AAA is the level where a team's top up-and-coming prospects mingle with older guys who serve as mentors, depth and MLB insurance policies along with fringe and work-in-progress players. Indy had plenty in all three categories to start the season.
As for prospects, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Steve Pearce and Brad Lincoln all made their way to the big club in 2010. That's good in its way, but also drained the young talent base of the Tribe. All but Lincoln had some impact on the Pirates. The exodus, though, left Indy with few real MLB challengers on the roster.
The utility infielder for the 2011 Bucs could come from the trio of Argenis Diaz and Pedro Ciriaco, both strong glovemen with weak bats, and Brian Friday, the oft-injured infielder who is a step behind in the field but better with the twig.
Contract status may have some bearing on how the middle infield crowd thins out. Ciriaco is the strongest candidate with the most tools, but he has an option left. Diaz is out of options, and Friday is Rule 5 eligible. It's a pretty safe bet that one of the two will be left off the 40-man in 2011.
There's also the possibility that a free agent will be plucked to shore the bench, but after the Ramon Vazquez/Bobby Crosby fiascoes, the FO may just stay home-grown.
Alex Presley had a break-out year; whether that is sustainable or not is to be seen. He's got decent wheels and a motor that never stops, and could be a fourth or fifth outfield option in 2011; our guess is that he'll return to Indy to see if he was for real. He's Rule 5 eligible this season. Brandon Moss had a great second half, but has the look of a AAAA player; we don't think he's long for the organization.
Jeff Clement is another guy who is in make-or-break mode. He's out of options, and a lot of his future value will depend on Garrett Jones; do they keep him at first or return him to RF?
Clement appeared to work out his swing at Indy, and he is just 25. He just had his knee scoped, but that shouldn't be a problem. The estimated recovery time is a month or less, so he should be good to go in the spring if he sticks on the 40-man roster. His position is further clouded by the pickup of John Bowker, another LH who is a little less powerful but more versatile; he's out of options, too.
Brandon Moss started at Indy in 2010 to resurrect his career. He had a great stretch run with regards to power and run production, but we think it's too little, too late for the out-of-options OF received as part of the Jay Bay package to return to the 40-man roster.
The starting pitching started out looking formidable, but Dr. James McAndrews cut it down to size quickly when Donnie Veal and Kevin Hart went under the knife for TJ surgery.
Veal, 26, wasn't sliced until June and isn't expected to be ready for spring training. He should start 2011 on the 60-day DL, but Hart, 27, who had his surgery in April, should be just coming back in the spring. Those injuries could drastically affect their future as starters and their roster status.
Brad Lincoln, expected by many to be a solid mid-rotation guy, fizzled badly in his cup of coffee at Pittsburgh. Whether his command doesn't play in the show or Joe Kerrigan screwed up his mechanics and mental approach is the question. Unless he has a lights-out camp, he'll be on the 40-man but probably start out 2011 in Indy.
Charlie Morton was another hurler sent down to see if he could find some light at the end of the tunnel. He made mixed progress, but has shown enough in his return to probably take a place in Pittsburgh's 3011 rotation, especially as he is out of options.
Brian Burres took over the Jeff Karstens role in Pittsburgh, and is on a roll right now. Karstens is a possibility to be non-tendered, but it's to be seen if that's enough to get BB a spot on a crowded 40-man roster in 2011.
Mike Crotta is a darkhorse to land on the 40-man. A starter for most of his career, he ate up some innings after being called up to Indy. He'll be 26 next season, and often has trouble getting deep into games. But he's dependable with a low 90's heater and a good ground ball ratio, so he could get a look as a DJ Carrasco, mid-game reliever type in the Bucco pen.
There doesn't seem to be much more in the way of bullpen help. Jean Machi was the closer, but at age 28 and with control issues leading to a 3.92 ERA, he doesn't seem a fit to move up and becomes a free agent after the season. Wil Ledezema was unhittable at Indy, but has a 6+ ERA in Pittsburgh and hasn't earned any trust from JR; he's due for arbitration and could be non-tendered. Daniel Moskos was brilliant at Altoona, got bombed in AAA, and settled back in with the Curve to at least keep himself on the radar screen. We'll see; he's Rule 5 eligible after the season.
The 2010 Tribe did its job in 2010, sending up some future everyday pieces to the mother club. But the remaining players are bench fillers until the lower level prospects begin to perk up to AAA. Expect a lot of turnover; there are many players who are in 40-man limbo and some AA guys from the championship Altoona Curve ready to take a step up.