Huff's Disappointment Should Be Indians Gain
When spring training opened this year, a lot of the attention was on who would end up winning the fifth starter spot in the Indians rotation. Along with Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson, and Scott Lewis, one of the candidates for that rotation spot was left-hander David Huff.
Lewis eventually won the job, while Huff was shuttled off to minor league camp. From a talent perspective, Huff may be the best pitcher of the group, and as far as impact potential goes he may lead the pack there as well. Ultimately, what hurt Huff was the fact that he was not on the 40-man roster (Laffey, Sowers, Lewis and Jackson all were). He was never in serious consideration to win the job out of camp, though by the end of the season I think some will be questioning the Indians why he wasn't taken a little more seriously.
It was never really a fair fight for Huff to begin with, and it did not help that he came down with some tendonitis which kept him from really getting much work while he was in big league camp.
"I had a little bit of tendonitis that I was battling through, but it wasn't anything serious and I just had to deal with it," said Huff. "Yesterday (Monday) was actually the first day I threw with no problems. I feel great, confident and good, and am ready to go."
Huff is very disappointed that he did not make the rotation, and not in a sulking woe-is-me way. No, he is the type that uses disappointment to his advantage and as a challenge to work even harder. He did it last year when he reestablished himself as a top pitcher in the organization after elbow issues in 2007, and he likely will do the same again this year when he goes to Triple-A Columbus and uses every start as an audition for the Cleveland thinktank to ponder on when to bring him up.
Indians GM Mark Shapiro always says you need at least 7-8 starting pitchers over the course of a season, and it is very unlikely the Indians starting rotation to start the season will be the same when the season ends in early October. With that in mind, the Indians will have two veterans in Sowers and Laffey on call at Triple-A Columbus, but Huff will be there battling each time he goes out in the hopes he can win the Indians over so he can get that shot, sort of like Scott Lewis was able to do. No matter what though, Huff will be ready for the opportunity when it comes.
Abraham Catches On
For Adam Abraham, spring training has just been a continuation of the long days of work he has had since he was drafted by the Indians in the 13th round of the 2008 Draft out of the University of Michigan. Upon being drafted and signed, he was sent out to the Gulf Coast League where he endured many long mornings and afternoons of instruction, drills and games at the old Winter Haven complex for the Indians. He also followed that up with attending the Indians month long Instructional League out at the Goodyear Complex last September through October.
Over the course of these long days, the Indians decided to make a position change for Abraham where they moved him from the position he was drafted at (third base) and converted him to a catcher. Abraham started work in the new catching role in Instructional League, and while it has been an ongoing adjustment process for him, he feels like he is getting better at it every day.
"It is going really well," said Abraham on Tuesday. "I worked hard in the offseason to make sure I came into camp so I was comfortable with everything. I know there will be some difficulties along the way just getting used to the position, but I think for the most part it has gone really well. I feel comfortable back there now, so that is important."
The move to catcher is an interesting one to say the least as Abraham had never caught prior to making the move, but apparently the Indians like his athleticism behind the plate and his strong arm (touched 92-93 MPH as a pitcher).
"I think it was a little bit of the arm, and it was also that they had some guys at third and first base," said Abraham. "I think it was just a decision for them where they weren't too thick at catching, so they made the move."
The plan at the moment is to use him primarily as a catcher, though he may figure into a game or two here and there at first and third base when needed. The hardest thing for him to grasp at this stage of the catching game has been getting used to blocking balls. He has a good handle at getting down and blocking the curveballs, but he is still learning to get down on the fastball. This is just one of the many nuances of the position he looks to improve over the course of the upcoming 2009 season.
"I just want to survive the first full season and be consistent throughout the whole season," said Abraham. "Hopefully I can be at catcher the whole season and really make the strides at the end where I can be a guy for them at the position."
Spring Changes Little: After talking to a lot of players over the course of the past five days, the common theme seems to be that they feel if they have a good camp that it will help with where they are assigned for the season. They also expressed surprise at some of the players released who they thought were having good camps. The reality is, though, that very little of what these guys do in camp will change their fortunes very much, if at all. Where they are going has already for the most part been decided long before camp started, and save for 1-2 roster spots at each level, the Indians know who is going where (and likely who is being released) for the most part as soon as camp starts. A quote from Farm Director Ross Atkins in an article I wrote over a year ago explains: We have a very good idea before spring training starts where guys will be heading. The offseason can change that, and certainly games or strides they make in the offseason can change that. But spring training typically does not change that, other than injury. So performance in spring training does not change those things as far as prospects are concerned.
