Cleveland Indians 2015 Midseason Top Prospects
Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
For the last few years, there was one constant when it came to top prospect lists with the Cleveland Indians: Francisco Lindor was the #1 prospect. There was very little debate here among fans and experts alike. He was a consensus top 10 prospect in all of baseball. However, as we’ve come to the midway point of the 2015 season and Lindor is now in Cleveland and no longer a prospect, we look at who is the new top prospects are in the Indians farm system. Here are your 2015 Cleveland Indians midseason top prospects according to the writers here at Wahoo’s On First:
Between the three of us we have a pretty diverse group of Tribe prospects. While six prospects made all three lists there were also six that made only one list amongst the three of us. Let’s take a look at these various prospects looking at their strengths, weaknesses, ceilings, and how they may fit into the future of the Cleveland Indians.
Bourn has not been the CF the Tribe was looking for, could Zimmer be it? Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Zimmer is a Top Prospect
While none of us agreed exactly where to place Bradley Zimmer, we all agree he is one of the best prospects in the Cleveland Indians farm system. This is a trend that most around baseball would agree with. In fact, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus have Zimmer as their top Tribe prospect as well as one of the 25 best in all of baseball (though those rankings did not include any 2015 draft picks). Zimmer can do just about everything. He can hit for average and power, he can run, and he can field. Some questioned whether he could handle CF full-time as a pro but so far he’s showing that he can, though if there was one area to be hesitant with Zimmer it’s his fielding/arm. He doesn’t profile to be a Gold Glover in CF but shouldn’t embarrass himself either.
Recently called up to Double-A Akron, he hasn’t missed a beat and is putting himself in a position possibly see Cleveland as early as the second half of 2016 (though that’s still pretty optimistic). CF may be the single biggest weakness on the current Indians roster right now with Michael Bourn struggling and Michael Brantley more suited for LF. Zimmer is has the talent that the Indians could sorely use in Cleveland. The road ahead though is no cake-walk though. The jump from Advanced-A to Double-A can be the toughest a prospect faces in the minor leagues. So far though, fans should be nothing but ecstatic with how Zimmer has looked.
Frazier could be the big right-handed bat Tribe fans have been wishing for. Credit: Matt Bretz
Don’t Forget About Frazier
While Bradley Zimmer is the favorite Tribe prospect according to most fans and experts, people shouldn’t forget about Clint Frazier. Drafted in the first round the year before Zimmer, Frazier is a stud prospect in his own right. Ranked as the best prospect in the Tribe system by two of our writers (including myself), he’s arguably got an even higher ceiling than Zimmer. The one knock I hear with Frazier is some are worried about his swing and if he’ll hit enough at the big league level. It’s a legit concern but consider this, at the same level this year (High-A), Frazier is actually striking out slightly less than Zimmer did (22.8% vs 23.0%). Frazier’s got some of the best raw power in the organization and some of the best bat speed I’ve ever seen from a Tribe prospect. I had the chance to watch him at Lynchburg this year and the sound of the ball coming off his bat versus other players (including Zimmer) was simply different. Almost sounded like he was using a metal bat while everyone else was using wood (which of course wasn’t the case).
Sure Frazier is more likely to end up in RF than Zimmer, but he has a better arm as well so could settle in nicely there and end up a plus defensive player (something Tribe fans haven’t seen in a long time out in RF). Indians have let Frazier play CF some and he is still very athletic and one shouldn’t completely rule him out there. He also has surprising speed for a guy whose power is what most want to talk about. He stole 12 bases in 2014 and already has 11 this year. He’s no Zimmer on the bases but not crazy to think he could be a 15–20 SB guy in the big leagues.
Oh, and did I mention that Frazier is right-handed? How many years have we heard fans screaming for the Indians to get a right-handed power bat now (seems like forever)? Well, he’s not as close as Zimmer but Frazier could see Cleveland sometime in 2017 (or 2018), and when he does he should be a big-time home run threat from the right-side of the plate. So while Zimmer is the sexier prospect and closer to the big leagues, I’m still sticking with Frazier as the top prospect. I love his power and think the bat will play at the higher levels.
