2017 was a disappointment for the Columbus Clippers. After reaching the International League playoffs in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the Clippers finished the 2017 campaign with an even 71-71 record, falling eight games back of winning their division, and nine from a Wild Card birth. For the first time in years, there were no top prospects sitting in AAA for most of the season waiting to get their MLB shot – the closest thing was Bradley Zimmer, who was called up in May after just 33 games with Columbus. Instead, the Clippers were full of players who have regularly bounced between AAA and the MLB, like Ryan Merritt, Shawn Armstrong, Yandy Diaz, Giovanny Urshela, and Tyler Naquin.
The story behind Diaz – and his biceps – have been well documented. He’s a 26-year-old Cuban who has an incredibly intriguing offensive profile, featuring lots of hard contact and excellent plate discipline. His status as a future major league player depends on if he can reduce his 60% ground ball rate. Luckily for the Clippers, it hasn’t been as much as an issue at AAA, where shifting is much less prominent. All Diaz did in his 85 games with the Clippers was slash .350/.454/.460, good for an .914 OPS, which was nearly 80 points higher than the next closest Clipper who played in at least 80 games. All the while, Diaz was playing solid defense at 3B, with Clay Davenport pegging him at one run above average in his 39 starts at the hot corner for the Clippers. Between an elite bat and a solid glove, Diaz was no doubt Columbus’ best player in 2017.
While you won’t find this author advocating for Naquin as a potential MLB mainstay, he does deserve credit for turning in an excellent season at AAA. His .833 OPS was 2nd among Columbus’ mainstays (behind Diaz), and his 21.5% strikeout rate was encouraging, considering his 30.7% mark in his time with Cleveland during 2016. Naquin’s future with the Indians remains very unclear, he remains a decent corner outfield depth option for the team should anything go awry.
Rodriguez came through the minor leagues at the same time as Francisco Lindor and Erik Gonzalez, both of whom have now reached the majors. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, due to their presence, there isn’t much of a place for him in Cleveland, despite putting together a quality offensive season while playing all across the diamond. Rodriguez finished the season with a .291/.324/.454 slash line, while starting games at 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, CF, and RF. The knock on him will always be his inability to walk (his measly 4.8% BB rate in 2017 was his second-best ever as a professional), but that didn’t hold back Erik Gonzalez – and Rodriguez offers more power potential. Ronny-Rod may get an MLB opportunity one day, but for now, he’ll be forced to keep waiting for his chance.
Merritt certainly should be a familiar name for many Tribe fans, after his ALCS heroics last season. Despite that famed performance, Merritt found himself back in AAA for most of this season, where he was (perhaps unsurprisingly) the Clippers’ best pitcher. Merritt pitched 116 innings across 18 starts, and posted a 3.03 best ERA of any regular Clipper starter. Nothing about Merritt is sexy – he sits in the mid to high 80’s, but he limits his walks (1.94 BB/9), and as he has done with Cleveland, consistently finds ways to retire hitters.
If the minor league season would have ended in June, Stamets would have undoubtedly been Columbus’ MVP. Through June 30, Stamets – always lauded as an elite-level defensive shortstop – was slashing an incredible .291/.356/.561, thanks in large part to a change in his hitting approach and launch angle. A rough July (.599 OPS) really impacted Stamets numbers for the year, but he rebounded with a .751 OPS in August. Overall, Stamets showed his bat can have some life, and considering his defensive acumen (7 runs above average at SS in 2017, according to Clay Davenport), he may yet get an MLB opportunity.
Many Tribe fans likely have never heard of Sulser, but he turned in one of the best seasons for any of the relievers in Cleveland’s system. In 48 innings with the Clippers, he struck out a very strong 59 hitters, although he also issued 26 non-intentional walks. As a result, his WHIP was higher than you’d like at 1.52, but he still managed an excellent 2.63 ERA on the year. While at 27 he isn’t much of a prospect, if he can continue to miss bats the way he did in 2017, he could be a useful MLB option.
Cause for Concern
Merryweather arguably has the best stuff of any Cleveland prospect in the upper minors – he sits 92-95, with an above-average curveball and changeup – but has had a difficult time putting everything together. In Columbus this year, he went just 3-7 with a bloated 6.28 ERA. Turning 26 next month, his prospect clock is ticking, so a year with poor results is a concern. However, there are some positives to be found in Merryweather’s peripherals – first of all, his 8.77 K/9 and 2.88 BB/9 were both solid, if unspectacular. Secondly, opponents ran an unsustainable .388 BABIP on Merryweather, while also hitting a higher-than-normal 16% of their fly balls for home runs. His xFIP of 3.89 supports the idea that he pitched much better than his ERA, so there is room for hope with Merryweather – but until the results come on the field, he’ll have a hard time reaching the majors.
Most Power: Richie Shaffer
Best Bat: Yandy Diaz
Best Wheels: Ronny Rodriguez
Best Arm: Tyler Naquin
Best Glove: Eric Stamets
Worst Glove: Tyler Naquin
Best Control: Ryan Merritt
Best Stuff: Julian Merryweather
Most Likely MLB Pitcher: Julian Merryweather
Most Likely MLB Hitter: Yandy Diaz