In 19th year, Tribe Winter Development Program preps players for big leagues

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Danny Salazar is a veteran of the Indians Winter Development Program.

Yan Gomes had already appeared in the Majors with Toronto by the time he came to Cleveland for the Indians week-long Winter Player Development program last January.

He’s now the team’s starting catcher and had a major impact on the team’s Postseason run last season. Danny Salazar, who made his own contributions down the stretch in 2013, is also a product of Cleveland’s unique offseason training initiative – now in its 19th year of existence (1996).

While Gomes and Salazar may be extreme cases of rapid rises through the team’s system, both serve as prime examples of how the program can benefit the team’s young talent.

In fact, that reality plays a significant role in how this group of participants is assembled by the Indians front office. “We try to identify players who could impact our major league in the very short-term future,” said Ross Atkins, the Tribe’s VP of Player Personnel. “Realistically, three to seven players in this room could see time with the Indians in 2014 — now, some of them might get sent right back down, but those role players are important throughout the course of a season.”

“It’s really about familiarity, with the clubhouse, with the staff, with the front office. It’s experience they don’t get in the minors,” added Carter Hawkins, the Indians Assistant Director of Player Development. “The speakers are people who have reached the major leagues in sports or business, and they’re able to share things they wish they knew when they were in these players’ positions.”

Fourteen Tribe prospects are in town for the program, in which they’ll hear from Tribe President Mark Shapiro, manager Terry Francona, ESPN journalist Buster Olney, Cavs General Manager Chris Grant, Sean Casey, Jason Giambi, St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle and a host of others on issues ranging from developing effective routines, being a good teammate, learning to win and handling media obligations.

Joey Wendle, the team’s 2013 Lou Boudreau Award winner for being named the top position player in the Indians Player Development system, is on hand, along with Jose Ramirez – who also impacted the big-league club in September — Jesus Aguilar and Tyler Naquin, other top position player prospects. Big-armed Cody Anderson is among the pitching prospects on hand.

For Wendle, who hit .295 with the Carolina  Mudcats last season, along with 32 doubles, 5 triples and 64 RBI, said the hope is to avoid a shellshock if and when the players are called up to the big leagues.

“You can tell how serious the Indians take this program by the resources they put into it, the people they have come in to talk to us,” said Wendle, who also was a Carolina League Postseason All-Star selection. “It helps us in that, in the future if we get called up, it’s not such a shellshock. We’re used to the facilities, the people who are here, the people who are of high stature. We’re not intimidated to speak with them, interact with them. We’ll see benefits from it in the future.”

Tyler Cloyd, who was signed to a minor-league deal with a big-league Spring Training invitation in December, also was in the majors last year, making 11 starts with the Phillies. Yet he’s here to get to know some guys he’ll spend time with in Spring Training in Goodyear; he said he, his wife and his 4-month-old daughter will drive from their Nebraska home to Goodyear next week.

“It’s a good way to get faces with names,” Cloyd said. “The only expectation I had for myself when I came up here was to learn as much as I can and they’re helping me do that. In this game, you never can stop learning. If this can help me in my future, that’s why I’m here.”

Atkins said that not only do the players get good experience from the week, but the speakers are also very complimentary of the program.

“The coolest thing is that the speakers say, ‘this is a really cool thing,’” said Atkins, who noted that the players chosen are players the Indians think can make an impact in the big leagues in 2014 – and who haven’t attended the program in prior years. “They say it over and over again to the players. It’s a big commitment by the Dolans, by the players, by the speakers. They all are motivated and inspired by where these individuals are in their careers and would like to impart their wisdom. We’re trying to ease their transition to the big leagues.”

More updates from Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins on some other attendees

On 2012 No. 1 pick Tyler Naquin, who made a change to his setup in the batter’s box last season:

“He’s not that different than what we drafted. We’re more encouraged based on his open-mindedness. He came to us wanting to put himself in a more powerful position, then did it in-season. This is a guy who had success, and we didn’t ask him to do it. He can be more consistent in that position.

It’s less about the adjustment but more about his mindset and his perseverance that’s most encouraging. He was open, willing and did it in season is the skill we’re more encouraged by.”

(Naquin, by the way, told some darn funny stories from Tribe Fest this past weekend at the ballpark and how he was a little star struck at hanging with some current Indians players and team legends.

He said he went to dinner with Kenny Lofton and Michael Bourn on Saturday night, and had to tell his dad he’d have to call him back because he was at Ken Stewart’s with two pretty good center fielders. Lofton even introduced him to a fan that approached the table to talk to Lofton.

Later, he said he was talking with Jim Thome at the Cavs game on Friday night and pretty soon, “I was sharing a sweet potato with him.”

Naquin, as you might expect, is going to be a favorite of reporters for many years with those stories.)

On reliever-turned-starter Cody Anderson:

“There aren’t a lot a lot of stories of guys converting from relief to being a starter. There are different reasons: It’s hard to be a starter. You have to be effective, durable and throw multiple pitches to throw for strikes. Scouts identified potential in him as a bullpen pitcher in college, then identified the person that would have the mental components to make the change. He’s arguably our best pitching prospect, with (Trevor) Bauer. He’s made himself into certainly someone who has all the attributes to make himself into a MLB starter.”

On 2013 No. 1 pick Clint Frazier:

“He’s in a good position. He will and we will evolve together with what ideal body weight will be and ideal profile will be as he matures. We’re mutually developing a vision for him. The work ethic that he has, we can adjust if need be. We’re not overly concerned with him being too big. We would never ask someone to work less. He’s extremely driven, hard working.”

On Jesus Aguilar, who had success in Winter ball:

“Jesus has raw power, and the thing that stands out is the professionalism of his at-bats. A year and a half ago, you saw power potential, a good swing, a lot of effort. Now, you see a very professional at-bat. The way he sees pitches, takes pitches, thinks situationally. It really stands out.”

–TribeVibe contributor Joel Hammond

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