Who's at short? Hu. Who's at second? Lopez. Who's at third? LaRoche. Who's at first? TBD.
The Cleveland Indians have led the league in offseason signings thus far. Namely, minor league signings, that is. It seems the Tribe has target mid-20's guys with former "Top Prospect" tags all across the league, sprinkled in with a few gritty veterans. With a duo of major league players and a stash of castoff uber-prospects now in the system, you may be scratching your head asking, "Who are these guys?"
Andy LaRoche was the prized prospect gem of the three team trade that sent Jason Bay to Bean Town and Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers in 2008.
In 2007, LaRoche was to the Dodgers what Andy Marte was to the Indians–a benevolent-hitting third base prospect that was bound for glory. LaRoche, the son of former All-Star Dave LaRoche and the younger brother of Nationals' first baseman Adam LaRoche, would out do both his family members and would form a dynamite duo with the Dodgers' shortstop prospect on the left side of the Los Angeles infield. This former 39th rounder was viewed defensively inferior to Lonnie Chisenhall, but offensively explosive (like Chisenhall). Baseball America said of him, "[he has] the potential to bat in the middle of the lineup."
Five years later, we note the discrepancy in the script. Like Marte, he's a pull-happy hitter that fizzled despite his uber-prospect status.
LaRoche will be 28 on Opening Day 2012. He's purely a depth move, but still offers some potential. After all, there are still Jose Bautista's in the minors, waiting to break out on the wrong side of 30.
Best Case Scenario: After a pedantic series of major league stints, primarily with Pittsburgh, his major league stat line looks more like Bill Selby's than the future third baseman of the Dodgers (though perhaps he'll be a folk hero in Cleveland as Selby was?). He'll serve as the Lonnie Chisenhall and Jack Hannahan insurance plans and will probably hit close to his career .290 minor league batting average in AAA, but he'll remind you a lot of Andy Marte with more potential than he knows what to do with...
Hu, signed out of Taiwan in 2003 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a former top prospect for in Dodger blue. In Baseball America's 2008 publication, he was behind only Clayton Kershaw (2011 National League Cy Young Winner) and Andy LaRoche (new fellow Indians expired-status prospect) in their prospect rankings. In 2007, he was the MVP of the Futures Game, and BA said of him, "[Hu is a] line-drive hitter with good barrel awareness, [he] cleaned up mechanical flaws in his swing and improved his plate coverage and ability to make hard contact." They thought the best was yet to come...
Last season, he was a Metropolitan miss in New York, playing 22 games at shortstop and second base.
Chin-lung Hu was long projected to be the shortstop of the future in Los Angeles and many of the analysts were sold on him as a future star. After all, his minor league stats suggest a solid shortstop–he's a .296 career minor league hitter with double-digit stolen base speed and is well-above average defensively with a great arm and footwork (defense likely being his appealing quality to the Tribe).
Best case scenario: He'll be 28 once the season begins, so he'll be the oldest fielder in Cleveland's youthful infield, if he makes the team. If Jason Kipnis falters in his sophomore season or Asdrubal Cabrera is hurt or needs a solid defensive backup, Hu comes in and serves as a backup infielder or injury replacement to Cabrera, plays John McDonald-esque defense and hits .270.
This 30-year old reliever could play the role of the 2011 Chad Durbin. Or he could purely be AAA depth. Either way, Ray has a shot at the last bullpen spot, which seems as competitive as the upcoming election. With one spot left, keep an eye on Ray's spring training.
The majority of Ray's service time in the league has been with the Orioles in low pressure situations. He hosts a 4.10 ERA in six major league seasons with a mildly high 1.35 WHIP. Ray, however, is coming off of multiple injuries in recent seasons and will likely not be the real long man that Durbin was, pitching multiple innings at a time. However, he is similar to Durbin in the fact he's a veteran righty reliever that will likely be at the back of the 'pen and come in for low pressure situations.
Last season, he was a heavy ground ball reliever with serious injury woes, pitching only 32+ innings.
Best Case Scenario: Ray makes the bullpen mafia's final ballot and makes the team out of the gate. He replicates his 2006 season (33 saves, 2.73 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) and is a lovely addition. Don't bet on it, but stranger things have happened before.
He turned 30 today, so happy birthday, Chris.
After losing Josh Judy on waivers to the Reds and airmailing another reliever in Cory Burns for Aaron Cunningham, righty reliever Robinson Tejada is a decent depth move to stir some more competition for the bullpen. He has pitched for the Royals since 2008 where he has showed signs of royalty at times, and signs of peasantry at others. Prior to that, he was struggling and giving up long balls in Texas.
The 6'2' righty fits the swing-man build as he has served as a spot starter in the past... and with a 4.42 career ERA, he fits the mold of a minor league signing. He'll be competing for the final bullpen roster spot and has a remote shot at it if Zach Putnam and other top prospects come into spring training with weak showings.
Best Case Scenario: Tejeda time travels to 2009 when he gave up only 43 hits in 73 innings for Kansas City and struck out 10.6 hitters per 9 innings. At age 30, he's still got the velocity and durability to get back there.
Felix Pie is the prototypical Chicago Cubs top prospect: a dud. (Please see Corey Patterson, Brian Dopriak, Angel Guzman, Hee Seop Choi, etc.). He narrowly missed my Top 10 Prospect Duds of the 00's decade, though a few of his former teammates made the cut.