What to Expect From Aiken
Brady Aiken was the number one overall pick in 2014 and had he signed likely would have been named the second best prospect in a loaded Astros farm system behind super prospect Carlos Correa. However, he didn’t sign and ended up needing Tommy John surgery this past March, which helped him slide to the Indians this year. He’s now a hard guy to place as one could easily argue that a healthy/pre-TJ Brady Aiken would be the number one prospect in this system. But even though Tommy John surgery is common practice now there’s still no guarantee he comes back as good. That said, I’m still a huge believer in that arm and personally had trouble putting him only third on my list (I nearly put him first). He’s got true Ace potential, which is not something many prospects can truly lay claim too.
I’ve dropped this name a few times in talking about Aiken but Lucas Giolito is a guy I think fans should look at when thinking about how good Aiken can be. Giolito was considered one of the best prospects in the 2012 MLB draft; however, during his senior year he had some elbow issues, which caused him to fall to 16thto the Washington Nationals. Shortly after being drafted he was shut-down and had Tommy John surgery. Between 2012 and 2013 he threw only 38.2 innings as a pro. In 2014, the Nationals were conservative with him (only 98 innings) but he flashed that greatness that scouts loved. Struck out over 10 per nine innings with a 2.20 ERA and 3.17 FIP. Moved up in 2015 and while the Nationals have still used baby gloves with him he’s now considered the best pitching prospect in baseball (per Baseball America) as he’s struck out over 11 per nine innings with a 2.83 ERA and 1.80 FIP.
Aiken and Giolito are obviously not the same person. Just because Giolito came back and has proved scouts right doesn’t mean that Aiken will. However, given modern medicine Giolito’s career track is something that I do not think is unrealistic with Aiken. Aiken will not throw a pitch for the Indians until next spring but he should still be on a similar career track as Giolito was. Indians will likely play it safe with Aiken to start but we’ve seen them be aggressive with pitchers in the past (see Danny Salazar) so while 2018 may be a bit of a stretch with Aiken, 2019 likely isn’t. He could be ready to take over the mantle of Ace from Corey Kluber as his contract extension is winding down…
The Naquin Factor
Tyler Naquin is sort of the forgotten first round pick of the Indians. He was drafted back in 2012 one spot ahead of Giolito and the pick surprised many, including myself. There appeared to be much better talent on the board at the time, including Giolito, Michael Wacha, and Stephen Piscotty among others. Many, including myself, thought he was another Trevor Crowe waiting to happen. He was a solid college outfielder but not much about him jumped out at you other than his plus arm. However, despite the lack of many plus skills he’s excelled thus far in the Tribe system and is now knocking on the big league door while playing down in Triple-A Columbus.
One big question mark with Naquin on draft night was whether he was a centerfielder or rightfielder and thankfully for Tribe fans he’s proved that he can handle centerfield. Being able to stick in CF has really helped Naquin’s prospect status as he doesn’t have much power to speak of. He also doesn’t have a ton of speed though did steal 14 bases in just 76 games in Double-A last year and has 13 so far in 2015. The best comp I’ve probably seen for Naquin was by Baseball Prospectus before the 2014 season when they compared him to Michael Brantley. I stress the pre-2014 part as this was back when Brantley was more of an average hitter/overall player than the near MVP guy he was last season.
Naquin’s realistic expectations should be in the 8–10 HR range with 15 steals and a 95–105 wRC+. Add in good defense in CF though and that could actually be a solid big league regular. Though on the other hand if Naquin fails to even be average at the plate he becomes more of a fourth outfielder or possibly a platoon guy. Given the current state of CF in Cleveland though perhaps Naquin will get his chance as soon as this season to try and prove he’s a legit big league starter. While I don’t agree with my colleagues that he’s the second best prospect in the Tribe system he probably is the most big league ready prospect and one that could provide immediate help to the big league squad.
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mejia and Sheffield are Consensus Top 10
The other two players that Katrina, Nicholas, and myself all agreed on are catcher Francisco Mejia and left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield. Mejia is a guy that likely only the die-hard Tribe fans know much about as he’s only 19 years old and playing for the Class-A Lake County Captains. A quick look at his stats and many may question why all three of us have him in our top 10, but for young players stats don’t tell the whole story and that goes double for catchers. Mejia was signed out of the Dominican Republic for $350K (no small amount for the Indians) back in 2012. He’s a switch-hitting catcher with a plus arm. He has raw power that scouts like, and I have yet to hear one say he’ll need to move from behind the plate.
