We started our look at the Indians minor league positional depth at second base where the Major League team is stacked enough to eliminate major worry about lack of talent. We’ll continue on with the bullpen, where the situation is much more dire. Currently, the MLB pen is among the best in baseball (second to the Yankees in the AL in 2017), but Bryan Shaw is likely to leave through free agency this year with Cody Allen (the chicken in the headline) and Andrew Miller expected to leave after 2018.
The Next Line of Defense
Unlike most positions, being a AAA relief pitcher doesn’t necessarily mean you’re next in line for a Major League job. For years, the Indians have played around with Shawn Armstrong and Kyle Crockett, bouncing them from the Cleveland to Columbus when they were needed. Both are out of options now, however, so that trend must end immediately. It’s possible that one or both may even be released in the coming month to make room for free agents or the rule five draft and, if not, they could be off the team in February when rosters crunch.
The next obvious players are Louis Head and Jeff Johnson in AAA, but while both have been around for a long time, neither has been singled out by the Indians front office as real options. Head spent three years in Akron before hitting AAA in 2017 and Johnson two in Akron and two in Columbus with one year lost to injury in the middle. While both have shown promise (Johnson hit a career high 10.6 K/9 in 2017 while Head struck out 9.5 per nine), both are already 27. The Indians have brought up players under 23 straight from AA often enough that if they thought one was the next Cody Allen, they would have been up last year.
High Ceiling, Possibly Ready by 2018
Relievers can be so fickle from year to year that it’s best to have a large crop of high potential players to choose from. This is something the Indians do have below AAA, starting with Leandro Linares, David Speer and Cameron Hill who all pitched in Akron in 2017.
A Cuban immigrant, Linares is the most interesting of the group thanks to a quick rise in 2016 that saw him strike out more than 11 batters per nine innings as he went from Mahoning Valley all the way to Lynchburg. Because of his unique situation, he was a little older than most international amateur signings, so this quick advancement was necessary, but he little problem in Lynchburg or Akron this year, posting a 9.1 K/9 with a 2.56 ERA. Now, Linares is continuing his progression in the Arizona Fall League and he will likely ride that into a spot in Columbus next year. As with most high K rate pitchers, Linares struggles with walks and he definitely does not seem Major League ready at this point.
Speer had a great season in 2016 and, with Matt Whitehouse switching to the rotation, was the Rubberducks primary left handed reliever. Things didn’t go very well in the AFL in 2016, however, and that carried through 2017 as he struggled with an incredibly high hit rate. He was significantly better against left handers, so there’s possibly some LOOGY potential, but it wasn’t enough to really consider him anytime soon.
Cam Hill snuck into BurningRiverBaseball’s top 50 Indians prospects at #46, behind only three other relievers. He had a nice season in Akron last year, earning a promotion to Columbus by the end of the season. Unlike most of the pitchers featured, Hill doesn’t strike out many, but limits base runners with good command and by inducing weak contact. He is thus less of a high ceiling prospect, but a high floor.
The last player featured in this group is Ben Krauth, who was our top ranked reliever at #12 overall. This may be a little high for a left hander who has only been with the team for one full season and doesn’t throw above 92, but everyone who has seen him loves him and he’s only seen incredible success as he’s navigated from the AZL to High A in a year and a half. In 2017, he split time between Lake County and Lynchburg, striking out 10.5 per nine with a 1.72 ERA (1.94 FIP) although his walk rate did spike compared to his first half season. Already 23 years old, Krauth seems a perfect contender for continued promotion and he could easily hit the Majors before any of the players listed to this point.
Highest Ceiling, Furthest Away
Ranked 40th in our 2017 prospect rankings was Dalbert Siri, who struck out 14.2 batters per nine with Lake County this year after striking out 13.2 between the two short season levels last year. As always, control is a major issue, but he hasn’t allowed a home run since he played in the DSL in 2015, so giving up a walk every once in awhile isn’t that big of a deal. Of all the relievers in the entire system, at the moment Siri appears to have the brightest future.
There are a few other players at the lowest levels in the system that have great potential, but will likely need at least a few more years before they can really be judged. Of those I’ve seen personally, Maiker Manzanillo may be the best, but Jean Carlos Mejia, Cesar Ventura, Skylar Arias, Adoni Kery, Jonas Wyatt and Ping-Hsueh Chen have all shown promise beyond/despite what their statlines may be. In any event, these players aren’t likely to be replacements for Allen, Shaw and Miller, but replacements for their replacements.
The Indians may have the answers to all their bullpen needs in those players listed above (or in the others in the system including Argenis Angulo, Billy Strode, Enosil Tejeda or Dylan Baker), the real solution could likely come out of the starting ranks. With a rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger under contract through 2020, the Indians shouldn’t need much more than #1 prospect Triston McKenzie to fill out the rotation over the long term. There have already been talks of moving Danny Salazar into the bullpen, but there should be even more serious consideration given to players like Cody Anderson, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Shawn Merryweather and Adam Plutko who have essentially been forgotten.
Much like short stops dominate the position players on the top 50 prospect list, starting pitchers dominate relievers. Only four relievers made the top 50, but 15 starters did and that doesn’t include players like Ryan Merritt and Plutko who have already played in the Majors. While the best of the best should remain starters, four pitchers stand out as interesting relief candidates and coincidentally all are left handed. Sam Hentges is a fireballer who could be a dominant back end piece, Shao-Ching Chiang is a ground ball specialist who could take a Dan Otero type role, Sean Brady is returning from injury and may be able to get a little more on his fastball if he wasn’t expected to go five innings each time out and Rob Kaminsky has virtually disappeared after hurting his shoulder. If Kaminsky is able to return at some point, it may have to be as a reliever.
Overall, there isn’t anything near a guarantee in this group, but if you consider the strength of the starting options, there is plenty of bullpen depth. This is a very high fail rate position and the Indians have the options to withstand quite a few mistakes. They’ve already had to as each super reliever of the future named Adams or Armstrong fell off the map.