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Top 10 Cleveland Indians MiLB RP of 2016

It’s incredibly difficult to judge relievers in the minors for the same reasons they can be judge in the Majors (limited innings can make one poor appearance look much worse than it actually is) and some others, like the fact that there are a lot more ways to get minor leaguers to swing and miss. A reliever can be dominant in the minors with decent control and one pitch that might be hittable at a higher level.

Specifically making the list of the top ten Indians relief prospects harder was the fact that the near unanimous #1 and #2 pitchers, Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen were traded to New York for Andrew Miller. With them gone, there aren’t 10 obvious answers and the voting for this list reflected that as 15 different players received votes and in all, but the top three pitchers on the list, those votes varied wildly.

10. Louis Head – RHP – Age: 26
Drafted Round 18 in 2012
Current & Highest Level: AA Akron 

By Caitlin Boron

This RHP started off his professional career with the highest of ceilings. His ability to get a higher number of strikeouts from the pen, and repertoire of pitches caught the eye of the Tribe while he was at Texas State University. Because of this, many writers and fans that followed him into his progression to AA figured he would reach the majors in no time, at least hitting AAA by the end of 2014. Since then though, Head has sat in Akron, not going up or down, but still creating quite the resume for himself in the Cleveland system.

This season, Head has a 1-2 record in 58.1 innings pitched, and 48 strikeouts. When Akron’s closing stud Ben Heller was promoted to AAA Columbus, Head took on the role of filling his cleats, and has done well thus far. He doesn’t throw the same level of heat, but can get the strikeouts that every team needs their closer to do.

I expect Head to make it to Columbus in the near future, if not starting there at the beginning of the 2017 season. His arm could be an asset to the Indians bullpen, as I see him as a “Tito Specialty” in that he can go out, and get the job done whenever called upon, and add to the Tribe’s running belief of never having enough good pitching.

9. Kieran Lovegrove – RHP – Age: 22 
Drafted Round 3 in 2012
Current & Highest Level: A Lake County

By Caitlin Boron

The 2016 season has been much kinder to Lovegrove than all his other seasons in the Indians farm system. The biggest difference would be his move from the starting role to the bullpen, but also that this is his first season since being drafted without having to deal with a hip injury; receiving his last surgery in September 2015. The “new” relief arm had set the goal early on this year to walk as few batters as possible, with 19 walks in 43.1 innings (44% BB/IP), and has done that compared to having 54 walks in 90.2 IP ( 59% walks per innings pitched) between 2014 and 2015.

He has found a groove in the later innings of a ballgame, and his confidence and command have risen because of it. A year ago, the outlook for Lovegrove was bleak, and many wondered what the future held for the young flamethrower in Cleveland’s minor leagues. Since then, he has come back with a vengeance, ready to do the job he loves and push to the next level. If Lovegrove continues to improve, I could see him getting to high-A at some point next season. He has a solid arm able to hit his mark now better than ever, along with a mindset that a fan wants in their players. Add the attitude of someone who knows exactly what they want to the mix and you have a pitcher everyone wants to see.

Lovegrove winds up during a 2013 Arizona Rookie League game. - Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
Lovegrove winds up during a 2013 Arizona Rookie League game. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

8. Michael Letkewicz – RHP – Age: 22
Drafted Round 23 in 2016
Current Level: SS Mahoning Valley

By Caitlin Boron

Mike Letkewicz is new to the Cleveland Indians farm fam. He was drafted this season, 2016, in the 23rd round, and sent to Mahoning Valley. In his first professional season as a Scrapper, Letkewicz has taken off from the pen. He leads the short season team in wins (5-0), and is 4th in ERA with 20+ IP (1.26), and opposing average (.220). He has pitched 28 innings over the course of 14 games, and has given up only 4 earned runs (4 total runs), zero home runs, walked 13, and has struck out 17.

Letkewicz was drafted out of his senior year from Augustana College in South Dakota, where other Cleveland draft picks like Jack Goihl and Jordan Milbrath also came from. He has a lot of promise, and appears to be a player the Indians can build around if he continues this trend of dominance on the mound. With Mahoning Valley having a better year than they have had in a while, he is part of that talent and stability that has helped turn them from a dismal 6th place team, into a squad showing off some bared teeth.

7. Josh Martin – RHP – Age: 26
Drafted Round 10 in 2012
Current & Highest Level: AAA Columbus

By Justin Lada

Martin is one of the more physically imposing pitchers (and prospects, now that Clint Frazier isn’t one of them) in the Indians system. At 6’5″, 230 lbs and with strong, big hands, Martin has everything you’d want from a late inning reliever type. His fastball typically sits around 92-94 abut has been up to 95-96 before. His curve ball has been his go-to out pitch but he also throws what he calls a “cut-slider.” The Indians left him unprotected from the 40 man roster in the 2015 off-season and the San Diego Padres selected him in the Rule 5 draft but ultimately returned him to the Indians.

He’s fanned 50 in 53.2 innings for Columbus this year amid a few hiccups along the way. His command is slightly better than fellow relief prospect Shawn Armstrong but lacks the finish on his fastball and life like now-former and traded Indians farmhand relievers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. Martin looks like a guy who could handle the 6th or 7th inning as long as he locates his fastball, as it can be straight at times. At worst, he’s Zach McAllister with a better breaking ball, and the Indians seem to be in love with McAllister.

