Having arrived out here in the desert on Sunday - and this time with no crazy incidents like the one that occurred on my way out here in March - I was able to take in the action on Monday in the Fall Instructional League.
The Indians had morning fielding practice and batting practice at the complex from 9:00am to 10:30am, had lunch, and then players not playing in the afternoon game or only participating in the strength and conditioning program went home. The remaining players stuck around to participate in the 12:30pm games with the Parallel League guys sticking around to play in Goodyear and the Instructional League guys hopping in an army of white shuttle vans to play in Peoria.
Here are some news and notes from my visit on Monday.
Bryson Showing Lots Of Progress
It has been a long year for right-hander Rob Bryson.
Of all the players in the Indians minor league system Bryson has probably spent the most time at the Indians new Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Arizona. His time began in January earlier this year when he reported to the facility to work on his rehab from offseason shoulder surgery, and it continued through spring training in March, extended spring training from April to July, the Arizona League from July to August, and now the Instructional League from September to October.
In August, Bryson almost thought he had earned a reprieve from his long stay in Arizona when he was set to be activated off his rehab assignment and sent to join up with High-A Kinston who was on the road in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Unfortunately, he had a minor setback and the plans to send him to Kinston were nixed.
"We played high school baseball playoff games and other big games there [in Wilmington]," said Bryson. "I live about five minutes from the stadium so I was looking forward to playing there this year, but just didn't make it. I was going to leave and [be there for a weekend series in August], and then my forearm started bothering me a little bit so they had to shut me down."
Bryson's recovery from offseason shoulder surgery went as planned as he returned to game action in late July. While he did not have a setback with the shoulder he instead ended up being temporarily shut down because of the forearm injury, and injury that came about because he was compensating for the shoulder.
Bryson, who is still only 21 years old, ended up pitching in just three "official" games in the Arizona League going 0-0 with a 12.00 ERA (3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 5 K). He was still sort of feeling his way through things during his time in the Arizona League games, but now feels like he is close to 100% on the mound.
"Now that Instructs are on the way and I am playing in the Parallel League, really for me the big thing is getting back on the mound and getting some innings and feeling good while I am doing it," said Bryson. "I got a couple of innings in the Arizona League, but I was kind of fresh off surgery and wasn't feeling too great. I wouldn't say I am feeling 100% now, but I am back to somewhat feeling normal so I am just trying to get back into the swing of things, get used to seeing batters, and then shut it down and be ready for spring training next year."
Bryson no longer has any soreness in the shoulder and feels really good. When healthy, Bryson's fastball sits between 92-94 MPH and has topped out as high as 96 MPH, but when he initially came back from his shoulder surgery he was only topping out at 88-89 MPH. His arm strength has been slowly improving as he is now back up to sitting in the low 90s and topping out at 93-94 MPH during Instructional League.
"This is the best I have felt since the surgery," said Bryson. "A little by little [my velocity] is coming back. When I first started throwing to batters I was only hitting in the upper 80s. I am pretty happy with where I am right now. I am starting to get my arm strength back, and right now it is just getting the feel of my slider and stuff like that. I think by next year by continuing my throwing program in the offseason my velocity will eventually be back to normal."
Bryson is officially off the rehab list, which means he has no structured throwing sessions or any restrictions on what kind of pitches he can throw, so he is able to throw his slider and changeup at will. However, in the back of any pitcher's mind coming off a serious injury to their shoulder or arm is that they could re-injure themselves. It is a lack of confidence early on in their rehab that results in them holding back some in order not to overexert themselves. As a result, sometimes pitchers take longer to get the velocity all the way back as they are timid to air it out.
"I think that has a little bit to do with it, just the fear of re-aggravating it and hurting it again," said Bryson. "So I think you are kind of holding back at first. As I start to trust my arm that it is feeling good, I am starting to put a little more into it. I am still not out there trying to throw the ball as hard as I can, so I am sure if I tried to reach back it is still there. But I am just trying to ease into it."
With Instructional League wrapping up here in a couple of days, Bryson will finally be able to pack up and head home to the East Coast for an extended period of time, reflect on his 2009 return to the mound, and get ready for spring training in 2010.
