The Indians full season minor league teams started last Thursday, but that doesn’t mean the young men at the lower levels are just chilling out until Mahoning Valley, Goodyear (AZL) and Boca Chica (DSL) start their seasons. For the vast majority of those players, as well as injured players rehabbing from any level and those suspended for PED use (such as Dakody Clemmer), the baseball season starts on April 12th against Cincinnati in Goodyear, Arizona.
These games aren’t publicized, are generally played in front of a crowd of five or less and aren’t officially counted for statistical purposes, however, they are incredibly important in the development of players as coaches can take the time for education rather than focusing on winning games. In general, two games are played at the same time with 10 men in each line-up to get as many players as much game time as possible. All Thursdays are specifically used for practices and all Sundays are off.
Last season, primary focuses of extended Spring were getting Triston McKenzie and Brady Aiken up to five innings per start and keeping Abraham Almonte ready while he waited out his suspension. These were resounding successes and this year there will be two more full squads playing almost every day getting ready for 2017 and the future.
The Indians have acknowledged that catching was a weakness in the Indians system heading into 2016 beyond Francisco Mejia and they did a lot to address that. This year, Gavin Collins, Gian Paul Gonzalez, Michael Tinsley, Simeon Lucas, Jason Rodriguez, Jose Vicente, Christopher De Jesus, Miguel Jerez and Felix Fernandez could all play in extended Spring and how they play could determine both their position and level (either short season, AZL, DSL or even possibly A) for the regular season.
Collins was drafted as a catcher, but played almost exclusively at third base with a single game at first. Rodriguez and Vicente both played first during 2016 extended Spring and Vicente continued to do so in the AZL. Michael Tinsley played most of his limited time in the outfield in Mahoning Valley. De Jesus and Jerez both played multiple positions in the DSL last year and will be playing professionally in the US for the first time. Determining which catchers are best suited to stay behind the plate and which should be out in the field should be of the utmost importance this Spring.
The Wrong Kind of Strike Out Kings
When the Lake County Captains roster came out and didn’t include high draft picks from 2016 Will Benson and Nolan Jones as well as 2016 AZL MVP and home run champ Oscar Gonzalez, it surprised some people, but it probably shouldn’t have. All three struggled last Summer in pitch recognition, particularly Gonzalez who appeared to be a two true outcome hitter (strike out or home run).
The Indians top 2016 draft pick, Benson, played in just 44 AZL games after signing, but struck out 60 times and has an all or nothing swing that makes it extremely difficult for him to adjust to breaking pitches. This type of swing can be successful in the Majors (see Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn), but only to a certain point. If he can work on making more contact, particularly once he gets behind in the count, it would go a long way to proving he is deserving of being considered one of the Indians top prospects.
Jones is a different story as he started the year out on fire, but had an extremely poor second half that effected both his offense and defense. Despite being just 18 (Benson is also 18, Gonzalez just turned 19), Jones has the potential to reach Lake County this year if things go well. He took 23 walks in 134 plate appearances last year, so his batting eye is there and his line drive swing is one that should play well at the higher levels.
The New Kids
Last year, Felix Fermin, Christopher Cespedes and Henry Pujols were three of the bigger name DSL players to start the year in Extended Spring before heading to Boca Chica for the regular season. This year Wilbis Santiago will be coming to Goodyear (possibly for both Spring and the regular season) and it’s hard not to be excited.
On an otherwise poor DSL team, Santiago was a star, batting .320/.381/.424 with 11 steals in 12 attempts over his first two seasons. With little access to the DSL beyond box scores, Santiago’s name seemed to pop up every time something good happened for the DSL Indians. He already turned 21, so he’ll have to advance quickly, but given his low risk profile, that could definitely happen.
Luis Araujo has pitched three seasons in the DSL and before he missed out on the end of the 2016 season with injury, he had a 1.01 ERA with 33 strike outs to 5 walks. Considering he has played for the Indians since 2013, it’s incredible that he’s only 19 and will be interesting to see him for the first time in person in Extended Spring and most likely the AZL this year.
Exiles, Outcasts & the Injured
Arguably the top second baseman in the Indians farm system (along with Tyler Krieger), Mark Mathias had an unfortunate injury during MLB Spring Training where he separated his shoulder on a diving play. While he was expected to start in Akron this year, he could very well end up starting in Goodyear where he can build up arm strength before heading back to play with those his own age.
Luigi Rodriguez has also found himself on the MiLB DL with a broken hand and if he recovers quickly enough, could begin the year in Extended Spring for the second straight season. Once he returns from injury, he will likely go straight to Akron.