Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
After years of dominating the AL Central, Cleveland slipped to third in 2002 before falling to fourth place in 2003, only finishing ahead of the lowly Tigers and rising Devil Rays in the American League. Yet the good news is that they win just 6 fewer games this season despite losing Jim Thome and not possessing Bartolo Colon or Chuck Finley for any part of the year. I don't know if Eric Wedge's temperament is appropriate for a contending team, but reports generally indicate the youngsters respond to his aggressive enthusiasm. Mark Shapiro runs one of the most modern front offices in baseball, and their thoroughness in evaluating players gives them another edge on the competition.
Cleveland's rebuilding began at the bottom as the team used extra draft picks over the last few years to inject the system with dozens of potential big league contributors. The system remains the deepest in the game as several pitching prospects look like future starters, and even the lesser arms should develop into workhorse relievers. While Victor Martinez and recent imports Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Brandon Phillips, Casey Blake, Jody Gerut, Ryan Ludwick, and Coco Crisp all look like solid big leaguers after spending most of 2003 in Cleveland, more prospects like Grady Sizemore and Michael Aubrey. With so much depth, Shapiro will be able to deal pitching-for-hitting and vice-versa depending on his needs in a given year.
Looking towards 2004, Cleveland looks poised to approach a .500 record as every other AL Central squad should lose a few solid players to free agency. Meanwhile, Cleveland will keep Martinez and Josh Bard at catcher, Broussard and Hafner at first, Omar Vizquel and Blake on the left side of the infield, and some combination of Milton Bradley, Matt Lawton, Gerut, Ludwick, Crisp, and Alex Escobar in the outfield. The only real question is whether or not Brandon Phillips will rebound from a disastrous year to win the second base job.
Cleveland's pitching staff should experience a more dramatic winter. C.C. Sabathia, Jason Davis, and Cliff Lee will anchor the front of the rotation while Jake Westbrook, Jason Stanford, Chad Durbin, and a veteran free agent like Brain Anderson should complete the starters. David Riske is the only certainty in the bullpen as the contracts of Bob Wickman, who missed all of 2003, and former closer Danys Baez might necessitate dealing the latter pitcher. Rafael Betancourt and Jack Cressend are the only other relievers with relatively safe jobs heading into Spring Training.
The main goal of Shapiro's staff this off-season should be finding someone to take Matt Lawton's contract, even if they have to include Milton Bradley in the deal. They could even add Danys Baez to secure a top prospect in return. Bradley belonged on the All-Star team, however his health problems and repeated question about his attitude make him expendable on a team that doesn't require his services. Despite Cleveland's need for a .900+ OPS in the middle of the order, Gerut, Ludwick, and Hafner appear ready to replace the production of Bradley and Ellis Burks. The best option likely involves packaging Bradley and Lawton to a team with open outfield slots, decent prospect depth, and cash to burn. Los Angeles looks slightly preferable to the Mets as the Dodgers could send Guillermo Mota and a young starter in exchange for new corner outfielders. If the Mets include someone like Aaron Heilman or Jae Seo, they also should work fine.
With Bradley and the albatross contract of Lawton off the books, Cleveland can focus on developing a lineup of Crisp in center, Vizquel at short, Martinez behind the plate, Hafner at 1B, Ludwick in LF, Gerut in RF, and Blake at 3B. Broussard and Escobar should share DH until Sizemore earns an outfield spot while Phillips or John McDonald can bat ninth at second base, giving the team a roster full of young hitters and impressive fielders to help the young pitchers. Once Shapiro begins securing the young veterans to the same long-term deals that John Hart pioneered a decade ago in Cleveland, we should see the Indians quickly return to contention by the middle of the decade.
Jeremy Guthrie, 24, RH Starter
Cleveland selected him with the 22nd overall pick of the 2001 draft, and as a four-year, $4M major league deal kept him from returning to Stanford, he should reach Cleveland sometime in 2004, then give the Indians a couple of negotiation-free seasons prior to arbitration. While his 6.52 ERA, 12.0 hit rate, and 1.4 homer rate at Buffalo all concern me, Guthrie's overall performance this year, coupled with his admirable tools, suggests he could emerge as a quality fantasy pitcher as soon as next spring. Guthrie's 2.5 walk rate during his debut 2003 season is the indicator that best suggests his immediate promise, so although his lack of AAA dominance could keep him from breaking camp with the Indians, I expect him to earn a rotation spot no later than the second half of 2004.
