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Burning River Baseball’s 2017 Cleveland Indians Top 10 Prospect Rankings
Benson stands on deck in a minor league Spring Training game. – Caitlin Boron, BurningRiverBaseball.com

10. Will Benson – Right Field
Drafted 2016, 1st Round
Age: 19
Level: SS Mahoning  Valley

By Caitlin Boron
Benson is a monster in height and in how far he can drive a ball. The Indians drafted him in 2016 with the hope of grooming him into the five-tool player everyone expects him to be. Between rookie ball and Mahoning Valley he showed bits of that player, while also showing how genuine and great a guy he is off the field as well.

Benson has a good glove in the outfield, a good eye and a solid feel for the game. At the plate he’s filling the mold of big swings getting big hits or big strikeouts. He got on base a decent amount, but needs to work on picking his pitch rather than swing for the fences.

He brings a lightheartedness to the field, mixed with a passion for the game someone must be born with. He was the Indians first pick for a reason, and I believe that plus his drive will be a guide for him to reign it in and adjust as he matures. There are quite a few big time outfielders in his way at the moment, but being that he’s still young, there is time to get better and make it their job to lose.

Stamets participates in fielding drills during 2017 MLB Spring Training in Goodyear, AZ. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

9. Eric Stamets – Short Stop
Trade from LA Angels for David Murphy (Originally Drafted in 2012, 6th Round)
Age: 26
Level: AAA Columbus

By Peter Conti
After being recalled to the Clippers in 2017, Stamets struggled despite putting up fifteen long balls. A dreadful walk ratio and low average lead to a poor OBP although his newfound power makes up for his lesser qualities. His ceiling particularly in the major league levels, is at best either a utility infielder or emergency back-up. Stamets has only played in thirty six games total for Columbus, which is such a tiny sample size it is tough to project whether or not those statistics will improve for a full year.

With Erik Gonzalez and Giovanny Urshela already filling similar roles on the MLB team, it’s unlikely that Stamets will get the call in 2018, but he doesn’t have to be added to the 40 man roster until the end of 2018, so the team has some time to decide his future with the franchise.

Calica stands in at the plate during a minor league Spring Training game in 2017 – Caitlin Boron, BurningRiverBaseball

8. Andrew Calica – Center Field
Drafted 2016, 11th Round
Age: 23
Level: A+ Lynchburg

By Caitlin Boron
This outfielder has been my favorite one to follow since being drafted in 2016. He took the farm system by storm through low-A and Lake County, showing off his power and ability to get on base however he could. Unfortunately, his heat started to cool once making the jump to high-A Lynchburg, especially in the first half of the season. Through August he seemed to find his rhythm again, not to the level we’ve seen from him but I like to see his no-give-up attitude and grit push him through his struggles.

I don’t think the Indians will move him quite as fast in 2018 as they did through his first two seasons, though I do believe he will be in Akron at some point next season. He would had depth and power to any team he plays for, but before moving up I think it’s good he gets a well rounded idea and mindset for what challenged him in high-A, in order to have a feel for what to expect in Akron.

7. Aaron Civale – Right Handed Starting Pitcher
Drafted 2016, 3rd Round
Age: 22
Level: A+ Lynchburg

Civale put up big numbers in a small conference coming out of Northeastern when he was a closer and a starter in different years. What drew the Indians to Civale in the third round last summer was his command and it showed. Civale first full season with the organization he walked 14 batters in 164 ⅔ innings. He had a 53/3 strikeout-to-walk rate in Lake County in 57 innings before being promoted. In 107 ⅔ innings at Lynchburg he struck out 88 and walked nine. So even at two levels in one year, his command held.

His 21.8% strikeout rate over the two levels seems pretty solid on the surface, but his swinging strike rate dropped from 16.4% at Lake County to 12% in Lynchburg. Those numbers usually drop down as players advance because competition gets better so higher rates early on suggest a good floor going forward. As a starter, Civale is a command-style pitcher who sits somewhere between 91-93 with his fastball and a good slider. The Indians are continuing to develop him as a starter but many felt on draft day his best fit would be in the bullpen where his fastball could sit more in the 94-95 range and his slider could be a wipeout pitch for him in short stints. He is a solid 6-foot-2 and has a clean delivery, so for now there is no reason for the Indians to not see if he can develop as a starter but at least, the hope is they have a reliever who might be able to slot into a back of the bullpen role sometime soon. His command should allow him to move through the system quickly enough, especially if he’s moved to the bullpen.

Castro rounds first during baserunning drills in 2016 Minor League Spring Training. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball.com

6. Willi Castro – Shortstop
2013 International Free Agent
Age: 20
Level: A+ Lynchburg

By Gavin Potter
Castro’s 2017 season saw him live up to the praise many scouts had given him as a prospect, despite underwhelming statistically in his first few seasons as a professional. Scouts loved the switch-hitting Castro for his projectable frame, his contact skills, and his athleticism. He’d always been a good defensive shortstop, but his .289/.337/.426 slash line with 11 home runs and 19 steals showed the kind of all-around player he can become. Considering he has yet to turn 21, if Castro can maintain or improve that kind of production as he advances through the minors, he’ll find himself on a some top-100 prospect lists.

Chang plays in the field for the 2016 Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

5. Yu-Cheng Chang – Shortstop
2013 International Free Agent
Age: 22
Level: AA Akron

By Gavin Potter
Chang’s power was the biggest story of his 2017 season: he hit 24 home runs in 126 games last year, after he’d hit 22 in his previous 214 games. That said, his strikeout rate (26.4%) and .220 batting average ate away at his overall production. As a result, he only managed a 110 wRC+, after putting up a 117 wRC+ in 2016. Still, the power was an important development, as it would allow his bat to potentially play at 2B or 3B at the MLB level – something some scouts think will be necessary. His batting average also was suppressed by an unusually low .254 BABIP, so there is still a lot to like about Chang. All things considered, he projects as a potential average MLB infielder.

