I've been fascinated with the Lynchburg Hillcats since before the start of the season. While it is true the Akron RubberDucks and Lake County Captains rosters currently host most of the Indians' top position player and pitching prospects, respectively, the Hillcats have the kind of talent that is not as highly rated, but has the potential to raise its profile with a strong performance in 2017. Guys like Thomas Pannone, Matt Esparza, Sam Haggerty and Leandro Linares are all players who have already begun to turn heads in the early goings of the campaign and could all be on the major league depth chart by season's end.
So with that in mind, here are my top four takes from this week in the Indians farm system with a slant towards some of the, in my mind, underrated prospects in Lynchburg...
1. Pannone continuing to put up zeros.
While it's highly unlikely that Pannone finishes 2017 with a 0.00 ERA, we can no longer call this just a hot start for the left-hander as he is now five starts into a dominant campaign. So far, aside from not allowing an earned run, Pannone has gone 2-0 and pitched 27.2 innings, averaging just over five innings a start so far, while giving up just 10 hits and seven walks while striking out an 39 batters adding up to an impressive rate of 12.7 punchouts per nine innings.
The 23-year-old has come a long way since being drafted as a ninth-round pick in 2013 where he wasn't even a full-time pitcher coming out of the College of Southern Nevada. 2016 was the best season of his career up to this point going 8-5 with a 2.57 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) between Lake County and Lynchburg. This year, his goal is to not only continue to put up good numbers, but also increase his durability by pitching 150-plus innings. If this kind of success continues, the Rhode Island native can accomplish that goal and potentially earn a promotion to the next level.
2. The transformation of Leandro Linares.
Pannone is not the only pitcher in Lynchburg who has not allowed an earned run yet. Looking in the Hillcats bullpen, right-hander Leandro Linares has continued his impressive transition to relief pitching allowing only three unearned runs on eight hits while walking just two and fanning 11 over 10.1 innings. He has quickly turned into a key late-inning arm for Lynchburg as he is a perfect 2-for-2 in save chances.
Last season, the Cuban hurler moved to the bullpen full time and impressed across three different levels going 1-1 with a 1.21 ERA in 23 appearances allowing just 26 hits and 12 walks while striking out 55 over 44.2 innings. Previously, the 23-year-old had worked as a starter and struggled going 0-7 with a 6.55 ERA in the Mahoning Valley rotation in 2015 and 2-3 with a 7.62 ERA in his rookie year in Arizona. With him settling in as a reliever, you can add his name to the list of potential successors for Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Andrew Miller in Cleveland.
3. Sam Haggerty setting the table in Lynchburg.
While the Hillcats offense overall has seen its ups and downs so far in 2017, the one steadying force has been at the top of the lineup in second baseman Sam Haggerty. In 19 games so far, the 22-year-old is leading the Hillcats in almost every major statistical category from runs scored (19) to OPS (1.050) as he is batting .329 with nine doubles, six triples and six RBI's. The Arizona native also has 12 walks versus 18 strikeouts helping to feed into his .422 OBP.
Haggerty is seeing the fruits of his offseason labor as he has reworked his approach at the plate to improve his pitch recognition and take better swings. This came about on the heels of a career worst season in Lake County last season where he batted just .230 with four homers and 39 RBI's in 100 games with an eye-popping 105 strikeouts versus just 45 walks. His baserunning has also improved from 2016 as the firmer 24th round pick already has eight stolen bases in nine attempts. Last season, Haggerty swiped 12 bases in 14 attempts.
Seeing how he fares when the inevitable adjustment period comes along in the Carolina League will go a long way towards determining whether his early-season success is the real deal. One thing's for certain, though, he won't be leaving the leadoff spot for the Hillcats anytime soon.
4. Introducing Ryder Ryan.
The Indians liked Ryder Ryan so much they drafted him twice, once in high school in the 40th round in 2014 where he didn't sign and then again two years later out of North Carolina. Kind of like Thomas Pannone when he was drafted, Ryan came out of college as both a pitcher and a position player. However, his fastball had been clocked at 97 mph, so the Indians liked his potential more on the mound than at third base.
