Aside from being a time where teams across Major League Baseball set off on a six month journey with visions of playoffs and hoisting that Commissioner's Trophy, opening week is also a time where fans begin to wonder where the next Kris Bryant, Michael Fulmer or Francisco Lindor are going to come from and whether their favorite team has them coming up through their farm system?
This week, thousands of minor league players will take the field in small towns and cities all across the country as they hope 2017 will bring them one step closer to the show, some of them highly-touted prospects, others journeyman just hoping to get one opportunity. For the Indians organization, this season brings a guy like Bradley Zimmer closing in on his big league debut or a guy like last year's hit king, Francisco Mejia, moving up to Double-A. And for another season, Indians Baseball Insider is here to bring you in-depth coverage of all the affiliates and all the top Tribe prospects.
We will continue to provide our signature minor league coverage through our daily Around The Farm (ATF) recaps, weekly notebooks for each affiliate, regular player features, scouting reports and feedback from coaches and front office staff. Additionally, we plan to bring fans closer to the minor leagues than ever through our video web series "IBI: On Site" and live remote episodes of our "Farm Report" podcast, both of which will feature live interviews with players and coaches up and down the farm system.
For the time being, however, here are some minor league season predictions from some of our contributors...
1. Which affiliate are you most excited to follow in the early going this season?
Tony Lastoria: This is a tough one as the rosters are pretty well balanced at all four full season affiliates, which just shows the amount of depth the Indians have in their system. I know a lot of people will immediately point to Akron as being exciting - and it is because of some high profile guys all over that infield - but I am going to say Columbus here. The reason being, they have a big time prospect in Bradley Zimmer who is looking to finish off his development and potentially make himself a Major League option, the big thumper Nellie Roriguez moving up to Triple-A for the first time, the late blooming Ronny Rodriguez looking to continue the momentum from a great winter ball showing and a starting rotation and bullpen loaded with arms that can help in Cleveland at some point.
Jake Dungan: While all the big position player names in the system are in Akron and all the big pitching names are in Lake County, I'm still going to go with the Lynchburg Hillcats for most intriguing team entering 2017. A big reason for that is Triston McKenzie's aggressive promotion to the Carolina League, but there are also a lot of in-between type prospects on the roster who aren't rated highly yet, but have the potential to be: guys like Matt Esparza and Thomas Pannone in the rotation, Billy Strode and Argenis Angulo in the bullpen and Andrew Calica and Willi Castro among the position players. I'm interested to see if these players can establish themselves this year.
John Alfes: With Bobby Bradley, Francisco Mejia, Tyler Krieger and Yu-Cheng Chang all getting promoted, the Akron RubberDucks figure to be an exciting team to watch this summer. While they still have a bulk of their previous starting rotation intact (Rob Kaminsky, Nick Pasquale and Julian Merryweather), there are many new, intriguing players on their roster, including Dylan Baker and Luis Lugo. First-year manager Mark Budzinski will be tasked with taking this restructured roster back to the Eastern League championship in 2017.
Corey Crisan: Early on, there are multiple reasons to follow each Indians affiliate. Pick your poison, really. Lake County has an abundance of pitching, Lynchburg has a motley of talent, Akron has budding stars to keep an eye on and Columbus has an interesting mix of prospects and veteran leadership. The most exciting team to watch early will definitely be Lake County because of their insanely deep and talented starting rotation. Top prospect Brady Aiken figures to be healthy going into 2017 and we know what he brings to the table when he is healthy. In addition, early-round 2016 picks Aaron Civale and Shane Bieber will get their first taste of full-season action, as will 2015 top pick Juan Hillman.
Dave Roberts: Lake County is going to have an interesting and promising young roster both in pitchers and offensive players that will be fun to watch their start. Pitchers like Brady Aiken, Juan Hillman, and Aaron Civale and on the offensive side Todd Isaacs, Gabriel Mejia, and Luke Wakamatsu are the guys I want to pay the most attention to.
Jon Vesey: While Akron does not boast the pitching staff I am most intrigued by (that distinction goes to the Lake County Captains), the positional lineup that the RubberDucks will put out this year is salivating. Loaded with names like Greg Allen, Bobby Bradley, Yu-Cheng Chang, Tyler Krieger, and Francisco Mejia, the hitting should prove to be a spectacle, and is rife with MLB-level potential. Some of the national prospect analysts downgraded the farm system a good bit, going into this season, but I think the Akron roster is a good indication that the cupboard is still packed.