6. Jeff Johnson – RHP – Age: 26
Drafted Round 10 in 2011
Current & Highest Level: AAA Columbus 

By Gavin Potter

Tommy John surgery in 2014 caused Johnson’s professional career to be put on hold, but the 26 year old has done everything in his power to overcome the setback the injury caused him. Despite age, health, and stature (at just six feet tall) not being on Johnson’s side, he has produced in the past two seasons. Between Akron (2015) and Columbus (2016), Johnson has struck out 104 batters in 97.2 innings, while posting an impressive 1.84 ERA. Further, he is used to pitching successfully in high-leverage situations, having converted 53 saves in 63 career opportunities. No doubt, Johnson has the stuff to one-day pitch in the majors, so long as he stays healthy and can avoid walking too many hitters (3.3 career BB/9).

5. Perci Garner –  RHP – Age: 27 
Drafted Round 2 in 2012 (PHI) 2015 MiLB Free Agent
Current & Highest Level: AAA Columbus

By Gavin Potter

A 2nd round pick in 2010 by the Phillies, few expected Garner to be pitching in AAA in 2016. He was originally lauded as having a fastball that sat between 93-95 mph to go along with a power curveball that had scouts drooling. However, injuries and command issues (4.6 career BB/9) never allowed Garner to live up to his potential. After he was released by Philadelphia in 2015, Cleveland signed him, which provided Garner a fresh start. The results have mostly been promising. Garner has only allowed 14 earned runs in 71 innings pitched this season between Akron and Columbus and has struck out 8 batters per nine innings. Further, his control has been better than ever, posting a 2.25 BB/9. While at 27, Garner’s upside is limited, he could one day reach the majors in his production remains as strong as it has been in 2016.

Perci Garner goes through his wind-up in the Scorpions bullpen. - Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball.com
Perci Garner goes through his wind-up in the Scorpions bullpen. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

4. Billy Strode – LHP – Age: 24
Drafted Round 10 in 2015

Current & Highest Level: A+ Lynchburg
By Justin Lada

Strode often sits 89-92 on his fastball and in the mid-90’s with his breaking ball. He stuck out over 12 per 9 IP in his senior year at Florida State as the closer, allowing just seven runs in 35 innings. In 2016, Strode has actually pitched more and fared better against right handers (1.64 ERA in 11 IP vs RHH and a 2.35 ERA in 7.2 IP vs LHH). Out of the draft, command was something Strode needed to improve, but he’s walked just 11 hitters in 70 innings. His stuff should play as a match-up lefty in a 6th inning type role and maybe a bit better if the Indians can help him find another tick or two on the fastball and his command sharpens.

3. Ben Krauth – LHP – Age: 22
Drafted Round 16 in 2016

Current & Highest Level: SS Mahoning Valley
By Joseph Coblitz

At 22 years old and college educated, Krauth was an odd choice to start in the AZL, but he wouldn’t remain there long as he was promoted to Mahoning Valley after just a month and a 0.00 ERA in 14 innings. Since that promotion, he has maintained that perfect ERA and overall has struck out 29 in 20.2 innings. At 6’0″ 180 pounds, Krauth is small for a reliever and he doesn’t throw hard either, hitting the upper 80’s with his fastball.

At both levels, Krauth has been used not as a match-up man, but as a multi-inning reliever and it is uncertain what his future will be with the team. Without a legitimate breaking pitch, it’s hard to imagine him pitching multiple innings in any game, but his fast-change combo has been very effective to this point against both right handers and left handers (his average against has been below .200 vs each at both levels). Hopefully, his multi-inning appearances will help him prove himself quickly and possibly jump multiple levels in 2017.

Krauth looks for the sign while pitching in a 2016 AZL Game at Goodyear Ballpark. - Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball
Krauth looks for the sign while pitching in a 2016 AZL Game at Goodyear Ballpark. – Joseph Coblitz, BurningRiverBaseball

2. David Speer – LHP – Age: 23
Drafted Round 27 in 2014
Current Level: A+ Lynchburg – Highest Level: AAA Columbus
By Justin Lada

The 6’1″ lefty was a unanimous Ivy League Pitcher of the year at Columbia University where he also earned a degree in Economics. His fastball sits 87-90 and a slider in the low 80s. He’s able to get by without much velocity because of his command of both pitches, pretty good guile and idea how to pitch. He was actually a starter in college and had a 12 strikeout game. As a pro, he has 164 strikeouts in 166.1 innings. At Advanced-A Lynchburg, left handers only have 11 hits in 18 innings and he has 21 strikeouts. He owns a 3.00 ERA vs. right handed hitters and, combined with his velocity, Speer looks like a prime candidate to be a match-up lefty. With his ability, he could be a pretty solid one possibly moving fast like Kyle Crockett.

1. Cameron Hill – RHP – Age: 22
Drafted Round 17 in 2014
Current Level: AA Akron – Highest Level: AAA Columbus
By Gavin Potter

A 17th round pick in 2014, Hill may have been overlooked as a professional prospect, as he is listed as just 6’1, which is viewed as relatively small for right-handed pitchers. However, Hill has always found a way to miss bats. In 57.1 innings as a sophomore at Redlands Community College, he struck out 62 hitters. His swing-and-miss stuff has remained in his professional career, as he averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine inning at Lake County in 2015, and 9.2 strikeouts per nine this year in Lynchburg. His FIP in Lynchburg this year was also very impressive at 2.94, which represents the overall success that led to him being recently promoted to Akron. At just 22, Hill has plenty of upside, and should he experience the type of success in Akron as he did in Lynchburg, he could be fast-tracked to the MLB.

Also Receiving Votes: Cesar Ventura, Matt Whitehouse, Casey Weathers, Christian Meister, Jonas Wyatt