Before I begin, a few words about my rationale in constructing this list.
I tend to weigh prospects based on their future positional value, so I tend to place position players and starting pitchers above relievers. Although it didn't really play much of role in this particular list, players further left on the defensive spectrum will get rated higher than first basemen or corner outfielders, all things being equal.
Defense does play a part in my rankings, as does baseunning. I'm judging the total player, not just the offensive parts.
I like consistency. Players who have performed at the same level throughout their professional career will tend to be rated higher than those who have performed inconsistently or for just a short time.
I tend to avoid recent draft picks, for a couple reasons. One, to avoid trying to read anything into a small number of at-bats or innings, and two, because I haven't had a chance to see them play or at least get some substantive scouting reports on them.
So, without further ado, here's my list of the Indians' best prospects going into the 2006 season.
(Ages are for the 2006 season)(20) RHP Bear Bay - Age 23
Because Bay isn't that big (160 lbs), there are some concerns about his upside, especially as a starter. But he put up very good numbers in Kinston, he can throw in the mid 90s, and right on track age-wise. I'd expect him to return to Akron in 2006.
(19) OF Brian Barton - Age 24
I find it hard to believe that Barton was not drafted despite playing for such a high-profile program as Miami (FL). I mentioned in the Kinston By the Numbers segment that Barton is probably ticketed for a corner position, but the main reason he made my list was his bat. Without playing in a short-season league, Barton hit .414/.506/.624 with Lake County, then finally got promoted to Kinston, where he hit .274/.404/.435. Barton also has some speed, although a poor stolen base percentage (20 SB, 10 CS). Time is not on Brian's side, and there's quite a bit of high-level outfielders to contend with, but he certainly opened my eyes in 2005.
(18) OF Ben Francisco- Age 24For a team with a lot of slow baserunners (cough), Francisco would be a great fit as a fourth outfielder. Ben had the best season of his professional career in 2005, hitting .307/.357/.474 for the Aeros, so I'm still a bit surprised no one selected him in last December's Rule 5 Draft. Francisco has a weak arm, which probably will probably prevent him from playing right field in the majors. In fact, his biggest problem going forward is that he doesn't really fit the specifications for any of the outfield positions. Although he has an outside shot of making the Indians as the fourth outfielder, he'll most likely patrol left field for the Bisons in 2006.
(17) RHP Andrew Brown - Age 25
Why do I rank Brown so low when his 2005 numbers were so good? Part of the reason is that he'll be 25 next month, and part of it is that he's now considered a relief prospect, not a starter. Health is an issue as well. Right now, Brown is probably ready for the big leagues, but at this moment, there isn't a spot for him in Cleveland. I do like him a lot going forward, though; his stuff is good enough so that he could probably get by in the bullpen just using his boring fastball and a changeup.
(16) RHP Jake Dittler - Age 23
I had a difficult time deciding where to put Dittler; after all, he did improve his second time around in Akron. But even with a better ERA, his peripherals don't look all that impressive considering 2005 was Dittler's second chance in the Eastern League. Yes, he has extreme ground-ball tendencies (2.49 G/F), but he only struck out 107 in 173 innings and allowed 61 walks. Generally, if you don't strike many guys out, you better have good control, which doesn't bode well for Dittler when he encounters more patient hitters in AAA next season.
(15) RHP Nick Pesco - Age 22
Pesco has some of the same traits as Jake Dittler (tall right-hander, "heavy" fastball), but I'm more apt to cut Nick a bit more slack. 2005 was his first real chance in High-A ball, and he showed pretty good command of his pitches. Nick has one of the best changeups in the organization, although his breaking pitches still need some work.
(14) LHP Tony Sipp - Age 22
If I was projecting Sipp as a starter, I'd certainly rate him higher, but even as a reliever I like him a lot. Deception and a tailing fastball makes Sipp an obvious reliever prospect, and his time in Kinston's bullpen has reinforced that view. If the Indians use the same method they used with Fernando Cabrera, they may give Tony some starts in Akron to get him some experience, then put him in the bullpen for good later next season. It's certainly not a stretch to say he could be an integral part of the Indians' bullpen by 2007.
(13) RHP JD Martin - Age 23
Martin underwent Tommy John surgery last summer, so he'll probably be out for most of this upcoming season. Right before he went under the knife, Martin was pitching as well as a pitcher could, striking out 63 and allowing just 42 hits in 56.2 IP. If he was healthy, he'd be in my top 6.
(12) 1B/OF Ryan Mulhern - Age 25
"What!" you may be shouting at your computer screen. "He hit 32 home runs last year!" Yes, he did hit a ton of home runs, and uniformly posted great lines at both Kinston and Akron. The issue, though, isn't about how many home runs he hit in Kinston, but how many he can hit in Cleveland. Ryan struck out 114 times in 403 at-bats. For all I pooh-pooh strikeouts at the major-league level, I worry about prospects who strike out a lot in the minors (as you'll see shortly).
That being said, you can't simply pretend that Mulhern's 2005 season didn't happen. He was a slugger at South Alabama, and after a poor 2004 campaign, he broke out with a flourish in 2005 at age 24. The problem with Mulhern is figuring out where he'll play. He's apparently moving back to the outfield in 2006, most likely because of a numbers crunch at first base. He's not the defender at first base that Aubrey and Head are, and certainly doesn't compare with Snyder or Gutierrez in the outfield. But those positional nitpicks will fade away if he can continue to build on his 2005 performance.