I suspect Cabrera will spend at least a few seasons in some team's rotation, however the Indians' starting depth led Cleveland to begin converting Cabrera to the bullpen in 2003. While his 3.3 walk rate isn't wonderful, a 9.5 strikeout rate, compiled in the Eastern League by a 21-year-old, certainly ranks as an impressive accomplishment. Expect Cabrera to split next season between AAA Buffalo and Cleveland as he continues developing into a dominant reliever.
While Caraccioli doesn't possess the upside of many Indians' pitching prospects, his skill history suggests he still should develop into an effective big league pitcher. He probably will end up seeing the most success in relief, so don't bother drafting him any time soon, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't spend a few seasons in someone's bullpen.
Despite decent numbers and props from Peter Gammons, Church isn't likely to see much time with the Indians due to Cleveland's impressive cadre of young outfielders. His power dropped somewhat abruptly upon his promotion to AA, a worrisome sign considering he was old for the Eastern League at 24. Now he isn't even guaranteed a promotion to AAA depending on how the Indians' outfield shakes out, making him a risky short-term invention even if he eventually should find at least a platoon role.
After pitching rather effectively over the last two seasons in the Mexican League, Cortes merits a longer look than three short innings in the majors. He should open next season on a AAA roster somewhere, and as he once ranked as a top relief prospect, I expect he can reemerge as a decent bullpen arm for a few years. Of course, you definitely shouldn't consider him for your team until an MLB franchise commits a roster spot to him for a couple of weeks.
Solid plate discipline and developing power suggest Crozier could emerge in a couple years as a respectable platoon player at first base. Unfortunately, the presence of Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard, and a half dozen potentially excellent outfielders above Crozier in the Indians' system likely will force him out of the organization within a few years, so he merits no fantasy consideration now.
Cruceta's stunning season propels him from the lower levels of the Indians' starting depth to the cusp of a big league job. Cleveland stole Cruceta with Ricardo Rodriguez and Terry Mulholland from Los Angeles for Paul Shuey at the 2002 trade deadline. Despite three increasingly impressive seasons for the Dodgers' Dominican Summer League team, the Indians acquired Cruceta after only 20 starts in the Sally League, and he posted a poor 37:25 K:BB in 40 innings with A+ Kinston(Car) after joining Cleveland. His rather unexpected effectiveness this season suddenly makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the system. Unfortunately, neither a 7.4 K/9 nor a 3.6 BB/9 are particularly impressive marks, so while I like his upside and he could contribute later in 2004, Cruceta doesn't belong on the minor league draft lists of many owners.
While his age keeps him from ranking with other top Indians' prospects, Denney's combination of dominance and command makes him more likely to contribute to Cleveland in the near future than many other pitchers in the system. The team's willingness to employ older journeymen may work against him by limiting his opportunities, but Denney is on the cusp of the majors and even could approach double-digit roto value next year with a little luck. Although I don't view him as a good draft choice, feel free to roster him as soon as he appears on free agent lists if he echoes his AA numbers over a couple months at Buffalo
As big league batters tattooed Elder for a 1.646 OPS this season prior to season-ending shoulder surgery in June, we can safely state that his stats in the majors this season don't appear to reflect his overall skill. Assuming he recovers by next spring, Elder merits attention as one of the better AAAA relievers available. He isn't a fantasy option right now due to his injury, but I expect him to emerge again as reasonable roster filler once regains his health and begins pitching effectively in the majors.
His lack of dominance should keep him buried behind the two-dozen more promising pitching prospects in the system. Yet I want to see how Evans performs over a few months at AAA since his consistently good control suggests he could succeed as rotation filler. Evans isn't a fantasy option right now, but you also shouldn't ignore him completely.
