July 31, 2014

Prospect ranking turnover shows that Indians might still be bad at drafting

Brad Grant, Indians Director of Amateur Scouting

For the last few years, since making the historic C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades, the Cleveland Indians have been banking on an improved minor league development system. This improved development had two key aspects: making the most out of the incoming prospects from those two mega-deals and drafting better than the early part of the 2000s.

Quite early on, Indians fans gave up hope on the returns from those two deals. In fact, only 4.5 years since the Sabathia trade and 3.5 since the Lee deal, only Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco figure to be cogs on the 2013 Indians, while the futures of back-ups Matt LaPorta, Jason Donald and Lou Marson are in jeopardy.

So moving forward, the key had to be efficient drafting. And while it’s a bit too early to tell, obviously, on draft picks from 2008-12, we can begin to make some conclusions based on what major analysts are saying. If prospects are performing to their expectation and draft position, we’d see them regularly in Indians prospect rankings, but if not or if they performed inconsistently, we’d likely see abnormal turnover in the rankings from year-to-year and analyst-to-analyst.

And as we approach 2013, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. And that’s not good news at all for the future of the Indians franchise.

With the perfect timing for analysis, Brad Grant took over the drafting reigns for the Indians beginning that fateful summer of 2008, just a month before the Sabathia trade. Grant, who had been in the team’s scouting department since 1996 after graduating two years prior from Miami University, was promoted in Nov. 2007 to the position of Director of Amateur Scouting. Explicitly in that press release, it was written that Grant will “direct all elements of the First-Year Player Draft.”

Early returns on Grant’s drafting ability — as evidenced by Lonnie Chisenhall that first year, then Alex White and Jason Kipnis in 2009 — were quite positive1. He had a tendency to lean toward safer college players, although No. 1 pick Chisenhall had bounced around quite a bit and had been kicked off a team. Whatever Grant was doing, however, fans were positive and the future was hopeful once these guys were given a few more years to develop.

But now, nearly five years to the date of Grant’s promotion, it’s clear that he deserves at least some of the blame for the black hole that is the entire Indians organization right now.

The major league team, as evidenced by the epic collapse and 68-94 record in 2012, is not in a position to contend anytime soon. It’s clear that fans and possibly management alike had overvalued the existing players returning from the 80-82 team in 2011. Many had hoped — although I wasn’t one of them — that the 2012 season could be a repeat of the 2007 year when an odd mix of veterans and improving young players brought the Tribe one game away from the World Series.

That wasn’t the case at all. And as we look at ways in which the Indians could improve heading toward 2013, the minor league system isn’t looking very pretty either. So let’s get on to the math and the fun table.

Earlier this week, Baseball America announced its early top 10 prospects for each organization on its website. The news source will continue to monitor trades and signings over the next few weeks and months for updates, but in terms of the Indians system, this is probably what we’ll see in the book and in the final ranking in January.

My first reaction to the rankings was shock. There were so many new names, and so many players missing from last year, that this had to be a sign of poor drafting, poor development and a poor outlook for the franchise. So here are the results:

I looked at this year’s latest free rendition of the BA rankings, along with a slew of 2012 rankings. This were all available for free online and links are provided below. I sorted the table in order of Baseball America 2013 players first, then by average of 2012 polls after that.

Key: Baseball America 2013; Jacob Rosen 20122; Indians Prospect Insider 2012; Keith Law 2012; Baseball Prospectus 2012; FanGraphs 2012; Minor League Ball 2012; Baseball America 2012

Player BA 2013 JR 2012 IPI 2012 KL 2012 BP 2012 FG 2012 MiLB 2012 BA 2012 Avg
SS F. Lindor 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.00
SS D. Paulino 2 7 7.00
OF Tyler Naquin 3 3 3.00
RHP Cody Allen 4 20 20.00
RHP Mitch Brown 5 4 4.00
RHP D. Salazar 6
OF L. Rodriguez 7 5 7 8 11 5 5 6.83
IF R. Rodriguez 8 11 9 5 3 8 7.20
1B Jesus Aguilar 9 8 14 7 18 14 21 13.67
RHP Chen Lee 10 10 6 8 16 7 12 4 9.00
RHP Dillon Howard 2 3 3 2 2 2 2 2.29
LHP N. Hagadone 4 4 6 3 6 3 4.33
SS Tony Wolters 7 5 10 5 9 3 7 6.57
RHP Austin Adams 8 2 4 4 14 8 6.67
LHP Elvis Araujo 6 11 11 13 7 9.60
RHP Jake Sisco 9 18 9 12 6 4 9.67
LHP Scott Barnes 10 9 12 9 9 9.80
OF L. Washington 2 17 11 10.00
RHP Felix Sterling 12 12 14 10 8 11.20
RHP Z. McAllister 13 13 15 6 11.75
1B Chun Chen 15 22 6 19 5 13 13.33
2B Cord Phelps 17 10 13.50
RHP K. Lovegrove 14 14.00
2B Robel Garcia 16 10 19 15.00
RHP Zach Putnam 20 10 15.00

Now you can clearly see with your own eyes the skepticism I first had in my mind after seeing the new BA rankings. Here’s the breakdown: Of last year’s top 10 BA prospects, only three (1 Lindor, 4 Lee, 5 Luigi Rodriguez) return to the 2013 rankings. Of the seven who did not return, one is due to trade (10 Putnam) and three are likely due to too much MLB playing time (3 Hagadone, 6 McAllister, 9 Barnes). Still, that leaves three more players (2 Howard, 7 Wolters, 8 Adams) that dropped out entirely yet remain in the organization.