Rosters Coming Soon: The minor league equipment trucks leave Goodyear on Thursday late morning, and they make their three day journey to Columbus, Akron and Eastlake. One of the trucks has an even longer journey as it makes the even longer trip to Kinston, NC. Unlike in year's past where the equipment truck would pretty much leave the same day the players leave, because the Indians are out West and the driving time has doubled, the truck now has to leave two days before camp breaks. What this means, is come Thursday the players will know what affiliate they have been assigned to for the start of the season. Hopefully at some point before the end of camp I will have some official rosters for Columbus, Akron, Kinston and Lake County to share. Stay tuned.
Single-A Rotations: The rosters have not been officially released, but it looks like the rotation will be as follows for Kinston to start the season: Eric Berger, Zach Putnam, Ryan Morris, Kelvin De La Cruz and one of Carlton Smith or Jeanmar Gomez returns to Kinston. The rotation at Lake County to start the season will be: TJ McFarland, Alexander Perez, Joey Mahalic, Ryan Miller, and TJ House. There always can be a last minute change, but from what I am hearing this is what the rotations will be at each of the Indians' Single-A levels to start out.
Upset Pitchers: As mentioned, rosters should be known sometime late morning on Thursday. Already, though, many players have a very good idea of where they are going. Just like last year, the Indians infatuation with retread veteran minor league pitchers is going to once again push many of the pitchers in the system down a level in sort of a domino effect. Right-handers Randy Newsom and Frank Herrmann along with left-hander Ryan Edell are expected to return to Double-A Akron. Left-hander Matt Meyer is returning to advanced Single-A Kinston for a third straight year, and one the right-handed starters Carlton Smith or Jeanmar Gomez may end up back in Kinston. Right-hander Joey Mahalic and left-hander Ryan Miller will return to the Single-A Lake County rotation. And there may be even more pitchers than those listed who end up returning this season to where they spent most of their 2008 season. Bottom line though, no matter how disappointed these guys are with their assignment to start the season, they need to go back with a positive attitude and do what is expected, and if they do so they should move up quickly. It happened to the likes of right-handers Erik Stiller and Jeff Stevens last year, and will happen to others again this year.
Stowell Sidelined: Right-hander Bryce Stowell has been sidelined the last few weeks with bicep tendonitis and has been limited in his pitching. He will open the season in extended spring training and continue rehabbing the injury, and he will be re-evaluated at the end of April. If he checks out, he could join either Kinston or Lake County and will slide right into the rotation. More on him in a future notebook as I had the chance to sit down and talk about the injury as well as others things.
Gimenez To Split at First And Catcher: Catcher Chris Gimenez is back in minor league camp after enjoying what was really a great spring for him in big league camp. His play opened some eyes, particularly those of manager Eric Wedge, and he now is considered a viable option by the Indians to fill a role with the club at some point this season when a need arises. To keep him sharp, Gimenez will catch four days a week and on the other days play first base. He is not scheduled to play any third base or outfield in Columbus, but he could get in there from time to time when needed. The interesting thing is how the Indians plan to have him split at catcher and first base only in Columbus, which makes it look like they are considering him as a backup plan if Travis Hafner scuffles or Ryan Garko struggles.
Another First For McBride: Matt McBride has had an interesting offseason. He was converted from a catcher to the outfield, and did well in the transition to where he put up a good showing in Instructional League and out in the Hawaii Winter League. But, shortly after coming to spring training, the Indians dropped another bombshell on him and moved him to first base. McBride is currently working out as a first baseman, and this is the position he will primarily play when the season opens. He may get in from time to time if need be at catcher or in the outfield, but the Indians are pretty committed to developing him as a first baseman now. He will open the season as the regular first baseman for advanced Single-A Kinston. More on him later in the week as I had a chance to sit down and talk to him about the change.
