Cleveland Indians 2019 Top 30 MLB Prospects Midseason Update
Update: The Indians Top 30 has been updated to include moves made at the July 31st deadline.
The Indians got off to a sluggish start in the first two months of the season and were a game under .500 at the end of May. But they turned that around in June and went into the All-Star break at 50-38, slightly ahead of their average record through 88 games (49-39) from the last three years, when they have won three straight division titles.
But this year, things look a little different in the AL Central. The Twins were one of baseball’s surprise stories of the first half and had a 5.5-game cushion at the break. The Indians were still in position for an AL wild card berth, but there is plenty of competition for those two playoff spots. That, combined with a cadre of players who are getting more expensive and has led to an inflexible payroll, has created a difficult situation for team president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff.
The Indians could be both buyers and sellers at the deadline, or if they streak in one direction or the other in the second half of July, embrace either approach. Trevor Bauer would be one of the most attractive starting pitchers on the market if the Indians made him available, and his approaching free agency after next season and plan to only take one-year contracts to maximize his earnings means his time in Cleveland is likely approaching its end. But dealing him would further diminish the Indians’ rotation, which has already been hit hard by injuries. On the flip side, the Indians are still looking for long term help in the outfield.
On the farm, the Indians have continued to see their young position players advance. Third baseman Nolan Jones reached Double-A after playing in the Futures Game. Shortstop Tyler Freeman has risen to high Class A. Outfielder George Valera and shortstop Brayan Rocchio continue to excite having moved up this season to short-season Mahoning Valley. A back injury has kept righthander Triston McKenzie sidelined, a disappointing development for the system’s top pitching prospect, but the system has continued to produce solid pitching, with righthanders Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale both making big league debuts this season.
1. Nolan Jones, 3B
Jones has continued to hit his way through the minor leagues. His power numbers ticked down at high Class A Lynchburg, but his patient approach helped him earn a spot in the Futures Game and a promotion to Double-A Akron in July. Scouts are continually impressed with his hitting ability and understanding of the strike zone.
2. Triston McKenzie, RHP
For the second straight year, a back injury delayed McKenzie’s season debut. He has yet to pitch in a competitive game but will see action in the second half.
3. Tyler Freeman, SS
After winning the New York-Penn League batting title in 2018, Freeman has continued to hit this season. His feel for the barrel helped him earn a mid-season promotion to Lynchburg after a strong first half at low Class A Lake County.
4. Logan Allen, LHP
Allen initially struggled to adjust to the new ball at Triple-A, but he posted a 3.78 ERA over his final 10 starts to earn his first major league callup. He fired seven shutout innings in his debut and has remained in the majors since.
5. George Valera, OF
Injury limited Valera to six games in 2018, but he’s making up for lost time in 2019. The 18-year-old is impressing at short-season Mahoning Valley, showing off his power and patience at the plate.
6. Brayan Rocchio, SS
Rocchio was the Indians’ breakout star of 2018, and he’s built on that momentum in 2019 as an 18-year-old with Mahoning Valley. His numbers aren’t as impressive this season, but he’s still doing a good job of controlling the strike zone and playing well at shortstop.
7. Bo Naylor, C
The Indians pushed Naylor, their top pick in 2018, to Lake County for his first full professional season. After a slow start, he’s gotten in a better groove at the plate over the last six weeks and is doing a good job of getting to his above-average power.
8. Bobby Bradley, 1B
Bradley made his major league debut in June, about a month after his 23rd birthday. While he stayed for just a brief look in Cleveland, he’ll be back before long thanks to his prodigious raw power that has helped him hit more than 20 home runs for the fifth year in a row.
9. Ethan Hankins, RHP
Hankins didn’t pitch much after the Indians drafted him 35th overall a year ago. He’s on a regular schedule now at Mahoning Valley and showing the premium stuff he did in high school. His four-pitch mix, headlined by a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, has helped him blow away opponents.
10. Daniel Espino, RHP
The Indians drafted Espino No. 24 overall in this year’s draft, and he made his professional debut about a month later in the Arizona Rookie League. Like Hankins, Espino has a big fastball and a four-pitch mix, and he may have a better changeup right now.
