It was always going to be hard for Akron to top their 2016 campaign, where they featured the likes of Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, along with winning their first Eastern League Championship since 2012. While the 2017 version of the RubberDucks stacked up well in the prospect department with Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Bobby Bradley, Yu-Cheng Chang, and others, winning was much more of a struggle. The Ducks finished 69-71, ending the season three games back of a potential playoff birth. A 2-13 stretch in late August was almost surely what sunk Akron’s chances of returning to the Eastern League postseason.
While the entire baseball world focused on Francisco Mejia, the other catcher on Akron’s roster outplayed him. Haase played 95 games with Akron to Mejia’s 92, and put up a team-best 150 wRC+ (to Mejia’s 127). Meanwhile, Haase’s work as a receiver and game caller consistently get stronger reviews than Mejia’s. To boot, Haase threw out 8% more attempted base-stealers than Mejia, despite the latter’s 70-grade arm. All things considered, Haase had arguably the best season of any of Cleveland’s prospects. His farm-system best 27 home runs – playing half his games in a pitcher’s park – demonstrated Haase’s elite power. At 24, he isn’t a young prospect, and 2017 was his second season at AA, but considering his production this season, Haase surely played his way into Cleveland’s plans for the not-so-distant future.
At just 21, Mejia was one of the Eastern League’s top hitters, and the rest of the baseball world took notice. After an incredible 2016 campaign where he slashed .342/.382/.514 between Lake County (A) and Lynchburg (High-A), Mejia made his AA debut in Akron by hitting .297/.346/.490, at age 21. While that production was unbalanced – in his first 47 games, he posted an incredible 1.011 OPS, but only could manage a .652 OPS in his final 45 – his year was still a huge success overall. Mejia isn’t a finished product by means, as along with the aforementioned consistency issues, he needs polishing on offense. Still, that doesn’t take away from the big picture – Cleveland certainly saw enough from Mejia to promote him the MLB last week, and Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs ranked Mejia as the 10th best prospect in baseball last month.
Chang had an effective, albeit highly unusual 2017 campaign for a shortstop prospect. He finished the season with a solid 110 wRC+, but he was only above-average on the season due to excellent power. He batted just .220 with a .312 on-base percentage, but hit 24 home runs, 24 doubles, and 5 triples, good for a .461 slugging percentage. Chang’s .220 batting average would be of more concern if it wasn’t for his somewhat low .254 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but having regularly posted BABIPs around .300 in the past, we know Chang was probably a bit unlucky last season. While Chang’s 2017 strikeout rate was bordering on concerning at 26.4%, he still retains an encouraging overall offensive profile. While scouts have questioned his defense at short (and have suggested a move to 3B), Clay Davenport’s minor league database pegged Chang as 12 runs above average at shortstop – and encouraging development for the 22-year-old.
Bradley didn’t put up some the eye-popping offensive numbers he had in his previous minor league seasons, but the recently-turned 21-year-old had a very encouraging season nonetheless. Bradley finished 2017 with a .251/.331/.465 slash line, with 23 home runs. The most important aspect of the year for Bradley was his 22.9% strikeout rate, down almost 7% from his 2016 mark. The biggest question for Bradley has always been his contact ability, and cutting his strikeout rate so much, at such a young age, while jumping a level helps to answer that question. Now, his walk rate also dipped around 3% from last season, which brought down his overall production, but at 10.3%, it was still strong. His defense, previously criticized heavily by scouts, was strong according to Clay Davenport’s minor league database, saying Bradley was six runs above average. With his strikeout rate down and his defense up, Bradley’s 2017 was a clear success.
Drafted in the 4th round just last year, Bieber was still a big uncertainty entering the 2017 season. Now that the season is over, all Cleveland fans should know about Bieber, who is now arguably Cleveland’s second-best pitching prospect behind Triston McKenzie. Coming out of college, Bieber was known as an excellent strike-thrower, and he demonstrated that this year. In 9 starts with Akron, Bieber pitched 54.1 innings, and walked just 5 hitters. What was unexpected was Bieber’s solid bat missing ability (8.12 K/9) and excellent ability to avoid home runs (4.7% HR/FB). All things considered, Bieber pitched like a star in AA, with a 2.32 ERA and an even better 2.18 FIP. Considering reports that Bieber gained velocity this season, there is a lot to like about the UC Santa Barbara product.
Hill was one of two relief pitchers who put up big results without much fanfare. Originally a 2014 draft pick in the 17th round, Hill was arguably Akron’s most dependable arm in the bullpen. He didn’t put up high strikeout totals (7.22 K/9), but he did generate a ton of infield fly balls – roughly 1 in 5 batted balls against Hill were popped up in 2017. He also limited walks (2.31 BB/9), and as a result, put up a strong 3.18 ERA on the year, and converted 13 of 15 save attempts.
Originally a starting pitcher and a high-profile signing out of Cuba, Linares needed a switch to the bullpen in order to find some success. Linares has always had good stuff, sitting 91-94 with a plus curveball and a average to above-average changeup, but command has been an issue. 2017 was a picture of Linares profile – his stuff generated 10 strikeouts per nine innings, but he also walked nearly six per nine. Despite the walks, the results were good – Linares pitched 33 innings in relief for Akron, and managed a strong 3.78 ERA with a better 3.68 FIP. As long as he keeps missing bats and limiting runs, Linares will be an intriguing prospect.
Cause for Concern
Kaminsky’s story may be well known by now: a former first round pick and borderline top-100 prospect who came to Cleveland in 2015 when the Indians traded Brandon Moss to St. Louis. Ever since the trade, Kaminsky has struggled, and he missed nearly all of 2017 with an injury to his throwing arm. The Indians have been very quiet about what exactly is wrong with Kaminsky, and have only reported that he’s been rehabbing in Arizona. Whatever the case is, missing an entire season with an injury to your pitching arm is bad enough, but considering the last we saw of Kaminsky he was barely striking out six hitters per nine innings, it looks like his days as a legitimate prospect are numbered.
A 4th round pick from 2014, Kriger had some serious momentum as a prospect after putting up a 118 wRC+ in High-A last year, and subsequently shining in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. However, a rough 2017 campaign with Akron brought any hype around Krieger to a halt. In 119 games this season, Krieger – always a bat-first player – was only good for a 77 wRC+. To make matters worse, his struggles seemingly didn’t relate to injury. Instead, it seems the jump to AA was just too much for him. He’ll get another shot next year, but will also be 24 win the season starts – meaning he doesn’t have a ton of time to get his prospect trajectory back on track.
Most Power: Eric Haase
Best Bat: Francisco Mejia
Best Wheels: Greg Allen
Best Arm: Francisco Mejia
Worst Glove: Dorssys Paulino
Best Control: Shane Bieber
Best Stuff: Leandro Linares
Most Likely MLB Pitcher: Shane Bieber
Most Likely MLB Hitter: Francisco Mejia