Baby Steps For Lofgren: Now that is more like it. Left-hander Chuck Lofgren put forth his best outing of the spring and maybe in a year yesterday when he went five innings allowing one run on six hits. What made the outing so impressive was the fact he had zero walks as compared to seven strikeouts, and he also threw first pitch strikes to 12 of the 20 batters he faced. If Lofgren can re-find the command he was lacking last year, he very well could rebound and get his career back on track this season.
Going Backwards: Left-hander Ryan Miller's command issues from last season look to have carried over into this season. His command issues are what prevented him from being called up to advanced Single-A Kinston last year, and those same command issues are what will likely keep him in Single-A Lake County to start the season this year. In yesterday's spring game, Miller needed 66 pitches just to get through three innings, and he allowed two runs on three hits. He also walked three and struck out four batters, but the number that pops out the most if he threw first pitch strikes to just five of 16 batters. That means for 11 of the 16 batters he faced, he was quickly behind 1-0 to them, which is not where you want to be as a pitcher.
Sweet Abreu: Watching outfielder Abner Abreu take batting practice borders on comical in how effortless he crushes balls, and then watching other players in his group step in and swing with all their mite and the ball does not go nearly as far or get hit as hard. The ball just sounds different off Abreu's bat, and he shows an innate ability to square up the baseball well. He is going to be in right-field for Lake County this year, and while he will probably have his fair share of strikeouts, he is going to be the star of the lineup there and fun to watch every time he steps up to the plate.
Pontius On Hold: Right-handed reliever Mike Pontius is almost but certain to open the season in extended spring training as he is still working his way back from a minor injury. He could be assigned to Kinston or Lake County rather quickly though, as he is not expected to hang around in Arizona for much time.
Rivero Is Just Fine: I mentioned last week that shortstop Carlos Rivero suffered a knee injury during one of the spring games. I got a few e-mails asking to clarify his status, and I may or may not have followed up on it, but he is fine as it was just a minor injury. He sat out a day or two, but has been back in the lineup the past few days and is 100%. He played the entire game at shortstop on Tuesday, going 0-for-3 at the plate.
The Next Crowe: I keep saying it, but second baseman Cord Phelps may very well be the Indians infield version of outfielder Trevor Crowe. Phelps does it all, as he plays solid defense, hits, is patient at the plate, runs well, and so on. His defense may be under-rated though, as he made several fine plays in the game on Tuesday, one of which was a Robbie Alomar-esque dive onto the outfield grass in the hole between second and first and he came up with the ball and then quickly fired it to first for the out.
Remembering The 2008 Draft: Watching Kinston yesterday, I keep saying to myself how unbelievable the 2008 Draft is looking at this point. The first three hitters Tim Fedroff, Cord Phelps, and Lonnie Chisenhall all have impact potential. While he battled with a touch of wildness, Eric Berger was electric on the mound. Zach Putnam was impressive in his start the other day, and while sidelined with an injury Bryce Stowell was having a good camp and likely Kinston bound. Then over with Lake County, TJ House has been sensational in camp. And a whole slew of relievers like Marty Popham, Dave Roberts, Eddie Burns, Brian Grening, Mike McGuire, and Steve Smith look promising. We can only hope the 2009 Draft is half as good!
Lara Returns: The Indians brought back an old familiar face on Tuesday as left-handed pitcher Juan Lara was signed to a minor league contract. I was in the back of the complex by the minor league player picnic area talking to a few players when I caught a glimpse of Lara. I did several double-takes to see if in fact it was him as I was not aware of the signing at the time. In any case, he will open in extended spring training and will be on a return to throw program. There is no ETA on when he may be activated and go to Triple-A Columbus. For those who do not remember, Lara was removed from the 40-man roster and did not pitch for the Indians last year due to injuries sustained in a tragic car accident in the Dominican Republic in November 2007.
Kinston Game Notes: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall crushed a deep home run to right-center yesterday. Chisenhall is the very definition of a gamer, and just flat out looks like a baseball player out there. ... Right-hander Michael Finocchi flat out mowed down the opposition in his inning of relief work. The gun may say otherwise, but hitters were having trouble catching up to his fastball or may have had a hard time picking it up. He had two strikeouts. ... Left-hander Eric Berger had a good outing. He labored in the second inning, but cruised through his other innings of work.Today: Wednesday is a camp day, so I will be following all four groups. Due to the length of the notebook today, I will not include any pictures or video, but I will have lots to share in the following day's notebook.