columbus and possibly Cleveland in the near future, but here is a more comprehensive list of the stars in Akron this season. A la the review section of the Clip Show from two weeks ago, here are the award winners from the Eastern League:
EL Most Valuable Player – C Carlos Santana (.290 avg, 23 HR, 97 RBI in 130 games)
EL Pitcher of the Year – RHP Jeanmar Gomez (10-4 record with 3.43 ERA in 22 starts)
EL Manager of the Year – Mike Sarbaugh (third championship in last six years)
EL Post-Season MVP – IF/OF Jerad Head (.345 avg, six doubles, nine RBI in seven games)
EL Runs Scored Champ – CF Jose Constanza (98 runs in 130 games)
EL Stolen Base Champ – CF Jose Constanza (franchise-record 49 in 130 games)
EL Walk Champ – C Carlos Santana (franchise-record 90 in 130 games)
EL SLG Percentage Champ – C Carlos Santana (.413 OBP/.520 SLG/.933 OPS)
EL Wins Champ – RHP Josh Tomlin (14-9 record in 26 games (25 starts))
EL Saves Runner-Up – RHP Vinnie Pestano (24 saves, didn’t play after July 9th)
(Note: Part 2 of this segment with the rest of the Akron roster will be coming tomorrow afternoon. Check back for a detailed look at the studs to expect back in the purple and black in 2010 along with some interesting players with Rule V draft eligibility.)
Welcome to Huntington Park – These folks will never (unless on rehab) see the shining light of Double-A or Canal Park ever again based upon their stellar and sometimes award-winning performances for the Aeros in 2009.
CF Jose Constanza, Age 26 (.282 avg, 0hr, 46rbi, 75 bb, 49 sb, .378/.342) – 130 gms
This year proved that Constanza will be in AAA or better in the future, whether that is in the Cleveland organization remains to be seen however. He charged at the end (11 steals in last 11 games) to win the Eastern League steals title, but he now is Rule V eligible and thus is also a dual member of an upcoming tier of possible departures. The Indians have not naturally groomed a speedy Major League for the Indians in ages, and thus I would think his exciting style of play will not be in the organization too much longer. He had a great season however, but at just 5’9″ and already 26 years old, I have no idea where he might end up next season for an encore.
1B Beau Mills, Age 23 (.267 avg, 14hr, 83rbi, 33 2b, 50 bb, .308/.417) – 134 gms
Not exactly the season-ending numbers many people expected out of Cleveland’s 2008 first-round pick from Lewis & Clark State. He showed signs of a mid-season charge earlier in the year, but faded back to his normal mediocre play in finishing with the above stat line. He is still just 23 years old, but there are many facets of his game offensively that need tinkering with before he is a stud prospect for Tribe. When both were healthy, it seemed like Nick Weglarz was a better overall player, but Mills will logically have the first crack at Columbus do to his health and overall consistency. The son of Brad Mills, the bench coach for the Red Sox, I would give this season a C+ for Mills as he proved that he could be counted as a defensive asset at first base and as a consistent contributor offensively, but he did not shine in any particular category.
C Carlos Santana, Age 23 (.290 avg, 23hr, 97rbi, 30 2b, 90 bb, .413/.530) – 130 gms
Without a doubt the most sure-fire prospect in the organization, Santana won his second straight minor league MVP award this season by absolutely obliterating Eastern League pitching. In a total of 50 games played between May 26th to July 22nd, he hit just around .230 but then turned things into over-drive for the last two months of the season. In the final 66 games including playoffs, he batted .311 with 15 home runs and 57 RBI, along with 42 walks and just 45 strikeouts. Offensively, there is very little that Santana will have to change as he makes his way to the Indians. The biggest concern for front office personnel is his continued development behind the plate and that was a big reason why he did not go up to Cleveland this year. He should begin 2010 in Columbus, and could be the everyday man Indians catcher by the All-Star Break.
LHP Ryan Edell, Age 26 (4-1, 2.32 era, 17 gms/16 st, 91 k, 18 bb, .247 avg, 89.1 ip)
Including Columbus: 4-7, 3.72 era, 32 gms/22 st, 128 k, 34 bb, .281 avg, 123.1 ip
A dominant starter when on the Aeros pitching staff this season, Edell had some major issues when pitching for the Columbus Clippers this season. As indicated by his 0-6 record and sub-par ERA, Edell’s highlights all year long were as a 26-year-old lefty dominating in Double-A. That surely will not cut it anymore for the Boston native, but I would expect him to find success somewhere in the organization next season. Heck, just give him Kenneth Ray’s rotation spot on the Clippers and I will be ecstatic, as Edell proved that he deserved at least that consideration based on his accolades in Akron.
