In looking at the Indians minor league system position by position, there is one place of unquestionable weakness. In Burning River Baseball’s 2017 Indians prospect rankings there were 31 position players in the top 50, but just one first baseman. While other positions like third base and left field could seem weak by this standard as well, there are many players listed as short stop or center field who will likely move to the less skilled positions. Obviously, first base is considered one of the least skilled positions defensively, so there are many players who could potentially move from another position to first, but we’ll try to focus on players who have actually played regularly at the position already.
The One and Only Prospect
While there have been a few contenders over the years, Bobby Bradley is currently the most likely internal candidate to be a regular first baseman for the Indians at any time in the future. I wrote more extensively about Bradley earlier this month, so I won’t go too far into the powerful, yet flexible first baseman here. He played in Akron in 2017 and made great strides improving on his strike out rate from the previous year in Lynchburg. While he struggled in the Arizona Fall League, he should still start 2018 in Columbus and could be in Cleveland by 2019. This possibility is one reason the Indians should feel somewhat safe in not directly replacing Carlos Santana. If Edwin Encarnacion can take the majority of the at bats at first in 2018 with Michael Brantley as DH, Bradley could take over the following season with Encarnacion moving back to DH as Brantley hits free agency.
The Next Best Options
The most used players at 1B for the Indians at the upper minor league levels were, from AAA through high A: Nellie Rodriguez, Bobby Bradley and Anthony Miller. As fun as Rodriguez hitting 20+ home runs for three straight years (2014-2016) was, his dreadful performance in 2017 in AAA took him off the map completely. He still has one more year with the team before worrying about MiLB free agency and rule 5 issues, so something could change, but Bradley is the superior offensive and defensive player and should get the majority of the Clippers at bats next year.
Miller was never a prospect and stuck out when I saw him in 2015 as one of the worst hitters and defenders on the AZL Indians. He has not improved significantly based on his stat line and it’s unlikely he ever makes it even as high as AAA.
Despite this, there could be a couple options in the upper minors beyond Bradley. The first is Mike Papi, who played just one game at 1B in 2017, but has played there on and off throughout his career so far. He had decent numbers in Akron last year before struggling in Columbus mid-season, necessitating a return to Akron before returning to Columbus to finish the year. He’s 25 (Rodriguez is only 23), but Papi has a better profile than Rodriguez and his ability to play outfield makes him a much more reasonable option for a bench bat. It should be kept in mind that when talking about any player other than Bradley in the Indians system at 1B, it would almost certainly only be as a bench bat.
Another potential option is Eric Haase, who hasn’t ever played a single game at first base, but it out of a position. Both Haase and Francisco Mejia are on target to hit the majors in 2018 while both Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez already on the team blocking the way and signed for the extremely long term. While a trade of any player other than Mejia is possible, position changes could also be on the way. The Indians have already tried out Mejia at third in the AFL, but a move to first for Haase could also make sense. Of course, much of Haase’s value comes defensively, so the Indians could prefer to keep him at catcher and potentially move either Gomes or Perez.
Hope for the Future
While the upper levels are largely devoid of true MLB options, there are some interesting names at the bottom like always. My personal favorite is the newest addition, Michael Cooper, who was a 33rd rounder in 2017. He has a great glove, is extremely tall and extremely fast for the position. He has the type of frame that looks like he could develop a lot of power and he already has shown a bit with three home runs, 9 doubles and four triples while playing at Goodyear Ballpark in the AZL. His late draft position may keep him off the radar for a few more years, but there is definitely a lot of potential in this 18 year old.
A level higher, Ulysses Cantu was drafted as a third baseman, but immediately moved to first and has also been a solid gloveman there, although not on the level of Bradley or Cooper. Offensively, he’s been a great disappointment so far, but he made great improvements in 2017 and is only 19 years old. Most likely, he’ll jump to Lake County next year and we’ll learn more about him as he plays a full season against greater talent.
Finally, there is Jesus Aguilar III, aka Emmanuel Tapia. It may be unfair to saddle Tapia with this profile so early as he has only played one full minor league season despite being signed in 2013. He showed great power during the past year in Lake County at 21 years old, but he also struck out 180 times to just 35 walks. We’ve now seen the Indians essentially give up on two players who were very similar in Aguilar and Nellie Rodriguez, so it’s hard to see Tapia going far unless he has a major turn around. Of course, Aguilar has had success since leaving Cleveland, so the distinction isn’t so much as a negative towards Tapia’s career, just how the Indians appear to view players of that type.
With any position in the minors, there is a high probability of failure. Because of this, it’s best to have a large field of high potential players just to make sure one actually breaks through. While this seems to be the case for the Indians at short, pitcher and center field, it’s far from true at first. Bradley is far from a 100% bet and if he doesn’t make it, there aren’t any real options for the future until you get to low A and even there things don’t look great. Because of this, the Indians may have to move some players around, whether it be Haase, Papi, Yu-Cheng Chang or Major Leaguers like Jason Kipnis or Yan Gomes. In any event, for a position expected to carry a large part of the offensive load, the depth at first base is far from healthy.