As we get ready to start up the 2017 top prospect countdown this month, I still have another 2-3 editions of Minor Happenings to run to clear out my notebook. Here is the first of those editions.
Onto the Happenings…
Building up Lovegrove
Right-hander Kieran Lovegrove put forth a solid showing in 2016 at Low-A Lake County where he made 39 appearances and went 4-3 with a 4.25 ERA and in 48.2 innings allowed 47 hits, 2 homers, 22 walks and had 44 strikeouts. A 4.25 ERA, 4.1 BB/9 and 3.80 FIP are rather ordinary numbers and on the surface wouldn’t excite many fans, but they are strong numbers considering where he came from with two very inconsistent seasons in 2014 and 2015 that were impacted both physically with injuries and mentally with some strike zone issues.
Lovegrove, 22, had a rough 2014 campaign (3.90 ERA, 5.11 FIP, 4.2 BB/9, 6.9 K/9) and even tougher 2015 showing (6.08 ERA, 4.87 FIP, 4.6 BB/9, 5.5 K/9) but really rebounded last season with his first real sign of durability and also a significant improvement in his walk rate (4.1 BB/9) and strikeout rate (8.1 K/9). A change in role from the starting rotation to the bullpen helped a lot as it allowed him to really showcase his plus stuff in shorter spurts and cover up some of his command issues. The command issues are still there and he probably in some way will always have a high walk rate for a reliever, so the key to his success will be the continued development of his plus arsenal and learning to control his mind to not let things speed up on him when things start to go bad.
Even though he was moved to the bullpen, the Indians really worked to incorporate Lovegrove’s curveball more into his pitch mix last year. The Indians challenged him to throw it more in order to gain more trust in it and have the confidence to use it at any time. He throws so hard with a mid-90s fastball that can regularly get up to 96-97 MPH and a hard low-to-mid 80s slider that the Indians felt the slower curveball would help complement his stuff better than his changeup. While the changeup is still a pitch he has in his arsenal, the focus shift to just his curveball as his third offering helped keep everything in line and allow him to be more effective.
Lovegrove’s biggest obstacle that he has to get over is his over-reliance on his fastball and his subpar command. His fastball is by far his best offering because it has a lot of power and movement, but hitters know it is the one pitch he has the most confidence in and is the pitch he goes to a high percentage of the time when he feels like he needs to make a big pitch or to get back into a count. He’s also just too erratic around the zone which allows hitters to mostly ignore his offspeed stuff and just wait for a fastball in the zone. This is where the over reliance on the fastball gets him in trouble, so the Indians want him to show that he can throw his curveball or slider for strikes when he is behind in counts when hitters are sitting on his fastball. They feel that this alone will lead to a big spike in his performance with more strikeouts and generating more weak contact by keeping them off balance.
Lovegrove has been a disappointment up to this point as the expectation for a high level pick out of high school like himself over four years ago is that he would be knocking on the door to Triple-A and at least Double-A. But injuries, inconsistent performance and some mental obstacles have kept his development to a crawl up to this point. Since he turns 23 years old this season and brings a lot of questions with his command and future, this coming season is about as big as it gets for him as he needs to show some marked improvement in his performance and start making some strides developmentally. Last season’s solid showing and improved numbers at Lake County was a good start, but he’s going to need to continue that progress and take another giant leap in his development at the same time – all while likely opening the year at a more competitive level at High-A Lynchburg. Let’s see what happens.
Right-handed pitcher Michael Letkewicz had a solid pro debut at Short-A Mahoning Valley where he made 21 appearances out of the pen and went 6-0 with a 1.74 ERA (41.1 IP, 37 H, 0 HR, 18 BB, 24 K). While the ERA was impressive and the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark was nice, his middling 3.9 BB/9 and low 5.2 K/9 brings some concern. Still, for a pitcher brought in as somewhat of a project, it was a good first showing and he brings some potential the Indians are hopeful they can tap into.
Letkewicz, who turns 23 years old later this month, was initially a relief pitcher his freshman year (9 G, 7.71 ERA, 16.1 IP, 22 H, 12 BB, 15 K) at Augustana College but he saw an increase to his velocity and stuff between his freshman and sophomore season and moved into the rotation for his sophomore season (16 G, 3.28 ERA, 60.1 IP, 50 H, 27 BB, 85 K). He struggled with injuries in his junior season as he came down with some shoulder pain at the outset of the season that forced him to miss some time and even when he returned he was never really 100% the rest of the year (12 G, 8.19 ERA, 29.2 IP, 30 H, 23 BB, 24 K). He came back last year and had a very good showing in his senior season (12 G, 3.59 ERA, 62.2 IP, 67 H, 25 BB, 54 K) and parlayed that into a selection in the 2016 Draft, and left Augustana ranked tied for 6th in the school in wins (14), 7th in innings pitched (169.0) and 3rd in strikeouts (178).
