Back in Orbit: Frustration, Patience, and the 2009 Akron Aeros

As the Cleveland Indians weigh their 2016 trade assets, former Double-A prospects Steven Wright, Hector Rondon, Jeanmar Gomez & Josh Tomlin prove the jury is always out.

Whether you think the Indians are more in need of offensive help or a bullpen upgrade, the past three days in Baltimore could certainly make either case. Cleveland (56-41) is now just 7-14 this year against the AL’s other elites: Baltimore (1-5), Texas (1-2), Boston (2-3), Toronto (2-2), and Houston (1-2). Maybe that’s damning evidence of an ill-preparedness for postseason play; maybe it’s just a small sample size spaced over several months. Either way, the theme of the day—on the trade market and on the field—is patience in the face of frustration.…Or is it? Around the same time Cody Allen coughed up the game-winning homer to my former Bowling Green classmate Nolan Reimold on Sunday afternoon, the Indians were—supposedly—the front runners in the sweepstakes for Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman. A few hours later, however, that title had shifted to the North Side of Chicago. With the Cubs, Chapman would be unseating a solid closer in Hector Rondon and leaving behind a hole in the closer trade market, forcing teams to weigh the likes of Philadelphia’s Jeanmar Gomez. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have already added Drew Pomeranz in one of the first major deals of the trade season, but can they really count on the knuckleballing sensation Steven Wright as their No. 2 starter in the playoffs? The Indians are just about the only team not looking for starting pitcher help, as Josh Tomlin represents the most dependable No. 5 slot option in the league.

Wait a minute. Hector Rondon? Jeanmar Gomez? Steven Wright? Josh Tomlin? Why do I feel a weird cosmic connection between those names? Did I awkwardly mention them all in the same paragraph for some heretofore unknown reason?

[A voice whispers]: Patience.

Oh yeah! I remember now. Rondon, Gomez, Wright, and Tomlin—that was essentially the core of the 2009 Akron Aeros pitching staff. Wow. And to think, a few years after that ’09 Eastern League Championship season, you might have looked back on those same pitchers and thought, “too bad none of those guys ever quite reached their potential.” Now, seven years on, pitching for four different organizations, they’re all at least borderline all-stars having career-best seasons.

The same goes for the aforementioned Pomeranz, who pitched briefly for Akron back in 2011.

Obviously, not every young prospect gestates as quickly as Frankie Lindor or Cody Allen, and one of the central challenges of the trade deadline is determining not only the potential of the assets you have, but the time it may take them to reach that potential. Good luck with that.

Take my old pal Nolan Reimold. Some fans were surely rolling their eyes in the ninth inning when Nolan, coming off the bench, took Allen deep to send the Orioles (57-40) to the walk-off win, series sweep, and sole possession of the best record in the American League. It was just Reimold’s fifth home run of the year, and on a team filled top to bottom with ‘90s style sluggers, he’s not the guy you to tend to worry about. Still, Reimold has always tended to reward the patience of his managers. I am uniquely qualified to say so, perhaps, since I actually covered the guy way back in 2003, when I was a doe-eyed beat reporter for the highly respected publication known as the BG News. Reimold was often overshadowed even back then. Kelly Hunt was the bigger bopper in the Falcon lineup (.713 slugging percentage that season), and Nolan wasn't even the most popular Reimold on campus—as his brother John was the leading scorer on Dan Dakich's basketball squad. We wouldn't have guessed it then, but it was Nolan (and a struggling pitcher named Burke Badenhop) who would make it to the pro ranks. The dude is a perseverance machine. Sure, he's been plagued by injuries his whole career, and his excellent rookie season WAR of 2.6 is still his WAR today, for his whole career. But, as Cody Allen found out, a mistake to Nolan Reimold can still go a long way. He's carved out his niche. same could be said about Baltimore’s starter on Sunday, Vance Worley. Picked up off the waiver wire last year, the former Phillie and Pirate was making just his third start of the season, but he managed to shut down the Indians to the tune of two runs in seven innings. Say what you want about Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin putting the Indians in a hole on Friday and Saturday—they each gave up first innings homeruns to the league’s leading homerun hitter, Mark Trumbo. That’s gonna happen. It was the Indians’ failures to sustain any rallies against Worley, Dylan Bundy (making just his second start of the year), and Kevin Gausman (had just one win in his 16 previous starts) that did them in this weekend.

