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Introducing Indians power prospect Jesus Aguilar; director Ross Atkins talks Winter Development

By Stephanie Storm Published: January 29, 2014

tribe29_03Truth be told, one of my favorite things to do in January has nothing to do with the cold or snow. Instead, it’s visiting the Indians Winter Development Program held annually at Progressive Field to talk with farm director Ross Atkins (picture above) and a number of the Indians top prospects.

Here's one you'll want to remember: Jesus Aguilar.

Early Tuesday evening I stopped by the visitor’s clubhouse, listened to Atkins answer questions from a handful of local media about the guys hanging out nearby. Afterwards, I spent 25 minutes interviewing Aguilar, Indians top home-run hitting prospect .

I’d interviewed the first baseman a handful of times last season while he dominated Double-A pitching as the Aeros clean up hitter who went to rack up a franchise-best 105 RBI.

But he’d never been as talkative as he was after an offseason of starring in the Venezuelan Winter League, where the 6-foot-3, 250-pound slugger smashed 18 homers in just 58 games for Leones del Caracas. By comparison, in 130 games with Akron last season, he hit 16.

So, look for an upcoming story in the ABJ and on Ohio.com detailing Aguilar’s break out experience in his third season in winter ball, one aided in a big way by having teammate and 17-year MLB veteran Bobby Abreu serve as his mentor. 

MORE ABOUT THE INDIANS WINTER DEVELOPMENT LEAGUE:

For now, here’s some more from Atkins. While discussing the merits of the Tribe’s WDP, it dawned on him that this year marked the 20th season of the program that gathers 15 or so of the organization’s top players who could make an impact on the big league club during the upcoming season.

“Essentially, we’re trying to ease their transition to the big leagues,” Atkins said. “As we give them that orientation, we like to put them around some advanced resources…We want them to be comfortable in spring training and make sure when they get [to the big leagues], the skids are greased…They spend time with people from various departments within the organization and get comfortable with them. They get connected to the city by going to a Cavs game and meet other pro athletes in town.”

How does the team choose which players to invite for a week each season (originally the program was four weeks long with a lengthy “strength and conditioning component” that’s not as necessary these days as players keep in shape throughout the offseason)?

“They’re guys that we feel can make an impact (on the major league club) in 2014,” Atkins said. “Last year, (pitcher) Danny Salazar and (catcher) Yan Gomes were here…anywhere from three to seven of them will make an impact this year for us.”

The players spend the day in various activities, with one of the favorites being listening to a wide array of guest speakers.

This year, well known ESPN columnist Buster Olney highlights a list of speakers that also includes Cleveland Heights author Daniel Coyle, whose popular book “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips For Improving Your Skills” Amazon dubbed “a manual for building a faster brain and better you.” 

“He lives locally and actually works with the Navy SEALs and (NFL team) the Philadelphia Eagles,” Atkins said. “It’s about the mindset that talent isn’t limited. You can achieve great things. It’s not just about what you’re born and blessed with.”

Chris Grant, the Cavs general manager who works right across the street at Quicken Loans Arena, is also scheduled to speak to this year’s Winter Development Program participants. The players also hear from a handful of internal front office members such as Tribe manager Terry Francona, pitching coach Mickey Callaway, team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti.

One of the more famous speakers, longtime St. Ignatius football coach Chuck Kyle, has spoke to every class over the program’s 20 years. Many years like this one, WDP alumni such as former Indians first baseman Sean Casey, come back to speak to the guys sitting in the same audience he once did as a member of the inaugural group. 

Atkins often hears from other veterans of the program who tell him how much it helped them make the transition from the minors to the majors.

“(I’ve heard from) almost everyone of them,” he said. “Whether it’s (former pitchers) Jeremy Sowers or Adam Miller, guys who maybe their career weren’t quite what they wanted them to be, to others like (former outfielder) Grady Sizemore (and pitchers) Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook – guys who’ve all come back and been speakers for the program. They will come and say, ‘the program had an unbelievable impact on me because when I transitioned, I was more comfortable.”

One major relationship that tends to stand the test of time is between the players and their host families.

“I think (former pitcher) C.C. (Sabathia) is still in touch with his host family, I know Jeremy Sowers’ is and (former Tribe catcher) Victor (Martinez) is really close with his (host family.) These people become their families here. So when the guys come back later with wives and kids, they have a built-in family they trust who can help them out with things (such as babysitting).”

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