After trading away Drew Pomeranz and Alex White and promoting Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, the Cleveland Indians’ farm system is suddenly depleted. Top-level talent seems hard to come across, especially in the high minors. The average fan doesn’t know what to expect from the Tribe’s farm system in 2012.
That’s where we come in. Here’s a list of seven players we might see in a Tribe uniform at some point this season.
Chun-Hsiu Chen. Probably the player with the most offensive upside at Triple-A Columbus, Chen could finally do what so many Indians fans have been trying to: force Lou Marson out of town. I’m a fan of Marson despite his light hitting ways, but Chen has enough power potential to warrant a chunk of playing time at the major league level.
With Matt LaPorta continually struggling in Cleveland, Carlos Santana taking away more and more of his playing time is a realistic possibility, which would make Marson a regular in the lineup. But is Marson really an upgrade over LaPorta? Chen could be, though it has yet to be seen if Chen could succeed at the top level (he has strikeout issues and only one spectacular season in the minors).
Bryce Stowell. The Tribe has one of the top bullpens in the AL, but there are multiple relief prospects that could warrant playing time at some point in 2012. Stowell is one of them. Even though he’s 25, Stowell could have the highest upside of any relief option at Triple-A Columbus.
With a fastball that can reach triple digits, Stowell could be vying for a set-up or even closer role in a few years. His fastball alone can cause whiffs, but his slider can do so even more. In Stowell’s last two minor league seasons, he posted K/9 rates of 13.6 and 13.3. With such strong swing-and-miss ability, Stowell could made a formidable Cleveland bullpen even better this upcoming season.
Nick Weglarz. Weglarz was once one of the Indians’ top prospects, but injuries quickly changed that. As a corner outfielder with immense offensive upside, Weglarz seemed destined to become a true offensive force in Cleveland for a long time. Unfortunately, he’s already spent more time on the DL than he might ever in Progressive Field.
Weglarz has plus power and one of the best eyes in the minors. After being drafted in 2005 at age 17, Weglarz has been very impressive when healthy. The potential is still there for him to possibly break in to Cleveland, though that might just be me being too optimistic.
C.C. Lee. Another top-tier bullpen prospect, Lee is not the love child of two former Indians pitchers, but rather a potential Tribe closer down the road. Lee has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and backs that up with a slider and split change-up. He has plenty of strikeout ability (12.5 K/9 last year between Double- and Triple-A). That was actually a significant improvement over his numbers from the lower minors, where he usually struck out around 10 batters per nine innings.
A jump like that in strikeout ability means he’s getting better, which is a scary thought for major league hitters.
Thomas Neal. Acquired from the San Francisco Giants in return for Orlando Cabrera last August, Neal has a surprisingly high pedigree for such a low-profile trade. Neal was one of the Giants’ top prospects for a few years and even cracked Baseball America‘s Top 100 list in 2010. That ranking was after a spectacular 2009 campaign where he slashed .337/.431/.579.
Since then, though, his power has disappeared: Neal only slugged .391 last year. He has shown plenty of ability in the past, so a strong showing in Triple-A could put him at the top of the list for the next outfielder to get the call to Cleveland.
Zach Putnam. The Triple-A Columbus Clippers’ closer, Putnam doesn’t have as dominating stuff as Lee or Stowell, but he makes up for it with a very deep arsenal for a reliever. In addition to his 93-mph fastball, Putnam can also deal a splitter, slider and change-up. The splitter is by far his best pitch, and he could use it strikeout most major league hitters right now.
But despite the splitter Putnam doesn’t strike out enough batters to merit a true late inning role in the majors. Putnam’s career K/9 at Triple-A is only 8.9. That’s not bad, but in order to fully succeed at the top level he will have to miss more bats. But that won’t hold back the Tribe from promoting Putnam, and he still has the ability to enjoy a long tenure as a bullpen arm.
Beau Mills. The dead has risen! Well, not yet at least. Beau Mills has steadily made improvements and last year was finally promoted to Triple-A Columbus. This was his best minor league year in a while, as he slashed .289/.347/.513. Expecting him to finally live up to his draft slot is a foolish thing to think, but there is now a possibility he could play in Cleveland. Mills is 25, so he won’t enjoy a long productive career, but he could be an asset in the short term.
LaPorta continues to struggle in Cleveland and the front office is desperately looking for replacements. Nick Johnson is a possibility, as is Chen, but Mills should also be put into the discussion. LaPorta was demoted last year, and it isn’t too ridiculous to think that he could be demoted at some point this year if he plays as poorly he did in 2011. In that a case, Mills could get a shot to play first base.
It’s not a certainty that he will succeed, but there’s a chance Cleveland could finally see something become of what many thought was a wasted first round pick.