The beleaguered collective of Cleveland sports has finally reached a level of potential that should allow us to truly believe in the future. No longer are we kidding ourselves when we say that next year could be the year. Because at this point, any year has potential to be the year Cleveland finally wins it all. Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel will be a great new spark for the Browns. The selection of Andrew Wiggins at number one overall coupled with the five-year contract extension for Kyrie Irving make it legitimately possible that the Cavs could lure LeBron James back to Cleveland. But shining even brighter than these two beacons of sports championship hope is the light of what is yet to come for the Cleveland Indians.
With notable names like Johnny Manziel and Andrew Wiggins being drafted by other Cleveland sports franchises, the Tribe’s successful draft went largely unnoticed by the 216 sports faithful. In fact, with four solid picks in the first two rounds, it could be argued that the Indians had the best draft of any Cleveland team this summer. Their number one pick (OF Bradley Zimmer) was ranked as high as the number 6 college prospect in the nation by some experts, and was a preseason all-american while being named to the Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list. Number two pick (LHP Justus Sheffield) was the first player from Tennessee to take home Gatorade’s National Player of the Year Award for high school players; an award that Indians’ first round pick Clint Frazier won last year. Some other pitchers who have taken home this award include Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Rick Porcello. Number three pick (OF/1B Mike Papi) finally signed with the Tribe officially on Thursday after helping to lead his team, the UVa Cavaliers, to the College World Series finals against Vanderbilt. He comes to the Tribe one year after Kyle Crockett was drafted from the same school. Finally, number four pick (RHP Grant Hockin) pitched 80 innings for his high school last year to the tune of a 1.49 ERA while racking up 99 strikeouts. He’s the grandson of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.
But beyond the draft are some other key factors in the future of the Cleveland Indians. One of them has been long awaited (since June of 2011 in fact), and could be on the horizon in 2015. I’m talking about top prospect Francisco Lindor, who currently boasts a .276/.355/.397 slash line with the club’s AA affiliate, the Akron Rubberducks. If the Indians promote him after the All-Star break, he’ll likely get a September call-up to the major leagues and show us that superhuman defense we’ve all come to expect from him. Even better, his slash line for the month of June was .293/.337/.439, meaning that he’s making constant adjustments and improvements. He’s currently coming back from a face injury that saw him take a tough hop on a ground ball right into the nose, so his start to July is slow but not alarming. Other prospects that could be seen at some point in 2014 include Roberto Perez, Tyler Holt, Giovanny Urshela and Carlos Moncrief, along with a potential re-emergence from Danny Salazar, Jose Ramirez or Jesus Aguilar.
Although the club’s AAA team doesn’t have much in the way of big, exciting names, a look deeper into the farm system reveals that most of the club’s star potential is at AA Akron with Lindor. RHP Cody Anderson showed a lot of potential last season, and made the Tribe’s top-10 prospects list before the start of the 2014 season. He’s scuffling a bit right now, but has plenty of time to turn things around this season. RHP Shawn Armstrong has emerged as an exciting relief pitcher this season, currently boasting a 1.89 ERA. Catcher Tony Wolters, 2B Joe Wendle, OF Tyler Naquin and SS Ronny Rodriguez are all considered to be top-10 Indians prospects according to Fangraphs, meaning that 6 members of that preseason list are currently in Akron. Every one of those six players have the potential to challenge for a roster spot in Cleveland within a year’s time if their development continues at a solid pace. Anthony Gallas has also emerged as an above-average hitter this year and is having somewhat of a breakout season, and currently boasts a .400/.393/.694 slash line at AA (yes, his OBP is lower than his batting average due to a few sacrifice flies). At Class A Advanced, the Carolina Mudcats have a few notable names, including LHP Ryan Merritt (1.65 ERA and .199 opp batting average over 98.1 IP) and OF LeVon Washington (.317 BA with a stunning .418 OBP through 38 games). The club’s low-A team, the Lake County Captains, currently rosters the club’s No. 2 prospect Clint Frazier, along with high-ceiling pitchers Dace Kime and Mitch Brown and middle-infielder Dorssys Paulino. The Indians’ Class-A Short Season affiliate is home to C Francisco Mejia and 2014 first-rounder OF Bradley Zimmer, both of whom have incredibly high ceilings. A farm system that seemed to lack depth as recently as two years ago is starting to look pretty solid, especially if you consider the haul the Tribe brought back in this year’s draft.
Further good news comes from the breakout seasons of some players on the major league ball club. Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber and Cody Allen have all had tremendous seasons so far, and bring value to the team in cost-controlled talent. The $11 million option on Michael Brantley’s contract for 2018 is looking like a bargain right now, not to mention the lower-cost years before that. If the Indians can extend Chisenhall, Kluber and Allen this offseason, along with maybe Trevor Bauer if he picks things up in the second half, they would set even longer-term framework for a perennial contending team. I’d also like to see a sign-and-promote kind of deal for Francisco Lindor, similar to the one given out to Jon Singleton by the Astros this year. But regardless of possible extensions, the Indians have the following players under team control through at least 2017 via arbitration, contract years or team options:
I should mention that Nick Swisher also has a team option for 2017, but it looks like it will almost certainly be declined. It would be hard to imagine the Indians paying Michael Bourn $12 million for his age 33 season as well, but he still hits reasonably well for a center fielder so it’s possible there will be some value left in that contract option.
The Indians will likely part with Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera at the end of the season (along with Scott Atchison and John Axford). Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles could be gone the year after that. But those are the biggest names the Indians will be losing control over in the next two offseasons. Meanwhile, a solid farm system may be sending some talented players up to the big leagues. This roster is only going to get stronger over the next three years, and even then the window of contention is not closed. Fans, don’t give up on this season, but look ahead to the future and realize just what you have to be excited about.