January 15, 2016
Cleveland Indians Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: Stupid-good drafts and one-sided trades have turned this system from a bottom feeder into one of the deepest in the American League
The Top Ten
1. Bradley Zimmer, OF
It’s still amazing that Zimmer lasted as long as he did in the 2014 draft, and there have to be at least a half-dozen clubs second-guessing their decisions to let this kind of talent drop. He is a true five-tool player who can impact the game in every capacity.
There’s zero wasted movement in Zimmer’s swing, and his above-average bat speed allows him to rocket baseballs to every part of the field. The natural lift to his swing suggests his still-developing power will manifest as an above-average tool at maturity, with a chance for more. He demonstrates outstanding pitch recognition and has no problem drawing a free pass. Once on base, his plus speed and exceptional reads make him a threat to be among the league leaders in stolen bases.
Zimmer isn’t the most graceful center fielder you’ll ever see, but he shows passable skills with enough speed to to carry the defensive demands of the position in the long run. If he does move to right eventually there is elite potential, and his above-average throwing arm would play just fine. That’s the worst case scenario, though, and Zimmer should very soon be a top of the order hitter capable of hitting 20 bombs, stealing 30 bags and playing above-average defense.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There’s no shortage of things to like about Zimmer from a fantasy perspective. He won’t single-handedly win you any category, but with borderline 20/20 potential (he should get there with the steals), he won’t have to. Expectations shouldn’t get out of control, but he’s a top-20 fantasy prospect with the ability to do what Mookie Betts did at the plate in 2015 somewhere down the road.
Major league ETA: 2017
2. Brady Aiken, LHP
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. No, Aiken hasn’t thrown a meaningful pitch in ten months, but everything you would want from a top-of-the-rotation starter is here—at least when he’s healthy. He’ll throw fastballs of the four- and two-seam varieties. He’ll hit 97 mph with the former, sit 90-94 with the latter, and he gets excellent plane and movement on both. His curveball is a strikeout pitch with impressive depth, and he can finish it below the zone as a chase pitch or backdoor it on the black to freeze hitters. While it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that his curve does, Aiken’s changeup is another plus offering. He is willing to throw it in any count, showing advanced feel for and trust in the pitch. He repeats his delivery as well as any 20-year-old you’ll see, leading to an above-average command profile.
The questions are less about what Aiken can do when healthy so much as if healthy. Concerns over his elbow in his pre-draft physical in 2014 caused… well, you know what they caused, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in late March. There’s more volatility here than for the typical TJ patient, but if he can make a complete recovery he has a ridiculously high ceiling/floor combination.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The question marks around Aiken’s elbow are enough to barely drop him out of the first round in dynasty drafts this year, but that’s more because of the depth in that 5-20 range. If you knew he would be healthy in 2017, he’d be close to a top-five pick, and right around where Dillon Tate is going. A healthy Aiken is a strong contributor in all four SP categories, but powered by his ratios, who could be an SP2 in time.
Major league ETA: 2018
3. Clint Frazier, RF
Frazier has tantalized scouts since he was a junior in high school, and last year he put together his most complete season since entering the system. Despite a relatively average frame, he has a chance for plus-plus power thanks to strong wrists, a bit of loft, and bat speed few hitters match. He managed close to a 10 percentage point drop in strikeouts last year, but there’s still a lot of swing-and-miss here because of the length of his swing, with the occasional walk to help offset the whiffs. His above-average speed and aggressiveness on the bases also makes him a stolen base threat, but he doesn’t always get great jumps and gets thrown out more often than one would like.
Frazier spent more time in center field than right, but with Zimmer and several other center field prospects in the system profiling as better defenders, the corner outfield is where he’ll likely play as a big leaguer. His arm is above average, and while he isn’t the most consistent defender or route-runner, he’s not Butch Huskey, either. The upside is a 30-homer bat who gets on base at an average rate, with lefty-masher as a realistic floor.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: My adoration for Frazier in dynasty leagues is well known at this point, and he remains a potential 30 HR, 15 SB threat in his prime. The strides he made in his contact rate are a good sign, but Double-A will be a truer test—and if he passes that, he could be one of the top-five fantasy prospects in the game at this time next year.
