On a hot summer’s night in Akron, the Aeros team bus was ready to head out of town for a road trip. The coaches and players were showered and packed, and all the gear was on board except for two bodies and one very important package.
The bus was supposed to have been en route already but stood idling in front of Canal Park. Outfielders Cedric Hunter and Carlos Moncrief ordered some cookies from Insomnia Cookies, just down the street, and Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez OK’d the quick mission for munchies. Hunter and Moncrief returned shortly with the precious cargo in hand.
It’s one of 100 stories bound to come from the craziness of minor-league baseball every season. The Aeros, who finished their home season Thursday night, had a down year after winning the Eastern League title in 2012. But this team had some higher-profile names than the 2012 edition. And Moncrief, cookie connoisseur, was one of the main highlights.
Moncrief, a converted pitcher who entered this season at the Double-A level with a high ceiling but raw tools, made a name for himself with a couple of seemingly impossible throws from right field — he nearly nabbed a runner at third who went in standing because he didn’t think there would be a throw.
“Everybody knows I love to throw people out,” Moncrief said. “[A] couple guys try to challenge me sometimes. Ronny Rodriguez, he’s got a good arm from shortstop. We’ll stand on the line and see who can throw the ball the farthest over the fence.”
According to Moncrief, he’s the undisputed champion. But what should have the Indians excited are the steps he took at the plate. Going into Thursday night’s game, Moncrief was hitting .286 with seven home runs, 25 doubles and 73 RBI in 124 games. His numbers have been overshadowed by Jesus Aguilar, who broke the Aeros’ single-season RBI record. With a week of games to play, he’s the first Aeros player to reach 100 (101, so far) and has a .274 average with 16 home runs and 28 doubles, most of it as a first baseman.
Aguilar overshadowed Moncrief at the plate but prized prospect Francisco Lindor outshined both in hype in his brief stint with the Aeros before being shut down due to a sore back. Lindor will finish the year with a .289 average in 21 games and will most likely open the 2014 season at Double-A Akron. Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is set to be a free agent after the 2014 season, so Lindor’s progress will again be the biggest storyline in the Indians’ system.
Hunter, playing next to Moncrief in center field, has had a strong season as well, hitting .295 with 12 home runs and 39 RBI in 61 games with the Aeros. Then there were the middle infielders who were shifted around when Lindor was called up, Ronny Rodriguez (.266, 12 stolen bases, 47 RBI) and Jose Ramirez (.274, 38 stolen bases). Edwin Rodriguez said the progress made by the lineup was one of the Aeros’ biggest steps in the right direction.
“If you go one by one, they all had a good season,” Rodriguez said. “All in all, the position players got better throughout the season. That’s a good year.”
The minors are about individual players getting better, but on the team level, why the downturn from last season? Much of that lies with the starting rotation, which aside from Matt Packer, never received consistent quality starts.
Packer has a 3.41 ERA in 148 innings pitched. Will Roberts is second on the team in innings with 127⅓. Packer’s season goal was primarily to stay healthy, but after a strong first half, he reassessed those goals and aimed higher.
Aside from Aeros fans getting a sneak peek of Danny Salazar before he entered the rotation for the Indians, the rotation left a lot to be desired and will be a focus this offseason. Brett Brach made strides pitching out of the stretch, Toru Murata had a couple of quality starts and a few others took steps forward but never put things together.
That’s the goal of minor-league baseball, and it’ll be the goal for the Aeros next season. That’s if Rodriguez can get Moncrief, Hunter and the team bus moving on time.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.