While it may not be the World Series that Indians fans have been looking for since 1948, a team with their namesake and future players did win it’s league championship last night and that team was the Arizona League Indians. The team plays at the MLB Indians Spring Training site in Goodyear, Arizona and while winning the game over the Giants on Monday night made it official, there was never any doubting that this team was something special.
The AZL Indians earned their trip to the postseason with a 37-16 regular season (and 20-5 in the second half), garnering them a bye through the first round of the play-offs. They took on the AZL Rangers in their first single game play-off on Sunday night and won 7-3 behind a solid pitching outing from Thomas Pannone (5.2 IP, 1 ER, 4 K’s, pictured at right) and a huge offensive performance from catcher Li-Jen Chu, who hit two doubles and knocked in two in the sixth to put the game away. Ping-Hsueh Chen shut down the Rangers in the ninth with one strike out and one walk allowed to gain entrance into the AZL Championship game, which would also be played at their home stadium.
Against the Giants, Shao-Ching Chiang was dominant as a starter, throwing a shut out to match the Giants starter Matt Gage through five innings. Gage finally allowed a run in the bottom of the fifth, but was pulled anyway leading to an onslaught unmatched by any team anywhere this year. In the sixth inning, the AZL Indians put 12 more runs on the board. With two outs, ten straight Indians reached base to end the inning. Yu-Cheng Chang smashed his second home run in as many games in the seventh to push the score to 14. Justus Sheffield, Jared
Robinson, Argenis Angulo and Yoiber Marquina shut out the Giants for the final four innings to complete the 14-0 victory and name the Indians the Arizona Rookie League Champions.
While success (and utter dominance) at the lowest American level of the Indians minor league system may not excite many Clevelanders, it should, as it shows a marked improvement in areas that will eventually help out the Major League team. Since the creation of the Indians Spring Training based rookie league team in Winter Haven in 2006, the team has never won more than 31 games, so the dominance this season is certainly something new. Since the team is largely made of that year’s high school draft picks, the record of the team is a better judge than any grading system of each team’s draft. The best player on the team for the season, MVP and Triple Crown winner Bobby Bradley, was the Indians third round pick (fourth by the Indians) while Justus Sheffield, the Indians second first round pick has also impressed. In addition to those, Alexis Pantoja (9th round), Bobby Ison (21) and Jodd Carter (24) were all productive starters for the offense while Angula (19th round) has been great out of the bullpen. While there is still a long way to go to make it to the Majors, or even the upper minors for these players, this group is off to a much better start than any other in the past nine years.
The second part of the Indians success may be even more exciting. In the history of the Cleveland Indians, they have been left in the dust as far as international scouting and signing has been concerned. While teams like the Mariners, Red Sox and Orioles have taken advantage of the emerging Asian market for players, the Indians top signed player from an Asian nation to this point has been Kazuhito Tadano (54.1 IP, 4.47 ERA). That may be changing as well, but these new additions are not from Japan. Shao-Ching Chiang (pictured below left), Yu-Cheng Chang, Li-Jen Chu (below right) and Ping-Hsueh Chen (direct
right) are all from Taiwan, a country that has produced just one Major Leaguer with Cleveland, current reliever C.C. Lee. While the two play-off games played in Arizona were great team efforts all around, these four really stood out. In the two games, Chiang and Chen combined to throw six innings, striking out six with just five base runners allowed while the offensive pair, Chang and Chu, were even better, going 9/15 with seven runs scored, five RBI, two home runs, three doubles and four walks. Chen appears to call a good game behind the plate while Chang, along with Alexis Pantoja, provided incredibly solid defense on the left side of the infield, especially considering the general poor nature of defense in this league.
The Arizona Rookie League is a glimpse into the Indians future. Even if just one or two players from this team ever make it to Cleveland, the success of the most recent draft picks and international free agents shows an improvement in the front office. For the team to be this dominant, especially after the recent draft picks were added for the second half, the talent evaluators have to have done an incredible job. Look out for most of the players in Lake County and Mahoning Valley next season and for now, just congratulate the Indians for an amazing championship season.