Tony Lastoria/IBI

2017 IBI Top 75 Prospect Countdown Preview and Analysis of Cleveland Indians Farm System

The IBI's 2017 Indians Top Prospect countdown is here! The IBI's Tony Lastoria previews the upcoming prospect countdown which is at 75 again this year on the site and looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the system, the breakout candidates, who is eligible to be ranked and all the guidelines for the ranking...

The Cleveland Indians made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 with a roster rich in talent that they have drafted and developed or mined as undervalued prospects from other organizations. They also used some of their budding prospect talent to acquire players like Andrew Miller and Brandon Guyer at the deadline to fill significant needs on the roster.

No matter how you slice it, the Indians farm system is always at the center of their success. When you look back to those great teams of the mid-late 90s, the core of those teams was made up of prospects they developed or acquired in a trade. When you look at their strong roster they had in the mid-00s, a great deal of talent was acquired in trades they made at the end of their 90s run with a sprinkling in of some talent they developed from within. And that has been the formula to success the past few seasons under Terry Francona with new prospects emerging every year and becoming the new core players of the organization.

This is the way it is and will always be for the Indians. Their farm system is their lifeblood and what will determine their ability to compete and have sustained success. Without it they have little chance to form the nucleus that is needed to become a championship caliber club. Whether it is used to develop their own stars of today and tomorrow, or used as currency to acquire a veteran piece or two to complete the roster, the farm system provides an abundance of riches for teams if they develop a stable, strong and deep system.

The Indians have surely had their misses over the years, but of late they have gotten so much better at identifying talent in the scouting process and then developing it. This has helped them avoid long periods of down years to regroup the system after a big migration of prospects reach the big leagues over the course of a year or two. The idea is to have a constant stream of young talent on the escalator up to the big leagues in order to counter the constant attrition of players on the escalator down and out of the organization as they reach free agency.

Indians fans have seen the organization blow up the team not once, but twice over the last 15 years. They did it after the 2001 season in an effort to get younger and shorten the time period needed for a full rebuild, and for the most part it worked as they put together one of baseball’s best teams from 2004-2008 that many feel greatly underperformed because of the manager. They did it again in 2008 and 2009 when they traded away key pieces that set in motion the makeup of the current roster.

All of which led to a World Series roster with 20 of the 25 players on it either drafted and developed by the organization, acquired in a trade using prospects, or acquired as prospects in exchange for veterans. The result is a starting rotation that is entirely all homegrown with pitchers that were either drafted and developed or were acquired as prospects, eight of the nine regular pieces in the lineup drafted and developed or acquired as prospects, and a bullpen with a closer that was drafted and developed and backed up by a dominant lefty who was acquired using four highly valued prospects.

Last season, the Indians saw Francisco Lindor establish himself as the preeminent shortstop in all of baseball. While there can be an argument made for others, his gamesmanship, talent, production, energy, teamwork and leadership abilities have many thinking he could be this generation’s Derek Jeter if he can stay healthy and continue to perform at a high level. Also, Jose Ramirez established himself as one of the best clutch hitters and toughest outs in all of baseball, Tyler Naquin showed the skillset to at least be a productive platoon bat, and others like Mike Clevinger, Perci Garner, Shawn Armstrong, Joe Colon, Erik Gonzalez, Ryan Merritt, Shawn Morimando and Adam Plutko offered a small taste test in a limited sample size but showed that they could be the next young players to break out this coming season.

In addition to those who had a chance to break in last season, the Indians have three outfielders in Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen who are primed to make a significant impact to the team at some point this season. When they get that opportunity will be predicated on the health status of Michael Brantley and others as well as the performance of Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte.

With a roster that is mostly intact for the next two seasons, and with a large percentage of players locked in for four more years, it gives the Indians the ability to be patient with their prospects and to sprinkle them in as needed the next few years. In order to have continued, consistent success they will need to keep mixing in one or two prospects in each year in order to help relieve some of the issues that come up with roster turnover once players reach free agency. They did it last year with Tyler Naquin getting lots of time, and though they weren’t rookies, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez earned their first opportunity to play in the big league for a full season.

