Every season, the writers at BurningRiverBaseball select the top Major League players in different categories like top defender, top relief pitcher and MVP and we will still be doing that as soon as the regular season ends. However, since we are primarily focused on the minor league aspect of the game now, it’s about time we introduce the minor league version. So, without further ado, here are some of the most impressive Cleveland Indians minor league performers of 2018!
First are the level by level Most Valuable Players. The reasoning behind these selections can be found in the end of season wrap up for each team, located in the link found by clicking on the level. While the Indians did have multiple teams in both the Dominican Summer League and Arizona Rookie League, only one player will be selected from each level.
Now it is time for the individual awards. These can be given to any player from any level regardless of MLB experience or origin with the team with the exception of the two rookie of the year awards which can only be given to a player in his first season.
Rookie of the Year (International) – Brayan Rocchio
Other Candidates: Alexfri Planez, Carlos Vargas, Jhonkensy Noel & Jose Tena
The Indians international rookies were crushed by injuries this year as both George Valera and Aaron Bracho had season ending arm/hand trouble before they could really get started. While Alexfri Planez did have a terrific season as a 16 year old in the DSL, this award has to go to 2017 international signing Brayan Rocchio.
Rocchio was the top defensive player on the AZL Indians 2, regularly making both routine and exemplary plays. Not afraid to get dirty, Rocchio had the range to play second and short and the arm strength to play third. He played all three positions in both the DSL and AZL this year, but was most astute at his primary position of short stop.
Offensively, Rocchio was just as unstoppable with a .335/.390/.442 line, 22 steals and just 31 strike outs in 60 games. If he was only the third best player in the 2017 international class, it will be one for the ages.
Rookie of the Year (Draft) – Richie Palacios
Other Candidates: Nick Sandlin, Adam Scott, Raymond Burgos (2016 draft) & Billy Wilson
Taken with the Indians’ third round pick in 2018, the 21 year old Palacios made brief stops in Goodyear and Mahoning Valley before settling down in Lake County. In the end, he would rank second among all Indians minor leaguers (150 PA minimum) in slugging percent with .548, behind only Miguel Jerez. His six home runs were also the most by an Indians farm hand with under 200 plate appearances except for Jerez and Billy Wilson, who were able to face the weaker pitching in Arizona for a full season.
Palacios was also a fine defender, used primarily at second base. He committed just five errors on the year, two of which happened while playing during his short stint in the difficult playing conditions of the Arizona League. In Lake County, he made just one error in 18 games and was able to continue his offensive prowess (albeit at a lower level), batting .300/.317/.415 in A ball and .361/.421/.538 for the season.
Fastest Mover – Nick Sandlin
Other Candidates: Richie Palacios, Shane Bieber, Adam Scott & Robert Broom
While this award doesn’t necessarily have to go to the player to move up the most levels in a season, this time it does as Nick Sandlin was drafted in the second round back in June, started in Arizona, skipped Mahoning Valley and jumped to the Captains during the last week of June. After dominating those hitters, he jumped to Lynchburg to begin August, then Akron on August 20th. To put this in perspective, the Indians have four players who have been with the team at least six years and ended the season in high A. Sandlin surpassed them in three months.
Looking at his numbers, you can see why the Indians were so apt to promote Sandlin at this speed. Excluding his time in Akron he struck out 29 batters in 19.1 innings while allowing 13 hits, 2 walks and three runs. He pitched at least an inning in every appearance until he allowed a walk off ground ball on August 8th after coming into a tie game with a runner on third and one out. He didn’t allow his first walk until two games later and has still allowed just three in his career and had just two appearances without a strike out prior to his promotion to Akron, one being the previously mentioned walk-off.
Most Improved Hitter – Jorma Rodriguez
Other Candidates: Jhon Torres, Anthony Miller, Miguel Jerez & Tyler Krieger
This category had quite a few qualified candidates who need to be commended before getting to the winner. First, Jhon Torres showed a little power last year in the DSL, but only showed hints of what he would become following his trade to St. Louis for Oscar Mercado (.329/.409/.525 between the AZL Indians and the Gulf League Cardinals). Next, Anthony Miller repeated at Lynchburg and went from 18 extra base hits to 25 with an increase in walk rate leading to improvements in all three slash stats. The already mentioned Miguel Jerez had two years of limited success under his belt in the DSL before winning the Arizona League MVP this season and setting a new franchise record with 14 home runs. Finally, after a terrible season that lasted much too long in 2017, Tyler Krieger seems to have found a home in the outfield and improved nearly every facet of his game in 2018.