Given his Dominican background, switch-hitting ability, raw power, and feel for the strike zone one name that some have brought up in regards to Mejia is Carlos Santana. That’s probably a bit much at this point but just shows how high an offensive ceiling some think this kid has. He’s still has to work on the finer points of catching, like pitch framing and calling a game but you’d be hard pressed to find many (any?) 19-year old catchers that don’t need work in those areas.
Mejia is not a guy that Tribe fans should expect to see in Cleveland any time soon, but he’s a guy that they should pay attention to at the same time. Baseball Prospectus thought so highly of Mejia heading into the 2015 season that they ranked him as their #2 prospect behind only Francisco Lindor. He’s only hitting .212 so far but he’s still drawing walks and has eight home runs for the Captains. Given his .231 BABIP he’s bound to come out of this slump at some point. Make no mistake, Mejia is a bona fide top five or six prospect in this strong Indians system.
Justus Sheffield was drafted 31stoverall in 2014 by the Indians making him the highest drafted high school pitcher by the Indians since they took Adam Miller back in 2003 (also 31stoverall). The Indians were able to get him away from a commitment to Vanderbilt, a program that won the College Baseball World Series a year ago and finished runner-up this summer (so needless to say, a top college program). Sheffield hasn’t disappointed the Indians (on the field at least) in his first full season in the pro ball. The 19-year old is striking out over 10 per nine innings for the Class-A Captains with a 4.22 ERA and very good 3.02 FIP. He did run into some off the field issues but nothing too serious for a kid who was still just 18 when the season began.
Some regarded Sheffield as the top pitching prospect in the Indians system heading into the 2015 season and if not for the addition of Aiken he very likely would still be. He may not have quite the ceiling of some of the new Tribe arms but he’s got #2/3 potential and, if his first 100 pro innings are any indication, some wipeout stuff.
Urshela is the Tribe 3B next to Lindor for now, but could Diaz be there one day? Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley, McKenzie and Diaz Shouldn’t Be Ignored
As mentioned earlier, four prospects that only showed up on one of our lists, and I had three of them. Bobby Bradley is a guy that I simply couldn’t have outside my top five. He’s far from a perfect prospect as he’s a 1B-only type straight out of high school, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. He also doesn’t have a ton of speed (though for a 1B he moves well), and his swing can lead to loads of strikeouts (currently at an alarming 33.2%). But that all said, his bat could be truly special.
Bradley missed some time early in the year with an oblique though one would hardly know it given his 14 home runs for the Lake County Captains in 67 games. He’s only hitting .248, but thanks to the power and a near 11% walk rate he has a 131 wRC+. Not too shabby for a kid that turned 19 less than two months ago. If he can overcome the strikeout issues, he’s a guy I can see sneaking into some top 100 prospect lists next year.
Triston McKenzie was one of the last Indians draft picks to sign this year and boy did he get paid. The Indians went well over slot to lure him away from a Vanderbilt commit. While many may like Sheffield more since he’s a year older now and shown his abilities at the pro level, McKenzie may have even better stuff and a higher ceiling. Player A getting more than Player B in the draft doesn’t mean that Player A is clearly better but it should be noted that despite being drafted in similar areas in the draft, McKenzie got over $700K more. Where Sheffield may project as only a #2/3, McKenzie is a guy that some see as a potential #1/2 guy down the line. He’s got a ways to go though (as does Sheffield) but like Mejia, he’s a guy Tribe fans should take note of and follow as he progresses.
Yandy Diaz is a guy that just barely snuck into my top 10. I debated several prospects there but ended up going Diaz as he’s simply been producing ever since joining the Indians back in January 2014 out of Cuba. He a bit older than a lot of the prospects on my list as he turns 24 in a couple of weeks, but he’s also showing an advanced approach at the plate in Double-A with a 14.5% walk rate and just a 12.4% strikeout rate. He hasn’t shown much power, which is a bit disappointing but has a nice swing that could play well anywhere even if the power only becomes average.