Toni Dossena: On paper, the rosters are pretty balanced, so really all four clubs are worth following closely. The Akron lineup and Lake County rotation are filled with exciting prospects ready to take the next step and Lynchburg has a little bit of everything and got a talent boost with the aggressive McKenzie assignment. But for me it's the Columbus Clippers, because half their roster could, at some point, help a contending Indians team win, especially their pitching and Yand Diazy already up in the majors.
2. Is there any player making his debut at a new level you are most interested in and why?
Tony Lastoria: Without question it is right-hander Triston McKenzie debuting at High-A Lynchburg. Considering his age and limited amount of time at Low-A Lake County last year, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he would at least open at Lake County this year before moving up to Lynchburg later in the season. But with his assignment to Lynchburg it shows how quickly they believe he can move, how advanced he is for his age, and most importantly, how well suited he is to handle the challenge and the ups and downs he may encounter. He had an impressive breakthrough season last year and has developed into one of the best pitching prospects in all the minors, and the Indians are treating him like one by aggressively pushing him and challenging him with a push to High-A in his first full season assignment. This is going to be fun to see how he handles it.
Jake Dungan: Francisco Mejia burst onto the scene nationwide last season, namely due to his historic 50-game hit streak with the Captains and Hillcats. Now he's at Double-A, the great equalizer level, and we should now see whether his .342 average with 11 homers and 80 RBI's he posted last year are the real deal or not. Plus, will he continue to improve his defense behind the plate to live up to his top prospect standing? I'm very excited to see him in Akron and how he fares against more advanced talent.
John Alfes: Ever since Mitch Brown made the transition from starter to reliever, he has thrived with a 3.05 earned run average and 15.77 strikeouts per nine innings. Brown did walk 17 batters in his 20.2 frames of relief as command remains an issue. As a former second round pick who signed for $800,000, Brown still has a lot to prove in his new role. Brown’s Double-A designation is encouraging and leads many to believe he has made significant strides this off-season and throughout spring training.
Corey Crisan: This answer is a two-parter for me, because not only did these two essentially skip Lake County altogether, but the odds of Triston McKenzie and Andrew Calica succeeding in Lynchburg is VERY high. McKenzie has been dominant since the day film existed on him, and he continued that dominance in Mahoning Valley and briefly in Lake County last season. Calica broke nearly every offensive record in Mahoning Valley in 2016 and he is, no pun intended, a scrapper out there. He is fun to watch. Look for those two bright players to shine at the next level.
Dave Roberts: Triston McKenzie has intrigued me since getting off to his blistering start in short season Mahoning Valley and continuing it at Lake County last season. I was surprised the Indians didn't sent him back to Low-A and okayed the jump to High-A Lynchburg so I'm excited to see if he continues his fast rise.
Jon Vesey: Starting in Lake County this year, Aiken certainly has the recipe to be an intriguing prospect to follow: first-overall-draft-pick potential, debilitating injuries and an organization well-regarded in pitcher recuperation. One of the big questions in the Indians' system this year is the new ceiling of Aiken, and only time will tell. He could come back to his former potential as a future-ace or he could be so hampered by injury that he never reaches the pros. The truth is likely in between, but finding out will be engaging.
Toni Dossena: Going into this season, the scouting community seems split on Bobby Bradley with naysayers pointing to his high K% and predicting shifts killing his numbers while his supporters argue that his power and ability to take walks can make up for it. The Double-A level is deemed to be a litmus test for those profiles. I don't care about the K% too much as long as Bradley continues to improve his K/BB ratio, which he did last season while going up a level at a very young age. The most encouraging 2016 stat might be his very consistent split. He'll start the season at Akron still under the drinking age.
3. Are there any opening day roster surprises for you?
Tony Lastoria: I think the one that surprises me the most is at Lake County with right-handed starter Justin Garza, who was limited to just a few outings last season. He shouldn't be able to pitch a lot of innings this season. The expectation was the Indians would be conservative with him on the front end to manage his innings so he could pitch the entire season, but with him getting a start with a full season team it is exciting not only to see him back out there and pitching in Northeast Ohio for the first time, but the confidence the Indians have in him.
Jake Dungan: Triston McKenzie starting the year in Lynchburg was one of the more surprising decisions of the spring by the organization. After starting in only six games for the Captains toward the end of last season following his dominant run in Mahoning Valley where he went 4-3 with an 0.55 ERA, it seemed the right-hander was ticketed for a return to Eastlake to get some more seasoning. However, the Indians opted for the more aggressive route sending him to High-A. At only 19 years old and with only 95.1 professional innings under his belt, he will almost undoubtedly face adversity like he hasn't yet seen in his career, and I think in the long run, he'll be the better for it.
