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Why can’t the Indians develop position players?

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Aside from lucking out with Lindor and Ramírez, the team has an atrocious record

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MLB: Cleveland Indians-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In a Zack Meisel mailbag from a couple weeks ago, a reader brought up the fact that the last All-Star outfielder drafted or signed and developed by the Tribe was Manny Ramirez. In his response, Meisel accurately points out how Cleveland’s guidance has helped some outfielders continue to develop, but the larger point is pretty damning: The Indians’ record of developing outfielders is remarkably poor.

But wait [extremely infomercial announcer voice], there’s more! If you were to expand the field beyond that atrocious outfield, here are position players (not pitchers or catchers) drafted or signed and developed by Cleveland that have been All-Stars in the last 20 years:

Francisco Lindor (2019, ‘18, ‘17, ‘16)

José Ramírez (2018, ‘17)

Jason Kipnis (2015, ‘13)

Victor Martinez (2009, ‘07, ‘04)

Grady Sizemore (2008, ‘07, ‘06)

Manny Ramirez (2000)

That ... does not look much better. Six players in two decades. If you add in the players who would fit the pseudo-developed role (traded and played upper-level minors in the Cleveland franchise) you can include Carlos Santana (2019), Michael Brantley (2018, ‘17, ‘14), and Asdrubal Cabrera (2012, ‘11). Still, the Indians developmental skills on the position player side seem to be lacking.

If All-Star is too lofty a goal, broaden the field to consider how homegrown position players have fared by wRC+. This season, homegrown players include Ramírez, Lindor, Naquin, Santana, Bradley Zimmer, Yu Chang, Greg Allen (I know he’s now a Padre), and Oscar Mercado. Of those, only Ramírez, Lindor, and Naquin have wRC+ of 100 or better. In 2019, Santana was also above average, but that’s it; for 2018 and ‘17, add Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley but drop Naquin (Santana was above average both years, but a Phillies player in ‘18); for 2016, Naquin and Kipnis were above average again but injuries sapped Brantley’s offense; and so on.

I could keep going, but I think the pattern has established itself. The Tribe has developed very few position players in recent years that are All-Stars, and not many more that are even above-average offensive players. And when they do, those players are then shipped out or not retained once they could make any real big league money, like Brantley after 2018, Santana after 2017, and possibly Lindor soon. I wrote a bit about that method of management after the Mike Clevinger trade and how it’s pretty awful for us fans, but the other side of that coin is the hope that the return in those deals turns out to be something as good as what was previously in Cleveland.

Josh Naylor showed us his potential in the Wild Card series against New York, I’m more bullish than most on Owen Miller because we’re both Redbirds, and I think the promise of Gabriel Arias is enticing. But should I really have much faith the Cleveland organization can get All-Star caliber play from any of these players? That is an extremely high bar, and success at the major league level ranges from difficult to impossible to predict, but the Tribe does not even have much history of producing above-average offensive producers. So consider me skeptical.

Cleveland has obviously done well with pitchers, especially by targeting a particular type of pitcher: the Corey Kluber mold. Pitchers like Kluber, who do not necessarily overpower with velocity but have great command and a good mix of pitches, have become the bread-and-butter of the Tribe rotation, with Shane Bieber leading the way (and likely another Cy Young winner for the org) and Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Triston McKenzie following behind (you could note that the team has even improved each of these pitchers’ velocity, but that’s another article).

If there’s a standard profile for position players, however, it’s not a very pleasing one. Sure, defense is pretty good with most guys (Allen, Mercado, Zimmer), but hitting is another story. Because Lindor and Ramírez are exceptional, I am making them exceptions from this exercise, and without them Cleveland has just four above-average homegrown players from the last 5 years. Among them, Michael Brantley (117 wRC+) and Jason Kipnis (103 wRC+) were big contributors in Cleveland but have since been let go, and Lonnie Chisenhall (102 wRC+) has retired from baseball. That leaves just one above-average homegrown player with the Tribe, Tyler Naquin, with a 103 wRC+.

I’m as happy as any fan that Naquin had his moments in the outfield this season, but any optimism about his play only lingers because of the dearth of talent around him. Naquin’s final line this season? A wRC+ of 62 and -0.4 fWAR. When that is the best example of the team’s position player development, it really doesn’t speak highly of the process.

Nor do the many players that go on to find success outside of the organization. We all watched our former friend Gio Urshela torch the Tribe in the Wild Card series after seeing him blossom in New York, with >130 wRC+ each of the last two years. It’s not fair to say, as ESPN broadcasters did on Wednesday night, that Urshela didn’t get a chance in Cleveland, but it’s really something that another team turned him around. It’s also something that Jesus Aguilar (121 wRC+ in 2020), Willi Castro (151), Yandy Diaz (138), Anthony Santander (130), and Joey Wendle (116) could all go on to be above average offensively after leaving the Cleveland organization.

Perhaps it’s happenstance or bad luck that more players have finished their development into quality big league hitters once they’ve left than those who stuck around. Maybe it’s not. What we’re left with is a guessing game about a minor league system that has potential. Can the organization develop that potential into big league talent and deliver a winner at the highest level? Or do we fans have to hope the team has acquired talent like Lindor or Ramírez, which beats the norm?

I don’t have the answer and, after the team’s eighth consecutive postseason loss, I’m not feeling very optimistic.