I will be posting a few editions of Minor Happenings this week and next week to close out things for 2016 and to clear out my notebook in preparation for the start of 2017 and the top prospect countdown which is right around the corner.
Onto the Happenings…
McKenzie's rise to the top
No pitcher arguably had as big a rise in standing in the organization than right-hander Triston McKenzie this season. He came into the season as a highly regarded prospect and as one of the organization’s best prospects, but a lot of that was based on pure talent and where he was drafted and not so much on what he showed on the field in the minors. All of that changed this past season.
McKenzie, 19, opened the year in extended spring training to continue to work on his craft but also to limit his workload as his arm and body were not yet ready for a full season that would require 120-130 innings out of him. Once he made his season debut when Short-A Mahoning Valley got underway in June, he pitched every bit like a top prospect is supposed to pitch with nine starts that saw him go 4-3 with a 0.55 ERA and in 49.1 innings allow just 31 hits and 16 walks while racking up 55 strikeouts. The Indians rewarded his strong showing with a bump to Low-A Lake County in August where he finished the season making six starts for them going 2-2 with a 3.18 ERA and in 34.0 innings allowed 27 hits, 6 walks and posted 49 strikeouts. When all was said and done, he ended up making 15 starts between Mahoning Valley and Lake County and went 6-5 with a 1.62 ERA (83.1 IP, 58 H, 4 HR, 22 BB, 104 K).
There was so much to like about McKenzie’s performance. He kept the ball in the ballpark with just four homers allowed in 83.1 innings (0.4 HR/9), limited baserunners both in hits (.195 AVG) and walks (2.4 BB/9) and struck out batters at a high rate (11.2 K/9). Perhaps the most impressive stat was his ability to command the zone (67.0% strikes) and be efficient with his pitches (14.3 pitches per inning) considering the amount of strikeouts he racked up. Even more impressive was how his strike percentage increased going from one level to the next as threw 65.8% of his pitches for strikes at Mahoning Valley and then threw 68.6% of his pitches for strikes at Lake County.
It is unusual to see such a young pitcher throw for such an exceptional strike rate at McKenzie’s age, which is one of the big reasons he has really jumped onto the radar as not just a top prospect for the Indians but in all of baseball. For most young pitchers, a move to a higher level midseason would result in a dip in performance as they adjust to the transition of facing better competition, but he not only adjusted seamlessly, but in dominating fashion pitching better at Lake County than he did at Mahoning Valley (don’t let the ERA fool you, his walk and strikeout rates at Lake County were notably better). It is his demeanor, intelligence and work ethic which truly separate him mentally from top pitching prospects who have good stuff just like him. That uncanny ability to not be fazed by any situation he is put in and to remain confident, calm and collected to keep himself grounded when things are going great and to keep focused when things are maybe not going so great – all of it separates him from the pack.
McKenzie is very polished for his age and just consistently pounds the zone with his entire arsenal. His low 90s fastball is effective because of the good movement it has and the way he commands it, and really plays up because of his outstanding changeup to give him a very good one-two punch to keep hitters off balance. His curveball is coming along and has a chance to be a solid average offering, but it is the fastball-changeup duo he uses interchangeably to setup and finish off hitters. As he moves forward into next season, the goal for him will be to get him a better feel for mixing in his secondary offerings, how to sequence them against hitters and get a feel for what they are doing in a given at bat so he can do a better job of keeping them unbalanced and not lock in on any one pitch or location.
McKenzie was the complete package this past season with the performance, stuff and mental approach to the game that really widened some eyes and have the Indians excited about his potential. He is the dream pitching prospect as he has the mental makeup and drive that the Indians know will work tirelessly to improve, is coachable and willing to make adjustments and has the intelligence to process information and know what he needs to do to get to where everyone believes he can get to down the road. Look for him to open next season with a return to Lake County but another strong showing could push him to High-A Lynchburg at the halfway point of the season.
Finding a niche for Stamets
Infielder Eric Stamets is someone who is not in the big league discussion at the moment for the Indians, but is someone who has a lot of value to the organization as an upper level depth middle infielder. Right now the Indians lack many shortstop options in the upper levels, and with Erik Gonzalez as the favorite to win the utility job in Cleveland next year, it means Stamets is the favorite to be the starting shortstop at Triple-A Columbus.
