Development program helps Indians prepare future players

CLE INF Jesus Aguilar (10) playing for the World team during batting practice prior to the 2012 All Star Futures game between the US Team and the World Team in Kansas City, MO at Kauffman Stadium. 

Icon SMI

The Cleveland Indians annual Winter Development Program kicked off on Monday at Progressive Field. Now in its 18th year, the Winter Development Program consists of a week long program for 14 players in the Indians minor league system to help acclimate them to the major league environment.

The following players are in Cleveland for the program: first baseman Jesus Aguilar, right-handed pitcher Cody Anderson, right-handed pitcher Tyler Cloyd, right-handed pitcher Joseph Colon, left-handed pitcher Kyle Crockett, infielder Erik Gonzalez, left-handed pitcher Colt Hynes, catcher Jake Lowery, outfielder Bryson Myles, outfielder Tyler Naquin, right-handed pitcher Bryan Price, infielder Jose Ramirez, right-handed pitcher Will Roberts, infielder Giovanny Urshela and second baseman Joey Wendle.

The Winter Development Program is the brainchild of former GM and current President Mark Shapiro back in January of 1996. The idea behind the program is to hone in on each players’ physical, mental and fundamental skills.

"When Mark Shapiro first put the program together back in 1996, there were not that many places that players could go in the offseason to have major league resources for strength and conditioning, for baseball work or just to be around other professional players," Indians assistant director of player development Carter Hawkins said in a phone interview on Monday. "Originally it was a four-week program in Cleveland where the top prospects would come in and workout every day at Jacobs Field and they would throw and then do baseball activities over at Case Western University. They would live with host families for those four weeks and it was a full month in the city of Cleveland in the middle of winter. In addition to the physical part of that there was also the mental side with speakers coming in helping to talk about things to help the players make the transition from a talented minor league prospect to a successful winning major league player."

The program mostly involves players who are expected to make their Major League debut in the upcoming season, who have recently been acquired in a trade, or are a high-level prospect nearing a big league opportunity. It serves as an introduction for many of the minor league players to the Progressive Field facility, big league coaching staff, and the city itself.

"It really is just to increase their comfort level with the environment and ease any anxieties they may have," Hawkins said. "To take that aspect of the transition to the major leagues out of the picture and let them focus on executing on the field and winning and things that are important and will impact the Indians going forward."

The Indians are conducting the program out of Progressive Field from for this week only. Several years ago they changed the program from four weeks to two-week program, and this year they whittled it down to one week.

"As time went on we realized that it wasn’t really the physical part of it that was productive for our players, it was the mental part of it just incurring the familiarity with the city of Cleveland and understanding what it takes to be a winning Cleveland Indian," Hawkins explained. "We felt like we did not need four weeks for that necessarily and we could get a good impact in a shorter period of time. Also, players have more opportunities now to have major league type resources in the offseason that are not necessarily in the major league ballpark. All of those factors combined make it the one week program it is now."

Their daily routine involves classroom sessions with various members of the Indians coaching staff, physical conditioning, baseball fundamental work and listening to guest speakers. In the past several former Indians players have spoken to the players, and the likes of local coaches such as Chuck Kyle of St. Ignatius and national personalities like Peter Gammons have made impactful speeches.

This year several former players and current members of the player development staff such as Tim Belcher, Travis Fryman, Edwin Rodriguez and Jason Bere will speak to the players, and members of the front office like Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro will also speak to them. Several guest speakers are also lined up with Coach Kyle, Buster Olney and Daniel Coyle set to come in and give speeches. Coyle wrote a book called "The Talent Code".

"I think one of the interesting parts of this program or anytime you try to read about successful people is there really are no secrets and everyone is similar in the way that they achieved success and their potential," Hawkins said. "It is just framed by their experiences and perspectives. The cool part is hearing people say the same thing in different ways. Of course Chuck Kyle is talking about football while Travis Fryman is talking about baseball, but at the core of it is the same concepts and same themes that our players need to capitalize on to achieve their goals."

In years past, players were not familiar with who Coach Kyle was but he always left a lasting impression on the players after he spoke.

"It always amazes me the energy that Coach Kyle has for his craft, about teaching, and making players better," Hawkins said. "Guys see his name on the itinerary and don’t think twice about it because he is not a household name outside of Cleveland and the high school football world, but once they listen to him and once they feel his passion they understand why he has been so successful and impacted so many young men in his life. I think they all take something from that and apply it to their own careers."

In addition to classroom activities, players live with host families in the Cleveland area and attend various extracurricular activities such as the Cleveland Symphony and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as other community and charitable appearances and tours of local attractions. This year because of the frigid weather the activities outside of Progressive Field will be limited, but all of the players will take part in one of the Hot Stove sessions set for Lake County and Mahoning Valley on Thursday.

In recent years, at the end of the first week the Indians would shift the program to the Indians Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Ariz., to further hone the skills of their players on the diamond while continuing to take part in strength and conditioning activities. But that part of the program was dropped last year.

It may be down to a one-week program, but it doesn’t lessen the importance of it. Over time the Indians have just learned to be more efficient with what the real purpose of the program is for them and their players.

"The main purpose of the program as it stands," Hawkins said, "is to offer our players a resource to help them in their transition to the major leagues."