Columbus Clippers fans could be in for a treat this season at Huntington Park, as the roster features some exciting young players who are likely to find their way to the major leagues in the near future. Fans who follow the Indians’ minor league system know that its strength lies in the lower affiliates, by way of recent impressive international signings and strong amateur drafts. By contrast, recent AAA Clippers rosters have featured a lot of players that were more Crash Davis than Nuke LaLoosh. In other words, they were rosters full of career minor leaguers who played hard and had no real chance to make it to the majors. The winds have changed a bit this season, and while many of the Indians’ most promising prospects will be playing in the lower levels this season, the Clippers will also feature some exciting major league prospects who could help the team this season.
Let’s start with the outfield. Not long into spring training it became apparent that the Indians had too many upper level outfielders and not enough spots for everyone. The team opened the season with five outfielders, and the players left off of the major league roster should provide excitement for fans in Columbus as long as they remain in AAA. Most notably, spring training darling Oscar Mercado was optioned to AAA in favor of the under-performing Jordan Luplow. The Indians’ loss is the Clippers’ gain. Mercado is a fast and athletic right-handed center fielder who knocked the cover off the ball this spring. He plays an outstanding center field and steals a lot of bases. Although the Indians are in need of right-handed hitters, they sent Mercado to the minors claiming they want to get him everyday at-bats. This should mean that Mercado will be in the Clippers line-up almost everyday, and this will allow fans to watch him polish up his game to help the big league club when they inevitably come calling for outfield help.
Another outfielder who played well this spring but was left off the major league roster is Trayce Thompson. The brother of Golden State Warriors’ guard Klay Thompson, Trayce was once a prized prospect with the White Sox organization. Injuries threw him off track, including a broken back, but he appears to be healthy and impressed Terry Francona in spring training. Another right-handed bat, Thompson is a corner OF who could be called upon to help the Indians’ outfield situation this summer. Until that day comes, he and Mercado should provide the Clippers an athletic OF with some offensive pop.
The remaining OF’s on the roster are Brandon Barnes, Mike Papi, Carlos Gonzalez and Cameron Maybin. Gonzalez and Maybin are major league players who signed minor league deals with the Indians. Once they play enough to get into game shape, they will either move on to Cleveland or be let go to try and catch on with another major league club. The 32-year old Barnes is a career minor leaguer who made the AAA Eastern League All-Star Team last season, and will provide some power to the Clippers’ line-up. The Indians drafted the 26-year old Papi out of the University of Virginia in 2014, and he has not developed into the hitter they hoped he would become. Mercado and Thompson are the outfielders to watch here, with the hopes of getting some good at-bats from Gonzalez and Maybin for as long as they are in Columbus.
The Clippers’ infield features Burning River Baseball’s fifth and sixth ranked overall Indians prospects. Bobby Bradley (#5) will be manning first base for the Clippers this season. Bradley was promoted from AA Akron last season, and he hit .254/.323/.753 with 3 HR and 19 RBI in 32 AAA games. Bradley has serious power and he should delight fans by hitting a lot of balls out of Huntington Park this summer. Bradley is also a very good first baseman and he should continue to progress defensively this season. If Bradley cuts down on his strikeouts (he had 43 in those 32 games with the Clippers after whiffing 105 times in 97 games with Akron) he could force the Indians to give him a shot this season, especially if DH Hanley Ramirez fails to produce and the offense continues to sputter.
Number 6 overall prospect Yu Chang will team up with Bradley in the Clippers’ infield this season. Chang plays shortstop, third base, and second base, and will likely see time at all three positions. Chang has decent power – last season with the Clippers he hit .256/330/.411 with 13 HR and 62 RBI. It’s a little surprising that the Indians did not give Chang the opportunity to open the season with the big league team after Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis went down with injuries. Until the Indians come calling for middle infield help, Chang should hit in the middle of the Clippers’ line-up and continue to improve his defense.
Joining Bradley and Chang in the infield will be SS Mike Freeman and 2B Mark Mathias. Freeman is a 31-year old career minor leaguer who spent last season with the Cubs’ organization. Mathias, 24, will join the Clippers after spending the last two seasons in AA. Last year he hit .232./338/.370 with 8 HR for Akron. Mathias can hit for contact and draw walks, but he had more success earlier in his career with A-level ball than he did at AA. The Indians have some tremendous middle infield depth in their system, but most of it can be found in their lower affiliates.
