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The Sports Daily > Burning River Baseball
Cleveland Prospect Watch: Biggest Risers of 2017

The 2017 minor league season is quickly winding to a close. For many prospects fighting for a place in the MLB, the results of an individual season can have huge ramifications. Now that we have a near complete picture of how 2017 went for Cleveland’s prospects, let’s see who raised their stock the most in 2017.

Eric Haase

Haase works out pitchers during minor league Spring Training in Goodyear, Arizona 2016. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
Postion: Catcher
Age: 24
2017 level: AA, AAA (2 games)

Haase was largely an afterthought in Cleveland’s organization until this season. Originally a 7th-round pick in 2011, he failed to generate much buzz, despite posting above-average offensive seasons in every year except 2016. Haase never appeared on any top-30 lists, and was was named as an “other of note” in Kiley McDaniel’s 2015 evaluation of Cleveland’s system. When he struggled in AA as a 23-year-old in 2016 with a .208/.265/.438 slash line, it was easy for many to write him off.

However, the Detroit-native had a breakout year in 2017, by maximizing his biggest asset – his power – and improving on one of his biggest weaknesses – his plate discipline.

Haase has launched 27 home runs this season, while playing his home games in a park that historically suppresses power. In an interview with Mike Hattery, Haase attributed his power increase to a emphasis on hitting more fly balls. Additionally, Haase’s 2017 walk rate of 11.6% is two points higher than any rate he had previously posted as a professional.

Haase will never hit for a high average, due to his high strikeout rate (30.5% this season). In the middle of a career season, he’s only hitting .255. However, his power (.316 ISO) and aforementioned strong walk rate give him a rock-solid overall offensive profile. When factoring in his strong receiving ability and a career 32% caught-stealing rate, it’s clear Haase has elevated himself from an also-ran prospect to a likely MLB player.

Willi Castro

Castro plays second during the AZL Indians 2014 championship run. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
Postion: Shortstop
Age: 20
2017 level: High-A

Until this season, Castro had appeared on many top prospect lists without much to support for his hype. According to FanGraphs, Castro was Cleveland’s #17 prospect entering 2017, while at MLB.com, he was ranked #14. The Dominican-Born shortstop was given praise across the board, despite posting wRC+ marks of 84 (Rookie League), 89 (short-season), and 90 (Low-A) in his first three professional seasons.

Something clicked for Castro in 2017, and he followed the same path as Eric Haase – he increased his walk rate and his power. After posting a shockingly low 3.4% walk rate in his first three pro seasons, Castro bumped his walk rate to a more-tolerable 5.6% this season. Meanwhile, he hit 11 home runs in 120 games this season, after hitting 10 in his first 236 games as a pro. As a result, Castro is slashing .289/.337/.426 this year, good for a 115 wRC+. Surely, part of Castro’s improved play is coming from natural growth – at 20, he’s still very young for a prospect. As he matures, he’ll likely add even more power, given his 6’1 frame.

More than anything, 2017 was a validation – and then some – of the player scouts saw in Castro: a projectable, switch-hitting, contact-orientated hitter, with above-average speed and defense at shortstop. If that profile sounds familiar, it’s because Castro’s profile is similar to how Francisco Lindor was viewed as a prospect.

While Castro is more Lindor-lite than Lindor, there is no doubt of his upside, and with more seasons like 2017, he’ll quickly emerge as a top-five prospect in the system.

Bobby Bradley

Bradley Bats during MiLB Spring Training. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
Postion: First base
Age: 21
2017 level: AA

Like Castro, Bradley’s inclusion on this list comes from his season cementing his status as a legitimate prospect. Bradley has received plenty of praise for his minor league resume to date, and has universally been considered one of Cleveland’s ten best prospects ever since his monster 2015 season with Lake County, posting a 153 wRC+ and 27 home runs as a 19-year-old.

However, as well-known as Bradley’s power was, he had well-documented issues with contact ability and defense. In 2017, he demonstrated a marked improvement in both areas. Concerns over contact originated in 2015, where he struck out in 31.8% of plate appearances with Lake County. Even though he lowered that mark to 29.7% in 2016, it wasn’t enough to completely convince scouts. However, upon jumping to AA this season – considered to be the most challenging level for prospects – Bradley cut his strikeout rate a sizable 6.8%, while still hitting 23 home runs and walking in 10.3% of plate appearances. With such a large improvement, scouts need not worry about strikeouts holding him back going forward.

Meanwhile – Bradley also demonstrated real growth on defense in 2017. Coming into this year, Bradley was regarded as a question mark (at best) with his glove. The metrics certainly didn’t like Bradley, based on Clay Davenport pegging Bradley as 10 runs below average at 1B last season. However, Davenport saw a huge turnaround in 2017 for Bradley, marking him as 6 runs above average. While defensive metrics are always noisy, a 16 run swing shows some level of improvement, and brings more upside to Bradley’s overall profile.

Shane Bieber

Position: Starting Pitcher
Age: 22
2017 level: Low-A, High-A, AA

Perhaps no pitcher in Cleveland’s system had a more encouraging season than Bieber. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, and only pitched 24 innings last year with Lake County. As a result, not a lot was known about Bieber’s true potential entering 2017. Generally, he was regarded as a low velocity strike-thrower, in the same vein as Josh Tomlin, and Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs described him as a future “up and down” MLB arm. However, 2017 saw Bieber increase his velocity, sitting between 90-94 mph (he previously was reported in the 88-90 mph range). Perhaps as a direct result, Bieber displayed more bat-missing ability than expected: between 173.1 innings in Lake County, Lynchburg, and Akron, Bieber averaged 8.4 K/9. All the while, he demonstrated his elite control, averaging an incredible 0.62 BB/9.

Another encouraging sign from Bieber was his ability to avoid home runs and induce ground balls. To date, he’s only allowed eight home runs in 197.1 professional innings (essentially the length of an entire MLB season), while his ground ball rate has generally sat around a near-elite level 50% (for context, only 20 qualified MLB pitchers have averaged a 48% ground ball rate or better in 2017).

Had Bieber put up these kind of results exclusively at Lake County and Lynchburg, excitement would need to tampered – it is common for college pitchers to dominate in the lower levels of the minors. However, upon promotion to Akron, his numbers largely looked the same (and according to ERA and FIP, were even better than his results in Lynchburg. No doubt, there are still questions about his secondary pitches – frequently described as fringe-average, but Bieber based on his 2017 performance, there are far more reasons for optimism than concern with Bieber, who now potentially profiles as a quality #4 MLB starter.