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Interview: Prospect Guru Marc Hulet Talks Cleveland Indians' Farm System, Future

As a small-market team that can’t afford big-name free agents, the Cleveland Indians’ farm system is particularly important to their future success. And after three years of trading established veterans for prospects, the organization should be filled to the brim with promising young players—right? Right?

As writers release their prospect lists and organizational rankings, the results are mixed. The Tribe’s farm system has been ranked as high as third and as low as 17th, with lists of top prospects including anywhere from one to five Indians.

As we try to make sense of it all, we turn to FanGraphs prospect expert Marc Hulet, who was named one of the 100 most influential Canadians in baseball in a Sun Media poll. Hulet has a relatively skeptical view of the Tribe’s farm system, ranking the Indians organization 12th in his 2011 rankings (his top prospect list has not yet been released).

Here’s what he had to say:

WB: Consensus seems to be that (Lonnie) Chisenhall is somewhere around the 30th-best prospect in baseball, with some combination of (Drew) Pomeranz, (Jason) Kipnis, (Nick) Weglarz, and (Alex) White in the bottom half of Top 100 lists. Is that about where you have them too?

MH: I don’t want to give too much away with the Top 100 prospect ranking as it’s not scheduled to come out until mid-March, but Chisenhall does appear in the 30-40 range. Three more Cleveland players also appear in the Top 100. It’s a pretty solid showing for the organization.

(Note: From Hulet’s list of the Indians’ top prospects, we can infer that the other three players are White, Kipnis, and Pomeranz, in that order)

WB: I think most baseball people would agree that the Indians’ farm system is one of the best in the game…Why did you rank it No. 12?

MH: Keith Law ranked Cleveland 17th overall, while Baseball America ranked the organization seventh. My ranking ends up somewhere near the middle of those two, which I’m pretty happy with. I have to be honest that I haven’t read Sickels’ or BtBS’s rankings so I’m not sure what their justifications are for those. As for the rankings/opinions that I trust the most (beyond ours, of course), I would go Baseball America, Keith Law, and Kevin Goldstein.

Cleveland just isn’t a Top 10 team because of the lack of impact players at the top. I’m not a huge Chisenhall fan; I think he’ll be a solid regular but not a star. White could be a No. 2 or more likely a No. 3 starter. My two favorites in the Top 10 are Pomeranz (want to see a full season in pro ball) and (Joe) Gardner (love the ground-ball rates but needs a more well-rounded approach).

Cleveland utilizes a rather conservative draft approach – and doesn’t make much of an impact with the international market – and it impacts their minor league system.

WB: The Indians might not have any high-profile prospects, but they have an unusually high number of promising minor leaguers. Given how frequently top prospects bust, isn’t depth more important than star power?

MH: I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that the organization has an unusually high number of promising minor leaguers…The club has good depth but I start to lose a little interest in the Top 30 prospect list after about #20. Good, not great.

As for a sleeper for 2011, I like Kyle Blair. I’m also a Jordan Brown (Sean Casey) believer and was more than a little surprised that no other club took a shot at him when he passed through waivers.

I don’t know that depth is better than having high-impact talent. Everyone wants (and needs) to develop in-house star talent. Ideally, you want to have a little bit of both; don’t put all the eggs in one basket but also don’t resign yourself to developing No. 3-4 starters, middle relievers, and 2-3 WAR position players.

WB: We haven’t seen any of the young players we got for Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, or Victor Martinez achieve much success in the majors. When can Cleveland fans expect to see the returns we got for our beloved veterans?

MH: Here is my take on some of the returns for veterans that you asked about.

Cliff Lee—I was never big on this trade and felt Cleveland got hosed from the get-go. (Jason) Donald and (Lou) Marson are solid big league players, but they’re part-timers. (Carlos) Carrasco has a ton of potential but he’s soft. At best, he’s Javier Vazquez. Worst case scenario, he ends up with a Bruce Chen type of career. (Jason) Knapp has a chance to be a real find but his medical chart scares me and I don’t think he sticks in the starting rotation. If he makes the Majors, it could be as a high-leverage reliever… possibly a closer.

CC Sabathia—I love (Michael) Brantley and think he can be an everyday player, if given the opportunity. At worst, he could be one of the top fourth outfielders in baseball. Hopefully (Rob) Bryson is back and healthy. He has a promising arm, if it doesn’t fall off.  I think (Matt) LaPorta is going to turn out to be a solid player. I’ve interviewed him. He’s genuinely one of the nicest and most pleasant baseball players I’ve ever spoken to.

Victor Martinez—(Bryan) Price could end up being a solid middle reliever in the Majors. (Nick) Hagadone has been a favorite of mine for a while and could be a solid No. 3 or 4 starter if he can stay healthy. Worst case, though, he’s another reliever (albeit a solid one).

WB: When do you think the Indians will be serious competitors again?

MH: It’s hard to predict when Cleveland will be a serious competitor. Playing the AL Central, the club really does have a shot every year. Kansas City is gearing up to be sustainably-good for a long period of time so that’s something to keep in the back of your mind and I don’t think Minnesota is going away any time soon.

I’d say that Cleveland could develop into a contender in 3-5 years but they need to stop filling their starting rotation with No. 5 starters and shore up on the defense. As an outsider (but fan of the club), I don’t really see a concrete plan.

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