Minors report: The Sizemore Effect
Outfielders in farm system forced to move to corner positions
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Grady Sizemore has had quite a ripple effect on the Indians' farm system.Sizemore's talent, production and consistency -- not to mention his six-year contract -- has cemented him as the Tribe's center fielder, meaning any prospects who specialize in that position are best-served to think about the corners if they're going to have a future with the Tribe. With Sizemore's status in mind, the Indians will have a four-man rotation in the outfield at Triple-A Buffalo this season, with a priority placed on the corner spots. "The two best of the four," farm director Ross Atkins said, "will predominantly play on the corners, regardless of whether they're center-field prospects, because of Grady Sizemore." Exactly who those four players will be is dependent on the makeup of the Major League club. But if Trot Nixon is fully healthy and ready to be the regular right fielder by Opening Day, it's likely Shin-Soo Choo, Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco and Brad Snyder will all be in the outfield mix at Buffalo. And with each of those four players considered a viable prospect that could help the Major League club this season, dispensing adequate at-bats to each of them will be a tall order. What's more, hot prospect Trevor Crowe, a natural center fielder who will have to get acclimated to left, is not far behind at Double-A Akron, and Brian Barton, coming off a productive season at Akron, could also break into the Buffalo mix. "It will be an organizational challenge for us," Atkins said, "in maximizing those four or five guys [at Buffalo] and making sure they're getting at-bats." On the move: Francisco has really caught the eye of the Indians' decision-makers this spring, and that can only help his standing if an opportunity opens up at the big-league level. Defensively, Francisco can play all three spots adequately. But where he's really made noise is at the plate, batting .393 (11-for-28) with three homers and five RBIs in his first 14 spring games. "I've seen him turn on the toughest fastballs and lay off the toughest breaking balls," Wedge said. "He's spraying the ball around." On the pine: First baseman Michael Aubrey, who was optioned down to Double-A Akron last week, is nursing a sore hamstring and is listed as day-to-day. Aubrey has only played in 42 games over the last two seasons because of back and knee problems. He had a strong camp with the Tribe but injured the hamstring while running to first base in his last Grapefruit League game on Wednesday against the Blue Jays.
The Indians hope Joe Inglett will be ready to get back into game action by Monday or Tuesday. He's been held up since March 5 with a left hamstring strain that cost him his chance of breaking with the club as the utility infielder. Names in the game: Tim Laker is a rookie all over again. After finishing up a 19-year professional playing career last season with the Indians and Buffalo Bisons, the former catcher will make his managerial debut with short-season Mahoning Valley this summer. Atkins said he believes the 37-year-old Laker, who spent five of his last six seasons in the Indians organization, is well-suited for the job. "He's always the same guy -- high-energy and passionate about baseball," Atkins said. "His ability to teach and lead comes from him having overcome obstacles in his career. He reached his potential and got everything out of his abilities." He's No. 1: The Indians' higher-ups are somewhat careful not to drool too much when talking about right-hander Adam Miller, because they know he could still use some development at the Triple-A level. But it's generally expected that Miller's big-league debut will come at some point in the 2007 season, especially if his big-league camp debut is any indication. Miller has yet to allow a run in nine innings over three outings. "Adam can't do much more than what he's done," Wedge said. With Fausto Carmona likely to start the season in the Indians rotation, replacing an injured Cliff Lee, Miller, who was taken as the 31st overall pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, will be the No. 1 starter at Buffalo. He will get at least one more Grapefruit League start, on Monday against the Braves. Class of '06: A bout with mononucleosis cost right-hander Steven Wright the opportunity to make his professional debut last summer, but he'll do so this year in the Class A Lake County rotation. Wright, the Tribe's first of three second-round picks in last year's draft, has a power arm that notched 123 strikeouts in 109 2/3 innings for the University of Hawaii last year. But where he's really impressed Atkins is with his baseball intellect. "So few people stand out as having a genuine passion about pitching," Atkins said. "Everybody in baseball has a passion for the game, but it's usually to hit doubles in the gaps or make a headfirst slide. He is genuinely passionate about pitching." Stat machine: Through Saturday's game, Gutierrez was batting .320 (8-for-25) with five doubles. ... First baseman Ryan Garko, who still doesn't know if he's headed to Buffalo or the big leagues, was batting .270 (10-for-37) with a homer and five RBIs before Saturday's game. ... Left-hander Juan Lara had yet to allow a run in 6 2/3 innings. What they're saying: "They've all handled it well. Every guy has handled the transition very well and very professionally." -- Atkins, on players' reactions to getting sent from big-league camp to the Minors
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.