As we head into spring training and the thought of a new season and a very different Indians roster it’s a great time to look at the newest of the new, those rookies who are most likely to debut in 2019. With so much changing due to trades and a somewhat large free agent exodus, there could be quite a few young players who will make a significant mark on the team. Players are in order of likelihood of making their debut and potential impact.
Ranked in the Indians top ten prospects in each of the last three seasons by Burning River Baseball, Chang finally appears to be heading to Cleveland after a successful run in Columbus during the 2018 season and the Arizona Fall League after. Formerly a full time short stop, Chang has been working out at both third and second base to increase his versatility for the Indians, who have no need for a short stop at the present time.
While Chang has earned a chance at the majors on his own, the biggest change between this season and last is that both Yandy Diaz (Tampa Bay) and Erik Gonzalez (Pittsburgh) have been traded, so their lack of options will no longer keep the power hitting infielder down. Chang is on the 40 man roster and should get significant playing time in MLB camp this spring. There is a chance he could break camp with the team as a utility man or stay in AAA to start the season, but eventually he will be in the big leagues this year and he hits well enough that he should eventually be a starter.
When the Indians signed Yonder Alonso to a multi year deal prior to the 2018 season, one of the biggest negative aspects was the worry that he would keep the Indians greatest power hitting prospect down. That is no longer a problem as Alonso has been traded to the White Sox and Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle. While Carlos Santana is back and Jake Bauers is now with the team as well, they are both more versatile than the Indians previous 1B/DH duo and it would be possible to get them both on the field at the same time while still saving space for Bradley as the DH.
Bradley has hit between 23 and 29 home runs in each of his four full MiLB seasons after setting a new AZL Indians record with eight in 39 games in his first year in short season. Bradley is an incredible athlete with a good glove and decent speed. He’s only 22, but has fully proven himself in AA and could very well be a mid-season call-up for the Tribe if he can do the same in AAA early on.
The Indians picked up Mercado mid-season in 2018 for two high ceiling outfield prospects, Conner Capel and Jhon Torres. Selling the future to pay for today, Mercado is years ahead of that pair in development and played the entirety of the 2018 season in AAA. Mercado’s greatest asset is his speed and he has stolen 196 bases in 596 minor league games.
Although he came from the other team in Missouri, Mercado seems to fit the mold of many of the Royals players in that he has little power and is very aggressive at the plate, rarely walking or striking out. Ultimately, he is likely to peak as a fourth outfielder/pinch runner, similar to what the Indians currently have in Greg Allen. However, considering how poor the Indians outfield defense was last season and the fact that Bradley Zimmer will be out for the first half of the season, Mercado not only has a good chance of making the team out of camp, but of playing regularly early on in the season.
As rough as the Indians outfield situation is, there is no position with more turmoil than the bullpen where the losses of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller through free agency could be devastating. There is a large group of minor league relievers and starters who could potentially fill in the gaps, but the player with the best combination of MLB readiness and extremely high ceiling is Martinez.
Known to hit triple digits on the radar gun, Martinez jumped all the way from Lynchburg to Columbus last year, striking out 9.9 per nine across all levels. While his numbers in AAA weren’t particularly dominating, it was a very small sample size and he has proven over the past five seasons that he can adapt and improve at every level. He won’t likely break camp with the team, but should be considered as one of the first call-ups and ultimately is on a short list of potential future closers already within the system.
Originally a 25th round pick in 2015, Marabell has done nothing but blow away expectations at every opportunity. A doubles machine, he has a great line drive stroke with moderate power behind it. His quick bat and aggressive nature at the plate help to limit strike outs and he was particularly impressive in the 2018 AFL against elite opponents. Marabell is similar defensively (great arm, not great range) and on the bases to Lonnie Chisenhall, giving them an in house replacement for the right fielder who signed with Pittsburgh early in the off-season.
Marabell is not on the 40 man roster yet, something that could impede his MLB aspirations in 2019, but he should at minimum be a September call-up if he is not needed at an earlier time.
Let’s get a little wacky. When the Indians drafted Sandlin in the second round in 2018 there was immediate speculation that the side-arming righty could be in the Majors by the end of the season. Of course, that goes completely against everything the Indians have done over the last 20 years, but he did make it up to AA Akron and struck out 12 times as many batters as he walked during his 24 innings.
A promotion for such a new player (at 22, he isn’t exactly a young prospect) wouldn’t be precedent setting as Cody Allen and Kyle Crockett took similar paths, but it would still be completely out of the ordinary for Cleveland. Don’t expect him to even play much in MLB camp let alone make the team out of spring training, but if the bullpen is a wholesale mess like it was in 2018, Sandlin could be one of the first options to really shake things up.
This is a case where a player deserves a shot, but could very well not get one despite providing consistent performances over the span of a seven year minor league career. Chiang is a ground ball specialist that isn’t going to blow anyone away, but could easily be a back end of the rotation innings eater for many Major League teams or a Dan Otero style reliever used to force a double play to get out of a tight spot. Chiang’s problem is that the Indians are still incredibly stacked at starting pitcher despite losing a few depth options over the last year.
Ahead of Chiang sit Cody Anderson and Adam Plutko, who are in a much stickier position considering options. That doesn’t even get into the fact that the Indians have five MLB starters who each could be aces on nearly any other team in baseball. The Indians extreme depth at the position could eventually force a trade of some of those mid-level pitchers that could either include Chiang or clear space for him to be an injury replacement option.
While Martinez and Sandlin are potential top end relievers, Angulo is more a mid-level option who the Indians may feel more comfortable playing around with considering options and service time. He’ll fit right in with an incredible amount of strike outs, but walks too many to place too much faith. He’s been with the team for five years, but hasn’t played a significant time above AA. This means he’ll likely start 2019 with the Clippers, but I expect him to debut in the big leagues between the middle of 2019 and 2020.
There isn’t a great chance Papi will get called up in 2019, but it could be now or never for the 2014 first round CBA pick. The corner OF/1B had the greatest of hype prior to entering the organization, but has disappointed with his power and is now coming off his second lackluster season in Columbus. He has been invited to MLB spring training and will likely be included in the list of players competing for a corner outfield spot, but is unlikely to win one. He remains a decent depth option for a bench injury replacement because he can play left, right and first well enough.
This one is a bit out there, but there is a case to be made that the Indians top pitching prospect could debut in 2018. The argument against him at this point is essentially that the Indians don’t need him right now and wouldn’t want to waste his service time when he could be the staff ace for the next 5-7 years. While he is only 21 and hasn’t pitched above Akron, I’ve seen him enough to attest for his great maturity and incredible ability in both hitting his spots and making his pitches move. I would argue that he could fit right in the middle of the Indians rotation right now if promoted to start the season.
As we’ve seen many times in the past, however, ability isn’t always enough. To get McKenzie into the big leagues this year it would likely take the Indians offense being so poor that they had to deal one of their top 5 starters to get a true slugger. Even then, they could choose to go to Chiang or one of the other AAA options mentioned earlier, so it would likely take a desperate situation to get McKenzie into the big leagues. In any event, he should be up by 2020 as the Indians will need to prepare for the looming free agencies of Trevor Bauer in 2021 and Corey Kluber in 2022 if neither are traded before that time.