For Sustained Success, Cleveland Indians Must Build from Within

The Cleveland Indians made one of the more drastic roster overhauls last offseason, signing a variety of veterans (including Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Scott Kazmir) to help improve a club that won 68 games in 2012 and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.

With 51 wins as baseball’s unofficial second half gets rolling, the gamble has paid off – so far.

The Indians are still a ragtag bunch, not without their own flaws. The offense – while loaded with the right balance of speed and power, along with All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis – is prone to slumping, while the rotation has been better than advertised (and it wasn’t advertised as much), with Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister leading the way, while a reborn Scott Kazmir and bafflingly improved Ubaldo Jimenez haven’t imploded, which is really all anyone could ask for.

As for the bullpen, the finicky baseball gods have struck the 2013 Indians with an unpredictable pen that often has trouble in big situations, despite its previous prowess in that department. There have been bright spots in Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Chris Perez (on the field at least), but the rest of the group is keeping fans on the edge of their seats on a nightly basis.

The Indians are experiencing a great summer, even if the people of Cleveland don’t know it (their average attendance sits at 19,183, good for 27th in baseball). But how long can the good times last?

This isn’t a eulogy on the current season; this roster is much more suited to avoid a second-half collapse than the Indians of the last two seasons. The real concern lies with where this team will be in one, two, three or four seasons from now.

Of course, plenty of teams play for “now” – just look at the Toronto Blue Jays, unloading one of the better farm systems last offseason in an attempt to make a championship run now (a move that currently looks like a colossal failure).

Contrast the Blue Jays with the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that endured years of pain, but chose to build its team through the draft. After unleashing their prospects upon baseball, the Rays have made the playoffs three times since 2008 (missing out with 90 wins a year ago), with a World Series run in 2008. They have won 90+ games four of the last five seasons and have 56 victories one game into the post-All-Star break portion of the season.

So which franchise do the Indians want to be? They could try to have the best of both worlds – signing key veterans to supplement the young talent – but a painfully dry farm system will doom any team to perpetual mediocrity.

Of the current starting position players, only Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (already sent down to Triple-A Columbus once this year to work on his swing) are products of the Indians’ own farm system. As far as pitchers go, relievers Cody Allen and Vinnie Pestano are home-grown.

The rest of the Indians’ recent draft history is a graveyard of high expectations and pitiful results. Names like Adam Miller, Beau Mills, Trevor Crowe, Michael Aubrey, Jeremy Sowers, Brad Snyder and more are just painful reminders of how perilous and unforgiving baseball can be.

You don’t even want to see the Indians’ recent draft history for the second through fifth rounds.

And how about Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, the two highly-regarded prospects sent to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011? White is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Pomeranz is sporting a robust 8.76 ERA in three starts for the Rockies this year.

If the Indians want to have any hope of sustained success, this abysmal track record of player development has to change.

The tide could be changing in the team’s favor, though. Francisco Lindor, Danny Salazar (signed as an amateur free agent) and Tyler Naquin (with the jury still obviously out on Clint Frazier) are Cleveland talents that have a lot of upside. The key is to not be so blinded by the short-term view that a viable long-term plan is dismissed.

The plan for sustained success is even more important in the typically weak American League Central division. Drafting well and maintaining that talent level – even if it means not making a big midseason trade for the next few years – will pay dividends down the road, and break the cycle of mediocrity that has mired Cleveland for years.

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