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Graduations and a few trades have diminished the depth in the system.
The Indians have a bevy of exciting young hitters throughout the system, stretching from Francisco Mejia and Greg Allen on the cusp of the big leagues all the way to Nolan Jones and Will Benson at the short-season level. They also remain adept at developing middle infielders, with Yu-Cheng Chang, Willi Castro and Erik Gonzalez all in the upper levels.
Triston McKenzie looks like he’ll give the Indians a homegrown starter, but they don’t have as much pitching depth in the minors. It is a departure from recent years, when the system regularly churned out impact arms such as Cody Allen and Danny Salazar or trade pickups Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Righthander Shane Bieber took a big step forward in 2017, but the same can’t be said for pitchers at lower levels, such as Brady Aiken or Juan Hillman.
Notable Graduations: OF Bradley Zimmer (1) and 3B Yandy Diaz (11).
Mejia's precocious talent has been apparent since the Indians signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 and sent him to make his professional debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League the following season. He had an eventful path through the minor leagues that included a historic hitting streak and nearly being included in a blockbuster trade before making his major league debut in September as a 21-year-old. Mejia broke out in 2016 and authored a 50-game hitting streak that is the longest in the modern era of the minor leagues (dating to 1963). Mejia kept hitting in 2017 as he advanced to Double-A Akron. He finished the year in the Arizona Fall League, where he was one of the circuit's leading hitters. Mejia has long been known for his hitting ability and the switch-hitter consistently makes hard contact from both sides of the plate. He has matured as a hitter to use the whole field to hit, instead of the pull-oriented approach he had when he was younger. His bat speed gives him more raw power than his lean, 5-foot-10 frame would suggest, but he more typically drives balls into the gaps than over the fence. He has an aggressive approach and doesn't walk much, but his excellent feel for the barrel means he also doesn't strike out much and is comfortable working behind in the count. Mejia has made strides defensively and has elite arm strength and has become a good receiver. He has gotten comfortable speaking English, a key skill for him to work with his pitchers, and has developed more consistency behind the plate. For all his progress defensively, however, Mejia's bat remains ahead of his glove. Because he isn't far off from being ready for the big leagues offensively and because the Indians have a pair of excellent defensive catchers in Cleveland, Mejia went to the AFL to get experience at third base. He is naturally still learning the position, but he will continue to see action at the hot corner in 2018. Mejia will open 2018 with Triple-A Columbus, and if he continues to hit the way he has throughout his career he will find his way into the big league lineup sometime during the summer. His long-term future remains behind the plate, but his added defensive versatility will help him as he breaks into the major leagues.
McKenzie continued to build on his outstanding track record of success in 2017. He was named Carolina League pitcher of the year, pitched for the U.S. team in the Futures Game and ranked second among all minor leaguers with 186 strikeouts. He did it all while pitching nearly the whole season as a 19-year-old, making him one of the youngest players in the CL. McKenzie also presents the same challenge to evaluators today that he did as an amateur: His track record is unimpeachable and he has impressive present stuff, but he is listed at a rail-thin 6-foot-5, 165 pounds. McKenzie's fastball can get up to 95 mph and it averaged about 92 mph in 2017. He held that velocity throughout the season and while it would dip during starts, he also showed the ability to reach back for more and finish strong at the end of his outings. His fastball plays up and gets swings and misses thanks to his delivery's extension and the high spin rate at which he throws it. He also has a good feel for spinning his curveball and gets good depth on the offering, which can be an out pitch. His changeup isn't as advanced as his other two pitches, but continues to develop and has the potential to be an above-average offering. He commands the ball well and earns praise for his makeup and understanding of his craft. McKenzie's biggest area for development remains improving his physique to allow him to manage a starter's workload, and he made important strides to that end with Lynchburg. McKenzie is speeding toward the big leagues and has the upside to be a frontline starter. He'll advance to Double-A Akron in 2018 for his first taste of the upper minors.
