The Indians organization made two risky Minor League promotions entering the 2017 season by assigning outfielder Andrew Calica and starting pitcher Triston McKenzie to High-A Lynchburg after each had just a cup of coffee in Single-A Lake County in 2016. There was speculation surrounding each move for various reasons including the jump from half to a full season, jumping a gap in competition level with just half of a season of experience, and playing in a smaller league where you see the same competition on a more frequent basis.
Calica and McKenzie both dominated at short season Single-A Mahoning Valley in 2016. After spending the entire 2015 season in Arizona, McKenzie looked as dominant as ever in Mahoning Valley posting a 4-3 record with a 0.55 ERA in 49.1 innings while walking 16 and striking out 55. Adding in his numbers from Lake County, McKenzie finished 6-5 with a 1.62 ERA in 15 starts between the two levels.
Calica broke nearly every offensive statistical category in Mahoning Valley with his .388/.491/.568 line in 40 games. When he was promoted to Lake County, he did not regress as he had 14 hits in 39 at bats over the span of 10 games. So while both players have found instant success in their respective early minor league careers, was the decision to essentially skip a grade necessary, warranted, and appropriate?
Triston McKenzie is listed at 6’5”, but he stands heads and shoulders above the rest. His 1.62 ERA between Mahoning Valley and Lake County last season was his highest total ERA since his freshman year of high school (!) when it was 1.91 with 3.2 innings pitched. Though it is a very small sample size, it does show how McKenzie has been dominant over the last six years. Point being, McKenzie has either never faced a real challenge, or he simply has risen above whatever is in front of him.
Fast forward to 2017 where he sits at 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA through five starts. Since beginning his professional career in 2016, McKenzie has been a machine. He boasts a whopping 4.46 career K/BB ratio, opposing hitters are hitting less than .181 against him and his career WHIP to date is 0.93.
McKenzie’s start in High-A was surprising to most because he is still only 19 years old. This move was explained with one or both of two reasons: 1.) The organization wants to move McKenzie quickly to maximize his MLB potential, or 2.) the organization saw McKenzie as a dominant force at every level and thought skipping ahead would present a higher challenge.
The first reason does not seem far-fetched at all, given the age and contract situation of Josh Tomlin and the potential for younger arms like Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Ryan Merritt being potential trade chips that can’t be discounted for anything. But fast-tracking McKenzie to the Majors for that reason is not likely. Rather, it could be a sign of his dominance and if he were to continue that trend into 2017, he could see a promotion to Double-A Akron before he can legally have a drink at the bar.
The second possible reason for McKenzie’s start in High-A seems to be the most logical choice. Again, this is evidenced by his numbers dating back to high school. He has not faced real adversity or a real challenge quite yet. He did struggle out of the gate for Lynchburg, by his standards, as his ERA flew to 3.26 through his first four starts, but his fifth and sixth starts resulted in 13 combined four-hit, innings while allowing only one unearned run, walking four and striking out 21.
Calica Continues to Rake
As previously mentioned, the Indians 11th round pick in 2016 played like a man possessed in his first professional season. While Calica was not a dominant force out of high school and into college, what propelled him onto the Indians draft board was the typical “Cleveland” attitude: grit, grind, work ethic and passion for the game. Regardless of what few flaws Calica presents, the organization believes he can work through them to become a sold outfield prospect, and he proved that very quickly in 2016.
While Calica’s fast-tracking to High-A was surprising, a player of his caliber does need challenges presented to him. One thing in common between McKenzie and Calica was dominance in 2016, but reasons why both skipped a grade remain different. There was not a sense of urgency with moving Calica as quickly as they are. The outfield depth ahead of him is far too deep, with five or six 40-man candidates between the major league. Triple-A and Double-A level. In addition, Greg Allen and Dorssys Paulino have emerged as early favorites to move to Triple-A once some of the veteran depth is thinned out as the season progresses or a Major League injury happens. Whether Calica’s move to High-A was warranted because of a depth need or because he did dominate in Mahoning Valley will never be truly known, but it’s always fun to speculate and sort out the reasoning logically.
Calica did struggle to begin 2017, as his average dipped below the Mendoza line on April 28. He has picked up the pace rapidly, as he has hit .317 with 13 hits and six RBI in his last 10 games to bring his average up to .253 on the year. Calica also ranks second on Lynchburg’s roster in games played (25) and hits (24), and he leads the team in walks with 16.
The Young and the Restless
Since the club made a run at an American League Pennant in 2007, the Indians organization has pushed the envelope when it comes to building depth in their farm. A good deal of that talent has seen Major League action, one way or another, but rarely have we seen that action as quickly as McKenzie and Calica are on pace to see. Are these two on pace to earn Major League promotions within the next couple of years? It is possible, but is not probable. Keep in mind how the organization handles star prospects like Bradley Zimmer and how they handled Francisco Lindor’s upbringing.
Think of this front office as pit masters and these prospects are works of art that are seasoned, marinated, and cured before thrown into the smoker. While McKenzie and Calica marinate in the minors, the organization will keep a close eye on when these two reach the right temperature. When that happens, everyone will benefit from a talented feast.
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.