The Indians are testing the old adage that says there is strength in numbers. Cleveland is strong up the middle in the big leagues, and the organization has an impressive crop of middle infielders developing in the farm system.
That was evident in the latest MLB.com prospect rankings.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor tops the list of the Tribe's Top 20 prospects and is the club's lone representative in the revised Top 100 list for all of baseball. Lindor is only where things begin for the Indians, though. He is one of four middle infielders ranked within Cleveland's first five prospects.
"The younger group is really impressive," said Ross Atkins, the Indians' vice president of player development. "There's a lot of upside in all of them. You can already identify Major League tools with a couple of them. You can project on tons of tools with all of them."
The group in question includes Lindor, who was the Tribe's top pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, along with shortstop Dorssys Paulino (ranked second), infielders Tony Wolters (third) and Ronny Rodriguez (fifth), and second baseman Jose Ramirez (18th). All five players spent time with Class A affiliates this season.
Lindor went from being ranked 32nd in the preseason Top 100 list to 14th this time around. He was the only Indians farmhand listed in both rankings.
In his first full professional season, Lindor -- named to the All-Star Futures Game World roster this summer -- hit .257 with six home runs, 24 doubles, three triples and 42 RBIs in 122 games for Class A Lake County. Along the way, he stole 27 bases and scored 83 runs for the Captains.
Lindor's offensive showing decreased as the season wore on, but Atkins said there is an explanation.
"A young Midwest League initially just came right after him," Atkins said. "He became the key guy and the most offensive player in that lineup at the start of the year. Then they pitched around him and he struggled with that, but he made the adjustments.
"He learned to take his walks and learned to not try to do more than what they were giving him. But that was a process for him to learn that, because of his competitiveness and him wanting to be that guy."
Perhaps the most promising prospect this season was Paulino.
The 17-year-old shortstop -- signed as an international free agent last summer -- hit .333 with seven home runs, 19 doubles, six triples and 38 RBIs in 56 Minor League games this season. Paulino began the year in the Arizona Rookie League, but his swift progress warranted a promotion to short-season Mahoning Valley.
Paulino jumped 11 spots from his preseason ranking (13th) for the latest list.
"More than anything on Dorssys are the subjective comments about how he does it," Atkins said. "Every single evaluator, every single coach, every single staff member that sees him says this guy has what it takes to be a Major League hitter.
"The comparisons are such unique comparisons, the kind that you don't hear that often, or in that way with that much conviction."
Wolters and Rodriguez bounced between shortstop and second base for Class A Carolina this season, providing a dynamic double-play duo. Wolters hit .260 with eight homers, 30 doubles, eight triples and 58 RBIs, while Rodriguez hit .264 with 19 homers and 66 RBIs for the Mudcats.
Between Mahoning Valley and Lake County, Ramirez hit .354 over 70 games.
indians' top prospects
Atkins said Cleveland will wait to see how this middle-infield logjam shakes out.
"We'll continue to develop [guys like Wolters and Rodriguez] at both positions," Atkins said. "Once one of those guys demands more at-bats at one position because they're closer to making a Major League impact, then we'll adjust."
The rest of the Top 20 includes: pitchers Scott Barnes (fourth), Dillon Howard (seventh); Mitch Brown (eighth), Jake Sisco (15th), Kieran Lovegrove (16th), Corey Kluber (19th) and Felix Sterling (20th); outfielders Tyler Naquin (sixth), LeVon Washington (10th), Luigi Rodriguez (12th) and D'vone McClure (17th); first baseman Jesus Aguilar (11th) and Chun Chen (14th); catcher Alex Monsalve (ninth); and third baseman Jorge Martinez (13th).
The newcomers to the list include Naquin (Cleveland's top pick in the 2012 Draft), Aguilar (named to the Futures Game this summer), Brown, Lovegrove, McClure, Ramirez and Kluber.
Sixteen of Cleveland's Top 20 played at some level of A ball this year.
Reliever Nick Hagadone and starter Zach McAllister -- both of whom spent time with the Indians this year -- graduated from the preseason Top 20 list. Pitching prospects Chen-Chang Lee and Austin Adams were removed after arm injuries ended their seasons, while catcher Alex Lavisky, pitcher Elvis Araujo and infielder Robel Garcia were removed following subpar seasons.
One of the biggest disappointments of this season was Howard, who came into Cleveland's system as a highly-touted pitching prospect after being selected in the second round of the 2011 Draft. Howard dropped five spots in the rankings after going 1-7 with a 7.90 ERA in 12 outings in the Arizona Rookie League this year.
The Indians are hoping Howard can learn from what went wrong this season.
"He came into Spring Training and wasn't prepared, and it just snowballed on him," Atkins said. "I think we lost a year of development with him. We tried to clean the slate as each month went and we just weren't able to get through to him. We've got a challenge on our hands there.
"I think it did hit home and I think we'll see a different player next year. It's just unfortunate that we lost a year."
Cleveland believes the upside of its pitching prospects as a group -- especially now with arms such as Brown and Lovegrove added through the Draft -- is on the upswing. Relief pitching remains a strength at the upper levels, but starting pitching is something the Tribe is trying to develop.
McAllister and Kluber have helped along those lines in Triple-A and, now, the Majors.
"We feel very good of the progress of the guys in Triple-A this year," Atkins said. "Now, with the Draft, and the acquisition of Lovegrove, Brown and [Dylan] Baker, we're starting to feel like we have the makings of some starting pitching prospects."
Pitching and outfield prospects remain Cleveland's biggest areas of need.
The middle infield crop is a clear strength.
"All of those guys made progress and took steps forward this year," Atkins said. "And they were at a starting point that we felt very good about. We just feel more confident that we have a very, very strong group of middle infield prospects at the lower levels."