John Alfes: Andrew Calica is far and way the biggest surprise as the newest left fielder for High-A Lynchburg. Despite only playing 10 games at Single-A Lake County, the former 11th round pick out of UC Santa Barbara earned the promotion to the next level. Calica batted .382 between the Captains and Short-Season Mahoning Valley with 10 doubles, three triples, 32 RBIs and a 1.031 OPS in 50 games played. Although he is 23-years-old, Calica has little minor league experience. It will be interesting to see how Calica adjusts to the higher levels in his first full season of professional baseball.
Corey Crisan: In light of my previous answer, seeing McKenzie and Calica skip Lake County for Lynchburg in their first full minor league seasons will be so intriguing to watch for many reasons. McKenzie is only going to turn twenty this season. TWENTY. His stuff is electric and he really was video game-like last season. How will he respond to the competition in the Carolina league, though? The organization must hold Calica in high regard to place him in Lynchburg this early in his career. He can do it all. He can run, he can hit and he can play all three outfield positions. He is a sleeping giant that will wake up soon enough.
Dave Roberts: Most of the player assignments make perfect sense to me, but again I was surprised to see Triston McKenzie elevated to Lynchburg but he's certainly deserved of the Indians trust to handle the jump.
Jon Vesey: There are very few initial roster surprises, although their seems to be a minor logjam of pitchers like Rob Kaminsky, Michael Peoples, and Nick Pasquale who, while not tearing the door down, look like they could fit in at Columbus already. That being said, the difference between AAA and AA is not as large as between other levels, so it's more of a curiosity than a glaring problem.
Toni Dossena: Conner Capel earning a spot in LC comes closest, but I think that was more of an opportunity that opened up because two college outfielders from last years draft, Longo and Tinsley, are currently injured. To his credit, he apparently had an impressive ST that landed him this roster spot. Right-handed reliever and last draft's 30th round pick Ryder Ryan was another surprise and his spot was more on merit alone, so it has my attention. Ryan was a top round talent out of HS, but barely played for North Carolina in college. He's a raw and very fresh power arm who could potentially be Lake County's closer. It's too early to tab him the next Cody Allen, but there are similarities. Both were late round picks and both were drafted twice by the Indians.
4. Who do you think is most primed for a comeback season after a down year in 2016 due to injury and/or poor performance?
Tony Lastoria: For me it is shortstop Luke Wakamatsu. He has a tough year last year as his season was cut short because of a shoulder injury, but his assignment to Lake County right off the bat shows the Indians believe he is 100% past that injury and also that he is a priority prospect for them. He is one of the more intriguing players in the lower levels and with his skills and also his bloodlines to the game, he could be someone who really jumps several notches up the prospect totem pole by the end of the season.
Jake Dungan: I'm going all in on Brady Aiken in 2017. While there is the question of whether he can ever regain the form that made him a first overall pick a couple years ago, I think finally being able to focus on pitching and preparing for the season during the winter and spring training has lifted a huge weight off his shoulders. Now, barring any setbacks, of course, it's just about development and results. Despite his 5.83 ERA and 1.58 WHIP last year between Arizona and Mahoning Valley, the left-hander did show strong strikeout numbers fanning 57 in 46.1 innings. The potential is still there, it's just a matter of him tapping into it again.
John Alfes: Mike Papi is bound to break out of his shell at some point and 2017 could very well be the breakout year. As an All-American at the University of Virginia, Papi is known for being a pure hitter with good plate discipline. Papi has walked 152 times over the past two campaigns, but has an unimpressive .225/.348/.368 slash line in 286 games in the minor leagues. The 24-year-old will look to replicate the .378 batting average he posted in the final 10 contests of the 2016 regular season.
Corey Crisan: I want to see Logan Ice bounce back offensively. Not that he had a horrible year, by any means, but the future behind Francisco Mejia has been handed to Ice after the organization spent a 72nd overall pick on him last season. His defense is exceptional, which is why he was drafted so highly, but his .198 average in 39 games raises an eyebrow. Now, as a silver lining, he drew almost as many walks (23) as he had hits (25) so his eye at the plate remains solid. Also, over one third of his hits last season were for extra bases, so he does show some signs of power.
Dave Roberts: I think Brady Aiken, the Indians 1st round pick in 2015, is poised to make leaps and strides in his first full healthy pro season. I hope he's feeling more trusting of his stuff and it'll begin to show why he was originally a number one overall draft pick.