Jones fielding at third between innings of a 2017 MiLB Spring game. – Caitlin Boron, BurningRiverBaseball

4. Nolan Jones – Third Base
Drafted 2016, 2nd Round
Age: 19
Level: SS Mahoning Valley

By Caitlin Boron
Nolan Jones has a great bat, not a ton of power but can stretch for extra bases. His height, speed and high walk rate have proven good tools for the 19 year old to build on. He strikes out a bit, but this is something that he can adjust and learn to be more patient with in due time.

One draw back that stood out this season was his poor defense. Pop-ups fell around him and errors piled up. Third base does not seem like the right spot with him, nor does short. I wouldn’t mind if they explored putting him at first. He has the build for it and it might be a better fit for someone who’s bat might honestly be his best asset across the board.

Jones has a big upside and a big down side, but being so young he has a lot of time to figure things out and adjust accordingly. I can see him stay in Mahoning Valley for at least another season in order to do that.

3. Shane Bieber – Right Handed Starting Pitcher
Drafted 2016, 4th Round
Age: 22
Level: AA Akron

In his first full professional season, Bieber moved up two levels to AA Akron after beginning the year with the Lake County Captains. In 28 combined starts for three teams (Lake County, Lynchburg and Akron) in 2017 spanning 173.1 innings, Bieber struck out 162 batters with a 2.86 ERA, but the most impressive statistic is that he walked only 10 including two intentionally for the entire season. His numbers continued to improve the higher he advanced as he finished with a 2.32 ERA with Akron in 54.1 innings after posting an ERA of 3.10 at Lake County and Lynchburg, respectively.

Bieber may not have the most impressive pitch arsenal such as a 95-plus MPH fastball, but he continues to show an amazing ability to command the strike zone. With his excellent control, Bieber forces hitters to be more aggressive at the plate and allows his defense to make plays to get the batter out.

His stuff isn’t considered to be at a plus-level, and that could be more exposed as he advances in his career, but the formula has proved effective for other MLB pitchers including Josh Tomlin.

Bieber’s ceiling as of now is likely as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter in MLB. However, if he can develop a consistent strikeout pitch like a nasty curve or splitter and maintain that pinpoint control, then Bieber could have a long and successful career in the Majors.

Bradley takes a swing during a 2017 AFL game with the Glendale Desert Dogs. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

2. Bobby Bradley – First Base
Drafted 2013, 3rd Round
Age: 21
Level: AA Akron/AFL

By Joseph Coblitz
With Francisco Mejia no longer considered a prospect thanks to his September call-up, Bradley is unquestionably the Indians top offensive prospect and was considered a top three selection by all voting in this year’s rankings. He has hit 20 or more home runs in each of his three full professional seasons and lead the AZL with 8 in his first partial season while winning the triple crown and MVP. He’s only 21 (three years younger than the average AA player), has prodigious power, a decent walk rate and is the best defensive first baseman I’ve seen in an Indians uniform since…ever.

However, Bradley has a tendency to swing and miss often and by a lot. If he were to skip AAA and play 150 games in the majors next year he could make Aaron Judge appear to have the plate discipline of Joe Sewell. While he was older at each level, Judge never struck  out more than 144 times in a season in the minors. Bradley has two of those seasons already including an incredible 170 in 131 games in 2016. He greatly improved his K% in 2017, striking out just 122 times in 532 at bats, but he’s returned to his old ways in the AFL against more advanced pitching and will have to spend significant time working on his plate discipline in 2018 in Columbus if he wants to be more than Mark Reynolds. It’s not that having a player like Reynolds would be a bad thing, but Bradley has the potential for much more than that.

McKenzie winds up during a 2016 Extended Spring Training game. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

1. Triston McKenzie – Right Handed Starting Pitcher
Drafted 2015, 1st Round
Age: 20
Level: A+ Lynchburg

A Vanderbilt commit and drafted at age 17 by the Indians, now that Francisco Mejia has graduated to the majors (for this list), McKenzie is the crown jewel of the system. He pitched most of 2017 at 19 years old (birthday of 8/2) at High-A where he was the youngest player in the Carolina League. All the 6-foot-5 Florida native did was strikeout 186 batters in 143 innings despite being the youngest player in the league. He walked just 45 and had a solid 41.8% ground ball rate to go with his 14.4% swinging strike rate.

The biggest worry with McKenzie is still that his 6-foot-5 frame won’t hold up at his listed weight of 165lbs (though reports say he’s added weight despite what’s listed). He went from 83 ⅓ innings in 2016 to 143 innings without any issues and his velocity at the end of the year was reported around 93-94. McKenzie has above average command of that fastball, can work it to any four quadrants of the strike zone and has an above average curveball that has excellent shape and tilt that he’s able to command and reports say his changeup has continued to improve. People will always worry about the size of his frame until he gets into more innings and continues to produce results. But his jump in innings and excellent performance in a league where he was so young bodes well for his ability to quell those concerns in the future, hopefully. He’ll start at Double-A Akron in 2018 and will more than likely be one of, if not the only 20 year old in April there. If McKenzie takes on more innings and continues to miss bats and not walk batters, he’s going to start getting recognition as a top-50 prospect in baseball if not more. It will be very hard for the Indians to resist trading him for any big piece they may need to win the World Series in 2018 and if they don’t, McKenzie could make his debut in 2019 and help bolster the rotation of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco as they start to hit their early 30s.