Moves will keep Tribe's future in mind

Moves will keep Tribe's future in mind

The Indians have spent the past couple years rebuilding their prospect ranks in trades of their veteran players. The next year or two are going to be about giving Cleveland's young talent a chance to blossom.

Whatever moves the Indians make this offseason will not involve anything that blocks the path for the future, only to complement or fill a gap for the talent that's about to arrive. If anything, their moves so far have tried to clear some paths.

A farm system that had been sapped a bit, especially on the pitching side, was restocked with the Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and CC Sabathia trades, not to mention numerous smaller deals beyond that. Those three players were part of the core group on which the Indians built around for several years. It's now up to a new group of both the young players who have arrived and those yet to come.

Add it up, and around a dozen prospects and young players came over in the trades in 2009 alone, giving Cleveland a major investment in the future.

"We're not heavy at just the upper levels or just position players like it was a year ago," player development director Ross Atkins told MLB.com last month. "It's more balanced throughout now."

At the top of the system and in Cleveland, that youth will be the focus of the staff. As such, the Indians aren't expected to be very active at next week's Winter Meetings.

"We don't have a defined need," general manager Mark Shapiro said recently. "We want to get better. But the reason you don't feel pressure for us [to make a move] is we don't have a defined hole. We want to get better and improve and offset the volatility that goes with young players, but we don't have the pressure of having to complete a trade or sign a free agent."

Here are a few prospects who impact Cleveland's decision progress:

Lou Marson, C: The Indians traded veteran catcher Kelly Shoppach for a player to be named this week not simply to avoid arbitration, but to clear up playing time for their selection of young catchers. Marson and Carlos Santana are foremost among them.

"This is most about our young players," Shapiro told reporters on a conference call. "We are excited about giving them an opportunity to play. It's an area of strength for us."

Marson, acquired in the Lee trade this past summer, figures to get the first shot at the starting catching job when the season opens, Shapiro told reporters. The 23-year-old was the third-best prospect in the Phillies' organization and the 66th-best prospect overall heading into the year, according to Baseball America, and he did little to diminish that.

Much of his strength is behind the plate, where his athleticism and his ability to work with pitchers give him the ability to command a game. He hits more for average, not really for power, but his ability to make contact and find ways to get on base make him a nice piece to a lineup.

"He's a catcher, first and foremost," former Indians manager Eric Wedge said late last season. "He knows how to run a game and he's still developing in all areas of his game. He has a chance to be pretty good."

The Indians could end up acquiring a veteran catcher to back up Marson, but Shapiro didn't characterize it as a necessity. That's how highly they regard Marson.

Carlos Santana: If there's one reason Marson might have a problem sticking with the Tribe long term, it's Santana. While Marson will get his shot in Cleveland with Shoppach gone, Santana will get a bump to Triple-A Columbus, one call away from the big leagues. Most likely, Shapiro indicated, he'll get a call up to the Indians at some point next season.

Santana, who will turn 24 next April, is almost universally regarded as the Indians' top prospect and one of the top prospects in baseball after coming over from the Dodgers a year and a half ago in the Casey Blake trade. In contrast to Marson, Santana's strength is his offense, a switch-hitting bat that boasts power from both sides of the plate.

Santana has pounded 44 homers over the past two seasons combined to go with 214 RBIs, including a .290 average, 23 homers and 97 RBIs this year at Double-A Akron that earned him Eastern League Player of the Year honors. His strong arm threw out 24 of 80 would-be basestealers.

His arrival is seen as a matter of time and experience, especially behind the plate commanding a game. The Indians sent him to winter ball in the Dominican League with the idea of getting him more catching work, but a bout with a flu bug limited him to just one game.

Still, any setback should be minor, if at all.

"Most likely for Carlos, some time at Triple-A, continuing to develop his game-calling, his leadership skills and honing his defensive game will be beneficial," Shapiro told reporters on his conference call announcing the Shoppach trade. "I would expect at some point, between April and September, we will see him in Cleveland."

Hector Rondon, RHP: He'll turn 21 in February, but the Venezuelan right-hander has already cracked the rotation at Columbus, where a jump in ERA still didn't diminish his arsenal. Rondon struck out 137 batters over 146 1/3 innings combined between the Clippers and Akron, and while he isn't likely to make it to Cleveland quite yet, the righty could have a chance to break into the Indians' rotation at some point next year.

Unlike some power pitchers, Rondon and his mid-90s fastball also show an ability to work the strike zone and limit walks while mixing in his slider and changeup.

Rondon is an example of the newfound pitching depth the Indians now have. He doesn't garner the same high regard as, say, Jason Knapp and recent first-round pick Alex White, among others, but Rondon could be the first of the young hurlers to crack the big leagues and start to remake a rotation that struggled to fill holes until the Tribe's recent flurry of trades.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.