(Jesus Aguilar – photo courtesy Columbus Clippers)
The final edition of Indian Baseball Insider’s “Top 10 in the Last 10” series will look at the highest level in the Indians farm system, the AAA Columbus Clippers. While this series looks at only players from the last decade, this nearly includes the franchises entire history with the Clippers as they moved affiliates from Buffalo to Columbus in 2009. Since then switch, the Clippers have had tremendous team success, winning the Governors’ Cup in 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2019.
10. Ryan Merritt – LHSP – 2015 through 2018
Merritt (pictured at top) was truly a unique pitcher in Indians history as he was never anything but absolutely dominant in the big leagues, but never was given a real chance. He also saw great success in AAA and his lack of MLB opportunities lead to 360.2 career innings (second most this decade) in Columbus across 60 starts (the most this decade). His 3.54 ERA was the best over a career for nine of the ten most used pitchers with only Zach McAllister having a lower mark.
Merritt didn’t immediately take off during his five starts in 2015, but he was solid in each of the following three seasons. His best came in 2017 when he held a 3.03 ERA over 116 innings. Always more a master of control than a pitcher with great stuff, his 3.8% walk rate was the lowest of the decade and his 3.9% mark in 2016 was the best for a single season. Merritt of course went on to pitch the Indians into the World Series in 2016 making his second career MLB start in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays and shut them out through 4 1/3 innings, all while ‘shaking in his boots.’
9. Cord Phelps – 1B/2B/SS/LF – 2010 through 2013
There was a time when the future Indians secondbaseman was going to be either Jason Kipnis or Cord Phelps. While Kipnis won the job and had a lengthy big league career in Cleveland, Phelps was the far superior player in AAA, largely due to his extended stay. He initially arrived in Columbus in 2010 after a half season in Akron and hit .317/.386/.506 with 20 doubles in 66 games. He started 2011 back in Columbus and had another good, although not quite as good, season. Playing 97 games, he hit .294/.376/.492, earning multiple call-ups to Cleveland including one in August that lasted through the end of the season.
Phelps was back in Columbus to begin 2012 as it was clear the starter would be Kipnis. That season he set high marks with 135 games, 34 doubles, 16 home runs and 71 walks. He came back for his final season in Columbus in 2013 and played another 65 games with 16 more doubles and nine more homers. His career AAA wRC+ ranked fifth over the last decade and each part of his .286/.367/.471 slash line was in the top 12. His 363 games were second only to Jesus Aguilar and his 95 doubles were the most of any Clippers hitter.
8. Lonnie Chisenhall – 3B/OF – 2011 through 2013 & 2015 through 2018
There were essentially three stages of Chisenhall’s Columbus career. First as a legitimate third base prospect in 2011 and 2012, then as a struggling big leaguer in 2013 and finally his conversion to outfield in 2015. He began the 2011 season in AAA and hit .267/.353/.431 over 66 games before he was promoted to Cleveland for the rest of the season. Despite nearly matching those numbers with the Indians, Chisenhall began 2012 back in Columbus where he played another 28 games before his second extended call-up. In 2013, he did start the season in Cleveland, but spent the middle back in AAA where he had his best AAA season, batting .390/.456/.676 over 27 games.
Across his final three seasons with the Clippers, he would play just 17 more games. Ultimately, due to the up and down nature of his career, Chisenhall doesn’t have any great single season records with the Clippers, but his career as a whole was one of the best of the decade. His 134 wRC+ ranks third while his average and slugging percent were both in the top ten. He ended up playing 187 games with the ClipShow, knocking in 117 runs and scoring 111.
7. Danny Salazar – RHSP – 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 & 2019
While Salazar spent parts of five seasons with the Clippers, the last three were all rehab assignments that including five total appearances between them. While these were all successful, he’s on the list for his first two seasons. Salazar’s first season in Columbus was one of his best at any level, posting a 2.73 ERA with 78 strike outs in 59.1 innings. He had made his first seven starts for Akron that year, then pitched in ten games in Columbus before making his big league debut in July. That was just a spot start and he returned to Columbus, making three consecutive scoreless starts to push him back into the big leagues.
He would finish the year in Cleveland and make the start in the wild card play-off game that year, but rejoined the Clippers after a poor start to the 2014 season in Cleveland. He made 11 starts for Columbus that year, going back and forth between Cleveland, and finished with a 3.71 ERA and 76 strike outs in 60.2 innings. Looking at all his seasons, his 2.90 ERA and his 31.6% K-rate were second best for the Clippers over the last decade.
6. Luis Valbuena – 2B – 2009 through 2011
The late Valbuena made his AAA debut for the Mariners in 2005 and joined the Indians organization in 2008 as part of the massive three way trade that sent Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle and Joe Smith to Cleveland. He became a Clipper in 2009, but since that sits outside of the decade, it doesn’t really count. Despite spending most of 2010 with the Indians, he played 25 games with the Clippers and hit .313/.427/.604. The following season, he spent a much more significant period with the Clippers, but didn’t hit at the rate he had previously. In 113 games, he hit .302/.372/.476 with 22 doubles, 17 home runs, 75 RBI and 64 runs scored. This made 2011 his most successful season, by far, until he joined the Houston Astros in 2015.
Combining both seasons, his 143 wRC+ ranked second this decade for Columbus and he had the fourth best average (.304) and OBP (.383) with the third best slugging percent (.500). Given his promise, it was fairly disappointing that Valbuena’s MLB peak didn’t come until he was almost 30 and lasted just for his two years in Houston.
