The focus on the 2018 draft, like all drafts, was on the first few rounds. In round one, the Indians grabbed one of the premier hitters in the draft in Noah Naylor. Later, much of the basic fan focus went to a flurry of college pitchers who they (far too optimistically) thought could help the MLB team in 2018 in Nick Sandlin and Adam Scott. In this, many players get overlooked and making the biggest demand to be looked at right now is 3rd round pick (6th by the Indians) Richie Palacios.
The 21 year old from Brooklyn, New York was one of the first players to sign from the draft and started opening day for the AZL Indians 1 team at second base (he was drafted at short, but has played second almost exclusively so far). In his first game, he walked twice and hit a home run, but that was only the beginning. In game three, he hit his second home run as part of a 4 for 4 game with another walk. He followed this with the worst game of his career as he struck out for the first two times ever and committed his first two errors, but after one more game to regain his confidence, he was promoted to Mahoning Valley after just five total games in Arizona.
It took Palacios a little longer to adjust to short season, but he continued to hit with base hits in all but one game played for the Scrappers. He didn’t hit his first home run in Mahoning Valley until July 5th, but that would start another torrid spell that saw him hit .463/.549/.732 with nine walks, two home runs, three doubles and a triple through July 19th. Almost exactly a month after his first professional game, Palacios had hit in all but two of his 25 games played (he reached base in all but one), batting .416/.500/.640 across two levels. For this, he was promoted a second time, this time to Lake County.
It should be noted that these were not moves of necessity based on roster construction. While it was an injury to Jesse Berardi that made room for Palacios in Lake County, the Scrappers also had Jose Fermin, who already had a season in Arizona under his belt and could easily have been promoted. They also could have jumped Jhan Rodriguez (who was promoted to Mahoning Valley to fill in for Palacios) from AZL if they only needed to cover a few innings or bumped Lynchburg utility man Jorma Rodriguez down a level if they needed a full time starter long term. All three of these other options are not high ceiling players of whom the team would be particularly worried about interrupting their development. The decision to go with Palacios was not one of need, but of reward.
In just his second game in A ball, Palacios had a three hit game, his fifth of the season, but since then he has cooled down a bit. That was certainly to be expected. To start with, he finished that three hit game with a completely unsustainable .450 BABIP. He has speed and is certainly not a ground ball hitter, so his potential BABIP could be well over .300 (maybe about .320-.330, especially if he’s playing below the level he should be), but no player who started his career after 1930 has been able to maintain a BABIP above .360 (Christian Yelich and Aaron Judge among modern players are close). There is a crash coming for Palacios and it will be epic (he’s already two for his last 20), but don’t take that as evidence he isn’t ready for A ball.
Rather than looking at the things he doesn’t have control over (the chances of a ball in play landing safely), let’s look at the things he does control. First, his eye is immaculate. In AZL, he made contact with nearly every strike he saw and still managed to walk six times while striking out twice. He continued that trend in his more extended run in Mahoning Valley where he walked times 11 and struck out 12. In Lake County, things have been more difficult, but his season total of walks and strike outs is still near equal and that is a true rarity among recently drafted players.
Also under his control are his defense and base running. In both, he has been nearly perfect with just four errors this year and one time caught stealing in six attempts. Always with the caveat of small sample size, he was one of the best defenders I’ve seen this year in Arizona and compared to essentially every infielder in AZL and SS, four errors is almost nothing.
Finally, there is the aspect of launch angle. While it has become a hot topic in the majors, not all minor league players have jumped onto the band wagon of elevating their swing plane to hit for more power. Palacios most definitely has. Despite this, unlike others like current Captains teammates Oscar Gonzalez and Will Benson, he has not yet had a huge problem with strike outs. This could be because he was simply not being challenged in the short season and rookie leagues, however, it’s very possibly that he is just not that kind of hitter.
At Towson, he struck out less than once every ten at bats each season and during his junior season (2018) he walked 52 times while striking out just 16 in over 250 plate appearances. Despite having a BABIP of .295 that year (he was over .340 the previous two seasons), he hit .301/.457/.515.
While the college numbers alone don’t mean much, the fact that they align well with his early season pro numbers helps provide a positive outlook that this level of play is sustainable. Obviously, his average is going to fall as his BABIP comes down to earth, but he should be able to continue being a patient hitter with fly ball tendencies.
This type of early career advancement is strange for the Indians, especially for a position player, and I’d expect that once he settles into the proper level (probably Lake County), he’ll stick around for awhile. He was a little old to start off in Arizona in the first place, but now is playing among his peers and could continue to be promoted with the current ground in A ball. This would likely place him at least four years from the Majors, but he’s certainly placed himself on the charts with his incredible early start.