After signing Letkewicz and then assigning him to Mahoning Valley, the Indians moved him into a relief role and he did a nice job there overall. He has the size and strength they like as a starting pitcher and he still may get a shot to start in the lower levels, but he profiles more as a reliever. The big question is just how much upside he has. On one hand he will already be 23 years old when his first full season starts this year, but on the other hand the Indians believe there is a lot of untapped talent in his right arm that they are hopeful they can bring out of him over the course of this season. They have really worked with him to refine his pitches by really honing in on his fastball and changeup. Also, even though he pitched in 49 games and threw 169.0 innings in college, he lacks much experience against higher level competition, so the Indians are working with him to get more accustomed to the nuances of pitching and developing a better feel for pitching.
Letkewicz looks like a he is heading for Low-A Lake County to start the year, though the Indians have a plethora of pitching options at that level which could easily squeeze him out and force him to open the year in extended spring training. Still, the expectation is that he will open in Lake County and the Indians will see if he can continue to give them multiple innings out of the pen and potentially get a shot to start at some point later in the year.
Merry for Merryweather
Right-handed pitcher Julian Merryweather had a fantastic age-24 season last year where he split time between High-A Lynchburg (11 games) and Double-A Akron (13 games) to go 13-6 with a 2.60 ERA in 24 total starts (135.0 IP, 122 H, 10 HR, 32 BB, 119 K).
Merryweather has always been interesting because he commands his fastball and offspeed pitches well, locates his pitches well and has some velocity with his fastball to go along with a solid changeup, but it was the addition of a slider last offseason that significantly changed his value and potential. He also made some nice mechanical adjustments in his lower body that really helped him add some energy and more power to his stuff. With the new slider in tow and some refined mechanics, it paid big dividends right from the start of the season as he began the season with an 18.1 inning scoreless streak at Lynchburg and it helped propel him to a lot of success the rest of the season.
Merryweather’s numbers really didn’t change all that much as he his walk rate (2.1 BB%) actually went up from the previous year at Low-A Lake County (1.5 BB/9) and his strikeout rate went down (7.9 K/9) from what he had at Lake County (8.8 K/9). He also had a 3.23 FIP at Lake County that went up to a 3.28 FIP at Lynchburg and 3.57 FIP at Akron. But what the slider did was bump up the quality of the rest of his arsenal to help keep them off balance and give him a third pitch to attack hitters as a starter at the higher levels. It is the key to him remaining a starter and improving his prospect stock.
With a nice, lanky build and three pitches that Merryweather can command and locate, he has a chance to be a solid backend starter in the big leagues – if not more – if he can continue to make strides. The hard part for him will be to find a way to continue to make strides, which can be hard for pitchers when they get into their mid-20s as there is often little room for growth at that point. 2017 is setting up to be a very pivotal year for him.
The Return of Dorssys
Outfielder Dorssys Paulino had a 2016 season that was really split into two parts. In the first part, he suffered a broken hamate bone in his left hand in May which he played through initially since he wasn’t sure what the injury was and it ended up hurting his numbers as he hit .235 with 1 HR, 11 RBI and .639 OPS in 27 games with High-A Lynchburg. He went finally went on the disabled list on May 13th and had surgery to correct the issue and it forced him out of the lineup for almost two months.
But after a brief rehab stint in Arizona, Paulino returned to Lynchburg on August 2nd and hit well for the rest of the season hitting .330 with 5 HR, 20 RBI and .950 OPS in 28 games. Not only did the clean bill of health help him get back to being the productive player many have come to know him to be, but the time on the shelf recovering from the surgery allowed him an opportunity to slow things down and put things in perspective. Coaches raved how he looked refreshed and like a new person when he returned to Lynchburg, and not surprisingly, the performance followed.
Paulino’s days as a high level prospect are all but gone because of his limitations defensively and the lack of real big production potential with the bat, but he’s still an interesting prospect who has a knack for hitting balls hard, consistently driving balls into the gaps and brings some versatility as a fielder. He’s another fringy prospect who needs to have a big 2017 to reignite the interest in him and the belief the bat will play even as a defensive challenged left fielder.