The Captains finished just 60-79 this year, good for second to last overall in the eight team Midwestern League Eastern Division. This marks the Indians single A affiliate’s second straight season below the .500 mark despite the impressive showing by the 2017 Mahoning Valley Scrappers (who largely made up the 2018 Captains) and some helpful additions from the 2018 draft.
The Captains had the worst finish of all the Indians US minor league affiliates this year and were the only team completely out of the play-off race early on. Even so, there were plenty of impressive performances on the team including four hitters with at least 13 home runs and three pitchers with 100 or more strike outs.
To begin, we will only consider players who either ended the season with the Captains or played nearly the entire season there. Because of that, the trio of incredible pitchers Eli Morgan, James Karinchak and Kyle Nelson as well as 3B Nolan Jones will have to wait until Lynchburg is finished with the play-offs to get their well deserved recognition.
Instead, we need to credit Oscar Gonzalez for another great season. I’ve been downplaying Gonzalez’s success for a few years now based on flaws in his swing and his poor fielding, but he’s certainly fixed at least half of those problems. Gonzalez was the 2016 AZL MVP after he tied the franchise record with eight home runs, then he had another solid season in Mahoning Valley last year. Just when it looked like his wide strike zone would catch up to him against the more advanced pitchers in A ball (he hit .214/.238/.300 with 4 walks and 46 strike outs through his first 34 games), he made every adjustment he needed to and completely turned things around.
From May 17th on, Gonzalez hit .323/.339/.489 with ten home runs and 21 doubles. He still needs to walk more and still strikes out too much (in addition, 12 errors as an outfielder is atrocious), but he is becoming the type of hitter many expected Will Benson to be and he now has to be considered a legitimate Indians prospect.
Since he only made one regular season start for Lynchburg, Jean Carlos Mejia was the top pitcher for the Captains this year to stick around long enough to be considered with the Captains. The converted reliever made 17 starts this year after making just one during his previous 75 appearances. Despite being a closer in his former life, Mejia regularly went seven innings including consecutive 7 IP, 0 R, 10 K, 1 BB games in late July. Both his 1.9 BB/9 and 9.2 K/9 were considerably higher than his career averages and while his hit rate (8.2) and ERA (3.31) were a bit higher, that is to be expected with the change in roles.
The Captains bullpen was greatly bolstered by the 2018 draft, although not everyone stuck around very long. Both Adam Scott and Nick Sandlin came and went, but Robert Broom stuck around and struck out 30 batters in 23 innings. He pitched only briefly in Arizona before his promotion and skipped Mahoning Valley, yet still posted a 1.17 ERA, the best mark on the team of those pitchers who did not get promoted mid-season.
Another great asset from the 2018 draft was second baseman Richie Palacios. I covered Palacios at length earlier this season when he was initially promoted, but he went on to play 20 games for the Captains and was one of the Captains top hitters over that span.
While he is probably only under appreciated by those who love batting average, Will Benson hit 22 home runs this year for Lake County despite hitting .180. Benson saw dramatic drops in all three major rate stats compared to last year, but was able to set high marks in all his counting stats due to the increase in at bats. He has many of the same problems as Gonzalez, but is actually a very good defender with a very good arm and a steady baserunner. Unlike Gonzalez, he has not even slightly solved his K problem and he struck out 152 times in 506 plate appearances this year.
Todd Isaacs had similar batting average problems without the power (just 4 HR) or patience (17 walks compared to Benson’s 82) to make up for it. What Isaacs does have is incredible speed. He stole 30 bases this year in 36 attempts and committed just one error with 11 assists while being the Captains’ primary center fielder. If he sticks around, Isaacs may not have a future higher than bench outfielder, but he could be an extremely good one.