"The plan right now is I will pitch tomorrow (Tuesday) and in our last game on Friday," said Bryson. "Then I will shut it down until December when our throwing program starts back up to get ready for spring training. After this week I think that is it for this season. Just shut it down while it is feeling good and hopefully come out and compete in spring training."
Bellows Still Transitioning To Third
One of the more interesting picks the Indians made this year in the 2009 Draft was when they selected San Jose State shortstop Kyle Bellows with their 4th round pick. Unlike last year when the Indians drafted Lonnie Chisenhall in the 1st round of the 2008 Draft and let him remain at shortstop until transitioning him to third base in the offseason, the Indians immediately got to work on the move with Bellows after selecting and signing him.
"It has gone good," said Bellows. "Having Travis Fryman there in Mahoning Valley - who played 13 years in the big leagues - helped me out and made it an easy transition. Right now the Indians just want to give me as many innings at third to get used to it."
Bellows showed good progress at short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley this year and was solid defensively while showing a lot of power potential in hitting .240 with 7 HR, 32 RBI, and a .716 OPS in 54 games. However, his season was cut short in early August when he came down with a right hand injury when sliding into a base. The injury resulted in him sitting out for most of the final month of the season and through the NY-Penn League playoffs.
"I had a great time [at Mahoning Valley]," said Bellows. "[The injury happened when] I slid back into a base and kind of hooked a guy's leg and I dislocated my finger and fractured my hand."
Kipnis Moves To Second
The Indians are taking a long look at 2009 2nd round pick Jason Kipnis at second base. Clearly, if he can move to second base it makes him move valuable, and at worst case if he proves he can't play there everyday they feel he can handle playing there on an occasional basis which would add some versatility for him down the road.
Kipnis has been working at second base all camp, though he just started playing some games there over the weekend. The Indians are currently assessing whether he has the footwork, hands, and comfort level with turning double plays, but so far they are very pleased with what he has shown there and it looks like it will be full steam ahead with him continuing his transition to second base in spring training. The Indians know he can play the outfield, so if by the end of spring training they don't feel comfortable with him at second base they can just move him back to the outfield.That all said, it is starting to look like Kipnis could very well be the opening day second baseman at High-A Kinston next year. If Kipnis is able to move to second base full time, his very good bat at a middle of the diamond position would make him very valuable to the Indians as an offensive oriented second baseman.
A Scout's Take On Young Indians
I had a chance to talk to a National League (NL) scout during the morning sessions who was there to get information and observe players in the Indians system. He has been scouting for 27 years and had several positive things to say about what he saw.
One thing he said immediately jumped out at him watching the Indians players practice and play games the past week is how much arm strength they have among their young position players. He loves Jason Kipnis at second base and thinks if he can stick there he has the bat that could make him explode as a prospect. He also thinks the move of Kyle Bellows to third base suits him well as he has the frame and body to get bigger and has some good raw power.
The NL scout also remarked highly on several of the young Latin prospects in camp, namely catcher Alex Monsalve, outfielder Diori Robles and shortstop Jorge Martinez. He couldn't believe Martinez was 16-years old and really liked the arm strength he showed at shortstop, likes his size and body, and feels he has a lot of projection with his bat. Monsalve has a good arm and is aggressive at the plate, and Robles he feels is someone to keep an eye on going forward.
- For those wondering, the Instructional League is indeed still setup with three different camps: Fall Instructional League (FIL), Fall Developmental League (FDL), and Strength and Conditioning. They had the more established prospects in FDL part of camp, which was the first half of Instructional League and involved players who have been in the system that don't need to be introduced to hitting, fielding and pitching philosophies. Those players come in and the Indians give them a plan to work on in the offseason and it begins with work in Instructs. The other portion of camp is the FIL which involves the new players who need to learn all the philosophies and for the organization to get to know the player and figure out what they need to work on. Instructional League also involves players who need supplemental innings and at bats, and they stay the whole time.
- There has been some speculation by various media sources that the Indians will consider Travis Fryman for the manager opening in Cleveland. That may be the case, but the vibe I am getting is this is more just people playing a matching game because of his popularity as a player and him being a manager in the Indians' farm system. It should be noted that Fryman is in Goodyear and is managing the Indians Instructional League team. That doesn't seem like a guy getting ready to be a manager in the big leagues.