Jon Vesey: Much like Brady Aiken, Baker is a high-ceiling talent that has been rendered an unknown due to injuries. He finally looks healthy coming into this season, and while he may now be angling for a future in the bullpen, he has the tools to excel there. He'll start the year in Akron, but if he shows dependability and high-end stuff, I can see him quickly moving up, as relief pitchers are wont to do. Here's to hoping there are no more injury setbacks.
Toni Dossena: There really weren't any poor performances from top talents in the Indians system, which is amazing and something not many organizations can probably say. So, going with a prospect coming off an injury, I'll take another prospect the Indians re-drafted in Justin Garza. Garza will be old for the low-A level, as he just turned 23yo, but he was highly regarded before his TJ surgery, which allowed the Indians to scoop him up in the 8th round and with the Indians recent track record on re-drafts (Andrew Calica), I'm in blind trust mode.
5. Is there a prospect who is currently not highly rated that you think could have a breakout season?
Tony Lastoria: Conner Capel is someone who I think could really establish himself this season and breakout as a prospect. He is a surprise for me too that he is opening at Lake County because he is young and is actually getting an aggressive push over someone like Will Benson, though he is more advanced at this point whereas Benson has a lot of rawness to his game they need to flesh out in extended spring training. Capel is someone I had targeted coming into the season as someone who can really impact and break out this season, and he will get a great opportunity right out of the gates to prove that assumption right or wrong.
Jake Dungan: I guess, technically, Connor Marabell had his breakout season last year batting .298 with seven homers and 69 RBI's as well as 45 doubles, five triples and 12 stolen bases in 130 games between Lake County and Lymchburg. However, this out-of-nowhere performance leaves some skeptical about whether he can continue to put up those kind of numbers. If he does, I'd imagine his prospect rating will spike significantly given all the hit tools he has shown. He's another one of the aforementioned, middle-ground prospects on the Hillcats roster who has a chance to improve his standing in 2017.
John Alfes: After watching Greg Allen hit .244 with three doubles and three stolen bases in the Cactus League this spring, there is hope he can produce as a top of the order guy at the major league level. Allen broke onto the scene between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron in 2016 by hitting .295/.416/.413 with seven triples and 45 stolen bases in 129 games played. He is currently ranked ninth according to MLB Pipeline and could jump to the top five if he repeats his 2016 prosperity.
Corey Crisan: I want to keep an eye on Tyler Krieger this season for multiple reasons. 1) He is coming off an appearance in the World Baseball Classic with Israel. What will he take away from that experience? 2) Akron is loaded with middle infield depth, including Krieger, Yu-Cheng Chang, and Mark Mathias. How will he respond to some hefty competition? And 3) He has all the pedigree in the world, coming from a star-studded program like Clemson, and he hit .299/.377/.417 in his first full Minor League season. How will he continue that stride at the plate?
Dave Roberts: Outfielder Connor Marabell quietly put up a great season in 2016 in Lake County and Lynchburg. He hit .298/.346/.461 across two levels and collected seven home runs, 69 RBI's and 45 doubles in 130 games.
Jon Vesey: Ka'ai Tom is rated at #43 in the farm system, according to the 2017 IBI Top 75 Prospects, so it's not as if he's poorly thought of, but I foresee him rocketing up into the top 25 after a year of healthy play. His bat is dependable, and projects to big-league capable. His defense in the outfield is showing improvement. Again, injuries last year derailed his growth a bit, so he has to prove he can come back healthy and step back into his old development curve. My gut says that he will, and will be rewarded with a strong season - something along the lines of Tyler Krieger's 2016 season.
Toni Dossena: I think Nick Goody is a major league ready bullpen arm. He was one of those magnificent, low cost, under-the-radar moves the Indians made this offseason. Also, since I'm stubborn and not ready to give up on Mike Papi's 70+ grade eye at the plate, He's quietly improved going up every level and still most have given up on him by now, but I think he can be a Matt Joyce like OF/1B platoon bat. That's more valuable than Lonnie Chisenhall. I'll throw out two very, VERY deep sleepers too, two guys that didn't even make Tony's top 75. First off, infielder Sam Haggerty in Lynchburg, a switch hitter that gets on base and has functional speed. Next, opening in the Hillcats bullpen, Argenis Angulo was flat dominating the lower levels after missing most of 2015 to injury. He could be this season's Perci Garner, big stuff out of nowhere arm shooting through the system.