Continuing on with Burning River Baseball’s look at the Cleveland Indians top prospects, we reach #7 overall with the #3 starting pitcher and best left handed starter in the system, Sam Hentges.
Drafted out of high school in 2014, Hentges is now 22 years old and had the honor of both being added to the 40 man roster and invited to MLB spring training for the first time during this off-season. While the MLB invite doesn’t necessarily mean much (expect him to head back to minor league camp in early March), the 40 man addition starts off Hentges’ option clock meaning he will likely see time in the big leagues within the next couple years.
Since his rookie year with the Arizona League Indians in 2014, Hentges has been both the hardest throwing and one of the youngest pitchers on each of his teams. He has perennially had a k/9 above 10.0, maxing out at 12.0 in 2017 although this was on a rehab assignment.
There is no question that injuries have been a significant draw back on his career so far, but incredibly, it hasn’t slowed down his progress significantly. He had the worst season of his career in 2016 with Lake County when he posted a 6.12 ERA in 60.1 innings heading into Tommy John surgery that would cost him most of 2017 as well. This was a fairly quick turnaround for Tommy John, but it still meant that through his first four seasons, he had thrown just 159.2 official innings (this doesn’t count the many innings pitched in extended spring, instructs and unofficial rehab work) with just those 60+ at A ball or above.
For many pitchers, this would merit another season in A, but despite being two years younger than the average advanced A player, Hentges made his Lynchburg debut on April 4th, 2018 as the Hillcats’ ace. Starting things off slowly, he only went four innings in his debut, but didn’t allow a run, then went six in each of his next two starts, allowing just one earned run in his first 16 innings. The final of these three games may have been the best of his young career as he struck out ten in six shut out innings.
Things slowed down a bit for Hentges as he was unable to maintain this near perfection throughout the entire season, although he did pitch back to back six plus inning shut outs again in June. While one would expect him to take a hit while pitching his first 100 inning season, he was actually better in the second half with a 2.69 ERA, .231/.324/.319 line and 67 over 63.1 innings from June 11th on.
While his results never dipped due to over use, Hentges definitely felt the increase in innings and he was shut down on August 20th due to left shoulder soreness. This ended his season, but shouldn’t be considered a serious injury. The simple fact that he went from 91 total innings between 2016 and 2017 to 118.1 in 2018 should have been fairly predictive for such an injury to occur. Hentges incredible strength and determination can be clearly seen here as he was able to face a new level against much older competition and simply dominate for as long as he did.
With his first full post-Tommy John season behind him, Hentges should be even more confident heading into 2019. He will likely start for Akron, where he will again be much younger than the competition. AA has long been considered the true testing ground for the Major Leagues and, by attending MLB camp, Hentges should get a head start on his competition.
While Hentges did a lot in 2018 to separate himself from the rest of the Indians MiLB starters, he will have to continue to show off as the Indians currently have a pile up of mid-level starting pitching talent between AA and AAA. Because of this large group of starters, expect Hentges to mostly pitch in relief in MLB spring games, but to return to the starting rotation once the Rubberducks’ season starts.
Once there, it may take him some time to reach AAA as the Indians MLB rotation is already set and Triston McKenzie, Shao-Ching Chiang, Michael Peoples, Aaron Civale and Sean Brady all have a strong claim to a AAA spot. There are also a couple strong starters that should be joining him in Akron in Eli Morgan and his fellow 40 man addition, Jean Carlos Mejia.
For the present, this shouldn’t hurt Hentges. If anything, it should clarify his goals for the 2018 season as reaching the Majors isn’t a real possibility. Instead, he should try to dominate AA as he did A+ last year and work on increasing his innings work load to closer to MLB expectations (maybe 150-160 IP). If he does that, reaching the big leagues in 2020 would become a very real possibility.
We will certainly revisit Hentges in the future again before this happens, but while I predict that he will be MLB ready in 2020, it doesn’t mean the Indians will have an opening. With the current rotation locked down long term (especially Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger) and an extremely high end starter in McKenzie due to come up shortly, it could be difficult for Hentges to fit. In that case, there are two possibilities for an early debut. First, the Indians could fulfill those rumors that have been circulating all winter by trading a starter.
If that doesn’t happen, Hentges may have to force his way into things the way Bieber did in 2018. Having seen him pitch plenty in person and seeing his dominance in Lynchburg when recovering from injury last year, I have complete confidence that he could do just that.