That all being said, this award goes to Jorma Rodriguez. Rodriguez is one of those players mentioned before as being with the system for six years without making it to Akron and that was largely because prior to this year, he was a truly terrible hitter whose only value was in his versatility in the infield. This year he changed that, batting .278/.317/.345 between Lake County, Lynchburg and Akron. This followed a .205/.265/.292 line with the same three teams last year and earned him a chance to play in a career high 113 games. While Rodriguez is not a legitimate prospect with MLB aspirations, he deserves huge credit for this turn around.
Most Improved Pitcher – Kieran Lovegrove
Other Candidates: Justin Garza, Anderson Polanco, Kieran Lovegrove, Luis Oviedo & Mitch Brown
If you just look at ERA, Oviedo could be considered the most improved Indians pitcher, but his peripheral stats in Arizona showed that he was a significantly better pitcher than the ERA would state. Garza and Polanco also made big strides after coming off injuries, but the top true improvements came from two Akron relievers, Kieran Lovegrove and Mitch Brown.
Overall, I give the edge to Lovegrove who turned around his entire career by increasing his fastball velocity and, subsequently, his strike out rate. After four years of being a mid-low quality starter (2012-2015), injury issues pushed him into the bullpen in Lake County in 2016. He was a significantly better reliever than starter, but still hadn’t really clicked into becoming a legitimate prospect.
Lovegrove made that leap this year as he struck out a career best 66 in 59.1 innings, allowing just 6.2 H/9 and 0.3 HR/9. In Lynchburg, he walked just four batters to 25 strike outs, but once he reached Akron he struggled with his command and that number ballooned to 6.2. Eventually, he reached Columbus where he struck out three in three innings while allowing just a single hit and no walks.
Overall Relief Pitcher of the Year – Ben Krauth
Other Candidates: James Karinchak, Cole Sulser, Mitch Brown & Kyle Nelson
Ben Krauth lead all full time relievers this year in innings pitched, but he was no mop up man. He pitched more than one inning in 29 of his 39 appearances (maxing out at 3.2) and allowed an earned run in just nine appearances. His success comes from not allowing baserunners, both through a .196 average against (.312 BABIP) and a 3.3 BB/9. At the same time, he improved his strike out rate to 12.9, good for 6th in the Indians farm system among pitchers with at least 45 innings.
Krauth quickly advanced to Lynchburg by his second season, but the fact that he spent the entire season there with the exception of one game in Akron is confounding.
Overall Hitter of the Year – Tyler Freeman
Other Candidates: Nolan Jones, Brayan Rocchio, Miguel Jerez & Richie Palacios
An extreme proponent of the Indians top offensive seasons were in the lower levels this year and that could be evidence of improved drafting and hope for the future. Leading those hitters was the top hitter in the entire New York-Penn League in 2018, Tyler Freeman. He lead the league in average and slugging percent, coming in third in OBP as well. His aggressiveness at the plate lead to only 22 strike outs, although he walked just eight times as well.
Freeman had a great season last year as the top hitter on the AZL Indians and only improved as he doubled his games played this year. In addition to the offensive production, he stole 14 bases in 17 attempts giving him 19 in 24 in his career. He has also been a fine defensive short stop, but is even better at second base where he has played from time to time.
Overall Starting Pitcher of the Year – Eli Morgan
Other Candidates: Jean Carlos Mejia, Luis Oviedo, Shane Bieber & Sam Hentges
The Indians had so many great pitching performances that it’s impossible to recount them all here. Ultimately, the decision for Morgan as the organization’s top pitcher is due to his increased work load over Oviedo and Bieber while maintaining his success.
After starting the season with a 1.83 ERA through eight starts in Lake County, he was promoted to Lynchburg. Through his first nine starts there, he had a nearly identical line with a 2.06 ERA and 58 strike outs in 52.1 innings. While he struggled some after that, particularly on August 5th and 28th with 11 ER in 4 IP combined, he maintained his strike out and walk rates. He finished the year with a 3.27 ERA between the two levels, 2.1 BB/9 and 9.8 K/9, very similar numbers to his first season in Mahoning Valley when extrapolated over a full year’s work. His late season struggles could have had to do with pitching over 100 more innings than last year, but no matter the reason, his overall numbers speak for themselves.
Finally, we’ll end with an organizational All-Star team including the top player at each position and top three starters and relievers. These selections are based entirely on 2018 season production and have nothing to do with what a player may be capable of in the future.
Top Players By Position
C: Li-Jen Chu
1B: Jose Vicente
2B: Richie Palacios
3B: Nolan Jones
SS: Tyler Freeman
LF: Mitch Longo
CF: Alexfri Planez
RF: Connor Marabell
DH: Miguel Jerez
SP1: Eli Morgan
SP2: Luis Oviedo
SP3: Shane Bieber
BP1: James Karinchak
BP2: Kyle Nelson
BP3: Ben Krauth