You might think Mejia or Kirk McCarty lead the Captains in K/9, but among pitchers with at least 40 IP, it was actually reliever Jonathan Teaney. Teaney had an ERA of 5.94 which makes him easy to look over, but his 12.9 K/9 is enough to pop some eyes. He was also good at limiting hits (.224 average against despite a .331 BABIP) and home runs, but had a weakness for walks. This improved greatly after a rough game against the South Bend Cubs on May 14th, after which he allowed 15 earned runs in his next 42.1 innings, struck out 59 and walked 29. While he’s not one of the Tribe’s elite relievers, he’s worth watching at the next level.
Nick Gallagher was drafted in 2017, but didn’t make his professional debut until extended spring training in 2018. He jumped straight from there to the Captains in late April and bounced between being a long reliever and a starter, averaging three innings per appearance. His season numbers aren’t beautiful (4.00 ERA, 6 home runs allowed), but 14 of his earned runs came in just three appearances (he allowed 9 ER in the other 15) and in one start he allowed seven unearned runs in the first two innings as his defense failed him. Considering this was his first season, this has to be considered a great success and he should be a huge sleeper from the 2017 draft for the Tribe.
Cause for Concern
Jonathan Laureano was promoted at the last moment to give Akron some catching depth, but I still question his value to the franchise. He wasn’t a good defender at third and has been moved primarily to catcher, although he played 1B, 2B, 3B and LF for the Captains this year. It has to be hard to hit when you are getting such irregular playing time all over the field, but he still doesn’t reach base or hit for enough power (.220/.262/.325 career line) to be of interest to me anywhere.
When Ulysses Cantu was first drafted, I thought the Indians had picked up another Giovanny Urshela, but they immediately moved him from third to first. He wasn’t even a great defender at first and this year he committed nine errors dropping his career fielding percent to .986. Now a full-time 1B/DH, he hit just .173/.263/.325, a line that wouldn’t stand up at any position, but looks pitiful at first. If this was his first time under-producing, it would be a worry, but since it’s his third time, we can consider it reality.
The rest of the players who are on a strong down turn really hurt me as they were all prospects that I have been hyping over the last few years. First, Gabriel Mejia simply can’t stay healthy.
He played in extended spring due to injuries, then Mahoning Valley and Lake County, but participated in just 47 regulation games overall, his fifth straight season with fewer than 75 games played. To make things worse, after stealing 140 bases in his first three seasons (194 games), he has just 25 over his last two seasons. At the same time, his success rate has dropped (78% over his first 3 seasons, 68% in the last two). He was always a high average player, taking advantage of his speed with a low launch angle approach, but without that speed, his ability to reach base has essentially disappeared. Given his low level, advanced age and length of time in the system, he is a non-tender candidate.
Finally, we have the pair of pitchers who made more starts for Lake County this year than anyone else, Francisco Perez and Juan Hillman. They have a lot more in common than just being the two primary starters in A ball. They are both lefties who don’t have significant velocity, were born in 1997, had a K/9 around 7.5, a BB/9 around 3.5 and an FIP around 4.00. Both were also considered top pitching prospects for the Tribe heading into this season.
Both pitchers had their ERAs damaged early on thanks to rough starts, for Perez a nine run outing on May 1st and for Hillman, three starts with five or more earned runs allowed before May 20th, but ERA was never the prime reason for worry. These are both command pitchers with good breaking stuff and if they can’t improve both their strike out and walk rates, they won’t be able to succeed even at single A. Both had points of dominance this year (particularly Perez who had five games with at least six innings pitched and no runs allowed), but neither will find sustained success unless improvements are made.
As an addendum, Brady Aiken was officially added to the Lake County roster late in the season despite never playing a game there. He spent the year in Arizona, but didn’t play there either. While he may return to the system at some point, the odds are in favor of him becoming one of the biggest busts in Indians history.
Most Power: Oscar Gonzalez
Best Bat: Nolan Jones
Best Wheels: Todd Isaacs
Best Glove: Todd Isaacs
Best Arm: Todd Isaacs
Worst Glove: Miguel Eladio (SS)
Best Control: Jean Carlos Mejia
Best Stuff: Jonathan Teaney
Most Likely to be an MLB Pitcher: Jean Carlos Mejia
Most Likely to be an MLB Hitter: Nolan Jones