The loss of Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller and JP Feyereisen was a big bow to their system when they were dealt in the Andrew Miller deal. Thankfully, the Indians developed a high amount of depth in the system where they could absorb some of those losses. With Frazier’s departure, it opened the door for Diaz and Allen to step into his shoes and team up with Bradley Zimmer as the next big dynamic outfield duo for them. With Sheffield’s departure, it opened the door for Morimando, Merritt and Kaminsky to be key left-handed arms for them. And with Heller’s and Feyereisen’s departure, it opened the door for Armstrong, Garner and others to take a step forward as the next big pen arms.

As the 2017 season nears, the farm system will once again be looked upon to provide the Indians with depth to help cover for injuries and perhaps even offer a surprise performance or two like what they got out of Naquin last year. It will also be looked at as a means to provide currency for them to complete a trade or two during the season to round out the roster and improve their chances of not only making it back to the postseason, but to go back to the World Series and win it this time.

This is what makes the minor leagues so thrilling to follow. On one hand, you have a young player moving up and turning himself into a legit Major League option and potentially getting his first Major League opportunity, and then on the other hand, you have that same young prospect who is used as a key piece to go out and get that lockdown pen arm or big bat needed to bring everything together.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy what should be another fun season following Indians prospects this year as they work to achieve their dream and make it to the big leagues.

System Strengths

The strength of the system really resides with left-handed pitching, center fielders and middle infielders. While they have developed some good prospects and possibilities at other positions, these are the positions they are both deepest and have Major League options ready to contribute.

The center field options are impressive as they not only have Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen in the upper levels knocking on the Major League door, but they have others like Gabriel Mejia and Andrew Calica in the lower levels who are very talented and rising quickly in standing. This doesn’t even include Yandy Diaz who is not a center fielder and more of a corner outfielder, but has the athleticism and ability to handle center on occasion.

The Indians long had few left-handed pitching prospects in the organization, but that trend has changed in recent years and now they appear to have an abundance of them. They have interesting left-handed starting pitching prospects scattered about at all levels with the likes of Ryan Merritt, Shawn Morimando, Rob Kaminsky, Brady Aiken, Juan Hillman, Thomas Pannone and Tim Cooney. And there are many others on the periphery like Sean Brady, Luis Lugo, Sam Hentges and even Hoby Milner who are interesting starting and relief options.

The middle infield depth has taken a hit in recent years with the promotion of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, but the Indians have continued to restock and refortify the ranks to put together a solid group of prospects. Erik Gonzalez, Yu-Cheng Chang, Willi Castro and Tyler Krieger offer a nice foursome of middle infield prospects with talent, upside and performance who are top options, and they also have other versatile infielders like Diaz, Mark Mathias, Luke Wakamatsu and Ronny Rodriguez who bring varying levels of potential.

They are also well-positioned at first base with big time prospect Bobby Bradley and sluggers Nellie Rodriguez and Jesus Aguilar. The bullpen is very deep with the likes of Perci Garner, Shawn Armstrong, Joe Colon, Josh Martin and even Jeff Johnson as legit Major League options who bring upside and at the least provide depth. And while some are no longer prospects, the rotation at Triple-A to start the year figures to be very strong and deep with Mike Clevinger, Cody Anderson, Ryan Merritt, Shawn Morimando and Adam Plutko – all five of which are on the 40-man roster and are starting pitching depth for this season.

System Weaknesses

The Indians system does not really have a big weakness. They have done a nice job of balancing out their acquisition of talent in the draft and on the international front and hitting on a higher percentage of these players that it has resulted in them having few holes in the system. Yes, there are some holes at some positions at various levels in the organization, but just about every position now has at least two legit prospects when looking at it organization-wide.

Probably the biggest weakness is the lack of any big, run producing bats in the corner outfield. It is possible that Zimmer could end up in right or left field, and Diaz could be a solid bat in either spot, but there are no real middle of the order type of bats in the system at those positions (this is where the loss of Anthony Santander hurts – though the expectation is he will be returned).

Third base and catcher are positions which both have top shelf prospects with Francisco Mejia at catcher and Nolan Jones at third base, but both players are a ways away and there is not much after them at their positions. Jeremy Lucas is interesting and some of the catchers from the recent drafts are as well, but neither has established themselves as a top prospect. The same goes at third base where there is really nothing beyond Jones who is a high school kid from last year’s draft – though Mathias and Diaz offer suitable options in the upper levels who can hit and provide a lot of flexibility.

