Cleveland Indians

Original Published Date: October 28, 2016

indiansThe Indians decided to go for it and traded some of their long-standing curated assets.  Gone are top prospect Clint Frazier and arguably their top pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield.   Furthermore, if they had acquired Jonathan Lucroy, this might have been a very difficult article to write.  Sure, it would have put the Indians in a better position for a run for the championship, but it’s all about me; at least when having to write 3,500 words about an organization.

Like last year, Brad Zimmer is leading the list.  He struggled mightily against lefties but continued to show the power and the speed that the Indians had hoped when the drafted in him the first round of 2014 MLB Draft.   Triston McKenzie is their top pitching prospect; not the more celebrated Brady Aiken.  While I like Aiken and assuming his control returns, he has top-of-the-rotation stuff.  However, McKenzie has the projectable, present stuff and a feel for pitching at a teenager that is downright impressive.  His ability to dominate Low-A batters, as the youngest pitcher in the league cannot be easily dismissed.

Fresh off his 50-game hitting streak, Francisco Mejia stock has taken a huge step up.  The over-the-fence power has not shown up yet, but he’s proven that he can really hit.  Bobby Bradley continues to hit home runs in bunches but there’s always going to be a ton of swing and miss in his game.

Even though the Indians depleted their system, it’s still very good with numerous top 100 prospects in the game.  In fact, it’s so good that they could have absorbed another “deadline shock” and still be considered a Top 15 system in the game.

Brad Zimmer (OF)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 OF

Bradley Zimmer had another outstanding year and is on the doorstep of a promotion to Cleveland.  Across two levels, he posted a .790 OPS with 15 home runs and 38 stolen bases.   The only blemish was some pretty horrific lefty splits in Double-A.  In 85 at-bats, he batted .176 while slugging an ugly .271.  This is clearly something he needs to address or he’ll never reach his ceiling of a Top 20 fantasy outfielder.

With Rajai Davis a free agent and the health status of Michael Brantley an open question, there should be opportunities for Zimmer next year.  While we don’t know what the new collective bargaining agreement will bring, if the rules around service time do not change, don’t be surprised if Zimmer follows the Lindor path and joins the Indians after mid-June.  If that disappoints you, just look at what Lindor did in his rookie year and that should make you feel better.

Scouting Report:  At 6-foot-5, Zimmer isn’t a toolshed of talent but has above-average skills across the board.  Despite his length, his swing is fairly compact and direct to the ball, but the Indians have clearly worked with him to add loft and the power is already starting to emerge.  He also has a good approach with excellent strike zone awareness.  His above-average foot speed plays up on the base paths as he has excellent base running instincts and his 73% stolen base percentage last season proves the point.

His speed continues to confound me and I wonder if stolen bases disappear once he’s promoted to the big leagues.  I’ve seen him multiple times and clocked him as a 55 runner.  That level of speed, regardless of his instincts doesn’t suggest a 30 stolen base guy.  I keep thinking of Joc Pederson; who stole 30 bases multiple times in the minors but has never stolen double-digit bases in the majors.

The major blemish on Zimmer’s resume is his struggles against southpaws. It’s something that needs to be addressed and solved or the Indians will start to platoon him and that could become permanent, at least in the short-term.

Fantasy Impact:  Zimmer ceiling is a Top 20 fantasy outfielder.  While I don’t believe he’s a 30 stolen base threat, I do believe he could be a 20 HR/20 SB player with a .260 batting average but a high OBP guy.  The one worry is his lefty splits.  Let’s hope he solves that over the next couple of years.

Francisco Mejia (C)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 3 Catcher

Most streak records, while interesting to discuss are meaningless. “He’s been on-base for seven games in a row” or “He’s homered in four consecutive games” are fun to talk about but in the end, they are just random statistical anomalies.  But when a player hits in 50 straight games, I believe it’s significant.  It’s too long to be totally luck-based.  You’ve got to be able to hit in order to have a streak that long and secondly, it goes to the concentration of the player to block out the pressure.  Imagine the mounting pressure that Mejia had as he approached the minor league record and then broke through.  He fell just short of Joe Dimaggio’s major league record, but the publicity would have surely gotten intense.

Yes, Francisco Mejia can hit; even before the streak.  In 2015, he posted a 17% strikeout rate and an 8.5% walk rate.  Things just improved last season as a return visit to the Captains saw Mejia improve his strikeout rate to 15.1%.  He is aggressive at the plate, but when you can post an 85% contact rate, a high single-digit walk rate should produce a .300 batting average.

Scouting Report: Mejia is a switch hitter and hits equally well from both sides of the plate, but simply has his way with lefties.  He has more natural power from the left side and makes better contact.  He can be aggressive at the plate but as we’ve seen in Jose Altuve, good hitters usually make the adjustment and become more patience over time.  I think the same thing will happen as Mejia matures as a player.

