Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.
In the last few years, the Cleveland Indians have been known for making a handful of trades, but one that seems to go under the radar a bit occurred on July 30, 2011. On that date, the Indians shipped second baseman Orlando Cabrerato the San Francisco Giants in exchange for outfielder Thomas Neal.
On paper, the move looked great. The Indians were able to ship out an expendable part in Cabrera and in exchange, the team received a former Baseball America Top 100 prospect in Neal.
Neal recently got his first cup of coffee in the Major Leagues as he was a September call up during the 2012 season. Unfortunately, Neal’s playing time was limited, so fans were still really unable to get a close look at the skills that the right-handed hitter possesses.
Neal currently is a member of the team’s 40-man roster, but there is still no guarantee that he will open the season as a member of the big league club. Since he plays the outfield and is right-handed, Neal certainly does fit some of the current club’s needs, but there is also the notion that he could be no more than organizational depth at this point.
So, with that being said, let’s take a look at the professional career of Neal and the prospects for him being able to stick in the Major Leagues.
Neal was drafted by the Giants out of Poway High School, CA in the 36th round of the 2006 Amateur Draft. Neal made his debut that year at Single-A Salem-Keizer where he posted a .250/.289/.375 line in 50 games.
The 50 games was a small sample size, but Neal did project to have some nice tools, so there was considerable reason to pay attention to him during the 2007 season. Yet, unfortunately for Neal, the 2007 season ended up being one he would rather forget as he would end up playing only 10 games because of a shoulder injury.
Neal essentially was back to being an unknown, but his 2008 season helped to reestablish his status as a potential Major League prospect. In 117 games with Single-A Augusta, Neal hit .276/.359/.444 with 15 home runs and 81 RBI. If Neal were not already a Major League prospect after that season, he cemented his status as one with his brilliant performance in 2009.
Neal moved to High-A San Jose for the 2009 season and just punished pitchers all season long. In 129 games, he compiled a .337/.431/.579 line with 22 home runs, 90 RBI, 65 walks and 98 strikeouts. The performance helped Neal get noticed on the national scale as Baseball America ranked him as the No. 96 prospect in all of baseball prior to the start of the 2010 season.
However, Neal unfortunately seemed to regress during the 2010 season. His performance was by no means bad, but it was just not close to the standard that he had set for himself during the previous season. Overall, in 136 games at Double-A Richmond, Neal hit .291/.359/.440 with 12 home runs and 69 RBI. His power numbers were unfortunately almost cut in half despite the fact that he played in seven more games.
Things got worse the following season as the injury bug again bit Neal, and he played in only 70 games between Triple-A Fresno and Triple-A Columbus after he was acquired by the Indians. The injury turned out to be a deep bruise in his wrist, and it affected his swing as he was unable fully follow through.
The injury also probably explained the lack of power as Neal hit only two home runs in those 70 games that year. Two years removed from a spectacular season, Neal was now a major question mark moving forward.
Neal may never have a season on par with his 2009 masterpiece, but he did take steps in the right direction during the 2012 season. First and foremost, Neal was healthy throughout the entire season, which was an accomplishment in itself. Secondly, he finally started to hit at a strong clip again and also had a nice power surge when compared to the previous season.
In 117 games with Double-A Akron, Neal hit .314/.400/.467 with 12 home runs, 51 RBI, 46 walks and 71 strikeouts. For his efforts, Neal was added to the Indians 40-man roster in September and joined the big league club.
The designation of Neal to the team’s 40-man roster seemed to indicate that the Indians front office had a renewed confidence in the California native. Only months earlier, in April, the Indians designated Neal for assignment, yet he went unclaimed, so he remained under the Tribe’s control.
After joining the big league club, Neal’s playing time was very limited. He appeared in nine games and went 5-for-23 with one double and two RBI. It was somewhat discouraging to not see Neal playing with a little more regularity. He seems to fit a lot of the needs of the Major League club, but he never was really given an opportunity to showcase his skills.
It’s hard to say what exactly lies ahead for Neal. As of this writing, he remains a member of the Indians 40-man roster, but he also could be a candidate to be designated for assignment should the Indians make a major free agent signing. Also, Mark Reynolds has not officially been placed on the team’s 40-man roster, so Neal could also be designated for assignment to make room for Reynolds.
It’s also hard to determine how big of a loss it would be if Neal is removed from the 40-man roster. Unfortunately, Neal is an average defender at best and has some trouble reading balls off the bat. He could have a future as a Major League fourth outfielder, but he is such an average defender that it would be hard to see him sticking in that role.
However, if Neal can prove he can hit at the big league level, there will definitely be plenty of suitors for his services. He’s still only had a total of 24 Major League plate appearances, so it is far too early to write him off.
Some team will certainly be willing to give Neal an ample amount of at-bats in an effort to see what the 6-foot-2 inch, 220-pound outfielder brings to the table. The only problem is that there’s no guarantee that team will be Cleveland.
Previous Then & Now profiles:
- Dec. 11, 2012: Chris McGuiness
- Dec. 8, 2012: Trey Haley
- Nov. 27, 2012: Adam Abraham
- Nov. 20, 2012: Jesus Aguilar
- Nov. 15, 2012: Cord Phelps
- Nov. 6, 2012: Tim Fedroff
- Nov. 2, 2012: T.J. McFarland
- Oct. 27, 2012: Chen-Hsiu Chen
- Oct. 16, 2012: Danny Salazar
- Oct. 10, 2012: Paolo Espino
- Oct. 5, 2012: Jared Goedert
- Sept. 24, 2012: Hector Rondon
- Sept. 17, 2012: Nick Weglarz