- One of the first things I noticed when watching the morning session practices on Monday was a new guy at shortstop who I did not recognize. After talking to some Indians personnel I learned the player was newly signed Latin shortstop Jorge Martinez. For a kid stateside for the first time and just 16-years old you would never know it as he just oozes confidence on the field. He made several impressive plays at shortstop during the Instructional League game in the afternoon, and in the morning practice showed off an impressive arm and the ability to hit the ball with the authority which is rare for a player his age. He is a switch-hitter, an average runner, and has a projectable bat. The Indians are very high on him, and while they are not commenting publicly yet on the players they signed from Latin America, supposedly he was their biggest catch.
- Right-hander Trey Haley took a wicked line drive off his kneecap in the second inning on Monday. Haley limped around in pain after the play, but after a few minutes made a couple of warmup throws to test the knee, and remained in the game to finish the inning. When he came into the dugout after the inning the Indians medical staff and coaches decided that it was best to take him out of the game for precautionary reasons. His kneecap swelled up pretty good and it should be sore for a few days, but it looks like he and the Indians averted what looked like might be a more serious injury when he was initially hit with the line drive.
- For those wondering where Indians 2009 3rd round pick right-handed pitcher Joe Gardner was this year, he was out with a right rib cage injury. Upon signing he was expected to pitch in Mahoning Valley for most of the season, but the rib cage injury was more serious than originally thought. When the Indians drafted him they were aware of the injury, they did not anticipate it being to the degree where he would not throw a pitch professionally in the 2009 season. He is back in action and has been pitching in the Parallel League games this fall and has had some encouraging outings, hitting 94 MPH in one outing.
- One of the more disappointing performances in the system this year was from first baseman Beau Mills. For the typical player, his final numbers at Double-A Akron where he hit .267 with 14 HR, 83 RBI, and a .724 OPS were solid. But Mills is not a typical player as he was the Indians 1st round pick in 2007 and a Top 10 prospect in the system coming into this season, so a lot more was expected of him this year especially after his Carolina League MVP season in 2008 when he hit .293 with 21 HR, 90 RBI, and an .880 OPS. The fact he is playing in Instructional League even after such a long year in Akron shows the Indians disappointment in him this year, and they are trying to get him back on track and ready to get some at bats in a yet to be determined winter league.
- Catcher Alex Monsalve looks a lot better from when I saw him in spring training. Back in March he looked very raw and timid, but a half year later and some time to acquaint himself to professional baseball, he looks like a completely different player. He has very good size, a strong arm, shows some good athleticism behind the plate, and is an aggressive hitter at the plate. He's a prospect to keep an eye on, and should be stateside all year in 2010 playing for the Arizona League Indians and maybe even some at Low-A Lake County late in the year.
- Several Indians officials have raved about the bats of Jason Kipnis and Kyle Bellows. Both may have the most hit ability of anyone in their 2009 Draft.
- Infielder/outfielder Greg Folgia is working out at catcher. He is a left-fielder and not a pure center fielder, so knowing it is very difficult to make it to the major leagues as a left fielder the Indians are attempting to use his good athleticism to his advantage by adding some more versatility to his game.
- Outfielder Nick Weglarz is in camp and his start in the Arizona Fall League (AFL) will be delayed for a few days as he continues to recover from a shin injury. He is healthy, but the Indians just want to make sure that they are not pushing him too hard. He has a little bit of pain in the leg still, but nothing considered serious or that he can't play through. He is expected to join his AFL teammates on Friday.
- Left-handed pitcher Kelvin De La Cruz has been good in camp and looks strong. He is still not 100% and not back to the same guy he was before his elbow injury in April, but the Indians are confident he will be back to the player he was very soon.
- Right-hander Joey Mahalic is back throwing in game action from an elbow injury he suffered in May. He is expected to be back and ready to go when spring training commences in March.
- On Tuesday it will be baseball all day for me as I will be back at the Indians complex in the morning to watch fielding and hitting sessions, then in the afternoon catch the Parallel League team in action as well as an intra-squad scrimmage of the Instructional League team. Later on in the evening, I will be in Scottsdale to see the start of the Arizona Fall League as the team the Indians players are playing on will be in action.