Major league ETA: 2017
4. Justus Sheffield, LHP
Sheffield was seen as one of the “safe” southpaws of the 2014 class, but he has shown as a professional that he’s much more than that. He’s one of the best athletes in the system—pitcher or hitter— and his athletic delivery and enviable arm strength allow him to sit 91-93 while touching 96. Both his secondary pitches are above average, with the curveball flashing plus with some regularity thanks to hard spin and late break. The change is nothing to sneeze at, and his feel for it took a significant step forward in 2015. Like Aiken, he repeats his delivery well. Though the control is ahead of the command, the latter is good enough to project Sheffield as a starter.
Does he have the typical upside of most teenagers you see in the top five of lists? Not really, but he possesses an advanced feel for the game most don’t have, and that, on top of his athletic delivery, gives him a great chance of moving quickly and settling into a rotation spot for a long time.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: When the realistic ceiling on a pitcher is an SP4, and it is with Sheffield, there’s just only so much value you can have. And given his distance from the majors it’s tough to make the argument that he deserves a spot among the 100 best fantasy prospects. As with many of these mid-rotation starters, Sheffield will rely on his ratios to do much of the damage, as opposed to his strikeouts, which are most likely to hover at average.
Major league ETA: 2018
5. Bobby Bradley, 1B
Good gravy did Cleveland have a great 2014 draft. Bradley’s power is immense, as his plus bat speed, natural strength, and loft allow him to hit any pitch on any part of the plate out of the park. He’s an aggressive hitter whose swing length will always lead to contact issues, but because he recognizes pitches well and is willing to go the other way it’s easy to project at least an average hit tool, with a chance for more. You’re not looking at a future batting champion, but a .270/.350 type is within the realm of possibilities.
Bradley is going to have to hit, because he doesn’t provide much other value. He’s a 30 runner, with a fringe-average arm and mediocre hands that limit him to the cold corner and could push him to DH down the line. That’s a long ways off, however. Right now he profiles as an above-average offensive player who is competent enough with the glove to play every day. If he hits at the higher levels like he did in the lower minors, this might be the best first base prospect in baseball by this time next year.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The potential raking that Bradley could do at peak is tantalizing for fantasy owners. If he develops into a .270 hitter with 30-plus homers annually, even at first base, that is a top-50 hitter, and likely top-10 first baseman.
Major league ETA: 2018
6. Rob Kaminsky, LHP
Getting something for a player who was abhorrent is great; getting a player like Kaminsky for him is downright impressive. His best pitch is a hammer of a curveball that flashes plus-plus, but he didn’t throw it often enough as a member of the Cardinals organization. He instead relied on a 90-92 sinking fastball, and a slider with average tilt and bite. Both of these pitches play up slightly because Kaminsky has excellent control and above-average command from a low-effort, repeatable delivery.
Kaminsky will jump up this list if he shows more confidence in the curveball going forward, but even with his current arsenal he projects as a back-end starter who can give you 170-plus league-average innings. Not a bad get for a guy who posted an 84 OPS+ last year and can’t play defense.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Really not much to see here, as Kaminsky has little chance of being a noticeable contributor in mixed leagues with his lack of stuff (outside the curve). Even if he turns into a back-of-the-rotation starter, he’s likely a 130-140 strikeout guy with middling ratios.
Major league ETA: 2017
7. Triston McKenzie, RHP
When we say McKenzie offers projection, we mean projection. He’s wafer-thin (Mr. Creosote would be tempted), and it is an open question whether his frame will fill out with enough good weight that he can hold up as a starter. Despite the durability concerns, sources called McKenzie one of the most impressive pitchers in the AZL.