Four Luis Gonzalezs played professional baseball for a team affiliated with MLB this year, but as the Indians' utilityman lacks a middle name, he'll cause some confusion with Arizona's star outfielder if this Gonzalez reaches the majors before the Diamondback retires. Perhaps we should just nickname this guy "Homonym" considering he sounds the same despite looking different. Regardless of any etymological confusion, this Gonzalez also qualifies as a respectable prospect due to his sudden development of superb plate discipline. Considering he played a half-dozen or more games at every position except catcher, Gonzalez possesses decent upside even if he lacks obvious speed or power gifts. While you certainly shouldn't draft him now, his future position-eligibility potential makes him an intriguing player to watch develop.
While Herrera struggled with his control last year at AA Akron, his awful skills this year led to the Indians to outright his contract at the end of the season, and Colorado claimed him on waivers. Given his 7.2 walk rate for Buffalo, I don't view this as a terrible loss. Herrera may emerge as a decent lefty in a couple years, however his current skills suggest he needs a few more seasons of development time before earning a regular job.
Consistently decent speed skills combine with good defense and developing plate discipline to make Izturis a decent roto sleeper. The problem here is that Cleveland clearly has designated Brandon Phillips and Johnny Peralta as their future middle infield, so Izturis easily could find himself moving through a different organization in the near future. Yet his offensive profile will interest any owner looking for a middle infielder capable of stealing 20 bases, making Izturis an acceptable low-round minor league pick, particularly if off-season moves clear his path to the majors. He should debut in mid-2004.
Leaving LaRocca in Buffalo for another season was a terrible idea, especially when Cleveland desperately needed a solid reserve infielder. While LaRocca neither excels at the plate or in the field, his promising plate discipline and decent power production make him a far better option than Bill Selby or Zach Sorensen, both of whom spent several weeks in the majors this year. I see no reason why LaRocca couldn't reach double-digit value if given a regular starting job, although if he couldn't win a bench job in 2003, he probably stands little chance of winning the second base job in 2004. Unless he finds an organization that appreciates his talents, LaRocca looks like roster filler at best.
After three surprisingly dominant seasons since his selection in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, Larson's dominance disappeared in his first full year above A-ball. His command suggests the possibility of an extended career in the upper minors, but I have growing doubts regarding his ability to succeed at the big league level, although he'll need to echo these numbers before I severely downgrade his long-term upside.
Limited power potential and 35 errors suggest Luna easily could peak as a reserve infielder despite decent plate discipline and good speed. He certainly doesn't merit fantasy consideration right now given the presence of Omar Vizquel, Brandon Phillips, Johnny Peralta, and Maicer Izturis ahead of Luna in the Indians' system.
Santos' production slipped precipitously this year after a successive AAA season in 2002. Even a shifting from Boston to Cleveland only led to further degradation of his declining plate discipline. Although Santos should emerge as a fantasy contributor off the bench at some point, he appears to need another couple years of AAAA seasoning before you should consider rostering him.
While Sizemore's upside remains impressively high, he faces stiff competition to win a starting job. Even if Cleveland deals Milton Bradley, the presence of Jody Gerut, Ryan Ludwick, Coco Crisp, Alex Escobar, Ben Broussard, and Travis Hafner gives the Indians as much quality young OF/1B/DH depth as any team in the game. As Sizemore didn't display great power or even acceptable speed in this AA debut, not to mention suffering nearly a 50% decline in his walk rate, even a slight bump in his contact rate doesn't alleviate my worries regarding his immediate future. Although he could secure his spot with the franchise by scalding AAA pitching before winning a starting job late in 2004, I see enough speed bumps in Sizemore's immediate future to recommend caution when considering him for your team.
Despite his pedigree as the 26th player selected in the 2000 draft, I don't know how Smith fits into the Indians' plans. He committed 45 errors in 122 games at third this year, yet he kept his walk rate above .10 and bumped his contact rate from .72 to .79 even while moving from A-ball to his debut in the upper minors. He also at least maintained a decent slugging percentage, retaining his status as a solid prospect. I don't advise selecting him next spring given his uncertain future, but he still qualifies as a better pick than the vast majority of players who failed to reach AA this season.
