News broke Monday that the Cleveland Indians had granted outfielder Trevor Crowe his release. The 28-year-old switch hitter was had a .259/.343/.395 line in 42 games between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus this season after struggling to a .245/.295/.329 line (72 wRC+) with -0.5 fWAR in 205 career MLB games dating back to 2009.
In pure baseball terms it was an unremarkable event. Crowe is a low-ceiling fourth-outfield type who’s been plagued by injuries and couldn’t crack the Tribe’s big-league roster this year even when he got on the field; at the risk of sounding insensitive, the Indians probably won’t miss him or even notice that he’s gone. But though the move is inconsequential, seeing his tenure in Cleveland end with a whimper of an anticlimax is a poignant symbol for an impediment that seemed to ail the organization for a decade: failed first-round draft picks.
The Indians’ struggles to amass premium talent via the amateur draft have been well documented, but the trend dates back farther than most fans probably realize. In 1998, they snapped CC Sabathia up with the 20th overall pick, but in 1999 they had no first-round selection. Including sandwich rounders, Cleveland got two first-round picks in 2000 and four more in 2001, but none of the six—Corey Smith and Derek Thompson in 2000 and Dan Denham, Alan Horne, J.D. Martin, and Mike Convoy— ever suited up in a Tribe uniform. So began the misery.
The pattern continued in 2002, when first-rounders Matt Whitney and Micah Schilling never made it to The Show and Jeremy Guthrie found success only after he’d been traded to the Orioles. The 2003 first-round class of Michael Aubrey, Brad Snyder, and Adam Miller combined for 15 games with Cleveland. Though 2004 pick Jeremy Sowers has 400 innings with the Tribe under his belt, he also has an ugly 5.18 ERA. Crowe’s fellow 2005 pick John Drennen never played for the Indians and 2006 selection David Huff owns a 5.50 career ERA.
Things have improved, but even some of the team’s more recent first-rounders haven’t worked out as planned. Beau Mills (2007) showed some promise last year, but he was recently sold to the Reds. Lonnie Chisenhall (2008) is a solid player, but after the drop in his plate discipline and his season-ending injury there’s at least some reason to be concerned about his development. And Alex White (2009) and Drew Pomeranz (2010) are currently playing for the Colorado Rockies.
Looking at this recent draft history, Crowe is not the exception but the rule. Injuries take their toll and can’t-miss prospects fizzle out in every organization. For the record, Martin, Smith, Guthrie, Aubrey, Snyder, Sowers, Miller, and Mills all placed on Baseball America‘s annual Top 100 Prospects list at least once, so it’s not as though the Indians were the only ones who were high on them. But on each front the team has failed to reap what they thought they had sown, and in that vein it seems only natural that Crowe’s Tribe tenure would end in the midst of a miserable season.
But perhaps there is a silver lining. As Terry Pluto noted, only three first-rounders remain in Cleveland’s system: 2011 pick Francisco Lindor, the team’s top prospect and Futures Game representative; 2012 selection Tyler Naquin, who has a .417 OBP in his first 17 professional games; and Chisenhall, who is still considered the Tribe’s third baseman of the future. None of them is a sure thing, but all seem to have bright futures ahead of them—they might not be proven, but they aren’t in doubt.
Crowe’s release is but a sad continuation of an unfortunate trend. But—knock on wood—it may just symbolize the end of the Tribe’s perennial draft woes. For the first time I can remember, there’s no former first-round pick in the organization whom people have given up on. Maybe that means there’s hope for the future.