He’s currently at 3B though was a utility player in Cuba. Baseball America named him the best defensive 3B in the Carolina League in 2014 and the Indians seem content to keep him there for now. He’s very athletic though and has a strong arm, so a move to the OF could also happen. His athleticism and versatility could also help him become a super utility guy at the next level, which is becoming a much more valuable commodity for teams as seen with guys like Ben Zobrist Tampa/Oakland and Mike Aviles in Cleveland.
Diaz may only have 724 plate appearances since coming to America, but he’s truly impressed me. As Giovanni Urshela tries to lock down 3B after Chisenhall struggled, don’t discount Diaz as a sleeper option there in the future. A utility role may be more likely but if he is able to show some power while improving his defense at the hot corner, he very likely could be even more.
Merritt, Ramsey and Gonzalez Are Legit
I left both Ryan Merritt and James Ramsey off my top 10 list but Katrina and Nicolas had both of them in theirs, while Erik Gonzalez made mine and Katrina’s lists. I considered both of these guys as the 8–15 of the Indians system is really hard to sort through. Lots of solid talent that could be ranked in a multitude of ways. Ryan Merritt made headlines recently by throwing a 7-inning no-hitter for the Akron Rubberducks. He is coming off a breakout season in 2014 when he won the Bob Feller Award as the best Tribe pitching prospect and was even added to the Indians 40-man roster this offseason.
A former 16thround pick back in 2011, Merritt has been rising slowly but steadily through the ranks. He’s not flashy by any measure the small lefty is having yet another solid season. The strikeouts have really dropped off (under six per nine innings), but he’s averaging 6.1 innings per start and has a solid 3.73 ERA and 3.44 FIP. His ceiling is nowhere near the likes of Aiken, Sheffield or McKenzie but one can’t ignore the results Merritt is getting. The Indians also didn’t just add him to the 40-man roster for no good reason. He’s a guy that could help the Indians in the back of the rotation as soon as next season.
James Ramsey is a guy I really like and wanted to include in my top 10. He’s got the ability to play CF, which instantly adds value and his walk rate hasn’t dipped below 11% since being drafted in the first round back in 2012 (by the Cardinals). He’s got less speed than Tyler Naquin but also more power and a better offensive season thanks to his ability to draw a walk. Like Naquin, he’s a guy that could very well see Cleveland before the year is out. Some like him more than Naquin and I can see why.
Erik Gonzalez is a very good SS prospect that has risen fast in the Tribe system. Recently promoted to Triple-A Columbus, he’s part of what may be the best defensive double play combo in the minor leagues with Jose Ramirez at 2B. He made a name for himself back in 2013 with the Lake County Captains hitting nine homeruns and playing stellar defense. In less than two years he’s already made the jump to the Triple-A. The real question with Gonzalez is going to be how much will he hit? This will determine if he’ll be a starting big league SS or a utility player. With Lindor in Cleveland things could get tough for Gonzalez in the Indians organization as well. There’s some that think he could slide to 3B and while his glove would play well there, the question of how much power you’ll get and his bat is a real concern.
Gonzalez was added to the Tribe’s 40-man roster prior to the 2013 season (to the surprise of many I might add). Even with his struggles offensively in Columbus I still wouldn’t be completely shocked if he made an appearance with the Indians this season once roster expand in September. He provides some speed (12 SB) and good defense on the infield.
Papi, Aguilar and Paulino Make the Grade Too
Mike Papi is another guy that just missed my top 10 list (very well may have been my #11), and Katrina had him as her #4 Tribe prospect. Drafted with their Competitive Balance Pick last year, Papi is an advanced college bat that appears to have all the offensive tools to succeed. Comped by some to Nick Swisher, he has a great knack for the walk as he’s posted a 15.8% walk rate in 2014 with the Captains and has a 17.4% walk rate with the Lynchburg Hillcats this season. He also was supposed to bring some power though to this point that’s been lacking. Still, he has a 122 wRC+ this year despite getting off to a horrendous start. There’s still the question of his hitting (only batting .243) and what position he’ll play (tweener OF/1B guy) but he’s a guy that could move rather quickly through the Tribe system (similar to Zimmer).