(11) 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff - Age 24
Kouzmanoff's season was cut short thanks a back injury, but he's still far and away the organization's best third base prospect. He won't rank very high in many tools categories, but I like his entire game. He has an unorthodox but effective swing, and is pretty decent in the field. In an organization with a real dearth of third base prospects, Kevin has a real opportunity to secure a big-league job with a good 2006 campaign.
(10) LHP Chuck Lofgren - Age 20
Lofgren was looked at both as a hitter and pitcher going into the 2004 draft, but the Indians picked him as a pitcher. He DHed some in Burlington (per his contract), but soon realized his future was on the mound. He had control issues in Lake County (43 walks in 93 innings), but everything else looked great (89 strikeouts, 73 hits). He can get his fastball up around 93-95 mph, and has added a good changeup. His upside is probably as high as any pitcher in the organization save Adam Miller.
(9) 1B Stephen Head - Age 22
Head, like Lofgren, was a two-way star before entering professional baseball, but unlike Lofgren, Head settled on hitting. Stephen has good power potential, and certainly showed that potential at short-season Mahoning Valley, where he slugged 1.027 in 37 at-bats. Promoted to Kinston, he hit a more pedestrian .286/.310/.419.
Head isn't as polished a hitter as Michael Aubrey was coming out of college, but most feel that with all his concentration now on hitting, he'll improve his swing. His defense at first base is also well-regarded.
(8) 1B Michael Aubrey - Age 24
Injuries have stalled Aubrey's career, and there are still concerns that a back injury suffered last season may be a long-term issue. Rust may be an issue as well; he only had 106 at-bats last summer, and missed out on the Arizona Fall League as well.
Despite the injury concerns, Aubrey's hitting stroke and defensive aptitude still makes him a promising prospect. With uncertainly still surrounding the first base position in Cleveland, Aubrey is still in position to get back into the picture with a healthy 2006 season.
(7) OF Brad Snyder - Age 24
Like with Ryan Mulhern, I'm a bit concerned with Brad's strikeout rates, but it certainly didn't bother him upon his promotion to Akron. He hit .280/.345/.539 with the Aeros to finish the season, hitting 16 home runs and 21 doubles in 304 at-bats. Between Kinston and Akron, he hit 22 home runs, but struck out 158 times.
If Brad can fix his contact issues in Buffalo, there's really nothing preventing him from becoming the Indians' right fielder in 2007. He has a strong arm and good range in the outfield, and has good speed on the basepaths.
(6) OF Franklin Gutierrez - Age 23
Gutierrez has a better arm and better range than Snyder, which is why he's looked at more as a center fielder than Snyder, and possibly one reason why the Indians may trade Coco Crisp soon. Gutierrez has been bothered with bone chips in his elbow, which could be one reason why his power dropped in 2005. His offensive upside is still very high, and given his defensive prowess, gives him a slight edge over Snyder on my list. Gutierrez, Snyder, and Francisco should make up an interesting outfield for Buffalo this spring.
(5) RHP Fausto Carmona - Age 22
What sets Fausto apart from several other ground-ball pitchers in the organization is his control. He walked just 35 batters in 173.2 IP. For a 21-year-old in AA and AAA, that's pretty impressive. What will really help him get big-league hitters out, though, is the development of a slider to go along with his good fastball/changeup combination. His upside is probably a MOR starter, along the lines of Carlos Silva. He should be the first starter up from Buffalo.
(4) 1B Ryan Garko - Age 25
Consistency at the plate has helped Garko to the cusp of getting a starting job in the majors. His ability to play first base will probably determine how long he can stay a starter. Ryan's swing is quick and efficient, but from a scouting standpoint, that's all he has going for him. He really hasn't had much experience playing first base, and he's a very slow runner. Ryan has a knack for getting hit by pitches, which has helped his on-base percentage (18 in 2005, 21 in 2004).
The good news for Ryan is that the Indians are close to giving up on Ben Broussard, and his main competition in the minors (Aubrey, Head) are a year behind him developmentally, so he should get his chance in 2006. The fact that he can serve as the third catcher on a roster certainly will help as well.
(3) RHP Fernando Cabrera - Age 24
Fernando has closer stuff, which is why I'm ranking him so high. Cabrera was very successful in his first extended work as a reliever, even getting to pitch in some high-leverage situations. At Buffalo, Fernando dominated hitters, holding them to a .196/.240/.272 line in 51.1 IP. He should be the Indians' best setup man before the 2006 season is over, and in line to replace Bob Wickman as closer in 2007.
(2) RHP Adam Miller - Age 21
Miller was slowed by elbow problems in 2005, which concerns me going forward. But his upside is too great to look past. His high-90s fastball, his devastating high-80s slider, his makeup, and his physical attributs (6'4", 175 lbs) make him ace material. He's been working on a changeup, which will help, but first and foremost he just needs to stay healthy. Everything I've read points to him starting 2006 in Akron.
(1) LHP Jeremy Sowers - Age 23
Jeremy certainly doesn't have the upside that Adam Miller does, but he does have the "pitchability" that so often leads to success in the majors. Sowers showcased his skills against Eastern League batters in 2005, holding opposing batters to a .652 OPS. Jeremy's control (29 walks in 159.2 IP) is also something I love in a pitcher. While his fastball at best touches 90 mph, he has enough command and movement so that hitters never feel comfortable against him.