Just about all the players mentioned above spent some time in the Eastern League, by the way. Reimold was a standout for Bowie in 2008 with 24 homeruns, Worley broke out with Reading in 2010, and Bundy and Gausman were part of Baltimore’s long run of top pitching prospects with the Baysox. The Eastern League is generally a pitcher’s league, but you’d be hard pressed to find a rotation that has carried its success to the highest level in quite the detour-ridden fashion as the ’09 Akron Aeros.

The 2009 Aeros were managed by Mike Sarbaugh, and were led by the league MVP, a fella named Carlos Santana. The real star was the pitching staff, however, which led the league with a 3.40 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. The “ace,” arguably, was 24 year-old Josh Tomlin, who was tops in the EL with 14 wins and ranked second in strikeouts with 125. His teammate Jeanmar Gomez was 5th in strikeouts (109, slightly ahead of Vance Worley) and 6th in wins (10). Hector Rondon, meanwhile, posted a team-best 1.056 WHIP, second among EL starters only to a dude name Madison Bumgarner. Finally, former 2nd round pick Steven Wright—splitting time between the rotation and bullpen, and wholly unfamiliar with how to throw a knuckleball—was a remarkable 10-0 with a 2.32 ERA.

In fact, the whole Aeros bullpen—even without the services of future Major League closers Gomez and Rondon—was the best in the league, too, led by Vinnie Pestano (24 saves), Neil Wagner, Zach Putnam, and Josh Judy. Judy’s 11.5 K/9 rate was slightly ahead of a young up-and-comer at Bowie that year named Jake Arrieta. Ya notice how I keep name-dropping Eastern League future-stars in obnoxiously sarcastic fashion?

2009 Akron Aeros “Big Four” (As They Were Never Known Then)

Josh Tomlin, Indians:       
2009: Age 24, 145 IP, 14-9, 4.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.8 K/9
2016: Age 31, 113 IP, 10-3, 3.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.3 K/9

Jeanmar Gomez, Phillies:
2009: Age 21, 123 IP, 10-4, 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 8.0 K/9
2016: Age 28, 46 IP, 3-2, 2.76 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 26 Saves

Hector Rondon, Cubs:
2009: Age 21, 72 IP, 7-5, 2.75 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.1 K/9
2016: Age 28, 36 IP, 1-2, 1.75 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 17 Saves

Steven Wright, Red Sox:
2009: Age 24, 81 IP, 10-0, 2.32 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
2016: Age 31, 128 IP, 12-5, 2.67 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.5 K/9

The unsung hero from the 2009 Akron rotation was Ryan Edell, a guy whose career track is actually far closer to the norm for a mid level Double-A prospect. Edell was an 8th round pick who was 4-1 with a 2.32 ERA in 16 starts with Akron that year, but flamed out when called up to Columbus the same season: 0-6, 6.36 ERA. He got off to an awful start back at Akron in 2010, wound up dealt to Oakland, and then was back in the Eastern League for the Phillies organization before disappearing from baseball in 2012. 'Dems the breaks.

Josh Tomlin, meanwhile, has had to fight each and every season to hold down a spot in the Indians rotation, consistently outlasting challengers, including Jeanmar Gomez in the early days, and more recently, one of his former Double-A rivals, ex-Trenton Thunder ace Zach McAllister. Tomlin has relied on his pinpoint control above all else. The rest of the 2009 Aeros rotation has had to reinvent itself to survive and thrive.

Jeanmar Gomez was still a struggling starter on the fringes of irrelevance when the Indians traded him to Pittsburgh for Quincy Latimore in 2013. The Pirates finally moved him to a bullpen role in 2014. This year, the Phillies took a shot at him in the closer role, and—despite low K numbers—he has proven a success with 26 saves and career best 1.12 WHIP.

Rondon, once the top starting pitcher prospect in the Cleveland system, looked like injuries might have ended his career until he landed with the Cubs in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft, eventually taking his place as an extra bullpen arm in 2013. He became their closer the next season, and has been one of the league’s best for three years running.

And of course, there’s Steven Wright, the most miraculous comeback story of all. After a terrible 2010 season, Wright didn’t just consider a role change, he changed his entire skill set, joining that small fraternity of the holy knuckleball. The Indians encouraged the experiment themselves but eventually got bored of it and dealt Wright to Boston in 2012 for Lars Anderson. Like Rondon, Wright made his long-awaited MLB debut in 2013, but it wasn’t until last season they he got an extended trial run with the Red Sox. This year, he leads the league in ERA, made the All-Star team, and has a 12-5 record with 3 complete games. He's been the most dependable starter on a team that may pose the biggest threat to the Indians' World Series hopes in October. If he winds up in a duel with The Little Cowboy, you'll know that somewhere, Orbit—the former Aeros space-cat mascot—will be smiling.


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