After a few years of very successful drafts and even more successful trades that created the current level of talent available at the Major League level for the Cleveland Indians, things have gotten a little rough. Now that the biggest names from those drafts have made their MLB debuts, many positions in the Indians farm system are simply desolate. Either there are few standout players with a lot of mediocre alternatives or a single potential superstar without much backing him up. More than any other position (with the possible exception of short stop), the Indians don’t have that problem in the rotations of future.
Beginning at the top, the entire Indians rotation of 2017, with the exception of Josh Tomlin, is under team control through 2020. To this, Ryan Merritt, Cody Anderson, Adam Plutko, Shawn Morimando and others who haven’t really joined the rotation will be around even longer. While these names aren’t necessarily aces of the future, with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco at one and two, they are certainly of high enough quality to fill out the rest of the rotation.
The Upper Echelon
More than any other position, it is hard to discern prospect from Major Leaguer among Indians starting pitchers. What is Ryan Merritt for example? He made four spot starts in 2017 after just one in 2016, but has also pitched in the ALCS for the Indians. It’s hard to consider him a prospect at this point, but he definitely factors greatly into the Indians MLB pitching depth.
As a whole, much of the 2017 Clippers rotation fits into this category. Of the six most used starters, four enter into the 2018 starting pitcher discussion and should at a minimum be considered serious relief options. These pitchers are Merritt, Morimando, Plutko and Julian Merryweather.
Since three of those pitchers have at least been on the MLB roster, it’s worth looking at the one who hasn’t, Merryweather. He was just added to the 40 man roster to avoid being lost in the rule 5 draft and has been with the team since 2014. While his ERA from AAA looks less than exciting, it was likely over inflated by the high home run rate of his home ballpark (9 of 13 home runs allowed came at home) as his K and walk rates were similar as during his successful first half in AA. This is not to say Merryweather is the next superstar pitcher to come out of the system, just that the Indians have an incredible amount of AAA depth in the rotation, something that doesn’t exist at any other position.
The Next Superstar Pitcher
There’s some debate about whether or not struggling in the minor leagues is good for a player. I personally believe that if you are dominating for an extended time at a level, you need to be promoted in order to improve as a player. If there is no challenge, there is little to be gained. While the Indians have generally been more cautious in their advancements, they have been aggressive in promoting Triston McKenzie, yet he has still yet to struggle at any level. Last year as a 19 year old in high A he struck out 186 batters to just 45 walks in 143 innings. This was just a year after pitching in extended Spring Training in Goodyear where he was essentially unhittable every single time out against players 3-5 years younger than those he faced in 2017.
McKenzie has everything going for him. At 6’5″, his height and late release point give the hitter very little time to react to a fastball that hits the mid-90’s. In addition, he has near pinpoint command with that fastball and a slider with nice movement. Finally, he has the kind of perfectionist drive that should keep him from ever sliding back. If he doesn’t dominate at the Major League level for a significant amount of time it could be the biggest disappointment in Indians history. Given his current rate of advancement, we could see McKenzie surpass that whole group mentioned in the previous section as well as those who had success in AA last year and join the rotation as a regular member by 2019. Even if they are cautious, he should make his debut in 2019 and should be a regular in 2020 barring any setbacks.
The Guys We’d Be Talking About if McKenzie Didn’t Exist
While McKenzie casts a long shadow (literally and metaphorically), it’s important to note how successful his Hillcats teammates were this year. Dominic DeMasi and Matt Esparza both had solid seasons, but they aren’t even the peak (Brock Hartson also had a good year, but has since retired from baseball). Three pitchers in particular stand out as potential future Major Leaguers, although none has the stuff of McKenzie, Shao-Ching Chiang, Aaron Civale and Shane Bieber. Of these, the control freak Bieber is the most interesting after walking just five batters to 49 K’s in 54.1 innings. Bieber is 22, but is in just his second minor league season with Cleveland and will most likely pitch in AAA next year. If he doesn’t start the season there, it will be because of the backlog of near MLB ready starters ahead of him, but there is little question that Bieber has a higher ceiling than a few, particularly Plutko and Morimando.
Chiang didn’t have as much success in AA, but was dominant in advanced A and got some notice for throwing a no hitter this year. He’s a ground ball specialist with a low walk rate, something that would fit well with an Indians infield that features Francisco Lindor at short. He and Civale are still a few years away, but provide great depth at the position. This should allow the Indians to continue to trade starting pitchers to bolster the Major League club. They’ve already moved two big names in the last two seasons as Justus Sheffield went to New York for Andrew Miller and Thomas Pannone to Toronto for Joe Smith, yet they haven’t dug a significant chunk out of the depth at the position yet. In fact, they may have to start moving some players just to make room for advancement for those they really want to keep around.
The Long Term Future
While the pitchers at the upper levels are fairly sure things to at least get to the Majors, the ceilings and floors of those in the lower levels are far from fixed. In particular are two left handed curveball specialists, Brady Aiken and Francisco Perez. Aiken’s stock took a big hit this year as he was unable to regain pre-Tommy John level velocity or throw strikes, but he’s still very young and, as we’ve seen, there is no great need for him to move up quickly. He still has a high ceiling due to his curve and can take his time finding his command and speed. Perez is a similar pitcher although he hasn’t had the struggles of Aiken. Between the two, if one works out it would be fantastic for the Tribe.
Beyond that, it’s hard to discern much from the lower level pitchers. While many have shown moments of greatness, they are often alternated with times of extreme strife. A few lower level pitchers to look out for, however, are Juan Hillman (who was drafted right after McKenzie), Tanner Tully and a pair of pitchers returning from injury, Sam Hentges and Grant Hockin. Of these, Hentges has the best swing and miss stuff, but the worst control while Tully impressed so much during his second season that he was advanced all the way from single A up to AAA, hitting every level in between. He will likely pitch between A+ and AA next year while Hillman should be in A+ and the other two in Lake County, but all make up the generation to follow those listed above.
While it hasn’t worked out in every position, the Indians draft strategy of going for high floor college pitchers and high ceiling high school picks has worked out incredibly well recently. They have their next Kluber/Salazar type pitcher in McKenzie and their next ten Josh Tomlins in Bieber, Chiang and so on. While high ceiling pitchers are important, it may be even more important to have a ready supply of high floor pitchers who can fill in and give a team a chance to win. These players have great value on the free agent and trade market and the Indians would be smart to take advantage of their extreme depth both on the Major League team and by trading to other teams to improve other areas of the franchise that are not quite as deep.