Pitching, particularly starting pitching, has probably been the most intriguing element of the Indians farm system thus far through the 2017 season as each level has boasted at least one dominant performance out of their rotation. Triston McKenzie, Thomas Pannone, Julian Merryweather and Shane Bieber are grabbing all the headlines, but there are a number of lesser-known arms who are also putting together impressive campaigns, some of whom weren't even considered prospects recently.
Here are my top four takes from this week in the Indians farm system...
1. The resurrection of Nick Pasquale.
A year ago at this time, many of the Indians faithful probably had no idea who Nick Pasquale was. And quite honestly, there are probably still some folks today who still don't recognize the name. That's okay, because as a 26-year-old pitcher currently in Double-A, a former 20th-round pick in the 2012 draft and a guy who has bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his career, Pasquale had all the makings of an organizational filler-type arm, and prior to his promotion to Akron last season, that's pretty much what he was as his future with the organization was in question.
Well, I don't want to say he's back to legitimate prospect status, but Pasquale's ceiling has increased significantly in his time with Akron and pitching coach Tony Arnold, who was among the first to recognize the potential he had left to tap into. Last season, the right-hander made 13 starts for the RubberDucks and went 4-7 with a 4.22 ERA. Now that may not sound all that impressive, but when you factor in his going 2-0 over his final two starts of the regular season, including the division-clinching game, and 1-0 in two postseason starts en route to Akron's Eastern League title as he pitched 27.1 combined innings over those four outings while allowing only three runs on 16 hits.
Cut to this season where the California native has gone 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA in six starts for Akron allowing 13 runs on 24 hits while walking 13 and striking out 31 over 34.2 innings. In addition to putting up those solid numbers, Pasquale has pitched six or more innings in four of those six starts with his latest outing yielding seven innings of 1-hit, 1-run ball as he carried a no-hitter into the seventh on Wednesday against Trenton. Again, Pasquale's major league prospects are still up in the air for now, but they look a whole lot better than they did 11 months ago.
2. McKenzie with a "K"...or 14.
When the minor league rosters were initially released before the season, many were surprised and some even skeptical to see Triston McKenzie's name on the Lynchburg Hillcats' opening day squad as he not only was about to enter his first full season, but he was getting the bump with only six starts and 34 innings under his belt at Lake County from last season. Well fast forward about a month and a half later and that same, 19-year-old right-hander is blowing Carolina League hitters away having gone 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA through his first six starts for the Hillcats with his most recent outing yielding six shutout innings with 14 of his 18 outs recorded coming via the strikeout.
So now the question becomes has McKenzie still yet to face any true adversity in his professional career and if not, how can the Indians go about challenging him more? As explained in a previous column, the big appeal of the High-A and the Carolina League from a player development standpoint is the chance for players and pitchers to have to make constant adjustments with the league's small size forcing teams to play one another much more regularly throughout the season. This was most likely the logic behind moving McKenzie up so quickly and probably the reasoning that will keep him there for a while yet.
Another factor at play is that McKenzie's rotation-mates, Matt Esparza and Shao-Ching Chiang, are also pitching very well to start the year and are both a few years older than him. Still, if he has a few more games like he did on Tuesday night, it'll be pretty hard to hold this guy back regardless of the aforementioned benefits sticking around at the Carolina League level.
3. Should Bradley Zimmer still be considered the Indians' top prospect?
I know this question comes as a surprise to some and may even cause some concern among others, but let me preface this by saying I still believe Zimmer's ceiling is as high as ever and that he still has a definite future in the major leagues due to his makeup and skillset. That being said, I am just wondering at this point whether the 24-year-old is still considered the Indians' number one overall prospect at this point by his own merit or by default.
Prior to the 2017 season, Zimmer was ranked number one across the board among Tribe prospects, including on MLB.com's Top 30 Indians Prospects and the IBI Top 75 Prospects. I'll grant that ranking is understandable on several different levels based on his former first round pick profile and the amount of different skills he possesses. He's athletic and he can hit for average, get on base, hit for power, steal bases and play center field. It's all the reasons why the Indians drafted him in the first place and he has showcased each of his tools to a certain degree.
Here's where I raise my question, though. Over the last few seasons, particularly since his promotion to Double-A, there have been some definite weaknesses in his game that have been exposed, the biggest being his plate discipline. In 2014, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.6. Since then, it's gradually increased year to year until this season where it stands at 3.3 through 30 games so far. Consequently, his batting average and on-base percentage have both been affected.