5. Shawn Armstrong – RHRP – 2014 through 2017
Armstrong flew through the Indians system, knocking out three levels in 2012, then used Arizona Fall League experience in 2013 to reach AAA in 2014. He played just a few games in relief in 2014, but began 2015 back in AAA where he had a solid enough season to get a couple call ups to the big leagues. In his time in AAA, he had a 2.36 ERA and 80 strike outs in 49.2 innings and, if anything, he was even better in Cleveland.
Despite this success in limited appearances, he was back in Columbus to start 2016 and he was even better with a 1.84 ERA with 72 strike outs in 49 innings. Throughout this season, he was pulled back and forth between Columbus and Cleveland, ultimately finishing the last month out with the Indians. Again, he was very reliable in limited opportunities and this time, it lead to him starting the following season in the bigs. This wouldn’t last long, however, and by mid-April 2017, he was back in AAA. This would be his worst AAA season, but he still struck out 36 in 29.1 innings.
Among pitchers with at least 40 innings in a season, Armstrong’s top two seasons ranked sixth and 14th in ERA and first (38.1% in 2015) and third (35.3% in 2016) in K% over the last decade in Columbus. For his AAA career, his 34.2% K-Rate was #1as was his 2.44 ERA and 2.43 FIP. As he was used as a closer early on, he also had the most saves, successfully converting 35 of 40 opportunities.
4. Josh Tomlin – RHSP – 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2018
Tomlin actually made his AAA debut with Buffalo in 2008, but it was just one game in the wrong decade and wrong city, so we’ll ignore that. There’s plenty more to look at, however, as he spent parts of five seasons with Columbus. Given his big league success, it’s surprising that Tomlin didn’t have a good season as a starter until 2010 in Columbus. His previous best effort had been as a reliever in Kinston in 2008 and he started 2010 still in the bullpen. That didn’t last long, however, and he joined the rotation in mid-April allowing him to go on quite the run. In his next 18 games, he held a 2.34 ERA with a .210/.270/.332 line against across 103.2 innings. Despite essentially coming out of nowhere, Tomlin joined the big league rotation in July and has made at least one appearance in the Majors every year since including 2020 with Atlanta.
While he never was really sent back down to AAA long term, he did have short stints in Columbus in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018, the first two being very successful and the last two not so much. Over the last decade, Tomlin’s 2.94 ERA ranks fourth for the Clippers in just under 200 innings and he is one of eight pitchers to throw a complete game shut out (he did so in 2014). Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, his 2010 season ranks third in ERA (2.68) over the last decade.
3. Yandy Diaz – 3B/OF/1B – 2015 through 2018
It took just one season after being signed as an international free agent out of Cuba for Diaz to make it to AAA, although he played just four games there in 2015. He began 2016 back in Akron, but quickly made the jump back to Columbus where he immediately took off, hitting .328/.399/.461 with 22 doubles in 95 games. At the time, this was the third best average since 2010, but he surpassed it in his second season, batting .350/.454/.460 in his second season with the Clippers. This remains the third best single season average and OBP of the last decade.
Diaz started and finished the 2017 season with the Indians, limiting him to 85 games in Columbus, but was back in AAA to start 2018. His numbers dipped in this final season in the Indians organization as he batted .293/.409/.388 over 98 games before ending the season in Cleveland. For his Clippers career, Diaz ranked fourth in doubles (65) over the last decade and third in walks (177) helping him reach fourth in average (.319) and third in OBP (.415). All in all, his 145 wRC+ was fourth with two of his individual seasons remaining in the top ten.
2. Zach McAllister – RHSP – 2010 through 2016
Originally acquired from New York in the Jake Westbrook deal in 2010, McAllister made his Clippers debut that very season, then his big league debut in 2011. Despite that quick rise, McAllister combined inconsistency in the big leagues and injury issues to play at least one game in every season from 2010 through 2016, finally becoming a permanent fixture in the Indians bullpen in 2017. Since nearly all of 2013 was spent in the Indians rotation and 2016 in the bullpen, we can ignore those seasons in Columbus and focus on the rest.
In 2011, 2012 and 2014, McAllister made at least 11 starts with the Clippers, maxing out in 2011 with 25. In that year, his first full season with the franchise, he held a 3.32 ERA with 128 in 154.2 innings. Including both his major and minor league seasons, this was his career best for starts, innings and K’s. He improved upon the ERA, however, in 2012 when he held a 2.98 mark over 63.1 innings, then again in 2014 with a 2.09 ERA in 69 innings. Of course, by then he was spending more than half of the season in the big leagues.
For his Clippers career, McAllister’s 3.12 ERA was the lowest by any pitcher in the last decade with at least 200 innings while his 253 strike outs and three complete games ranked third. Individually, his 2011 ERA was the fourth best qualified over that span with the third most total strike outs in one season. Lowering the threshold to 60 IP, his 2014 season was the third best ERA.
1. Jesus Aguilar – 1B – 2014 through 2016
Aguilar spent three seasons in Columbus for some inexplicable reason and not only were they three of the best single offensive seasons over the last decade in Columbus, but combined they blow everyone else out of the water. He started there in 2014 and hit 19 home runs and 31 doubles in 118 games with some time missed as he made his MLB debut mid-season, then was a September call-up. While his .304/.395/.511 batting line would mark his season best for rate stats across his three AAA seasons, in 2015 he set a high with 93 RBI and 136 in 131 games, then in 2016 he set a career high with 30 home runs (he would go on to hit 35 in the big leagues with Milwaukee in 2018).
All three of Aguilar’s seasons rank in the top 10 Clippers seasons over the last decade in home runs and his 2014 season’s 149 wRC+ was tied for the best with Yandy Diaz while his 2016 (125) mark ranked tenth. For his career, Aguilar had the most home runs (68) and RBI (262) for the Clippers since 2010 and was second in doubles (86) and fourth in walks (164).