Cleveland Indians: Spring Training All About Failure

Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

Cesar Vargas pitched an inning for the San Diego Padres against the Cleveland Indians Thursday.  He faced eight batters and five reached base.  At least one of the outs he recorded was hit hard.  Vargas was a borderline contender for a spot in the San Diego bullpen, after seven years in the Yankee farm system.  It is hard to imagine that is still the case after today.  His struggles today got me thinking about failure. 

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I spent most of that morning in the Indians’ minor league camp.  There are 140 players there, and, even if you are disturbingly interested in baseball, you are probably familiar with a third of them.  The worst of those 140 players is better at baseball than most people are at anything, but hardly any of them will have major league careers of any significance.   Add in the 80 players in major league camp, and you have enough players to field about nine teams, but the Indians only have seven minor league affiliates.  So some of these guys won’t have any job at all by April, and most of the guys in minor league camp will never see the majors.

Think about that.  For every Jason Kipnis or Corey Kluber with a guaranteed eight-figure contract, there are a dozen guys who will toil for years and never even see Columbus, let alone Cleveland.  Aside from guys like Clint Frazier (who talked about how he was at the batting cage all winter and looks locked in at the plate), you could watch these guys all day and not know who will be in the majors in four years and who will be working at Wal-Mart, because the talent difference is minuscule.  Who makes it depends more on work ethic, ability to cope with pressure, and luck.

The pressure has to be enormous.  These guys, many of whom are still learning English, get shuffled around from field to field in the complex here at Goodyear, being watched constantly by guys in sunglasses and polo shirts, probably having no idea which of those guys will be deciding their future.  This being baseball, they spend 90 percent of their days standing around, maybe getting twenty swings in the batting cage or the chance to catch a dozen fly balls.  If they don’t make a good impression in that limited opportunity, they may be done.

Now, if you want to consider how random this process can be, take a look at the Indians’ top 20 prospects from 2011, according to Baseball Prospectus.  If things had gone according to plan, these guys would be the core of the team by now, but see how many names you even recognize.  Also, consider this list the next time your team refuses to include a prospect in a trade.  History shows that the odds are against even a true prospect like Frazier; for the rest of these guys, it’s almost sad to think about.

  • Jason Kipnis – well, they got that one right
  • Lonnie Chisenhall – still not an established major leaguer, but maybe the move to right field will be the tonic
  • Drew Pomeranz – adequate in middle relief for Oakland
  • Alex White – 33 major league appearances, the last in 2012
  • LeVon Washington – plagued by injuries, still in A ball
  • Nick Weglarz – traded to Atlanta in 2013, topped out at AA after that
  • Joe Gardner – another part of the Ubaldo trade, never got past AA
  • Jason Knapp – arm was never right after surgery
  • Tony Wolters – waived in the past offseason, now fighting for a job with Colorado
  • Cord Phelps – played all of 2015 in AAA for Phillies, has 116 major league at bats
  • Kyle Blair – one game with Akron in 2013, otherwise never got past A ball
  • Bryce Stowell – released by Rays, never pitched in majors
  • Alex Lavisky – should be with Columbus this year
  • Nick Hagadone – you know all about this
  • Austin Adams – long shot to make the bullpen this year, will probably get to Cleveland at some point
  • Zach Putnam – has pitched well for two years in middle relief for White Sox
  • Jess Todd – has spent the past five years as a reliever in AAA, Red Sox converted him to a starter last year. Now 29 years old
  • Jordan Henry – released from Akron in 2012
  • Tyler Holt – in camp with Reds
  • T.J. House – won five games in 2014

At the time, this was considered one of the deepest systems in the game, so deep that the Indians felt they could afford to trade three guys from this list to get Ubaldo Jimenez months after this list was created.  But maybe five guys from this list will play in the majors in 2016.  That is how high the rate of failure is for prospects.

Next: Urshela's Strong Start Creates Questions

As an aside, two guys who were in the farm system in 2011 but never made this list:  Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar. Sometimes you just never know who will and who won’t fail…