His over-the-fence power continues to develop with 15 to 20 future power not out of the question.  Despite lacking physicality, he has good bat speed with excellent loft in his bat.

His other plus tool is his arm.  Last season, he threw out an impressive 39% of runners.  This is more than impressive as in general, pitchers in the lower level can not hold runners on.  His receiving skills are still a work-in-progress.  That said, he’s not a butcher back there, but is still learning the fine art of catching.

Fantasy Impact:  Mejia could be an impact fantasy contributor at catcher, particularly where batting average and on-base percentages are categories.  When catchers can hit, fantasy owners get a double dip of goodness.  In general, a starting catcher is a drag on those percentages, but if you can roster a catcher that can hit, you can make a significant move in those categories.  Throw in a ceiling of 20 home runs, and he has Top 3 fantasy catcher potential.

Triston McKenzie (RHP)

Highest Level: Low-A, ETA: 2019-20, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SP

There’s no other way to say it; Triston McKenzie shoved-it last season as an 18-year pitching first in the New York Penn League and then with the big boys in Low-A.  In 15 starts, he posted a 1.62 ERA, striking out 104 and walking a paltry 22.   One example: on August 5th, he struck out 11 without walking anybody in 5.1 innings.  In other words, he struck out 55% of the batters he faced.  He did give up 3 earned runs, but only four hits.  He did all of this as a teenager, most of it as an 18-year-old.

Drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2015 MLB Draft, the Indians bet on the athleticism and projectability of the 6-foot-5 and 165 pounds right-hander.  As good as he’s been, the fastball has yet to move up a grade, sitting 90 to 92 MPH (T93).  However, at 19-years-old and still very thin, there is time.  His curveball is his best secondary pitch and is a real swing and miss offering.  He’s also showing a feel for a change-up.

The delivery is very athletic with a high leg kick and nice extension to the plate.  He’s already able to repeat his delivery and actually demonstrates some average fastball command.  If the fastball moves to 93 to 95 MPH and his change-up improves, both of which have a good chance of happening, McKenzie has a ceiling of a number two starter, if not more.

Fantasy Impact:  Congratulations if you drafted McKenzie last year for your Dynasty League team.  I didn’t and I’m bummed.  While there’s risk and he’s still at least three years away, the upside is very high and again…never give up on athletic pitchers that throw hard; in this case, project to throw hard.

Brady Aiken (LHP)

Highest Level: Short-Season, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SP

Brady Aiken’s journey to the big leagues has started out very bumpy.  Drafted number one overall in 2014 by the Houston Astros, the Astros reduced their offer after concerns surfaced about his elbow, ultimately resulting in Aiken walking away from the offer.  Presumably healthy, he signed with a Junior College in the spring and blew out his elbow in his first outing.

Leading up to the 2015 draft, Aiken became the biggest wildcard in the draft.  Who would draft him and where?  Was he still a first round pick or would he fall?  The Indians decided to step up to the table and drafted him with the 17th overall pick, paying him a $2.5 million dollar signing bonus.  The whole process cost Aiken about least three million dollars, but if he can live up to his potential, it won’t matter as he’ll be a very wealthy man.

No matter what the stat line was this past season, and it wasn’t particularly good, Aiken pitched and more importantly ended the season healthy.   That was success.  There’s a lot of work left to do as Aiken’s stuff is not fully back and neither is his control.  He averaged over four and half walks per nine across two levels.

Scouting Report: Aiken’s velocity is mostly back, sitting 90 to 91 MPH with a lot of late movement.  His curve ball, which had plus future potential, is not all the way back either, but he likely just needs time to make the pitch a real weapon.  He’s always had a nice feel for his change-up so early indications are that everything will return to pre-surgery form.

The control and command is what is really missing.  He was just not able to consistently repeat his delivery and that stats speak for themselves.  He is big and athletic, so again, there’s no reason to believe that over time, his control should return.  Command is another story as that takes repetition and just a feel for your arm slot.  His superior athleticism should help.

As you can see, I’m still very bullish on Aiken and therefore, I still see him as a Top 100 prospect.  You’ll have to dream a little that everything will come together but he’s still young with great makeup and determination.

Fantasy Impact:  Aiken still has fantasy number two starter potential.  But if you’re an owner, I get your skepticism.  You’ve been living the high ERA and walk rates.  But if you’re not an owner, this off season might be the perfect time to buy-low.  In fact, this might be the last time you can do that.

Bobby Bradley (1B)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 1B

I really struggle with three true-outcome players – those players who’s at-bats end in a walk, home run, or strikeout.  I like to build my fantasy team around players that can hit first and provide secondary skills second. Drafts seem to lend themselves to that strategy.  Khris Davis type of players always seem to be available later in a draft as nobody wants to try to make up batting average throughout the season.  But three trues aren’t as toxic in an OBP league as their ability to walk, does salvage the category.

