Once again this offseason I will be providing a review of the Indians' farm system and some discussion on the potential of various members of the team's system. This year I wanted to start with a preview piece, as some outlets (most notably Baseball America with its league top 20 lists) have already begun to present their prospect assessments. What you can expect from the Indians' system is....not much. This year's prospect reviews, and most assessments of the Indians' system, will point to the near total absence of noteworthy prospects. For example, while the Indians placed 9 prospects in BA's league top 20 lists, as they note in the piece linked above, they have zero prospects who played in a full-season league last year and did not graduate from prospect status. I would expect no one not drafted this season by the Indians to appear in prospect Top 100 lists. The past two years, of course, the Indians have graded out fairly well in the prospect world. Three factors contribute to the plummet you are likely to observe in the Indians standing.
1. Graduating top prospects to the majors
2. Trading top prospects
3. An underperforming crop of 2010 draftees
The Indians' consensus top two offensive prospects - Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis - graduated to the majors. This is not a bad thing, but it certainly thins out the offensive talent in the upper levels of the farm system. In addition to those two, more marginal (but potentially noteworthy) guys like Cord Phelps and Ezequiel Carrera also made their major league debuts. The Indians debuted less pitching talent, but guys like Zach McAllister, Nick Hagadone, Zack Putnam and even Corey Kluber all debuted in 2011. An underreported story of the 2011 Indians is, in fact, the amount of talent they debuted at the major league level. Many of these guys push the definition of "exciting," but their transition to the big leagues is a positive reflection on the health of the Indians player development system.
While Kipnis and Chisenhall got settled into Cleveland, the consensus top two pitching prospects in the system - Drew Pomeranz and Alex White - finished the season in the big leagues playing for Colorado. In addition to those two, the Ubaldo Jimenez trade also sent away Joe Gardner, who appeared on several pitching lists last season including a notable place within my own review of the Indians' system. White, Pomeranz, Kipnis and Chisenhall were all featured on one or more outlets as top 100 prospects in all of baseball. Moving all four off the Indians list is a pretty major hole.
The final significant factor was the performance of the highly regarded, and expensively acquired, 2010 draft class. The Indians' first choice, Drew Pomeranz, did quite well of course, but he is out of the system. Following him we get a number of relatively high-profile overslot signings who failed to perform. LeVon Washington, despite logging more than 350 plate appearances, was utterly miserable (89 Ks vs. 17 XBHs). Tony Wolters got hurt during spring training, delaying his debut until the Mahoning Valley season began in July. He played reasonably well, but not at the level expected of him. Kyle Blair and Cole Cook, two supposedly polished college arms, struggled all year with Lake County. Throw in less than stunning years from Nick Bartolone, Jordan Cooper, Tyler Holt and Alex Lavisky, and you have a big group of guys jockeying each other to not be on a prospect list.
I would not say this is a major factor, but the perennial injury toll (Jason Knapp, Nick Weglarz, Hector Rondon, Alex Perez) also has to be considered.
The good news is that all is not lost, as I will attempt to elaborate on as this series continues. The Indians lack significant talent in the upper minors, but they still have a batch of mildly intriguing guys (think Scott Barnes and Chun Chen), remnants of the Indians great depth. And I try to never dismiss draftees based on their first full professional season. A significant bounceback from some of the 2010 draftees will help populate the mid-level of the Indians farm system with prospects. But the real intriguing parts of the system are down in the system's depths in Mahoning Valley, Arizona and the Dominican. The group of players in the Indians' short season leagues might be the best crop to pass through those teams in some time. As long as the young talent at the major league level develops as hoped for, the gap between Cleveland and Mahoning Valley should not too much of a problem. Hopefully.