Most of Stamets’ experience is at the Double-A level (270 games) compared to just 22 games in Triple-A (all this season), and appears primed for an opportunity in Columbus to start next season. Of course, his fate is largely tied to what happens with Gonzalez. If Gonzalez makes the opening day roster in Cleveland, then Stamets probably opens in Columbus. If Gonzalez opens in Columbus, then it probably means Stamets has to open the season at Akron. With Ronny Rodriguez established in Columbus and the likes of Michael Martinez and maybe even Todd Hankins both on the Columbus roster as versatile bench options, it limits Stamets’ chances of sticking in Columbus in a utility role.
Stamets only hit .237 with 7 HR, 37 RBI and .684 OPS in 91 games this season, though he did miss close to 40 games because of two separate stints on the disabled list because of a bothersome left hamstring. There is no doubt that the ability to play defense at the Major League level is there, it is the bat that needs to take a step forward and show more consistency. He showed lots more power this season (.160 ISO) compared to past seasons where he averaged just around a .100 ISO, but was at the expense of his discipline as he had a 23.9 K% compared to previous seasons when it sat around 12-13%. Getting him to find that fine line between aggression and discipline to where he can stay consistent with his approach yet also more consistently drive the ball will continue to be his main focus in getting his bat over the hump.
Stamets may need an opportunity to play some other positions to add to his value as he has played all but four games at shortstop over his entire career. If he can play some second base, third base and even some outfield, it would add to his value and help overlook the limitations with the bat. Michael Martinez has done that in the big leagues by creating a niche as a solid defender at many positions with almost no bat, so perhaps Stamets can do the same – though I believe there is more in there with the bat than what Martinez provides.
High-A Lynchburg shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang had a good showing this season hitting .259 with 13 HR, 70 RBI and .795 OPS in 109 games. It was a much improved season after his first full season last year at Low-A Lake County when he hit .232 with 9 HR, 52 RBI and .655 OPS. He was actually hitting .275 with a .838 OPS before suffering a sprained wrist on August 2nd which kept him out of the lineup and then impacted his performance the final 15 games when he returned (6-for-44, .136 AVG). Prior to the injury the Indians marveled at his improved consistency over the season and how his approach improved and the power started to show more consistently. He racked up 51 extra base hits and a .204 isolated power percentage and saw his walk rate climb from a 6.1 BB% in 2015 to a 9.4 BB% this season. He is starting to look like a Jhonny Peralta type of power-hitting middle infield prospect for the Indians and looks primed for an opportunity to open next season at Double-A Akron.
Infielder Erlin Cerda spent his first three years in the complex leagues in the Dominican Republic and Arizona before getting a chance to play at Short-A Mahoning Valley and Low-A Lake County this season. He had a big July hitting .315 with 3 HR, 22 RBI .860 OPS which earned him a bid to the NY-Penn League All Star game (where he hit the game winning home run), but aside from that one month he struggled for the rest of the season hitting .143 with a .521 OPS in June, he hit .137 with a .463 OPS in August before moving on to Lake County and then hit .182 with a .477 OPS in the seven games he played there. In total, he hit .228 with 5 HR, 37 RBI and 634 OPS in 66 games between Mahoning Valley and Lake County. While the performance was very inconsistent, he did offer a glimpse at the value he provides as a lower level utility prospect. There is some power packed into his small, compact frame, he can run a little bit and he is very versatile as he can play second base, third base, first base and even some outfield if needed. The plate discipline is his biggest obstacle as he lacks much patience and is susceptible to chase, but he has made some strides with his hitting to be quicker to balls in on his hands and has shown a willingness to work away to the off gap. While he is 22-years old and not a top prospect for the Indians, there are some things that make him interesting and worth monitoring next season when he should get an opportunity to play a full season for the first time for either Lake County or High-A Lynchburg.
Short-A Mahoning Valley left-handed pitcher Tanner Tully had a very nice first pro season where in 13 appearances (7 starts) he went 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA and in 46.0 innings allowed 32 hits, 9 walks and had 26 strikeouts. The low strikeout rate (5.1 K/9) won’t garner him much attention as a prospect, but the strong performance and the ability to throw strikes are things that help get a late round draft pick (26th round, Ohio State) noticed and can build momentum going into the next season. He mostly features his fastball and curveball as he commands them both well, but he is working to refine his changeup to get it around the zone more consistently and to get better late movement with it. He is under-sized at 6’0” though has a solid build at 200 pounds, so the Indians will continue to work on his body to get it stronger to see if more endurance, flexibility and strength results in a jump in his stuff and velocity. He should open next season at Low-A Lake County in a swing role as a reliever who could start at varying times in the season or even find himself in a piggyback starting position.