McKenzie touches 93 with his four-seamer, and while it typically sits in the high 80s at present there’s obvious room to add a couple notches to the sitting velocity and push the pitch into plus territory. Both his curveball and change are more advanced—a rarity for a pitcher this young—with the curve occasionally showing plus thanks to its depth and hard spin. The change is an above-average offering, as he generates late fade and sells it with excellent arm speed. Like every other pitcher in the system, the delivery is easy to repeat, and he can throw strikes with all three of his pitches, though he can get wild in the zone.
He’s light years away from contributing, but outside of Aiken, McKenzie offers the most upside of any pitcher in the system.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The last player to miss my Top 50 list for dynasty drafts this year, McKenzie is going to require a very long lead—though the bigger reason for him missing the list is due to the great overall depth in this class. It’s too early to have a sense of what he is, but all you can ask for in a rookie ball pitcher is some stuff and some projection. McKenzie has both.
Major league ETA: 2019
8. Juan Hillman, LHP
Hillman and McKenzie share pedigrees as well-regarded prep arms from Florida who went on Day One of the 2015 Draft. That’s where their similarities end, however, as McKenzie is projection and Hillman is much closer to a “finished” product. Hillman throws 90-93 with some run to his fastball, and he commands it to all parts of the plate with solid plane. Endurance has been an issue, but the hope is that it becomes less of one as he matures physically. Both his curveball and change are average offerings, with the former occasionally flashing above-average with good depth while the latter sticks more to the fringe side of a 50. His delivery is clean and easy to repeat with little wasted movement (drink!), and that allows him to pound the strike zone with all three pitches.
Assuming Hillman’s endurance problems don’t follow him, he should move quickly through the Cleveland ranks, with strike-throwing no. 4 starter as his most likely outcome.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Hillman is less of a player to select in dynasty drafts this year and more of someone to watch. If there’s no step forward, he’s a borderline mixed league starter at best, but thankfully we have a long way to go before ruling that out. For now, just wait and see—unless your league rosters 300 minor leaguers or more.
Major league ETA: 2019
9. Francisco Mejia, C
Mejia drops seven spots in this year’s edition—and yes, some of that is due to his struggles in Lake County—but there were certainly some moments that teased at an exciting future. He possesses a smooth swing from both sides of the plate, and his approach—while far from perfect—has taken steps forward. There’s raw power from both sides, and it started to show up in games last year. Pitch recognition is still an issue, and his flawed approach leads to him swinging at pitches outside the zone and ending at-bats early with disappointing results.
Defensively, Mejia still looks like a Guy, to steal a phrase from that one guy. The arm is an easy double-plus, with a quick, accurate release and velocity to spare. Both his feel for the position and ability to block pitches have improved significantly. The defensive projection lends itself to a big-league backup profile, and if he can improve the approach through repetition he can become an everyday backstop.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The bat hasn’t quite developed as fantasy owners would have hoped over the last two years, but with the defensive chops still there, Mejia should get the opportunity to prove that he does carry that 20-25 homer power projection.
Major league ETA: 2017
10. Mike Papi, OF
Papi couldn’t buy a hit the first two months of the season, but as his .175/.326/.234 line in that span can attest, the approach never wavered, and his .271/.383/.427 effort the rest of the way offers a more accurate picture of his offensive skill set. His short stroke and command of the zone give him a chance to hit for average while drawing a crap-ton (technical term) of walks. He’s got natural strength, but is still incorporating some loft into his swing, and right now it doesn’t appear that he’ll be much more than a dozen-homer guy. He’s not a terrific athlete, but he does have good instincts in the outfield, and his strong arm makes him a fit in either corner.