Bradley has been one of the most productive players in the Indians' farm system since they drafted him in 2014. He won the Rookie-level Arizona League triple crown that summer by hitting .361 with eight home runs and 50 RBIs. He led the Midwest League with 27 home runs in 2015 and the Carolina League with 29 home runs in 2016, while also collecting MVP honors. Bradley fell short of making it four straight home run crowns, however, ranking sixth in the Eastern League with 23 homers in 2017 as the third youngest player on the circuit on Opening Day. Bradley's raw power is the best in the system and he has shown he is adept at getting to it in games. He has a strong, physical frame and creates excellent bat speed that allows him to drive the ball out to all fields. That power comes with a lot of swing and miss, but he cut his strikeout rate in 2017 from 29 percent to a much more manageable 22 percent, his lowest in full-season ball. Bradley is a well-below average runner with an average arm, limiting him to first base. Bradley will advance to Triple-A Columbus in 2018, where he could take advantage of Huntington Park's hitter-friendly dimensions to again post some big power numbers. He has the potential to become a middle-of-the-order hitter in the major leagues before too long.
Jones was regarded as one of the best prep hitters in the 2016 draft class, but he slipped to the second round, where the Indians were happy to take him at No. 55 overall. After a very modest debut in the rookie-level Arizona League in 2016, Jones got back to his elite hitting ways in 2017 with short-season Mahoning Valley, where he led the New York-Penn League in OPS (.912) as a 19-year-old. Jones has an easy lefthanded swing and uses the whole field to hit. He is a patient hitter and led the NYPL in walks (43). He significantly cut down on his strikeout rate from his pro debut in 2016, but his patience means he works in many deep counts and will always strike out a fair amount as a result. He has proven to be an advanced hitter, but also has above-average raw power that he is still learning to get to consistently in games. As he physically matures, he projects to hit for plus power. Jones fits the third base profile, but he still has work to do to ensure he can stick at the hot corner. He has plus arm strength, but needs to improve his glove-work and infield actions. If he did need to move, his athleticism and average speed would play in right field. Jones' first full professional season was very encouraging for the Indians and he provides plenty of upside. He'll get his first taste of full-season ball in 2018 when he opens the year with low Class A Lake County.
Bieber took over as UC Santa Barbara's ace in 2016 and led the Gauchos to their first-ever appearance in the College World Series. He made a smooth transition to the minor leagues and excelled in his first full professional season, reaching Double-A Akron almost exactly a year after his pro debut. Bieber came into pro ball with a reputation as relying more on his command than his stuff to succeed. He has continued to show above-average control as a professional and his 0.5 walks per nine innings in 2017 led all full-season minor leaguers. He's one of those rare players whose control and command are big league ready from day one. But Bieber is starting to outgrow the command-and-control label, as his stuff made a jump in 2017. His fastball, which sat around 90 mph at UCSB, now sits 92-94 and touched 96 mph. His curveball got sharper and more consistent, developing into his best secondary pitch. He also throws a slider and changeup, which both can be average offerings. He has a clean, easy delivery and has shown he can handle a heavy workload–his 173.1 innings led all minor leaguers in 2017. Bieber made one of the biggest jumps in 2017 of any player in the Indians' system and now profiles as a potential mid-rotation starter. He will advance to Triple-A Columbus in 2018 and could pitch his way into the big league mix.
Chang was a prominent prep player in Taiwan and was one of the top amateur free agents to sign out of Asia in 2013. His profile has risen in the last two years as his power has developed and he has reportedly received heavy interest in trade talks. Chang has solid all-around offensive tools and is now better at tapping into his raw power. Chang has produced 104 extra-base hits in the last two years, more than half his total hits (205) in that time. His swing is still geared for hitting line drives, but he has done a better job of incorporating his lower half into his swing and understanding what pitches he can drive. He is a patient hitter, but his willingness to work deep in counts leads to an elevated strikeout rate, which spiked to a career-high 26 percent in 2017. Chang's tools are good enough to play at shortstop, though his future as an everyday player may be elsewhere in the infield. He is an average defender with average or better speed and arm strength. Chang has exclusively played shortstop in full-season ball, but that will almost certainly change when he advances to Triple-A Columbus in 2018. The Indians have held off playing Chang at other positions as long as possible, but with Francisco Lindor holding down shortstop in Cleveland for the foreseeable future and the Tribe's predilection for versatility, Chang will likely start getting exposed to other infield positions.