As for the Clippers’ pitching staff, the starting rotation was going to once again be anchored by Adam Plutko. However, it was announced over the weekend that he suffered a right forearm strain and will be out for at least some time. Plutko could be at least a fifth starter on most big league rotation, but remains in AAA due to the Indians’ current depth in their starting rotation. If Plutko gets healthy and injury strikes the big league’s starting rotation, he will likely get the call.
In Plutko’s absence, Shao-Ching Chiang will anchor the rotation for the early part of the season. Chiang posted a 5-2 record with 10 quality starts and a 2.90 ERA with Akron before getting promoted to Columbus last season. Chiang’s stats with the Clippers were not eye-popping – he posted a 4-5 record with a 5.01 ERA in 13 games (11 starts). But Chiang has good control and had a 93/25 K/BB ratio between AA and AAA last season. Chiang throws four pitches, including a four-seam fastball that tops out at 96 mph, a changeup, curve and slider. Hopefully Clippers fans will watch him continue to improve this season, so he can eventually join a major league rotation – even if it’s not in Cleveland.
It will be interesting to see who else fills out the Clippers’ starting rotation, especially in Plutko’s absence. Candidates could include off-season acquisitions Chi-Wei Hu and Jefry Rodriguez. Both are starting pitchers who were being converted to relievers by their former teams (Tampa Bay and Washington, respectively) at the time they were traded. Their stuff may play better in the bullpen, so time will only tell how the Clippers’ starting rotation shakes out.
One candidate for both the starting rotation and the bullpen is Cody Anderson. Anderson is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and appears to be healthy. He was mostly a starter before his injury, but he had a 96-97 mph fastball and should provide help somewhere on a pitching staff as he works up his arm strength and stamina.
Other notable relievers on the Clippers’ staff include Henry Martinez, who’s fastball has been clocked at 100 mph; Nick Wittgren who has deceptive if not overpowering stuff and the mental makeup to succeed in late innings; Nick Goody who found success with the Indians’ bullpen in 2017 but was injured in 2018; and Ben Taylor, who showed real promise with AAA last year but the Indians have yet to give a real shot to at the major league level. There is likely to be a revolving door between Cleveland and Columbus’ bullpens this summer as Francona attempts to piece together a respectable bullpen behind closer Brad Hand.
Handling the pitching staff will be catcher Eric Haase. Haase is another player who could find his way to Cleveland this summer if the offensively challenged catching tandem of Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki do nothing more than provide a black hole at the bottom of the Indians’ batting order. Haase only hit .236 for the Clippers last season, but he also clubbed 20 HR, and he could provide enough offense to find his way onto the major league roster. Haase is also no slouch defensively. He caught two no-hitters for the Clippers last season – one for Plutko, the other for Shane Bieber – and the Indians seemingly felt confident enough in him to trade away prized prospect Francisco Mejia for Hand. This season in Columbus, Haase will handle a pitching staff which features several arms that could also find their way to Cleveland during the season. The other catchers on the roster are Dionar Navarro and Tim Federowicz, two veteran journeyman who are there simply to provide depth behind Haase.
This season fans can also look forward to some noteworthy rehab assignments from major league players. Lindor should do a stint with the Clippers as he works his way back from calf and ankle injuries. OF Bradley Zimmer is also making progress from shoulder surgery and appears to be ahead of schedule on what was thought to be a mid-season return to game action. Zimmer is an electric defensive outfielder, and pairing him with Mercado in the outfield will be fun to watch. The question for Zimmer is whether he can cut down on his strikeouts and make more contact with the ball. When he does make contact, Zimmer has good power and can wreak havoc on the base paths. Fans should get the better part of a season to watch him develop those contact skills in Columbus.
Overall, Clippers fans should have a chance to watch some promising major league prospects play together this season. The defense could shine, and there is speed at the top and bottom of the batting order. Bradley, Chang, and Haase should provide some pop in the middle of the order, and the pitching staff consists of a lot of arms that could shuffle to Cleveland and back over the course of the season. Unlike recent seasons where fans watched a lot of career minor leaguers, this team has some faces that will make their way to Cleveland sooner rather than later and will provide exciting baseball this summer in Columbus.