Ignoring Tadano's off-field activities in Japan that led to his signing with Cleveland, his utter dominance of the Carolina and Eastern Leagues ranks him as one of the best relief prospects in the game. He could earn a middle relief job as soon as next spring, however I see no reason not to wait until he establishes himself in the rather fluid Indians' bullpen before targeting him in fantasy leagues.
Tallet not only failed to excel this season, but his decline in effectiveness preceded arm troubles, and he required Tommy John surgery in late August. Now Tallet will miss at least half of 2004, and his likelihood of winning a job in the Cleveland rotation any time soon looks rather bleak. Expect him to break out with another organization in a couple of years, so don't bother rostering him in the spring since we have no idea if he'll contribute at all next year.
Texas dealt Van Dusen to Cleveland last spring in exchange for the right to keep Rule 5 pick Marshall MacDougal in the minors, but he flopped fairly badly upon his first extended exposure to AA. An abysmal 11.8 hit rate and worrisome 1.5 K:BB severely limit his immediate upside, especially in an organization with as much pitching depth as the Indians. Of course, while Van Dusen could shift to the bullpen in an attempt to expedite his move to the majors, his impressive skill ratios in 2001 and 2002 lead me to hope he spends at least one more year in a AA rotation. He certainly doesn't merit fantasy consideration right now, however one poor AA season shouldn't ruin his prospect status.
As consistently dominant performance obscure his control problems, Vargas certainly could remain successful as a higher level. Of course, like almost all relief prospects, he isn't a viable fantasy pick since he hasn't even mastered AA. Wait until he posts several decent outings in the majors before looking to add him as a free agent.
White didn't demonstrate enough upside to warrant a Rule 5 selection in the first place, so his struggles during his brief big league appearances weren't a surprise. A strained oblique forced an extended rehab in the Boston system, and then White wound up a victim of Boston's spring reliever cycling rather than receiving a long look with the Red Sox. He pitched no better in Seattle before winding up back with Cleveland, where he pitched quite solidly over the last two months of the year, posting a 2.13 ERA on a 34:16 K:BB in 42.1 IP at Buffalo. Assuming Cleveland keeps him on their roster this winter, a spot White deserves after pitching in no more than 3 games for five different franchise in 2003 prior to returning to the Indians, he merits a chance to win a bullpen spot in the spring. Of course, he isn't likely to emerge as a decent roto option in the near future, but his skills suggest some long-term upside.
Fausto Carmona, 19, RH Starter
I don't recommend drafting Carmona in almost any league. He likely needs at least two more years of development time, faces severe competition within the Cleveland system, and lacks the overall dominance I usually demand to see before considering teenage pitchers. However few pitchers post a .8 BB/9 at any level, and both Carmona's 17-4 record and 2.06 ERA place him among top few minor leaguers in both stats. Given his age, his nearly unbelievable control during his first full season makes him one of the safest A-ball prospects to draft in the game.
Although Taveras needed two years at A Columbus(SAL) to learn plate discipline, his success this year in the Carolina League elevates him among the more intriguing basestealers in the minors for roto owners. His 83% SB success rate and .13 walk rate suggest Taveras could develop into a top leadoff man as long as he at least maintains his current .83 contact rate as he marches through the system. The biggest problem for Taveras is he plays for an organization with a couple equally-promising leadoff men already in the majors, so unless your rules allows you to keep prospects that switch leagues, exercise extreme caution when considering Taveras.
While the Indians possess as much depth of quality starting pitching prospects as almost any organization in the game, they simply graduated too much talent to the majors this year to remain a particularly good place to seek prospects for fantasy baseball. Jody Gerut, Victor Martinez, Brandon Phillips, Ben Broussard, Coco Crisp, Alex Escobar, Johnny Peralta, Josh Bard, Cliff Lee, Jason Davis, Ricardo Rodgriguez, Carl Sadler, Jason Stanford, and Billy Traber all lost their rookie eligibility in 2003. Of course, those fourteen prospects comprise one of the best rookie classes in many years, however aside from Sizemore and Guthrie, I just don't see anyone that merits much consideration in minor league drafts next spring.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Chicago White Sox(J.Reed, Rauch, Miles, Gload, Borchard)
1. Grady Sizemore, OF
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