Under the direction of Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, Carter Hawkins and Brad Grant, the Cleveland Indians have reinvigorated their farm system and turned it into one of the top minor league crops in the game. Even with the trades that sent Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield packing last year, the Tribe still boasts a talent pool that includes top-ranked prospects at every full-season affiliate to start the 2017 campaign.
With so many players to cover spread out between five affiliated levels, Arizona Rookie League and Dominican Summer League, storylines are not few, which is why the staff here at Indians Baseball Insider has been committed to prioritizing minor league coverage for over a decade now. However, with so much to keep track of, it's hard to keep up with each and every development through our traditional player features, notebooks, etc. So here's an attempt to give weekly, bite-sized chunks of analysis to hopefully cover more ground in our week-to-week minor league coverage.
So without further adieu, here are my four biggest takeaways from this week in the Indians farm system...
1. Mike Clevinger making a case for a major league call-up.
When he came to the Indians in the Vinnie Pestano trade in 2014, Mike Clevinger was a virtual unknown both on the casual fan level and the prospect level as he joined the organization with fair-to-middling numbers at best throughout his minor league career in the Angels organization up to that point. The right-hander worked with coaches and instructors to rebuild his mechanics throughout the subsequent offseason and over the course of his breakout 2015 campaign where he went 9-8 with a 2.73 ERA for Double-A Akron. Clevinger got his shot at the major league level in 2016 after an impressive start to the season in Triple-A. While he showed flashes of what he's capable of, he struggled for the most part overall going 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA in 17 games (10 starts) for the Tribe.
Clevinger was one of the pitchers up for a bullpen spot or, potentially, a rotation spot if an injury or poor performance should open up a spot. Unfortunately, neither opportunity presented itself once camp broke and he was faced with a return to Columbus. If he was frustrated over being sent back to the minors, he's surely shown it in his first three starts going 2-0 with an 0.47 ERA allowing just one run thus far over 19 innings of work. Additionally, the Florida native has missed bats with much higher frequency in the early goings in Triple-A as he has fanned 25 while walking only five.
Right now, the most logical route back to the majors for Clevinger would seem to be taking over the fifth starter spot if Josh Tomlin continues to falter. The veteran right-hander did look better last time out giving up only three runs in six innings to earn his first win of the season. Still, Clevinger's dominance is tough to ignore and should the Indians need a fresh arm either in the rotation or the bullpen, he would more than likely be the first to get that call.
2. Are Thomas Pannone and Ben Krauth already worthy of promotions?
It sounds odd to be talking about promotions only two weeks into the minor league season, but there are two pitchers in the A-ball ranks who have blown the opposition away in their first handful of games. Left-handers Thomas Pannone and Ben Krauth not only have zero earned runs charged to them in six combined appearances, but they have also racked up 34 strikeouts in just 25 combined innings.
Of course, an early promotion makes sense for both in theory. Krauth, after all, is a 23-year-old college arm from last year's draft out of Kansas and probably a little old for the level while Pannone is coming off a dominant 2015 where he went 8-5 with a 2.57 ERA in 25 games (24 starts), including a 3-0 mark and 1.65 ERA in eight games (seven starts) for Lynchburg at the end of last season.
The Carolina league could present more of a challenge for Krauth due to its small size and, thus, the opportunity to face the same hitters and teams much more often, which would force him to make adjustments as they figure him out. However, that same reasoning could also be what keeps Pannone in Lynchburg to see if opposing teams begin to develop a book on him.
3. Francisco Mejia's major league timetable.
The early season struggles of Yan Gomes offensively have prompted a lot of Tribe fans to ask about when top catching prospect Francisco Mejia will be ready for a major league call-up. Plus, Mejia's .368 average and .948 OPS through his first 10 games in Double-A, on top of his impressive 2016 campaign that included his historic 50-game hit streak, makes the thought of him coming up to Cleveland all the more tantalizing.
Unfortunately, while he has been impressive at the plate, Mejia's offense isn't and has never really been a concern for the organization in his development. He can clearly hit and put up some unbelievable numbers with the bat. What the Indians are more interested in is his defense behind the plate and how he conducts himself on and off the field. At the earliest, the 21-year-old could be ready for a September call-up, but in all likelihood, 2018 will remain the target year for his first crack at the majors.
