To start off the list, one Indians minor leaguer has officially retired after missing almost all of 2018 with a torn ACL and meniscus. Mike Napoli was up for a coaching job with the Cubs, but decided instead to leave the game of baseball for a moment ending a 19 year run including 12 years in the Major Leagues.
The Indians had a fairly large list of free agents (including Napoli) this off-season, but only a few have signed contracts elsewhere. The first of those to sign was Kieran Lovegrove who went to the Giants on a minor league deal shortly after hitting free agency. A flame throwing right handed reliever, Lovegrove could be the player the Indians regret losing the most as they have little depth in the bullpen in the upper minors. He completely turned his career around after initially having a rough run as a starter and now looks like a legitimate MLB relief option.
Signing in Philadelphia were both back-up catcher Rob Brantly, who was signed mid-season in 2018, and reliever Josh Martin. Like Lovegrove, Martin has shown great progress in the last few seasons out of the bullpen and could be in the big leagues as soon as 2019.
Finally, 2016 ALCS hero Ryan Merritt has taken his boots to Tampa Bay. He was removed from the 40 man roster during the 2018 season, but cleared waivers and stayed with the Clippers through the end of the season. Since he no longer had 40 man protection, he was eligible to sign with any team and chose the Rays.
The rule 5 draft took place at the end of the winter meetings in December and the Indians took a pretty big hit. Most notably, Kyle Dowdy, who originally came to the team from Detroit in the deal that brought Leonys Martin and cost the Indians Willi Castro, was taken by the Mets in the Major League round. The positive here is that he didn’t hit AAA with the Indians and will need to stay in the majors with the Mets for the entirety of 2019 or be offered back. While he was a small part of the Castro deal, after losing almost all of Martin’s 2018 season due to a severe bacterial infection, it really hurts to also lose Dowdy. Castro is an incredibly talented middle infielder and now the Indians only recompense for losing him will be what Martin can produce in 2019.
The next biggest name lost was 24 year old right handed starting pitcher Matt Esparza. He had a rough time in 2018 dealing with an injury that cost him almost all of the season. He was taken in the AAA phase of the rule 5 draft by the Angels and, if healthy, he should be able to play adequately at that level. This loss is easier to withstand for the Indians than Dowdy due to their incredible depth in the upper minors at starting pitcher.
Also lost in the AAA phase were Hector Figueroa to Tampa and Anthony Miller to Oakland. Figueroa is a talented reliever with good velocity, but poor control. At 23, he was extremely old for a player in the AZL last year, however, and it will be a huge jump for him to go straight to AAA with the Rays. Miller was also 23 in 2018 when he had his first decent offensive season while repeating high A. He still has an extremely light bat for a first baseman and was a release candidate prior to his selection.
The Indians generally don’t deal from the short season and rookie levels, but they were the most active this off-season. There is no question that with two AZL teams and 1.5 DSL teams there were plenty of players to chose from and the general consensus is that this is where the greatest talent in the Indians farm system lies.
The first such deal this off-season saw the Indians move Dante Mendoza, Tahnaj Thomas and Erik Gonzalez to the Pirates for Max Moroff and Jordan Luplow. This cleared one 40 man roster spot for Pittsburgh as only Gonzalez would have to be protected among those players coming from Cleveland. The biggest gain for Cleveland was Luplow, who will compete to be a regular outfielder in 2019 while the biggest loss was Thomas. While he was still in the AZL in 2018, he is just 19 and was considered one of the Indians highest ceiling pitchers prior to the deal.
A few days later Gionti Turner headed to the Rays for Chih-Wei Hu. This was also 40 man roster move for the Rays and could end up being a steal for Cleveland if Hu performs well in 2019. Turner is a very exciting young player with great speed, but is many years away from the big leagues while Hu already has MLB experience.
Last among the AZL players dealt, Ignacio Feliz was sent to San Diego in late November for Walker Lockett, who himself was traded to the Mets along with Sam Haggerty for Kevin Plawecki the first week of January. The 18 year old Feliz had a breakout season for the AZL Indians in just his second year with the team. Buried far down in the list of top end Indians pitching prospects, moving him for a MLB ready reliever made sense. Trading that reliever along with another prospect for a back-up catcher didn’t make as much sense, but shouldn’t hurt the team much. While Haggerty was one of the Indians better infield prospects, he was likely to hit the majors about the same time as Nolan Jones, who is considered by some to be the Tribe’s best prospect at the moment, and would have had a difficult time finding playing time.
Still Free Agents
It shouldn’t be surprising that with the large amount of Major Leaguers who have yet to sign deals as free agents that quite a few of the Indians minor leaguers have yet to sign elsewhere. This leaves the opportunity for the Indians to sign them later (as they did with outfielder Brandon Barnes), so they potentially aren’t gone forever. This list includes pitchers Mitch Brown, Nick Pasquale, Preston Claiborne, Adam Wilk and Mitch Talbot as well as first baseman Nellie Rodriguez and utility men Drew Maggi, Todd Hankins, Joe Sever and Michael Martinez.
Many of these players were brought in to fill out the roster last spring and hung on throughout the season as potential injury replacements, but the Indians may actually be losing something of value in Mitch Brown. He is only 24 and had quite the turnaround when transitioning to reliever, posting a 1.99 ERA and 10.3 K/9 in Akron last year. If he is gone for good, he joins the ranks with Lovegrove and Martin as pitchers the Indians could very well regret losing by the end of 2019.
View the original article on Burning River Baseball: Tracking the Indians Minor Leaguers Lost this Off-Season