Jesus Aguilar is a bit of a fan favorite when it comes to Cleveland Indians prospects. He’s a big right-handed hitting 1B who’s been putting up some impressive numbers at Triple-A for two years now. He’s been in back-to-back Triple-A All-Star Games and Home Run Derbies. There’s really not much more for him to prove in the minors. So why is he still there and why was he left off two of the three lists here?
Despite putting up great numbers in the minors there are many that question his bat speed and how his swing will translate to the big leagues. He’s also benefitted from playing in one of the nicest minor league parks to hit in down in Columbus. Lastly, he’s a 1B/DH only, which limits his usefulness at the next level. The Indians have tried him at 3B and OF for a bit in winter ball but his future is at 1B. He’s not bad there but not the most athletic guy. That all said, he’s a guy I wouldn’t mind seeing get a chance while Swisher is still out. Opportunity is there for him to at least DH versus left-handed pitching. He’s running out of options so will be interesting to see how the Tribe handles him the rest of the year.
Dorssys Paulino is a guy that was actually ranked the second best prospect in the Tribe system by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season. Seems kind of crazy that he now is only one of our top 10 lists. However, back then he was a young SS who scouts felt had all the offensive potential in the world. His defensive woes at SS finally caught up to him and the Indians moved him permanently to the OF last season. His offense also stagnated and he spent parts of three seasons with the Captains, which is never something you want to see from a prospect, even one as young as Paulino.
However, that all said, Paulino is still only 20 years old. He was recently promoted to Advanced-A Lynchburg after a very solid first half in Lake County. He still could stand to show more power but the athleticism and potential power/speed combo is something that one can dream on still. He’s young enough that he shouldn’t be written off just yet.
Prospects That Just Missed
I’ve already mentioned a couple prospects that just missed my top 10 in Merritt, Ramsey, and Papi. There are several more that I gave consideration for the top 10. Pitchers like Mitch Brown, Adam Plutko and Juan Hillman all were considered by me. Brown was a guy many had in their top 10 prior to this season but hasn’t had the best year with the Rubberducks. Plutko is like the right-handed version of Merritt in that he’s not flashy at all but just knows how to pitch and get outs. Hillman was the Indians second round pick this year and depending who you ask has a higher ceiling than fellow lefty Justus Sheffield.
Offensively guys like Nellie Rodriguez, Yu-Cheng Chang, and Luigi Rodriguez are names to at last mention. Nellie Rodriguez is a big right-handed hitting 1B who has great power and bat speed. Made the All-Star team with Lynchburg and hails from the same high school as Manny Ramirez. Yu-Cheng Chang burst onto the scene last year as an 18 year old SS out of Taiwan. He hit six homeruns and hit .346/.420/.566 for the Indians rookie team in Arizona last year. He made a rather large jump to Lake County this year (bypassing Mahoning Valley) and while the numbers haven’t been as good he’s still got seven homeruns. Luigi Rodriguez is a bit like Paulino as he’s a former top 10 prospect who has since fallen. The outfielder is doing his best though to resurrect his career in Lynchburg as he’s having a great season joining Nellie Rodriguez and Bradley Zimmer as All-Stars there. He’s tied a career high with 11 homeruns to go along with 23 stolen bases. He’ll be 23 years old this November though so has fallen behind a lot of other prospects.
With young vets like Brantley and rising stars like Lindor, the Indians system is in great shape. Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Overall State of the System
While the Cleveland Indians may not have the best farm system in baseball they have a very deep one. They may only have one prospect ranked in the top 50 by the major publications but you’d be hard pressed to find many systems as loaded from 8–20 as the Indians. This can be a good thing and a bad thing though. While depth is good, talent is what wins in baseball.
However, when you consider the amount of under 30 talent the current big league team has in Cleveland, one can see that this organization is in great shape. Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer….the list goes on and on. All guys signed or under team control for multiple years. Factor in talents like Bradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, Brady Aiken, etc. and it’s an exciting time to be a Cleveland Indians fan.
Originally published at wahoosonfirst.com on July 22, 2015.