With the exception of the Captains (whose league held their All-Star game in June), each of the Indians upper minor level teams will be taking a break this week for All-Star festivities.
Top Hitter – Brandon Barnes
Yes, Francisco Mejia is the Indians top prospect, yes, he was selected to his third consecutive Future’s Game as well as the AAA All-Star game and yes, he has been hitting at a torrid pace over the last two months. However, Barnes has done it all year and, despite his AAA All-Star selection, has gotten essentially no credit for it.
Barnes is second on the Clippers among regulars in slugging percent, sitting behind Adam Rosales (who had a ten year MLB career) and third in OBP behind Yandy Diaz and Mike Papi. With a five year MLB career of his own, Barnes wouldn’t be considered on any prospect lists, but at just 32, he could potentially have a few more decent seasons. Despite his success, the Indians have brought back Melky Cabrera for another run despite a disastrous first time around, so it appears Barnes will be limited to AAA All-Star.
Top Pitcher – Shane Bieber
This is a toss up between two starters who Indians fans have already seen extensively in Cleveland this year, Adam Plutko and Bieber. Both have been terrific in AAA, but Bieber has been moderately better (though in two fewer starts). His most impressive mark is his five walks in 45.2 innings and he deserves bonus points for starting the season in Akron and walking just one compared to 30 strike outs in 31 innings. Plutko not only started in Columbus, but has been there since 2016. Both have pitched no hitters in AAA this year although Bieber’s was a rain shortened seven innings.
In addition to the two starters, Ben Taylor, who has also played in Cleveland this year, has a 2.36 ERA with seven saves and three holds in 11 save/hold opportunities. Three of his nine earned runs came in his debut and he recently pulled off a ten game scoreless streak where he allowed just nine hits and two unintentional walks while striking out 13 in 14.1 innings.
Surprise Performer – Mike Papi
This could also go to Barnes, but as a former MLB player, he should be expected to have some success here. This is Papi’s first AAA season and, while he was once highly thought of as a prospect, he has been a bit forgotten in the last few years. He’s having a fine season with five home runs and 14 doubles, but is also being overlooked with the Cabrera signing.
Top Hitter – Andrew Calica
While Bobby Bradley certainly came into the season as the most anticipated prosect (and he does have 16 home runs), Calica has been the Rubberducks top performer to this point. He’s played fine defense in center, had a bit of power (20 extra base hits), speed (18 steals in 20 attempts) and patience (30 walks).
Calica is 24 and has already posted significantly better numbers in Akron than last year in Lynchburg. He is yet another player who is possibly being held back by the veteran backlog as many AAA OF at bats are being taken by Francisco Mejia (who should be in the majors) and Cabrera (who shouldn’t be with the franchise).
Top Pitcher – Shao-Ching Chiang
This could be Bieber too, but he only pitched about a quarter of the season in AA and we don’t want to double up. Instead we’ll look at another pitcher who has been promoted to AAA, Chiang. He broke out in 2017 in Lynchburg and he carried that into this season with a 2.90 ERA and 54 strike outs to 13 walks in 71.1 innings across 12 starts. He hasn’t been as effective in AAA, but is so far down the depth chart there, that he will have plenty of time to adjust.
As bad as the bullpens have been in Cleveland and Columbus, Akron has had many stand out performers. Of particular note are Matt Whitehouse, Mitch Brown, Kieran Lovegrove, Henry Martinez and Luke Eubank, who has recently been promoted to Columbus.
Surprise Performer – Mitch Brown
While there’s one extreme surprise hitter that could fit here, we’ll place him in Lake County where he’s spent the most time this year. Instead, we’ll go back to the bullpen and Mitch Brown. When I saw him in 2012, Brown was a master of control who took advantage of the aggressiveness of AZL hitters to have a nice, but not remarkable, season as a starter. He struggled against more advanced hitters, however, and as he enters into his seventh season, he appeared to be one of the many players who is allowed to reach minor league free agency and forgotten about. Instead, in his second season as a reliever, he has found great success with a 1.54 ERA in 35 innings, striking out 41. He doesn’t throw as hard as some of his teammates or what you would consider an elite MLB reliever, but he now has to be in consideration for a 40 man spot by the end of the year.
Advanced A Lynchburg
Top Hitter – Mitch Longo
The entire Lynchburg outfield qualifies for this award, but Longo stands just slightly above his peers. He has been the most successful on the bases with 12 steals in 16 attemps and doesn’t strike out as much with just 47 in just under 300 at bats. He also has good power numbers with 19 doubles, three triples and four home runs.
Top Pitcher – Eli Morgan
Although he spent half the season so far in Lake County, Morgan has been just as good in his eight starts in Lynchburg. This crazy Hillcat has 48 strike outs in 46.1 innings and leads all starters with a 2.33 ERA. He’s also only walked nine batters, fewer than any Hillcat with at least 25 IP.
Surprise Performer – Justin Garza
This isn’t to say that nothing was expected of Garza, but after being drafted in 2015, he didn’t get into a game until 2016 and then pitched just 9 innings in the AZL. He finally played a full season in Lake County in 2017, but struggled while splitting time between starter and relief. Now, as a full time starter, he has a 3.77 ERA, 58 strike outs and just 22 walks in 57.1 innings.
A Lake County
Top Hitter – Oscar Gonzalez
After seeing him swing at everything in sight in the AZL (and seeing him take home the MVP), I predicted he would not be able to sustain this success at higher levels without becoming more selective at the plate. Then he had 19 extra base hits year in Mahoning Valley while striking out 61 times and walking five. This season, he’s stepped it up a notch with 11 home runs, 15 doubles and just 79 K’s to 10 walks. I don’t know how much longer he can keep this up, but he’s making his two true outcome style work so far.
Top Pitcher – Kyle Nelson
A contender for best pitcher in the entire system, Nelson has 45 strike outs in 31.1 innings and, while he has walked two (yes two), one of those was intentional. He’s allowed two runs on 21 hits so far. While he had a good year last year, this one is simply phenomenal. In addition, he’s done all this with a couple weeks lost to the disabled list.
Surprise Performer – Jorma Rodriguez
He may have a future as a utility man (and he’s being used as an organizational utility man right now), but let him enjoy his moment in the sun. Rodriguez started the season with the Captains and hit .345/.365/.437 with two triples and six steals in 35 games, earning him a promotion, but not to Lynchburg. He was sent to Akron instead, where he absolutely raked over seven games until he was no longer needed to fill a roster spot. Since, he hasn’t played as well with his true club, Lynchburg, although he’ll have time to catch up. He’s played five different positions in his career and four this season and is most proficient at second, where he has been used for the majority of this season.