Cleveland Indians: There’s a Cost in Holding Back Prospects

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Holding players back to help their development has become the norm, but is it the right path to take? The Cleveland Indians may need to decide that soon.


Listen to or watch enough baseball games, and you will inevitably hear some old fart say that players today are rushed to the majors before they have a chance to develop their skills. They will follow that up by saying that it wasn’t that way when they were playing. To be honest, that opinion never seemed to mesh with my recollection of the past.  I will grant that I spend a significant amount of each day looking for my reading glasses, so I was willing to concede that my recollections may be flawed.

However, in thinking about the next wave of young guys that the Indians are waiting on, this becomes relevant. It sure would be great if Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier could be in Cleveland and contributing before Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley are too old to be useful, but, given the current development strategy of this front office it will be at least midseason 2017 before we see Zimmer and another year or two after that for Frazier. We are told that it just has to be this way, that players need a full year at every level of minor league ball in order to be fully ready for the majors. Then, even when they get to the majors, we talk about how they were rushed.

Just to see if my memory was correct I went back and looked at four Indians prospects from different eras. Here are the facts:  Albert Belle and Cory Snyder, two first round picks from the 80s out of college, were in the majors before they played as many minor league games as Zimmer will have played by the end of this season. Rick Manning and Buddy Bell, two first round picks from the 70s, were in the majors after playing about as many minor league games as Frazier will have played by the end of this season. Bell, in fact, was blocked at his natural position of third base as a rookie by Craig Nettles and spent his rookie season in center field despite playing only two games there in the minors. Imagine doing that with Francisco Lindor! It didn’t work all that well: Bell approached the center field wall like a tackling dummy and injured himself several times; Nettles was traded in the next offseason and Bell quickly became a Gold Glove third baseman, although he was playing for Rangers by the time that happened. Sigh.

How about this one: Ray Fosse was drafted in the first round out of high school, went straight to Double-A (as a 17-year-old catcher!), struggled there, went back to A ball, was still in the majors to stay at 21 and was pancaked in the All-Star game before he was as old as Zimmer will be at the start of next season.

Now you can twist facts to make any point you want, and I certainly have used a small sample to make a big point here. You can also argue that Snyder might have learned to lay off breaking balls with another year in the minors, or that Fosse might have been wise enough to get out of Pete Rose’s way with more seasoning. The truth is that this is a small sample size because the Indians sucked so badly at player development in those days that these are the only guys I could think of who were drafted by the Indians and actually had significant careers in Cleveland. 

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They sucked because they didn’t spend money on scouting, though, not because they rushed players to the majors before they were ready.  Bell and Belle had good enough careers to be on the fringe of Hall of Fame conversations, and Manning won a Gold Glove at age 21 in a twelve-year career.  Full disclosure:  at the time I fully expected Manning to win multiple batting championships, so either he didn’t fulfill his potential or I was an idiot. Even Snyder hit 33 home runs at the age of 24 before deciding that every curve ball in the dirt looked good.

Is there a point here?  Well, if nothing else, the next time somebody says old-time players were never rushed to the majors you can shake your head dismissively.  Am I trying to say that Zimmer could start next year in the majors?  No, but I would say that a guy with three years of college should be able to start at High A or even Double-A; if Zimmer had taken that path he would be in Columbus by now, and starting next year in Cleveland would not be unrealistic.  This is just an unsubstantiated opinion, but I would say that there are more competent college pitchers today than there were when Belle and Snyder played; Zimmer probably saw more good curve balls by the time he was drafted than they did.

I understand that free agency has changed the dynamic – Zimmer will likely only be in Cleveland for six years, so it makes sense not to waste one of those years on development.  But something that has been lost is this:  the goal is not to maximize the return on the investment the team has made in Zimmer.  The goal is to win championships. Zimmer is a better player right now than Tyler Holt will ever be.  Probably better than Abraham Almonte will ever be.  The Indians have a better shot at making the playoffs next year with Zimmer starting the season in center field than either of those guys.  Even if he struggles at the start, by the end of the season he would be better than they could hope to be. The reality is that you need a core of six or seven guys playing at something close to their peak to win a title. It seems logical to me that waiting until the perfect moment in the development curve for every one of those guys makes it much less likely that they will all be here at the same time.

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Let’s look at it from the financial point of view. I will concede the point that a guy like Zimmer, assuming he fulfills his potential, will inevitably become expensive enough that the Indians will be unable to hang onto him. However, the fact that Zimmer will be held back in the minors means that the Indians will need to spend money on a journeyman veteran such as David Murphy, who got twelve million on a two-year deal. That is a cost every bit as much as whatever it would cost to accelerate Zimmer’s path to the majors. Given the recent track record of free agent signings around here, I would rather spend that money on keeping guys like Zimmer around a little longer.

Am I saying Zimmer should be the starting center fielder next year?  That ship has likely sailed because he has been moved so slowly through the minors thus far.  Let’s just keep an eye on where Brady Aiken begins the 2016 season and see if this trend repeats itself.

Next: The Cleveland Indians and Three True Outcome pitchers

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