Indians need to reverse poor draft history

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
11:03
AM ET
When the St. Louis Cardinals reached the World Series this fall, there was a great deal of discussion about how their roster was composed of a lot of homegrown players. If you look at the 25-man World Series roster, 17 of 25 were drafted by the Cardinals. One player on fire for much of the postseason was rookie pitcher Michael Wacha, a player drafted just the previous year. With four World Series appearances in the past 10 years, including two world titles, it's obvious the Cardinals are doing something right.

It is sort of a stark contrast to the 2013 Cleveland Indians, a team that had very few players drafted in-house. For much of the season, the Indians had just three players on their 25-man roster they drafted themselves -- Jason Kipnis (second round, 2009), Lonnie Chisenhall (first round, 2008) and Cody Allen (23rd round, 2011). Vinnie Pestano (20th round, 2006) spent time on the roster before his demotion to Triple-A Columbus at the end of July. Despite the lack of their own drafted players, the team still managed to go 92-70 and make the playoffs as the first wild-card seed. Even though they obviously did something right, their history of questionable draft picks is a major concern.

The Indians have particularly struggled with their first-round picks. Some of their busts from 2000 to 2007 include names like Corey Smith, Dan Denham, Alan Horne, Brad Snyder, Michael Aubrey, Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe, Adam Miller, David Huff and Beau Mills (son of current third base/bench coach Brad Mills).

Crowe, drafted in 2005, is bouncing around as a fourth outfielder/Quad-A player. So while he at least made the majors, it stings to consider the fact that the Indians chose him over Jacoby Ellsbury. Huff, drafted in 2006, has seemingly found a niche for himself as a left-handed reliever with the Yankees; as a starter with the Indians, he saw little success. Smith, Denham, Horne, Miller and Mills never saw a single major league game. Snyder and Aubrey saw no more than a few dozen games of major league action, while Sowers stuck around for a few years (even if he didn't perform that well).

The only first-round success story you'll find from the 2000-2007 period is Jeremy Guthrie, who in 2002 received the highest draft bonus the Indians had ever given at the time. While he has found success in the majors, it was after the Indians gave up on him. As for the first-round picks from 2008 to 2013, the jury is obviously still out on several of these players. Chisenhall was sent down to Triple-A at one point this season, and spent much of his time in a platoon at third base. Alex White (2009) and Drew Pomeranz (2010) have struggled, and are gone, anyway -- traded to the Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011. Big things are expected for shortstop Francisco Lindor (2011), who will be just 20 years old at the start of next season, and it's far too early to determine whether Tyler Naquin (2012) and Clint Frazier (2013) were successful picks. An interesting point about Naquin: He was drafted just slots ahead of Wacha, his teammate at Texas A&M.

To find the previous highly successful first-round pick for the Indians, you'd have to go back to CC Sabathia in 1999. The team didn't always struggle with their early-round draft picks; their 1990s powerhouse teams had a number of players drafted in-house: Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy and Jim Thome made up the core of those successful clubs.

While 17 of 25 of the 2013 Cardinals were in-house draft picks, 15 of 25 Indians players were acquired via trade. Even though the Indians have had some high-profile busts through trades (like Matt LaPorta from the 2008 Sabathia trade, and most of the players acquired for Cliff Lee in 2009), they've also flown under the radar with a number of successful deals. They flipped Esmil Rogers, a reliever they'd claimed off waivers from Colorado in 2012, to the Blue Jays for Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles. They got starter Zach McAllister from the Yankees for half a season of Austin Kearns in 2010. Catcher/1B/DH Carlos Santana was acquired from the Dodgers for a half season of Casey Blake in 2008, while Asdrubal Cabrera came from the Mariners in 2006 for Eduardo Perez. It's almost baffling that the Indians seem to get it right when it comes to acquiring prospects during trades, yet they struggle to find success drafting the prospects themselves.

The Indians have had some bad luck. Take Adam Miller, a power pitcher drafted in 2003. As Miller arrived at spring training in 2007, it looked like it was just a matter of weeks or months before he would join the rotation. His fastball was hovering in the upper 90s, and scouts raved about his future. Unfortunately, he dealt with a number of severe hand issues. A hole actually formed in the middle finger of his right hand, and he eventually had four surgeries on the finger with ligaments transplanted from his calf and his wrist. This past season, he pitched for Sugar Land in the Atlantic League, still trying to reach the majors.

Not everyone can be the Cardinals and have 17 of 25 players on the roster drafted in-house. But when you're a mid- to small-market team like Cleveland, your room for error is much smaller. If you're looking for cost-conscious ways to run a team, you need to find success in the draft and through acquiring low-cost players via trade. The Indians have done OK with the low-cost trade part of that equation. Fans have to hope that draft fortunes will change, and that some of the promising names in their system now will have an impact at the major league level. If they are to remain a playoff team, they can't afford to continue to make the mistakes of 2000-2007.

Stephanie Liscio is co-owner of It's Pronounced Lajaway and the author of the book "Integrating Cleveland Baseball." She's on Twitter @stephanieliscio.

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