RHP Jeanmar Gomez, Age 21 (10-4, 3.43 era, 22 st, 109 k, 40 bb, .249 avg, 123.1 ip)
Including Kinston: 12-6, 3.30 era, 26 st, 124 k, 45 bb, .242 avg, 147.1 ip
Coming into the season, there was a trio of Venezuelan pitchers that ranked towards the top of any Cleveland prospect rankings. Kelvin De La Cruz, a lefty who missed most of the season with Kinston, was supposed to be the top guy while Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez trailed only slightly. Things flip-flopped in ’09, as Rondon elevated his game all the way to Columbus and a distinction as the top pitching prospect in the system while Gomez also flourished. Number for number, he was probably the most impressive starter in the Cleveland minor leagues although he still has some struggles. His perfect game on May 20th was the first individual no-hitter in Akron franchise history, and just the third such perfect game in the 86-year history of the EL.
RHP Josh Tomlin, Age 24 (14-9, 4.16era, 26gms/25st, 125k, 27bb, .266avg, 145.0 ip)
Between Edell, Gomez, Rondon and Tomlin, there was no doubt that the Aeros had the best starting rotation in the Eastern League all year. The biggest surprise however, was how the 24-year-old Texas native Tomlin responded to the clutch moments of late August and September. Tomlin won each of his final four starts including a pair of Game 1′s in the playoffs, limiting opponents to just five earned runs in 26.0 IP (1.73 ERA) with 31 strikeouts against just three walks. Take away a bunch of duds against the offensive-loaded Erie SeaWolves, and his numbers become even more impressive: 14-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 21 starts including the playoffs. His upside is limited as a prospect because of his age in comparison to Gomez/Rondon, but he still has the potential to be a decent starter down the road based on how he responds to Triple-A in 2010.
RHP Steven Wright, Age 25 (10-0, 2.32 era, 36gms/5st, 64k, 20bb, .235 avg, 88.1 ip)
Including Columbus: 10-0, 2.48 era, 38gms/6st, 68 k, 20 bb, .234 avg, 87.0 ip
What does Wright have to do to get some love? The J.D. Martin of 2009, Wright somehow managed to go a perfect 10-0 for the Aeros this season although the statistically obscure win-loss record actually does resemble his impressive stats. Wright had a 1.61 ERA in 31 relief appearances for manager Mike Sarbaugh, and even after compliments from Terry Pluto and myself he never got significant playing time for the Clippers this season. Look for that to change in 2010, as Wright should pair up with Frank Herrmann, Greg Aquino and others to hopefully make up a nice relief corps. He had a stellar season this year and as a reliever, this former second-round draft pick will still have many opportunities to prove himself in this organization very soon.
Yikes, Injury Strikes Back – Although their actual performances may have been quite impressive, these four had devastating injuries throughout the year and thus will probably be back for an Double Dose of Double-A.
2B Josh Rodriguez, Age 24 (.295 avg, 0hr, 12rbi, 4 2b, 23 bb, .426/.333) – 33 gms
This 2006 second-round pick missed just over 100 games due to an aggravating hamstring injury, and I actually did not see him in person until the celebration in the clubhouse on Saturday. He peaked at the right time, hitting safely in his final 15 games including the playoffs but the lack of consistent playing time shows how this shifty Rice product could begin 2010 in Akron for the third year in a row.
LF Nick Weglarz, Age 21 (.227 avg, 16hr, 65rbi, 17 2b, 78 bb, .377/.431) – 105 gms
An outrageous physical prospect, Weglarz struggled in the second half of the season before finally succumbing to a back injury and later shin splints that shut him down for the playoffs. His final numbers are not great, but digging deeper to his 78 walks and .377 on-base percentage definitely show the potential at just 21 years old. He will be the top slugger for the Aeros next year but could catapult quickly to Columbus depending upon a better start to the season in contrast to his 3-48 slump that began ’09.
RHP Vinnie Pestano, Age 24 (2-3, 2.86 era, 34gms, 24/27 saves, .234avg, 34.2 ip)
The top reliever in the Eastern League when healthy, Pestano went on the DL with a right elbow strain on July 9th and never pitched again. The Cal State Fullerton product had a huge lead with 24 saves at that point in time, but barely lost out to Twins prospect Anthony Slama in the end. His delivery is deceptive and just below half-way like now retired former Akron great Randy Newsom, and although this injury may have taken away his nearly achieved prospect label, he should still be productive out of the pen assuming perfect recovery next season.
RHP Scott Roehl, Age 28 (0-0, 3.63 era, 10gms, 9 k, 6 bb, .242 avg, 17.1 ip)
Including Columbus: 0-0, 3.57 era, 13 gms, 15 k, 9 bb, .244 avg, 22.2 ip
Poor ol’ Scotty Roehl never catches a break, as the Aeros most consistent reliever from 2008 didn’t play after suffering an injury back in early June. He was a great part of the clubhouse up until that point which makes it seem like he should be back in Akron for a sixth straight season in 2010. He made his first career appearances for Triple-A this year, not a great sign for a veteran reliever already now 28 years old. He should hopefully achieve his 250th career minor league outing next season, although the entire scenery will change with new prospects all around.