This turnover just is striking for an average season. The Indians were nearly .500 just a year ago, and at that time, many expected this team to keep improving not only with the players at the major league level, but to hopefully infuse some young minor league talent soon as well. That just doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Of the seven new players, the five that rank from No. 2-6 are the most notable since they hardly appeared anywhere last season. Obviously that’s the case for Tyler Naquin and Mitch Brown, the top two picks from the team’s 2012 June draft under Grant. But Paulino, Allen and Salazar all burst onto the scene this year after getting hardly any prospect love in 2012.

So yes, you can clearly credit the development of those three latter guys for breaking into the prospect ranking and now becoming hopeful contributors to the major league squad — especially Allen, who already pitched well in the bullpen last season. But in order to highlight the positives, it’s only fair to denote the glaring negatives. And to find some type of trend with their performances.

Howard, 20, regressed last season after being the No. 2 pick in 2011. He struggled mightily (1-7, 7.90 ERA) in his MiLB debut in the Arizona league but has to start improving soon as he’s only young for so long. Wolters, 20, had an awful start to the season in High-A Carolina, but finished moderately well (.260/.320/.404). It’s probably just disappointing to see that he doesn’t shine in any significant offensive area — contact, power or speed. Adams, 26, didn’t pitch in 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He had a nice 2011 with Akron, but he’s recovery will have to be on target soon as he’s pretty old in prospect terms now.

Overall, those three players fairly well epitomize the overall mediocrity of the Indians minor league system. There are no stars outside of Lindor, and several players such as Wolters are turning out to be much more average than expected.

In fact, Baseball America’s Ben Badler wrote about this same topic earlier in the week when the news source released its rankings. Here were some of his comments on the Indians’ drafting history, which started with talk about the 2002 Moneyball draft where the team landed Jeremy Guthrie in the first round:

The Indians have received little production from their drafts from 2002-2007, both from pitchers and position players. Michael Aubrey, Brad Snyder, Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe and Beau Mills were all first-round busts. The later rounds delivered useful role players like Pestano, Sipp, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Ryan Garko—but no building blocks. …

More recent first-rounders Chisenhall and Francisco Lindor should improve the Indians’ first-round track record. And the scouting and player development staffs both deserve credit for Kipnis, an outfielder at Arizona State who has quickly become a capable defender at second base with an above-average bat for the position.

Though Lindor may one day surpass him, the fact that Kipnis might be the best player the Indians have drafted and signed since Guthrie shows part of the reason why they’ve had so little recent success at the major league level.

My biggest point is that, five years from Grant’s hiring, we doesn’t deserve the naive, innocent benefit of the doubt anymore. He’s had one or two good draft picks, but the ongoing returns continue to be a mixed bag, at best. The Indians aren’t very good, the minor league system has settled over the past 12-18 months as one of the worst in baseball and our prospect outlook for 2013 has more turnover than would normally be expected. So maybe things haven’t been solved at all, and we could be in for a very long period of bad baseball again in Cleveland.

(Brad Grant/The Plain Dealer)

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Footnotes:

  1. And I’m not trying to take away from those three players. They all will likely be MLB regulars. But I do think it’s worth noting: Chisenhall isn’t likely going to be an All-Star anytime soon. And when that’s one of your organization’s best first-round picks in a decade, that’s still quite embarrassing. []
  2. Obviously, mine were updated after the MLB Draft on June 13, so I have a bit of an advantage []
  • Ritz

    This kind of prospect ranking turnover happens all the time and is a ridiculous way to judge Bud Grant’s ability to draft well. The other methods used are fine, but, although I don’t have the time to do look at it, I would be willing to bet this happens for just about every team in baseball.

  • Ritz

    *Brad Grant

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The word “might” is like putting lipstick on a pig!

  • Matt underwood

    No one in the government was fired after 9/11 either… This team refuses to dump people in power that F up.

  • Steve

    This is quite the dumb overreaction. If the likes of Chisenhall, Kipnis, White and Pomeranz were still prospects, the Indians would have one of best systems out there.

  • Wow

    Were they ever good at it?

  • Matt S

    I think the big red flag on Grant so far has to be the failure to draft a good starting pitching candidate. White and Pomeranz were heralded, but they’ve ultimately been not-so-good in Colorado. He’s had a lot of guys who now are basically relievers only (Cook and Blair come to mind), drafted in the top 5 rounds. You look at AA and AAA, and even High A, and you see almost no guys that he’s drafted in those rotations. He’s drafted some fantastic relievers, but when you’re a small market team you NEED top-shelf starting pitching. That’s the only way the Rays have done it. We have developed nobody of this mold. The only guy that might have been that was Pomeranz, and early returns on him aren’t so good.

    Also, Dillon Howard and Levon Washington have a lot of potential. They need to start showing it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Sure hope systems are comprised of more then just 4 players.

  • NoVA Buckeye

    Bud Grant? CFL/Vikings legend Bud Grant?

  • Steve

    They are, and the Indians have the depth. They are just getting knocked for a lack of top end players near the majors. Except that the picks they would have used to get those near-major talents were so good that the guys are already in the majors.