Despite constant roster flux, Triple-A Indians win division
INDIANAPOLIS — The Pirates have relied upon their Triple-A affiliate this season more than any of the seven National League teams in the playoff picture.
While it’s caused Indianapolis’ roster to be in constant flux, one trend has continued: winning. The Indians have clinched their second consecutive International League West Division championship and will meet Durham, a Tampa Bay affiliate, in the playoffs beginning Wednesday.
“Our first meeting of the year is to talk about our goal for the season, and it’s been the same through the season — win the division,” Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said. “This team has shown a lot of resiliency with all of the movement, the players that have gone up, the players that have come back.”
Excluding rehabilitation assignments, the Pirates have called up 18 players from Indianapolis this season, many on multiple occasions, for a total of 34 promotions. A dozen of those players have been pitchers.
In comparison with other playoff contenders, St. Louis has promoted 17 players on 28 occasions; followed by Los Angeles (14 players/26 promotions), Washington (1 3⁄20), Arizona (1 1⁄20) and Cincinnati (1 1⁄18).
Still, Indianapolis has been in first place since late into the first week of the season, growing its division lead to double-digits at one point and never letting it slip below six games.
“I think it kind of starts with the mentality of the staff,” said Matt Hague, who leads the IL with 151 hits. “Dean (Treanor) demands the best out of us and that mentality kind of transfers to whomever is here on the field.”
The Indians’ biggest strength has been their pitching, which is what has benefited the Pirates the most.
Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole began the season with Indianapolis, as did relievers Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro and Jared Hughes. Brandon Cumpton has made four spot starts for the Pirates, going 1-1 with a 2.78 ERA.
Ryan Reid has appeared in seven games, helping a taxed bullpen by allowing just two runs over 11 innings. Kris Johnson threw five scoreless innings in relief during an extra-inning marathon before allowing two runs in his sixth inning of work.
“I think some of it is the culture we’ve gone through in spring training,” Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said. “It goes back to Clint Hurdle. … He talked about it not being the 25 we’re going to leave with, but it’s going to take 40 or more. It’s going to take a boatload of guys.”
The Indians’ team ERA is 3.40, second in the IL, slightly behind Durham (3.33). Filer said the organization simply has “quality arms,” noting the ability of many to mix a mid-90s fastball with a solid breaking ball.
“Some of our philosophy is downhill and down,” Filer said. “We want the guys throwing the ball with angle and in the bottom of the zone, and then pitch upstairs with a purpose. … We teach pitching inside, using the inner half of the plate, in and off, and making sure it opens up the other half.”
Of the 12 Indianapolis pitchers that have been called up this season, seven have had an ERA of 3.80 or less with the Pirates.
“It just shows the maturity of the guys down here in the minor leagues,” said Johnson, who leads the IL with a 2.39 ERA. “It shows the patience and talent we have with our coaching staff and management. They’ll go through video and game stuff, and little things like that can prepare a guy for the next step.”
Indianapolis’ starting rotation is comprised of players coming from all backgrounds: Jameson Taillon (1-2, 3.77 ERA) was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft; Stolmy Pimentel (2-6, 3.13) was acquired through a trade with Boston; Johnson (10-4, 2.39) was signed as a free agent after previously playing in an independent league; Cumpton (6-7, 3.32) was a ninth-round pick in 2010; and Andy Oliver (5-4, 4.18) was acquired from Detroit via a trade.
“It says a lot about our organization,” Treanor said. “One of the things they’ve set out to do is stockpile arms. You can’t have enough arms, and they’ve shown that. They’ve done that through the draft, player development and through trades.”
Roster moves left Indianapolis without four of its five starters prior to the start of the playoffs last season, which closely coincide with Major League rosters expanding to 40.
Treanor doesn’t expect to lose as many starters this season, though the coaching staff knows anything is possible. Cumpton, Johnson, Oliver, Pimentel, Reid and Duke Welker are on the 40-man roster, with Johnson and Pimentel on the active roster now.
“That’s what we’re here for — to make sure we produce players for the next level,” Filer said.
While pitching has been its strength this season, Indianapolis also has lost its fair share of position players, most notably IL All-Stars Josh Harrison and Tony Sanchez, and most recently, Andrew Lambo.
Indianapolis will open its best-of-five series against Durham with road games on Wednesday and Thursday; before hosting the final three games, as necessary.
Brian Peloza is a freelance writer.