Pie was the Cubs top prospect in 2007, and in 2006 he was the No. 27 prospect in all of baseball--more highly regarded than the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez, and Matt Kemp. If Pie had half the career of any one of these guys, he wouldn't even be on the Indians' radar (financially). Fortunately for them, he hasn't.
Pie, just 27, still has some upside. And if nothing else, he'll provide solid AAA protection. With a .249/.298/.374 line, he leaves very much to be desired. None of Pie's tools have been evident at the big league level. Pie has potential fifth outfielder written all over him and fizzled star prospect already engraved on him. But it doesn't mean he can't contribute to the 2012 Indians.
Best Case Scenario: Unfortunately, the Indians are already ultra heavy with lefty hitters, just like Pie, but perhaps one of their outfielders goes down (again). Pie could fill in for awhile, perhaps hit around .275 with some luck, though he will likely hover around his feeble sub .300 OBP.
Jose Lopez is a unique ballplayer.
He's fearless like a gladiator at the plate, in that he swings at everything. The problem is, he's fearless at the plate, so he swings at everything.
Sabermetricians frown upon his plate approach, as he is similar to Saber anti-hero Yuni Betancourt.
If Lopez can find his 2006, 2008, or 2009 form, he'll be a welcome addition to the Indians. Those years, he combined to hit .283 averaging 17 homers per year and hit an impressive 25 in 2009. He also represented the Mariners in the 2006 All-Star game.
Yet again, here's a young ball player at 28 with something left to prove. Lopez can do some things on the baseball field, though getting on base and playing gold glove defense are not included in the package.
Best Case Scenario: Lopez makes the team as a backup at third base and second base. If either of the sophomores need a day off--or a month off in the minor leagues--Lopez can fill in. At his best, he puts up a renaissance season with a .310 OBP, but hits .290 with some pop. He's nothing to get excited about, but is a proper pickup in the Indians' case.
Aaron Cunningham, no relation to Richie, was ranked as Baseball America's #55 prospect in all of baseball just three years ago. However, the Alaska native, only 26 now, is already with his fourth employer. Though technically not a signing, he's another recent add to the Tribe this offseason.
Cunningham hit an excruciating .178 in 52 games for the Padres last season. However, the year prior to that, he hit .288 in the suburb known as Petco Park, a historical pitcher friendly ballpark. Cunningham has shown about as much power as ex-Indian Jamey Carroll, popping only six long balls over his major league career.
Cunningham has never played more than 53 games in a season, so he may be able to surprise if he plays in 80+ games for the Tribe. He's a right-handed outfield bat, which the Indians desperately need, despite giving up prospect hopeful Cory Burns to acquire him.
Best Case Scenario: Cunningham, only 26, further develops his game and plays the corner outfield spots for the Tribe, and serves as a pinch hitter when the scenario dictates. He's a .306 minor league hitter, so perhaps he hits north of .280 in about 80 games for Cleveland. If we're lucky, maybe he hits 3-5 bombs along the way. He's an interesting pickup as he, too, still has some upside that the Indians hope to find in 2012 and beyond.
You likely know enough about Derek Lowe.
Lowe was traded to the Tribe and Cleveland is only obligated to pay a third of his $15 million contract in 2012. He was also the first move of the offseason.
Basically, Atlanta had a surplus of young, affordable, talented starting pitchers. Lowe was the least young, most expensive, and frankly, least talented, so they shipped him to Cleveland for a bit of salary relief.
Despite that, Lowe can still be a positive contributor to the Indians because he brings grit, experience, a certain "clutch" gene to pitch in big games. Most appealing, he fits the Indians' ground ball sponsored pitching staff. Lowe is the exact mediocre, generic pitcher that Cleveland was looking for.
Though he led the league in losses last season and the tone of this page is about as dark as the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there are some good things to come from the Lowe trade.
He's a ground ball pitcher, he has postseason experience, he comes cheap at $5 million on a one-year deal, and he doesn't have the pressure of being a frontline starter like he was once deemed. If he can get back to his form of 2010, he'll be just what GM Chris Antonetti ordered.
Best Case Scenario: Lowe comes back to the American League and takes a swig from the fountain of youth, regaining his control and stuff that made him a great pitcher in the past. He wins close to 15 games, is a vocal leader in the rotation, and makes 34 starts with 200 innings pitched. He is 39, but he's been a workhorse ever since he became a full time starter in 2002 (also the season he threw a no-hitter for the Red Sox). Lowe could capture a high 3, low 4 ERA if all goes right and his defense plays exceptional (which is a big wildcard with the "UZR-inefficient" infield).
As you can tell, the Tribe's offseason moves are all very similar. They picked up some castoffs that had the former "top prospect" sticker, but didn't live up to it. They made some calls to guys with great success in the past. And they acquired some guys in their late 20's with something to prove.
All in all, you've got to figure one of the minor league signings come to fruition. Maybe Andy LaRoche turns into Casey Blake (another 28-year-old the Tribe signed and though he wasn't flashy, he became an instrumental player in their lineup from 2003-2008). Perhaps Chris Ray solidifies his role as an accomplice in the bullpen mafia. Or maybe Jose Lopez gets his OPB north of .300. Whatever it may be, you can't fault Cleveland for making these low-risk, nice reward moves. It cost them virtually nothing, and depth has proved to be such an important part of ballclubs today (See 2010 Red Sox, among many, many others) because clubs expect injuries to arise at some point throughout the season.
Though they never picked up the big name free agent we were hoping for a few months ago in Michael Cuddyer or Josh Willingham (and didn't even tickle at Prince Fielder), there's still a chance they land a more household name free agent before camp starts in a month...