This is an aggressive ranking, but there were just too many positive reports to not include Papi in the top 10 as a high-floor/medium-ceiling player who could develop into a perfect no. 2 hitter if he hits his offensive ceiling. If you are a bit lighter on any of his hit, power, or glove, the profile becomes something closer to a fourth outfielder.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: With little power or speed, Papi just doesn’t register much on fantasy radars at the moment. He’d really need to develop into a .300 hitter—which doesn’t seem particularly likely—to carry much value as an OF4 given his categorical limitations elsewhere
Major league ETA: 2018
Notable omissions: Mike Clevinger, RHP; Dylan Baker, RHP—This is a deep system that features several players who would have been included on a majority of other organizational lists, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Clevinger and Baker and give reasons why they didn’t make the cut.
Clevinger would have come in at no. 11 if we did a top 11, but we don’t (anymore), so he didn’t. His fastball is borderline double-plus and will touch 97 with movement. He’ll show an above-average slider with hard tilt, and he also features a curveball and change that are currently fringe-average. The command took a step forward in 2015, but there’s still a ways to go before it’s good enough to start, and repeating his delivery is an issue. There is plenty of love for his arm both inside and outside the organization, however, and another big year in 2016 would put him securely in next year’s rankings.
When Baker has been healthy, he has shown no. 3 stuff; a fastball that gets up to 97 and a plus curveball that has impressive depth. Those two pitches would make him a lights-out reliever, but his sturdy frame and improving change do give him a chance to start if he can muster some durability. Finding the zone has been an issue in the past, and he’s battled an assortment of injuries in his three years in the system. If he shows he’s healthy in 2016, I will look quite the fool for not including him in the list, but there are enough red flags to justify placing him below players like Papi and Mejia.
Tyler Naquin, OF – If there’s such thing as a perfect fourth-outfield prospect, it’s Naquin. Looking for a guy who can get on base? Check. Looking for a guy who can steal bases? Check. Looking for a guy who can play all three outfield spots with a howitzer on his side? Check and check. That’s a lot of checks, and maybe that leads to Naquin earning a starting job someday, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable with him coming off the bench, a la Stan Javier. You can do a lot worse.
Yandy Diaz, 3B – Very quietly, Diaz put together one of the best years of any hitter in the Cleveland system, getting on base at a .412 clip for Akron before earning a quick promotion to Columbus. In addition to an above-average hit tool, Diaz can go get it at third base, and while his arm strength is only average, it plays up because of his quick release. The issue with Diaz is that there’s very little power here, but maybe this is a Bill Mueller type who gets on enough with solid enough defense to justify playing every day.
Adam Plutko, RHP – Plutko would have gone in the first two rounds of the 2010 draft if not for his strong commitment to UCLA, and he ended up going in the 11th round of the 2013 draft. Take the money, kids. After a so-so 2014 season, Plutko showed why so many were high on the right-hander, who once again displayed a plus change and outstanding command of all four pitches. The change is the only above-average offering of the bunch, but when you can throw four different pitches for strikes, you have a chance to start.
Luke Wakamatsu, SS – Yes, Luke is the son of Don, the former Mariners manager, and the scouts I spoke with were stunned that Cleveland was able to get this young man to sign for $290,000 after taking him in the 20th round. He took the money, kids. Wakamatsu flashes all five tools, and while just the arm rates as plus, he shows an advanced feel for hitting that gives him a solid baseline. You may not see him before the end of the decade, but don’t be surprised if Wakamatsu jumps up this list in 2016.
Mitch Brown, RHP – Well, it can’t all be positive. Brown struggled mightily in the Carolina League, failing to miss bats, creating too much self-inflicted damage by pitching into hitters’ counts, and walking too many. Still, it’s hard to give up on a hurler like this, as Brown has shown a plus fastball and above-average curveball from an athletic delivery. It might be time to see if that arsenal plays better in the bullpen, however, as Brown just hasn’t shown the consistent stuff necessary to pitch in a rotation.
