As the prime position for the most skilled baseball players at any level, from Little League through the MLB All-Star Game, short stop should be one of the most stacked positions for any farm system. With the Indians, this is the case as well. Of BurningRiverBaseball’s top 50 Indians prospects, nine of 31 position players were short stops including four of the top ten overall. Beyond that, two others in the top 20 were originally short stops who have moved off position. In fact, the primary focus in determining the health of the position in the minor leagues will be determining which players will actually stay at the position.
Of course, we are only talking about prospects here, because at the Major League level, there is no apparent need for a short stop and won’t be for a long time. Francisco Lindor has the position locked down and if he needs a break, Jose Ramirez can fill in with Erik Gonzalez and Giovanny Urshela well beyond the prospect level already. With that in mind, we can separate those players from the farm as a whole to determine the Indians overall health at the position.
Next in Line, For Starter or for Bench
While nine of the top 50 players were short stops and eleven of the top 75, there are really only two players that fall into play in the near future. The first is Eric Stamets, who jumped to nine in our rankings this year after his second partial season in Columbus. Stamets had been used exclusively at short prior to 2017, but in 2017 he began to transition into what will likely be his Major League future by playing some at second and third. A defensive stalwart, Stamets hit for a surprising amount of power last year and, if that was more than just a ballpark effect, he would certainly be a better MLB option than Urshela and possibly better than Gonzalez. In any event, he probably will never be a Major League starter, but should fit somewhere (even if it isn’t Cleveland) as a utility man.
The second player at a high level worth looking into is Yu-Cheng Chang (#5 in the prospect rankings), who spent 2017 in Akron and should have no problem adjusting to AAA in 2018. While he was originally used at third base when first signed, he has made significant strides at short stop and the hope is that he could be at least a league average defender. He has enough power (24 home runs and 24 doubles in 2017) to play at third, so considering the Indians current situation, that could be his break out point. He could potentially be the Indians starting third baseman as soon as 2019 or he could be used as trade bait, dealing from an organizational strength to a team that isn’t so lucky to have multiple extremely talented short stops already in the Majors.
High Ceiling, but Far Away
Coming in right after Chang in the rankings is Willi Castro at number six. He’s only 20 years old and already in Lynchburg, well ahead of the normal time frame. Even so, he improved upon nearly every facet of his game in 2017 including base running and plate discipline. Like Chang, however, he may be best suited for a positional change. In each of the last two seasons, he committed 25 errors at short with 22 in 66 games in 2015. He was a fine, slick fielding second baseman when he first played with Chang in 2014 and a return to that position could eventually help him reach the Major Leagues.
A more solid defender at short, Tyler Freeman (#15) just played his first half season with the team in Arizona and thus, is a long time from any Major League talk. He was, however, the top hitter on the AZL team as well and a decent base runner. In Mahoning Valley, there were multiple middle infielders who could potentially stick at short stop as well that also came out of the 2017 draft, particularly Ernie Clement (#44) and Jesse Berardi (#45). Having three high ceiling players in the low minors is a great way to make sure you have at least one that reaches the higher levels, just as Castro and Chang have separated themselves out of a larger group from a few years ago.
Beyond these slightly well known players, there is Marcos Gonzalez (#48), who played for the Dominican Summer League Indians in 2017, but started the year in Extended Spring Training where I was able to see him play on multiple occasions. He’s probably the best and most aggressive baserunner of the players listed to this point and a solid glove as well. It’s far too early to judge his bat, however, as he is yet to face pitchers in the US in real games. Aaron Bracho (#38) is even more unknown as he was just signed this summer and hasn’t played yet. Even so, he comes into the system as an elite bat.
Drifting Towards Utility Men
When the Indians took Luke Wakamatsu (#39) in the 20th round in 2015 it appeared they may have had the steal of the draft and he played like it during his first pro season, both offensively and defensively. Since then, however, things haven’t been so hot. In 2016, his defense in Mahoning Valley was simply atrocious and it wasn’t significantly better in Lake County in 2017. At the same time, his strike out rate is too high for someone who hasn’t shown a ton of power to this point and he has been disappointing on the bases. At just 20 years old and likely to be in high A next year, Wakamatsu has plenty of time to make adjustments and turn things around, but right now he shouldn’t play significantly into future plans.
Finishing just out of the top 60 in our rankings was Alexis Pantoja, who also played with the Captains. He has already played five different defensive positions and is serviceable defensively at four (1B, 2B, 3B and SS). This, combined with a weak bat and poor walk rate make him the perfect fit for high A utility man. In both manners, he reminds me of Justin Toole, who played with the Indians for 7 years as a minor league utility man until becoming a coach within the system. There are certainly worse ways to spend a life, but there is no way Pantoja has a Major League future.
The final evaluation of the Indians short stops shows it as their position of greatest depth and smallest need. Luckily, because these are the most talented athletes on the field most of the time, they have been able to adjust quickly to new positions. If they want to play for the Indians in the next four years, they will have to do just that. When it comes down to it, the Indians simply have too much talent up the middle and at some point, expect that to spread out, whether it means playing Chang at third and Castro at second or making some trades to gain the greatest possible advantage from the position.