11. Luis Oviedo, RHP
Oviedo last year starred in the New York-Penn League, but he hasn’t been quite as good this year as he’s moved up to Lake County. The big righthander hasn’t pitched with as much control as he did a year ago and will need to get back to pounding the strike zone in the second half.
12. Sam Hentges, LHP
13. Gabriel Rodriguez, OF
14. Zach Plesac, RHP
15. Yu Chang, SS
16. Carlos Vargas, RHP
17. Yordys Valdes, SS
18. Aaron Civale, RHP
19. Daniel Johnson, OF
20. Will Benson, OF
21. Aaron Bracho, 2B
23. Andrew Velazquez, SS/OF
24. Ernie Clement, SS
25. James Karinchak, RHP
26. Oscar Gonzalez, OF
27. Lenny Torres, RHP
28. Nick Sandlin, RHP
29. Scott Moss, LHP
30. Raynel Delgado, SS
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Injuries this spring forced the Indians to dip into their rotation depth and RHP Zach Plesac, a 12th-round pick out of Ball State in 2016, emerged. He worked to improve his delivery and a tighter arm action has helped him to both increase his velocity—his fastball sits 94 mph and touches 97 mph—and improve his plus breaking ball. Some of Plesac’s peripheral numbers in the big leagues indicate he’s outperforming his ability, but he’s had to learn on the job in Cleveland and there’s reason to believe he’ll be able to make further improvements and adjustments.
The phrase "video-game numbers” gets thrown around a lot in sports, but there are a lot of gamers who would love to be able to put up RHP James Karinchak’s numbers in The Show. He this year changed the grip on his curveball to great effect. In 13 innings between Akron and Columbus, the 23-year-old struck out 32 batters, walked three and held opponents to five hits. That otherworldly start to the season had Karinchak streaking to Cleveland before he suffered a strained hamstring in mid-May and then suffered a setback during his recovery. He figures to return to the mound soon and could still get to Cleveland in the second half if all goes well.
LHP Sam Hentges isn’t falling precipitously. While he ranked among the Indians’ Top 10 Prospects entering 2019, someone had to drop out to make room for first-round pick Daniel Espino. Hentges has scuffled a bit while moving up to Akron, where he’s getting hit a bit more and his strikeout rate is down. His changeup has been more consistent this year, while he’s landing his breaking ball for strikes a bit less often. Hentges is still 22 and has time to work out those issues.
C Eric Haase very briefly spent some time in Cleveland this year but has mostly been the starting catcher in Columbus. He has continued to show impressive power—he’s already hit 20 home runs for the third year in a row—but hasn’t been able to break through the Indians’ catching duo of Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki. Haase still has a chance, but he’s 26 and Cleveland has in the last year dealt two upper-level catchers (Yan Gomes and Francisco Mejia and he still hasn’t been able to find a way to consistent big league time.
One of the breakout performers of last season, RHP Jean Carlos Mejia got off to a good start in 2019 with Lynchburg. He had a 36-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings before he suffered an abdominal strain in early June.
RHP Lenny Torres, the Indians’ supplemental first-round pick in 2018, had Tommy John surgery in May. He will return to action in 2020, when he will still be just 19 years old.
RHP Nick Sandlin, the Indians’ second-round pick in 2018, last year raced to Akron after signing and then quickly pushed to Columbus this spring. He figured to be in the mix to reach Cleveland in the second half but suffered a forearm strain. The injury is not expected to require surgery but its timing relative to the end of the minor league season means he is likely done for the year.
2B Richie Palacios, the Indians’ third-round pick in 2018, suffered a torn labrum at the end of spring training. He underwent surgery to repair the injury and is out for the year.
The Indians acquired OF Oscar Mercado at last year’s trading deadline from the Cardinals for Conner Capel and Jhon Torres in a swap of minor league outfielders. Mercado this year has filled one of the Indians’ holes, showing a bit of power and speed while playing all three outfield positions.