With that convoluted logic as a backdrop, I’m torn with Bradley.  There’s no denying the raw power and that power has already shown up in-game.  Despite a .245 batting average, his 13% walk rate gave him an excellent .352 OBP.   The profile is similar to Ryan Howard, Joey Gallo, etc… and those players usually wind up with some monster production years but a short peak as teams get weary of the strikeouts.

Scouting Report:  At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Bradley combines strength and plenty of leverage to profile plus future power.  His approach is very sound with good strike zone awareness but given the leverage in his swing, he will strikeout a lot with an anticipated contact rate in the low 70’s.  He’s a below-average runner, so speed will not be part of his game.

Bradley is who he is…a three true outcome player.  There is debate about whether he’ll hit enough to get to his power?  Triple-A is littered with plus raw power guys who strikeout a ton.

Fantasy Impact:  There are few prospects in the minor leagues with a ceiling of 30 home runs.  Bradley has that potential.  The batting average will likely settle in the .220 to .230 range but with his knowledge of the strike zone, his on-base percentage should be in an acceptable .310 to .330 range.  You have to roster guys like Bradley in a Dynasty League but just understand the warts and plan accordingly.

Will Benson (OF)

Highest Level: Rookie, ETA: 2020-21, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 OF

Drafting in the 14th hole in the 2016 MLB Draft, the Cleveland Indians selected Atlanta area high schooler, Will Benson.  At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Benson looks more like a tight-end or small forward than an outfielder.  However, he’s a good athlete with good speed and of course, plus raw power.

Scouting Report:  As an 18-year-old, he struggled in the AZL, hitting .215 with six home runs.  He also struck out 33% of the time but with his size, he’s going to have a long swing, so swing and miss will likely always be in his game.  He also had 10 stolen bases, which shows the kind of speed he currently has.  As he fills out, his speed will diminish but for how, stolen bases will be part of the equation.

His carrying tool though is his plus raw power.  The power is born out of both great bat speed and just sheer size and strength.  The bat speed is important as it should allow him to let balls travel deep into the zone; resulting in more contact.  This should help him long-term with his strikeout rate.

Fantasy Impact:  While he’s raw and a bit of a project, he does remind me of Aaron Judge, the Yankees young right-fielder.  He’s a bit more athletic than Judge but I never saw Judge as a teenager.  While it’s likely to take four years, if things come together, he has the upside of a prototypical power hitting right-fielder.

Juan Hillman (LHP)

Highest Level: Rookie, ETA: 2019-20, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP

Last year we discussed the ranking of Juan Hillman vs. Triston McKenzie and concluded that Hillman would rank #9 and McKenzie would be our emerging prospect.  Since our emerging prospect is set aside for high-upside but raw players, we thought it was the perfect place for him.  Of course, he’s excelled this year and our new rankings reflect that.  While Hillman has not moved past rookie ball, he’s still a top prospect and has a chance to make an impact in Cleveland in a few years.

Hillman had a solid year in the New York Penn league.  In 15 starts, he posted a 4.43 ERA while striking out 6.7 per nine and walking just over three per nine.  While those are not eye-popping stats, remember he is only 19-years-old with an athletic delivery, and of course, he’s a lefty.

Scouting Notes:  Hillman has good stuff with his fastball now sitting 89 to 91 MPH after the Indians made some tweaks to his delivery.  At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, there is some physical projection remaining and the hope that his fastball will move up a grade and settle into the 92 to 94 MPH range.  He shows the ability to spin a curve with a feel for a change-up.   The change-up has taken a step-up since our last report and with a quality curve ball, he has a chance to have three average pitches.

While there is little command at the moment, Hillman has athleticism, showing the ability to repeat his delivery.  That said, there’s still a lot of work left, but all the elements are there to throw a mid-rotation ceiling on him.

Fantasy Impact: Hillman should begin the 2017 season in Low-A but is likely at least three years away from seeing the majors.  The ceiling is a mid-rotation starter but the more I hear about him, the more I like what I’m hearing.

Yu-Cheng Chang (SS)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder

The Indians signed Yu-Cheng Chang out of Taiwan, paying him a nice $500K signing bonus in 2013.  He had a very nice season in 2016, showing a nice all-around game where he posted a .795 OPS with 13 home runs and 11 stolen bases.  While he showed very good strike zone awareness walking 10% of the time he posted a 22% strikeout rate.  That strikeout rate would be fine for a power hitter, but Chang has 45-50 grade power and it’s something going forward that needs to improve.

