This has unquestionably been the weirdest year of baseball in the history of the sport and, beyond the fight between the players union and ownership, things have essentially been on pause since spring training saw an early end. In a typical season, there is generally a group of cuts of minor league players (and invitees to MLB camp) across the final two weeks of spring training, then another group of cuts at the end of extended spring training heading into the draft.
While the owners of all baseball teams have been taking a beating all year, the Indians have been among the best by committing to continue paying employees despite a lack of income. Part of this included not releasing any minor leaguers following the shortened spring. That has finally changed as eleven players were released on May 30th.
2019-20 MiLB Free Agents
These players can essentially be broken up into three groups, the first of which are those players who were only recently added to the organization. After seven years in the Cincinnati Reds minor league system, Ty Boyles chose to become a free agent last off-season. He had been a left handed starting pitcher throughout his career, but moved into the bullpen for the AA Chattanooga Lookouts in 2019. The Indians used him as such in two MLB spring games this year, but he never got a real chance with the franchise and was released.
Right handed reliever Zack Weiss was also formerly a Red, but was released after six seasons last July. He finished out the season in indy ball and was a late signing by the Indians this off-season. He pitched two games in relief in spring prior to his release. As a 27 year old with little MiLB success, his release is less surprising than his signing in the first place.
Wes Helsabeck spent five years in the Dodgers system as a left handed reliever before being released last July. He signed with the Indians during the off-season and was given a non-roster invite to spring training. While he pitched in just one game in spring coming off a great winter league season in Australia, he was among those released.
Jhon Peluffo was a waiver grab by the Indians in December from the Orioles. He had spent six years with Baltimore after signing as an international free agent, but never made it above high A. After moving from the rotation to the bullpen, his numbers improved in 2019 and he is still just 22, so he has one of the best chances to resign with another team among those on this list.
Finally, Gunner Leger was an undrafted free agent who was signed in January and never played in a professional game of any type prior to his release.
Low Level Organizational Players
While those names are largely unknown to Tribe fans, the next few will be more familiar to those with deep knowledge of the system and the last two should be known by everyone.
Starting with the newest addition, Brendan Meyer went undrafted in 2018 and was signed as a free agent in late June of that year. He started out as a right handed reliever in Arizona where he struggled despite being 2.5 years older than the average player at that level. Things were much better in 2019 when he split time between Mahoning Valley and Lake County, but he was still two years older than the average player at both levels, so his success isn’t an obvious indicator of his future. His release wasn’t a surprise, but it also wouldn’t have hurt the franchise to have given him one more look at high A before making this decision.
Going from the new guy to one who has been with the team for a long time, Alexis Pantoja was drafted in the 9th round of the 2014 draft and his first team (the 2014 AZL champion Indians) included current Major Leaguers Bobby Bradley, Yu Chang, Willi Castro, Thomas Pannone and Justus Sheffield. While Pantoja was one of the star players of that team (moving short stops Castro and Chang to second and third respectively), his bat never took off at higher levels and he maxed out in Akron last year. While he is still just 23 and provides great value as a solid defender at second, third and short with a little experience in left and first, it isn’t surprising that the Indians have given up on him after two straight years in Akron. After all, nearly everyone else from that class is either gone from the organization, in the Majors or is nearing MLB readiness.
Jason Rodriguez has also been a long term farm hand, debuting in 2014 as well, although in the Dominican Summer League. As he played in the AZL from 2015 through 2016, then in extended spring in each of the next three seasons, I’ve seen as much of Jason Rodriguez as any player. I’ve always been impressed by his work ethic, particularly his defense behind the plate, but his bat just never came through. He did show major improvements in 2018 with the Scrappers, but by that point was much older than the rest of the league. The Indians tried to push him ahead by skipping Lake County last year, but he had injury issues and was just never able to catch up to high A. As with nearly all these cuts, this one isn’t surprising, but this one is a little more significant given his time with the organization.
Like Rodriguez, Felix Tati (pictured at top) joined the Indians as an international free agent in 2013 and first broke out with the 2014 DSL Indians. He played the majority of three seasons there, however, robbing him of the advantage of youth. By the time he hit the AZL he was already 19. Despite this and poor numbers in that season, he made it to Lynchburg by 2018. However, he didn’t stick out there and played a second season in high A in 2019. There is a lot to like about the 23 year old right handed starter turned reliever, but he doesn’t rank highly among Indians pitching prospects and there is little surprise that the Indians would move on at this point.
The Big Guys
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Indians didn’t release many of their long term AAA/AAAA players as they very well could need them should the 2020 season ever start. Details haven’t been worked out yet, but teams could very well have expanded rosters to make up for a lack of MiLB season and players who would have been borderline could now be big leaguers. That being said, two such players were included among this group of cuts.
First, there is David Speer, the left handed reliever who blew through the system and hit AAA for the first time in 2016, his third season with the franchise. As a 27th round pick in 2014, Speer already has to be considered a successful draft pick to make it this long in the pros. He had his best season in 2019 with Akron with a 1.81 ERA across 54.2 innings, but just never managed to repeat those results in AAA. An extremely low velocity pitcher, Speer just doesn’t fit the Indians current bullpen model and, at a minimum, is behind Kyle Nelson, Scott Moss and Adam Scott among minor leaguers who could be lefties in the bullpen in 2020.
The biggest name and biggest surprise of the eleven releases was, by far, outfielder Mike Papi. Papi was an Indians first round pick in 2014 (their third that year after Bradley Zimmer and Justus Sheffield) and had advanced to Columbus by 2017. As the MLB team scrambled to find any outfielder available, Papi was constantly passed over as he played 147 games in AAA over the last three years.
That being said, it is easy to see why he was passed over. Despite playing power positions of right field and first base, he never hit for much power and in AAA batted .235/.535/.359. Struggling with injury in 2019, he hit significantly less than this in a short season. With Daniel Johnson and Ka’ai Tom having performances in 2019 that scream for a shot at the big leagues, Papi has been completely surpassed by the next generation of outfielders and was never likely to get a shot in Cleveland. At 27 and without a very high ceiling, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the end of his professional baseball career anywhere.
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