If you are a regular reader of Burning River Baseball, you’re probably not only aware that the Cleveland Indians have a Dominican Summer League team (the DSL Indians), but that they added a second one this season by combining with the Brewers to make the DSL Indians-Brewers. This is not uncommon in a league where many teams share facilities and quite a few have two full squads including the Reds, Mets, Rangers, Phillies, Rays, Cubs, Dodgers, Astros and Diamondbacks.
With this, the Indians actually have fewer minor league teams than many clubs at 7.5 as many have separate rookie level teams beyond their AZL or GCL squads with the Yankees, Rays and DBacks having an incredible nine minor league affiliates. There’s an even greater argument that the Yankees don’t need three US based rookie level teams in addition to a short season team, but we don’t cover the Yankees. Instead, the focus is on how pointless having 1.5 DSL teams is for the Cleveland Indians.
To begin, there is a great value to a single DSL squad. International players can sign at 16 years old, but can’t play in the US until they are 17, so this gives them a place to begin their professional career. It also offers a place to indoctrinate the players into the system and to begin the education that they will need to succeed in the US.
However, the vast majority of players who come through the DSL will turn into nothing. The most recent DSL Indian to hit the Major Leagues was from the 2010 team, Erik Gonzalez. Of the 40+ other players who played for the 2010 DSL Indians, nearly all are out of the system with Luigi Rodriguez (AA) and Enosil Tejada (AAA) being the only stand outs of note.
It’s not like the AZL, where most high school draft picks mingle with the success stories from the DSL, is much better. From their first year in the AZL (2009), the Indians only significant Major Leaguer was Roberto Perez and their next was in 2011 as both Jose Ramirez and Erik Gonzalez made their US debuts. In any event, the vast majority of rookie ball players will never even get close to the Major Leagues, many being out of baseball before hitting AA.
Currently, the Indians have 13 players on the newly created Indians-Brewers team and they’ve essentially been using this team as a place to store players who wouldn’t get playing time or fit on another roster. My argument is that they would if they made the difficult move of cutting the fat off the minor league rosters.
Obviously, every minor leaguer has a set of probabilities. You can’t guarantee that any one player will hit a certain level in his baseball career and that’s why we generally discuss players in ceiling and floor terms. Even a first round draft pick, like Will Benson, can be considered to have a high ceiling (potential MLB power hitting corner outfielder with speed and good defense) and an extremely low floor (check out his strike out rate). If every player had the wide range of potential that Benson has, it would legitimize having 7.5 or even nine minor league teams. However, that is far from the case.
This season at Burning River Baseball, we’ve ranked the top ten prospects at each position (top 15 for corner outfielders and relievers) and the players who didn’t make it on to any list are interesting. Jordan Smith, Taylor Murphy, Ivan Castillo, Travis Banwart and D.J. Brown are probably some players you haven’t heard of who are currently taking up space in Akron and Columbus. Triston McKenzie, Ka’ai Tom, Ben Krauth, Willi Castro and Jodd Carter are some names you possibly have heard of who are currently playing in Lynchburg, but probably deserved a promotion, some for quite some time now.
The point to all this is that there are cuts that could be easily made within the system that wouldn’t hurt anything (the Indians recently made a couple, dropping relievers Neil Holland and Paul Hendrix) and would clear at least the 15 roster spots necessary to reintegrate the Indians-Brewers back into Cleveland only isolation.
You may ask, why does this even matter? The answer, like most things in life, is cost. It’s not that the DSL team necessarily costs much, but a more systemic problem in baseball. It’s well known that minor leaguers are vastly underpaid beyond their signing bonuses until they hit AAA. While the problem needs to be resolved by Major League Baseball as a whole, individual teams could fix a little of the problem by dropping their costs by decreasing the total number of minor leaguers, and redistributing those funds to the remaining minor leaguers. For those that don’t care about money, it would also help redistribute playing time to those who deserve it more.
In general, the cuts to make roster spots for Indians-Brewers players would have to come from the upper minors. These are players who have a much smaller variance between ceiling and floor and the Indians should have much greater confidence in guessing who will and won’t be a Major League star. As for the promotions that would need to take place from the DSL to the AZL, while it is a big jump, many are as long overdue as those in the mid-levels.
Looking back at last year’s squad, Wilbis Santiago (21 years old) and Luis Araujo (20) were with the DSL far too long. They probably should have been in the AZL in 2016 or even earlier, but instead they wasted time dominating the DSL. Now, both are intensely struggling at a level where most players are two or three years younger than they are. It’s hard to believe either player would have been worse off had they been promoted a year earlier and, at the moment, they appear to be like the many players who burn out before reaching even low A. If that is to be the end result for these DSL players, isn’t it better to know that as soon as possible than to waste time, money, playing time and coaching time while they dominate at a level they are far too old for?
It may seem cold hearted, but at some point teams have to move on from players and the existence of an extra half of a DSL team seems to exist simply because the Indians are unwilling to do so. While the symptom showing may be the existence of a half of a baseball team in the Dominican, the real problem lies in Columbus and Akron where the Indians insist on holding on to players that they would never trust for an instant in an Indians uniform.