It’s easy to feel good about any list with Francisco Lindor at the top. Even if the names after him were This Island Earth-bad, you could still get excited for the future in Cleveland. But that’s not the case here at all, as the list includes everything from low-ceiling MLB contributors (Ramirez, Urshela) to left-handed pitching prospects (Aiken, Sheffield, Kaminsky), to potential middle-of-the-order bats (Frazier, Bradley). The team’s 25-and-Under contingent is broad, deep, and possesses a few high-ceiling names.
No name on this list has a higher ceiling than Lindor. He, not Carlos Correa, was arguably the best rookie shortstop in baseball during 2015, awards aside. The silky defense was never in question, but 12 homers and a .482 slugging percentage were pleasant surprises. While the power may regress a smidgen during his second go ’round, his approach could cause his walk rate to tick up in a full season of work. In any case, he’s a franchise cornerstone, and he’ll remain on this list in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Bauer may have been booted from the rotation at the close of last season, but he’s expected to get another shot as the No. 4 starter this year, and remains a tantalizing breakout candidate. Of course, his constant tweaking, questionable control, and tendency to throw too many pitches by the fifth inning remain as maddening as his disdain for deviation from his own ideas about the pitching process. While it’s a bad bet to think that everything will magically click in 2016, slight improvements in walk rate (10.6 percent last year) could bump him from iffy back-end starter to stalwart.
Ramirez and Urshela have each earned regular big-league work on the backs of their defensive chops, though both are miscast as starters on a pennant contender. Urshela offers a little power potential, Ramirez versatility and speed, but neither has really hit at the big-league level yet.
I hemmed and hawed about last year’s late-season success story, Cody Anderson. He’s of the Ramirez/Urshela mold: low-ceiling, but high probability… only his peripherals (particularly his miniature 12.1 percent strikeout rate) seem to forecast an ERA/DRA collapse. He comps well to Phil Humber, another pitcher with a few shining moments bookended by futility. He’s useful depth, though.
Between Papi, Naquin, and Mejia, there are several young position players who could find their way onto the 25U list next season. Given Michael Brantley’s injury issues and the fact that the team currently looks to start both Rajai Davis and Abraham Almonte in the outfield, Naquin especially could have an impact on the big-league club sooner rather than later.
Given all the success the team’s had with the development of pitchers, I also would keep an eye on Mike Clevinger and the 25U list’s nearest miss: Shawn Armstrong. Both pitchers offer premium velocity, and while Clevinger might be a sleeper starter candidate in a year or two, Armstrong could be a bullpen force starting this season. Both have control issues–few young fireballers don’t–but Armstrong’s super slider and high-end heater could keep Terry Francona from leaning so heavily on Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw in the late innings starting in April or May. - Bryan Grosnick
President, Baseball Operations: Chris Antonetti
The 25-man roster may have holes, but the farm system is in as good of shape as it’s been in a long, long time, and Antonetti, Chernoff, and Grant deserve a lot of credit for that. After some questionable selections in terms of both process and results (Drew Pomeranz, Alex White), they’ve done a good of job getting quality and quantity in the draft, taking chances early and often with a (generally) best-player-available approach.
On the player development front, the organization’s approach to pitcher training is heavily influenced by the innovative philosophies pioneered by the likes of Ron Wolforth, Kyle Boddy, Alan Jaeger, and other similarly progressive minds in the alternative pitcher training industry. While it’s difficult to tell just how much of the club’s recent success developing pitchers is directly attributable to the adoption of these methods, the initial results have been promising, as Cleveland has not only one of the hardest-throwing pitching staffs in baseball, but also one of the healthiest.
One area that Cleveland hasn’t been terribly strong in, however, is the international arena, with some notable exceptions like Mejia and Urshela. That led to the “amicable” decision to part ways with director of Latin American operations Ramon Pena on Monday. As a mid-market team that won’t ever be a huge draw for free agents, building through the draft and international ranks is critical, so they’ll need to find a new director who can get them up to speed with some of the other teams (no, not Detroit) if they’re to stay competitive in the AL Central.