Breakout Candidates

There were several players who had breakout campaigns in 2016. Players such as Matt Esparza, Cameron Hill, Todd Isaacs, Connor Marabell, Julian Merryweather, Taylor Murphy, Michael Peoples, David Speer and Matt Whitehouse all had big years that saw a notable increase in their prospect stock coming into this season.

As always, a new season brings the opportunity for undervalued players to exceed expectations and put themselves squarely on the prospect radar. I usually qualify these players as those who maybe are not as highly touted coming into the season and end up in the bottom half of the Indians Top 100 listing – or completely off it. It can also be a solid prospect in the late 20s or into the 30s and 40s who makes a considerable jump into top 10 territory. A quick list of players who I think have a chance to make some considerable jumps this season would be Matt Esparza (yes, again), Shane Bieber, Justin Garza, Samad Taylor and Billy Strode.

And of course there will be some disappointments – players who fall well below expectations this season – either because of poor performance or injuries. Naming such players often comes across as negative, so out of respect for all of the players I will refrain from predicting who those players will be and just let the course of the season show who those players end up being.

Eligibility

The criteria used to determine who is eligible for the 2017 prospect ranking is fairly simple.  Major League service time is not considered, and instead the only requirement is that a player still have rookie status with less than 50.0 innings pitched or with less than 130 at bats in their Major League career.

The only exception to that rule this year is for relievers I am not considering any reliever a prospect who has more than 35.0 Major League innings (rounded up). So while Nick Goody (35 IP) is still considered a “rookie” because he is under the 50 inning threshold, I think it is fair to say that a reliever with 35+ innings is a lot of time in the big leagues and probably equal to about 70-100 or so innings from a starting pitcher (which is who that 50 inning threshold is for anyway). With that in mind, Goody will not be included in this year’s prospect ranking whereas others with Major League time like Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner and Joe Colon will be included due to their limited amount of innings at the Major League level. And, yes, Jesus Aguilar is still included as well as he is well below the at bat threshold.

The other exception is players that have yet to play stateside are not ranked, which is basically those players that played the 2016 season in the Dominican Summer League or were a 2016 international signing that has yet to play.  Until these Latin American players come stateside where I have an opportunity to see them more and also get opinions from others in the industry on them, I always leave them out of the overall listing.

Ranking Guidelines

The information for these scouting reports comes from my numerous conversations over the past year with players, scouts, coaches, front office personnel, and so on as well as my own observations. I typically talk to “someone” every day about a prospect or two in the system, so all of this information is obtained firsthand.

The way someone puts together their ranking of players can vary from scout to scout, executive to executive, and from writer to writer.  Some people rate prospects purely on results (stats), some on standing (class level/age), and some purely on potential (projection), but I try to incorporate all three of those rating styles and use a balanced approach in order to consider all possible information to make the best possible decision on where to place a player in my ranking. That said, of the three, I generally do favor projection over performance, so younger players with upside typically get the higher nod versus an older player with great stats but a limited ceiling.

It also should be noted that different positions rank well while others do not. Starting pitchers always have much, much more upside than relief pitchers, so they get the priority when ranking players. The relief pitchers often do not rank in the Top 40-50 unless they have a chance to be a dominant backend reliever in the Major Leagues.  This also holds true for players that are utility players or reserve players as they will not rank well because of their limited role. Starting pitchers and players up the middle at catcher, middle infield, and center field are typically always valued the highest among prospects, then the rest of the position players, and then the relievers.

Also, older players in the upper levels that maybe have performed well but have plateaued as a prospect will not rank well.  The rankings are not about who is closer to the big leagues, they are based on what their Major League value/potential is to the organization.  For example, someone that may be a solid performer over their career, will be at Triple-A, and may be on the 40-man roster may not necessarily be ranked as well as a young prospect in Low-A that maybe has been inconsistent with their performance but has the tools to be an impact player. It is mostly about the potential to impact a Major League roster rather than about who are the best prospects that can “get there.”

In the end, the rankings are arbitrary. I always tell people not to take each and every ranking exactly for what it is, but instead as a guideline that shows what players to keep an eye out for, who has more or less value than you thought, and how all the players stack up against one another.

As always, thanks for the continued support with the site and for reading. Enjoy the new reports and most of all I wish all the players the best of luck this upcoming season.

Up Next: The countdown begins #75.

Note: There are plans for a 2017 book. Details on that should become clearer as the season nears.


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