The Cleveland Indians are one of the best examples of an organization in which the player development branch and all facets of its scouting department have complemented each other to the ultimate degree.
Year after year, a glance at the Minor League numbers features talented hitters, a plethora of pitchers and clubs perennially in the postseason. As usual it seems, Cleveland finished the '08 Minor League season with a record over .500 (.509 to be exact) and with Double-A Akron and Class A Lake County both in the playoffs.
But not all of those prospects started their careers with the Indians. The farm features an impressive balance of homegrown prospects, acquired either via the draft or as international signs, as well as talented youngsters acquired via trades.
In fact, three of the players on the Indians' current Top 10 -- outfielders Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley and catcher Carlos Santana -- came to the club last summer in a pair of deals for established stars (CC Sabathia and Casey Blake).
That trio contributes to the depth at the Indians' biggest strengths: corner infielders, corner outfielders and catching.
Trevor Crowe, OF:
Crowe was still in the big league mix after several rounds of roster cuts and the 2005 first-rounder out of Arizona could stick on the bench or go to Triple-A Columbus to play every day in anticipation of a callup. The switch-hitter batted .302 last summer with 18 steals despite missing some time with a strained rib cage muscle.
Chris Gimenez, C/IF/OF: The big sleeper on this list should begin the spring at Columbus, but could be the first player recalled due to his flexibility. A catcher by trade, the 26-year-old also plays both corners and the outfield and has posted a .270 career average. His .421 on-base average last year ranked among the Minor League leaders as he hit .304 between Akron and Buffalo.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Scott Lewis, LHP:
The Indians' local pick in the third round of 2004 out of Ohio State missed most of '04 and '05 with arm trouble but came back with a vengeance, leading the Minors with a 1.48 ERA at Kinston in '06. He's been consistently effective without dominant stuff, enough so that he's quietly managed to come close to staking claim on the fifth spot in the rotation. He had a 2.40 ERA last summer between Akron and Buffalo and went 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA in four big league starts, tossing eight shutout innings in his debut.
Wes Hodges, 3B:
While Hodges is not exactly a sleeper pick per se, he sits right below the "top 10" and deserves mention here. There are no questions about his power potential, as he hit .290 with 18 homers and an organization-high 97 RBIs at Akron last year. But there are issues with his defense at third, as he committed an Eastern League-leading 28 errors there.
Tony Sipp, LHP:
The southpaw missed all of 2007 and part of '08 following Tommy John surgery, but when he's healthy he is among the most electric arms in the system. He's limited opposing hitters to a .201 average in his career and opens the year in relief at Columbus. Sipp's been one of the highlights at big league camp this year.
Luis Valbuena, 2B:
Yet another promising player acquired via trade within the last year, the 23-year-old came over from Seattle in a three-team trade. A left-handed hitter, he made his big league debut last year with 49 at-bats with the Mariners after hitting .303 with 11 home runs, 60 RBIs and 18 steals between Double-A West Tenn and Triple-A Tacoma. That was quite a turnaround from 2007 when he had similar power numbers but batted just .239.
2008: Lonnie Chisenhall, SS
Taken out of community college in North Carolina with the 29th overall pick, Chisenhall hit .290 with five homers and 45 RBIs at Mahoning Valley in his debut, good for ninth in the system in average. The 22-year-old has a plus arm and is solid defensively, but could move to third if needed. He's a pure hitter with good instincts.
2007: Beau Mills, 1B/3B
The 13th pick overall in 2007 out of Lewis-Clark State, Mills is the son of Boston Red Sox coach Brad Mills. In his first full season he not only hit .293 with 21 home runs and an organization-leading 90 RBIs, he earned Carolina League MVP honors as well, hitting .327 after the All-Star break. The 22-year-old has power to all fields and can play either corner.
2006: David Huff, LHP
The supplemental first-rounder from UCLA should be in the mix for a rotation spot before the season is over, coming off of a 2008 campaign in which he led the system with a 2.52 ERA between Akron and Buffalo. His .210 average-against ranked among the Minor League leaders for full-season starters, and his command was impressive as he issued just 29 walks while striking out 143 in 146 1/3 innings. His changeup is his out pitch.
2008 Draft Recap
RHP Trey Haley (2), a Texas high schooler, has a low- to mid-90s fastball and saw just limited time in his pro debut. ... 2B Cord Phelps (3) was drafted out of Stanford and hit .312 with 21 RBIs and four steals at Mahoning Valley. ... RHP Zach Putnam (5), a fast-tracked reliever out of Michigan, throws a plus fastball and a splitter and had a 3.72 ERA in 9 2/3 innings at Mahoning Valley after signing late. ... OF Tim Fedroff (7), a center fielder signed out of North Carolina, went on to bat .319 with 12 RBIs at Mahoning Valley. ... LHP Eric Berger (8) dominated after coming out of Arizona, with a 2.11 ERA and 45 strikeouts vs. 11 walks in 38 innings between Mahoning Valley and Lake County before being shut down with a mild oblique strain.
Hitter of the Year -- C Carlos Santana:
Santana was among the best hitters in the Minors in 2008, combining for a .326 average, 21 home runs and 117 RBIs among three clubs. Look for the powerful backstop to continue his tear through the Minors.
Pitcher of the Year -- RHP Hector Rondon:
Just added to the 40-man roster, the 21-year-old led the organization with 145 strikeouts in as many innings at Kinston and looks to be similarly impressive as the rotation anchor at Akron with his great stuff.
The organization suffered a blow when oft-injured top prospect RHP Adam Miller was diagnosed with a finger injury that could be not just season-ending but career-threatening. His upside was the reason he was still ranked No. 41 on MLB.com's preseason Top 50 list despite the fact that he's been healthy just two full seasons since signing as a first-rounder in 2003. ... 1B Jordan Brown, a two-time league MVP in '06 (Carolina) and '07 (Eastern) saw his '08 campaign partially derailed by knee trouble, but he still hit .281 with seven homers and 51 RBIs. Look for a healthy Brown to rebound at Columbus. ... The club left its longtime Triple-A home in Buffalo to move closer to home in Columbus, where the Clippers are getting a gorgeous new stadium, Huntington Park.
"All three of them have been exceptionally professional and have really performed at (the big league) level. Not one of them came in as anything but even better than advertised. They've been incredible." --Cleveland Indians player development director Ross Atkins on the trio of Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana in their first Spring Trainings since being acquired via trades in 2008.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.