The Indians have aggressively pushed Castro since signing him out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 and he had been the youngest player on his team at every stop of his pro career until 2017, when he was edged by Triston McKenzie and had to settle for being the youngest position player at high Class A Lynchburg. Despite his youth, Castro has held his own at every level and had a breakout season with Lynchburg, earning a spot on the Carolina League's postseason all-star team. A switch-hitter, Castro sprays line drives from both sides of the plate. He started coming into his power more in 2017, when he hit 11 home runs to more than double his career total. He is an aggressive hitter, limiting his walks, but controls the strike zone well and makes a lot of contact. He has above-average speed and is a threat on the bases. Defensively, he has an above-average arm, good hands and infield actions at shortstop. He still has to work on his consistency after making 25 errors in each of the last two years, but his tools and instincts give him a good chance to stay at shortstop. Castro is a confident player and his approach to the game has matured in the last year. He will advance to Double-A Akron to start 2018.
Allen got off to a strong start to the 2017 with Double-A Akron before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand. The injury sidelined him for two months, but he played well enough upon his return to get called up to Cleveland when rosters expanded in September to make his major league debut. He then made the playoff roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement and appeared in two games. Allen's game is built around his plus speed. He has good on-base skills, is a disciplined hitter and has walked about as often as he has struck out in his career. His approach at the plate is geared toward making contact, limiting his power potential and some of his offensive impact. He is a good baserunner and is always a threat to steal when he gets on base. Allen's speed also plays well in the outfield, where he is a plus defender. He takes good routes, has an above-average arm and the speed to cover plenty of ground. Allen doesn't fit the typical corner outfield profile, but with Bradley Zimmer set to man center field in Cleveland, that may be where the Indians ask him to play. Allen will either open 2018 in the big leagues or with Triple-A Columbus, depending how the offseason plays out in Cleveland. His lack of power limits his everyday regular potential, but he does enough things well to have a lengthy big league career.
The Indians took advantage of their recently revamped international scouting department and the rule changes in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement to make a splash on the international market in 2017. Valera, the fifth-ranked player in the class, was their top signing, inking a deal worth $1.3 million. Valera was born in New York and lived there until his family moved to the Dominican Republic when he was 13. Valera was one of the best hitters in the international class and drew comparisons to Nationals prospect Juan Soto. Valera has a loose, compact swing and keeps his bat in the zone for a long time. His feel for the barrel, bat-to-ball skills, pitch recognition and discipline all help him to make consistent, hard contact and give him the kind of hittability the Indians look for. He has above-average raw power and gets to it in games well, though he has more of a hit-over-power profile. Valera profiles as a corner outfielder with average speed and arm strength. Valera will make his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2018 as he begins his path to reaching his considerable ceiling.
Benson was a two-sport star in high school and, as a senior, was a member of the USA Baseball team that won the 2016 18U World Cup in Japan and earned second-team all-state honors in basketball. On the diamond, he developed a reputation as a toolsy, athletic player, which he has lived up to thus far as a professional. Benson produces elite bat speed thanks to his strength and quick hands, and turns that bat speed into tremendous lefthanded raw power, rivaling Bobby Bradley for the best in the system. He is learning to get to that power more consistently and this season led the New York-Penn League in home runs (10) and ranked second in isolated power (.237). His power comes with a lot of swing-and-miss, however, and he has struck out in a third of his plate appearances as a pro. He has frequently tinkered with his swing in the past, but seemed to hit on a comfortable swing in the second half of the season. Those adjustments, as well as his ability to work a walk, leads to some optimism that he'll be able to cut down his strikeouts as he continues to develop. He is an excellent athlete and runs well for his size, particularly once he is underway. He has a plus arm and is a solid defender in right field. As a big, athletic, lefthanded-hitting outfielder from Atlanta, Benson is often compared with Jason Heyward, who was also the 14th overall pick in the draft. Benson has a long way to go to reach that ceiling and will advance to full-season ball for the first time when he opens 2018 with low Class A Lake County.
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