Scouting Report:  Chang has solid all-around tools but no true carrying-tool.  Offensively, he has 45-50 grade power, 50 grade speed and a solid hit-tool.  His 10% walk rate pushed his OBP and OPS to a very respectable level but his tendency to swing and miss could catch up to him.   You add it all up, and he projects to have a .260 to .270 batting average, a .340 on-base percentage with 12 to 15 home runs at the highest level.  Again, a solid player but not a star.

Defensively, he can play an adequate shortstop but might profile better at second base.  Assuming Francisco Lindor stays healthy, he’ll either need to be traded to find his way to the big leagues or will indeed have to move to second.

Fantasy Impact:  Players like Chang always are underrated in Dynasty Leagues.  You’re looking for stars and Chang just doesn’t profile as that.  However, he could be a solid middle infielder in a deeper format particularly if he can get his strikeouts under control.

Nolan Jones (3B/1B)

Highest Level: Rookie, ETA: 2020, Fantasy Ceiling: Corner Infielder

After an outstanding senior year at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem PA, Nolan Jones was taken 55th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft.  He hit .636 with a .750 OBP (yes, that’s high school), but most impressively, he only struck out three times 72 plate appearances.  Based on that, it was a little surprising that in his first taste of professional ball, he struck out 36% of the time.  Granted, it was a small sample size and he still showed very good plate awareness (17.5 BB/9), it was not what I was anticipating.

Scouting Report:  Jones has nice all around tools with good bat speed and the associated size to project future above-average power.  While his 6-foot-4 frame should help his offensive game, it could limit his defensive position.  He primarily played shortstop in high school but the Indians moved him to third to start his professional career.  However, not many third baseman are his size, so a move to left field or first base could be in the cards.  If that happens, his bat will have to play that much more in order for him to make it the big leagues.  Why?

The general sense in the industry is that anybody can play left field or first base; by the way, that’s not necessarily true, but bear with my argument.  If anybody can play those positions, that means a player’s bat must be at the top of the chart in order to see playing time.  In other words, take a good outfielder and throw him at first to get his bat there and don’t promote the kid in the minors who plays first base because he can’t play anywhere else.

While fantasy players don’t care much about defensive position, it does matter in how a player is thought of in a system.  If your upside is 16 to 20 home runs and a .260 batting average, can a team find a better bat for first base?  Usually they can, but then again, Brandon Belt signed a big contract for just that production.

Fantasy Impact:  Jones is a player to monitor as I believe he will hit with a chance for good power.  I have his power ceiling at 16 to 20 home runs but I could move that north as he goes through the development process.

Yandy Diaz (3B/OF)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: WW OF

The Indians dipped into the Cuban market three years ago when they signed infielder Yandy Diaz for a modest $300,000 signing bonus.  He had a very nice campaign last season, showing the ability to control the strike zone as well as a little bit of pop.  Across Double and Triple-A, he slashed .318/.408/.446 in 121 games.  Most impressively he posted a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, striking out 86 times while walking 71.

Scouting Report: Diaz is just about ready to bring his game to the major leagues.  He turned 25-years-old in August and has matured into a fine hitter.  He has natural bat-to-ball skills with the ability to drive pitches to all fields.  He doesn’t have a lot of loft in his swing, so home runs have not yet surfaced.  However, he has good bat speed and natural strength that should allow him to hit low double-digit home runs in the future.

Defensively, he split time between second and the outfield.  It was wise for the Indians to move him to the outfield as it gives him a better opportunity to see playing time.  He could produce similar stats to what Hyun Soo-Kim provided the Orioles last year; excellent on base skills with a little pop.

Fantasy Impact: Diaz is someone to monitor in fantasy leagues.  He can hit and that should get him playing time somewhere but his secondary skills are not fantasy friendly.  The upside is a Nick Markakis type of player.

2017 Emerging Prospect

Oscar Gonzalez (OF)

Oscar Gonzalez looks like he just walked out of central casting for what a baseball player should look like.  6-foot-2 and 180 pounds and oozing with athleticism.  He showed nice in-game power last season, slugging .566 in 40 games in the AZL.  He does have average speed and showed that on the bases by stealing four bags while not being thrown out.  While the tools are tantalizing, his hit tool is not very advanced as he struggled to control the strike zone; striking out 57 times while only walking eight times in those same 40 games.  He turns 19 in January, so there is still plenty of development time.


4 comments on “Cleveland Indians

  1. What do you make of Greg Allen? He’s been gaining steam so I’m surprised to see he’s not in your top 10.

    • I’m not sure I know what “gaining steam” means. I saw him in the AFL and thought he looked like a 4th outfielder. He has speed for sure but he also turns 24 in March and was really old for High-A where he did most of his damage.

  2. […] MLB Prospect Rankings: Prospect361.com ranks the top 10 prospects in the Cleveland Indians farm […]

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