Nearly a year since the draft, though, the right-hander has clearly shown he has a future coming out of the bullpen appearing in 20 games between Arizona and Lake County and posting a 3.38 ERA while walking 13 and striking out 32 in 26.2 innings. So far in 2017, the 21-year-old has posted a 2.25 ERA in five outings while walking four and striking out eight in eight innings. The primary concern with Ryan is he is very raw on the mound, but his upside has drawn comparisons to Indians closer Cody Allen, who just won AL Reliever of the Month for April. Where he lands on that spectrum remains to be seen, but his early results are promising.
Twitter Question of the Week
"Who among the top 10 prospects do you think will be most expendable at the deadline in July?"
This is interesting to think about because you could ask just about anyone at this site which prospects they think are "untouchable" or not and you would get a bunch of different lists of varying lengths. First thing's first, the Indians are 110% invested in winning now, so that will trump all else in their roster decisions, especially this year during a pennant defense. That being said, they still have an eye toward the future and will not part with their top-level prospects for just anyone. Their asking price will probably be too high for those players to ever be dealt, anyway.
I have my list of untouchables as well. In the top 10, according to MLB.com, I, personally, wouldn't part with Francisco Mejia, Triston McKenzie, Greg Allen or Yandy Diaz because I believe all four have the talent, ability and intangibles to be major league stars. Bradley Zimmer also probably has a low chance of being dealt as the Tribe's top prospect and the organization has a lot of love and expectations for Bobby Bradley.
To answer your question, though, I would refer to the first name on my untouchable list, Francisco Mejia, simply because he was the centerpiece of the ill-fated Jonathan Lucroy deal last year. They were willing to trade him once. Why not again? Now I know circumstances may have changed since last July, but between the extension Roberto Perez signed in the offseason and the chronic issues between Mejia and the organization over the years, I would still say he's the first on the block if Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti want to make another splashy deadline deal.
- Shao-Ching Chiang (SP, Lynchburg): While all the attention has, deservedly, been paid to Thomas Pannone in Lynchburg, that hasn't stopped Chiang from putting together a dominant campaign of his own going 3-1 with a 1.71 ERA pitching seven innings in three of his four starts and posting a .204 opposing average and 0.87 WHIP.
- Willi Castro (SS, Lynchburg): After a stone-cold start at the plate, Castro's bat has ignited batting .324 with a pair of doubles and four RBI's over his last 10 games. The 20-year-old has also scored three runs and stolen two bases in that span.
- Dylan Baker (RP, Akron): Baker has pitched shutout ball in his first two appearances for Akron allowing only one hit and striking out two over two innings of work. His continued adjustments to relief pitching as well as how his stuff and command look coming off of Tommy John surgery will be interesting to follow.
- Eric Stamets (INF, Akron): While he is only batting .136 and has just four hits in 50 at-bats overall between Columbus and Akron, Stamets has shown good patience at the plate drawing an even number of walks to strikeouts (8) since returning to the RubberDucks. You have to wonder if the swing will soon fall in line.
- Mark Mathias (INF, Akron): Mathias is back from a dislocated shoulder injury he sustained back in spring training. He has only played in one game so far, but already has his first double and two RBI's. Last year in five games for Akron at the end of the season, Mathias only had one hit in 15 at-bats after batting .274 with five homers and 60 RBI's in 115 games for Lynchburg.
- Juan Hillman (SP, Lake County): Hillman finally put together a quality outing in his last start allowing just three runs on six hits in five innings while striking out three and not walking a batter. It's been a rough go of it for the left-hander so far in 2017 as his ERA has stayed north of 10 until his last start. Hopefully he can use that game to build more success off of moving forward.
- Tyler Naquin (CF, Columbus): The former Rookie of the Year candidate was pulled from Tuesday's game with lower back tightness. In 14 games since being sent down from Cleveland, the 26-year-old was batting a scorching .396 with a homer and five RBI's. He is considered to be day-to-day.
With the sudden injuries in Cleveland to Austin Jackson and Corey Kluber, the Columbus roster could get shaken up a bit over the next week or two. It already has in a way with Shawn Armstrong and Joe Colon going up to help the bullpen, but more moves could be on the way with a starter likely needed over the weekend (hello, Mike Clevinger) and another bat potentially needed on the bench. If the latter becomes a reality, the most likely candidates would be either Tyler Naquin (if healthy) or Yandy Diaz, given their previous big league experience, but I wouldn't rule Richie Shaffer out of the equation either.