4. Lake County providing a glimpse at Cleveland's potential future rotation.
The rotation in Cleveland remains one of the most potent and talented groups in baseball and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. However, it's never too early to start looking ahead to the future and I'm happy to say things are looking bright concerning the starting pitching depth. While you have Triston McKenzie in Lynchburg potentially being a future ace and guys like Mike Clevinger and Adam Plutko waiting in the wings in Columbus, the bulk of the Indians' starting pitching future currently resides at Classic Park.
The Captains have gotten off to a hot start this season and it is due in large part to their rotation, which boasts top pitching prospects Brady Aiken, Shane Bieber, Juan Hillman, Justin Garza and Aaron Civale. So far, Aiken, Garza and Hillman have struggled posting 4.15, 9.95 and 10.38 ERA marks, respectively, but their potential remains sky high and they have each shown flashes of what they can do. Meanwhile, Bieber and Civale have dominated allowing only six earned runs in five combined starts while fanning 39 batters in 27 innings between them.
Of course, they're all still at least a couple years away from the majors and who knows if they can live up to their potential when they get there, but the reassuring fact of the matter for now is the Indians at least have a gameplan in place for life after the likes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.
Reader Question of the Week
"Will the Indians give Ben Krauth a chance to start or is he purely a bullpen arm in the pros?"
- Devin Mackey, Columbus
Krauth's situation is interesting because while, in the long run, he may end up as a bullpen arm, he has pitched multiple innings in relief consistently throughout his pro career with him pitching as many as four innings in a game. Coming into the draft in 2016, the left-hander led the Jayhawks in games started (15) and innings pitched (92), averaging over six innings per start. So he has proven himself to be durable. The question is could he be as effective as a starter in pro ball given he only tops out in the 80s with his fastball?
His being left-handed added to the clear deception he gets with his changeup (58 strikeouts in 46.1 minor league innings thus far) could play up more in the bullpen, which may be what the Indians are envisioning, but that could easily change depending on their areas of need. Also keep in mind he has some stiff competition on the roster in Juan Hillman, Brady Aiken, Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Justin Garza, who is also currently in the Captains bullpen and would be given priority as a starter over Krauth.
- Tyler Krieger (2B, Akron): Krieger continues to hit at every level he's played at so far batting .419 with a homer and five RBI's in his first eight games in Double-A.
- Li-Jen Chu (C/DH, Lake County): Chu's hot start to the 2017 campaign has been a driving force for the Captains offense as he leads the team in batting average (.342) total bases (20) and is among the team leaders in homers (2) and RBI's (8).
- Yu-Cheng Chang (SS, Akron): After starting off the year red hot at the plate, Chang has cooled off a bit as his average has dropped to .244. However, he still leads the team in homers and RBI's with four and 13, respectively.
- Andrew Calica (LF, Lynchburg): After shattering records across the board in Mahoning Valley last season batting .388 with two homers and 27 RBI's in 40 games, last year's Indians 11th round pick has struggled to hit in Lynchburg through 12 games batting just .179, but has managed to get on base at a healthy clip with 10 walks versus 10 strikeouts.
- Dorssys Paulino (LF, Akron): Paulino has been locked in at the plate lately raising his average from .133 to .314 over his last five games while hitting both of his homers and driving in five of his runs during his ongoing five-game hit streak.
- Adam Plutko (SP, Columbus): His stat line has been ugly so far in three starts giving up 15 runs on 17 hits, but given Plutko's track record of success, one would think he has to turn it around at some point.
Keep an eye on the Hillcats hitters. So far, the guys who were expected to be the big run producers like Andrew Calica, Willi Castro and Connor Marabell have scuffled while some unlikely players have stepped up to lead the offense. Between Sicnarf Loopstok, Martin Cervenka and Anthony Miller, it will be interesting to see who can maintain their early season success and who will come back to earth as well as whether the aforementioned big bats can find a groove.