In short, I'm just questioning whether Zimmer's upside is as high as it was 2-3 years ago (FYI, it's still pretty high), and, with the number two and number three prospects, Francsico Mejia and Triston McKenzie doing what they've done over the last couple seasons, I wonder if their overall ceiling and prospect value has surpassed Zimmer's. He's still a top three Indians prospect in my mind, just not an automatic number one.
4. Bobby Bradley making adjustments in Akron.
Bobby Bradley has been faced with a definite challenge in Double-A Akron as while he has six homers and 17 RBI's through 28 games, the 20-year-old has batted just .202 with 32 strikeouts versus 18 walks. Now granted, his batting average has decreased and strikeout rate has increased gradually over the years and he profiles as a prototypical slugger who will not hit for the highest average and will swing and miss a lot.
Now with all that being considered, the element of his game that has set him apart as a prospect has been his ability to draw walks and get on base. In his career thus far, Bradley has 166 walks and a 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio to go along with a .357 OBP. Over his last six games, however, the Mississippi native has gone 5-for-19 (;263) with a homer and three RBI's while drawing two walks. What's so impressive about that? In that span of 19 at-bats, the RubberDucks slugger has only struck out once. Akron manager Mark Budzinski equated this to a more aggressive approach. Whatever the case, it's an important step in his development and adjustment to the Double-A level and we'll see where it takes him from here.
Twitter Question of the Week
"Who is one hitter and one pitcher generally outside of the Indians top 20 prospects that has impressed you and how so?"
This is interesting because there are a lot of guys I can think of at this point in the season who could fit into that category. If I go with the MLB.com Top 30 prospect list, the two guys who I would look to most outside the top 20 on that list is relief pitcher Leandro Linares and infielder Sam Haggerty, both of whom are unranked and are in Lynchburg right now.
I've discussed both players in this column before, but I'll just reiterate how both have transformed themselves either just in this season or, in Linares' case, over the last couple seasons since moving to the bullpen. Haggerty is just getting back into games after sitting out for a few days, but on the season he has posted a .303/.393/.579 slash line, up from the .230/.323/.320 line from last season. serving as an effective leadoff hitter for the Hillcats. Meanwhile Linares has been a force since moving to the bullpen posting an 0.81 ERA in 34 relief appearances between last year and this year while posting an 0.77 WHIP and fanning 67 batters in 66.2 innings.
With Haggerty's offensive skillset and his versatility to play three infield positions as well as the outfield, he could be a solid role player for the Tribe in the future coming off the bench while Linares may be a name in consideration for a late-inning job when Cody Allen and Andrew Miller more than likely leave for free agency after next season.
- Andrew Calica (CF, Lynchburg): It took a few weeks, but Calica is back to hitting like he did last season as his recent hot streak has him batting .342 with a homer and five RBI's over his last 10 games, raising his overall average to .247.
- Thomas Pannone (SP, Akron): Not even a promotion to Double-A could disrupt Pannone's scoreless streak as his RubberDucks debut resulted in 5.2 shutout innings as he has now gone 33.1 innings so far without allowing an earned run.
- Richie Shaffer (OF, Columbus): While the hits aren't as frequent for Shaffer as of late, the power has been on full display as he has hit four of his eight home runs in his last 10 games while driving in 11.
- Cameron Hill (RP, Akron): Hill has been Mark Budzinski's go-to arm in the RubberDucks bullpen so far this season and the right-hander has responded well as of late pitching three consecutive shutout innings while allowing four hits, no walks and striking out seven over 9.2 innings.
- Shane Bieber (SP, Lynchburg): Like Pannone, an early-season promotion hasn't slowed Bieber's roll much as the right-hander fired six one-run innings in his High-A debut. On the year, Bieber is 2-3 with a 2.83 ERA in six starts between Lake County and Lynchburg.
- Tanner Tully (RP, Lake County): Tully has been arguably the most valuable pitcher on the Lake County staff as he has been able to pitch as many as five innings coming out of the bullpen and, as of last Sunday, has proven himself capable of stepping up for a spot-start if needed.
- Ka'ai Tom (OF, Lynchburg): Gradually, Tom has gotten back to playing at the level he was at last season before having his campaign cut short by a shoulder injury. He is doing a little bit of everything for the Hillcats so far as he currently has a .290/.378/.460 slash line through 30 games.
The RubberDucks were dealt a tough blow this week as their star center fielder and top Indians prospect Greg Allen had to undergo surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his right hand. Allen was pulled form the second game of a doubleheader last Sunday with what was initially deemed a wrist injury, but was later properly diagnosed. Right now, the initial outlook for his return to the top of Akron's lineup is 4-6 weeks. While it's not a career-threatening injury, it could potentially affect Allen's major league timetable. So here's to a speedy recovery to the man who I truly believe is the future starting center fielder for the Cleveland Indians.