No team was more volatile in terms of roster composition than the Hillcats in the Indians farm system this year as nearly all of the top performers in the first half were moved to Akron to be replaced with the top performers from Lake County. This ultimately lead to a mediocre season as a team (62-73 overall, fourth of five teams in the Carolina League North), but one with plenty of spectacular individual performances. This was the first time in the last seven years that Lynchburg has missed the play-offs, a streak that extends to when they were a Braves affiliate.
This was a huge season for the slugger Oscar Gonzalez as he built upon his success in Lake County in 2018 and improved at a significantly more difficult level. He increased his walk rate to his best since his rookie season in 2015 and decreased his strike out rate to an all time low. At the same time, he finished second on the team in home runs (8) and doubles (22) while finishing first in RBI (61, tied with Gavin Collins) despite spending the last month of the season in Akron. He was first in average and slugging percent as well, hitting .319/.342/.455. While his defense and base running still leave something to be desired, they were vastly improved as well and no longer detract from his positive value provided at the plate.
The Indians draft class of 2018 has been promoted at an unprecedented rate (at least for Cleveland) and many of them had outstanding seasons for the Hillcats this year. Steven Kwan was one of the three players considered for MVP (along with Nolan Jones) after hitting .280/.353/.382 as a center fielder. He played in just 17 games last year, but still didn’t stumble after completely skipping Lake County.
Also part of the 2018 draft was Adam Scott, who transitioned from a relief role in 2018 to starter in 2019 and also made the leap to begin the season in high A. Scott pitched just 34 innings with the Indians last year after playing a full college season with Wofford, yet had no problem blowing past the 100 inning mark this year. He was promoted mid-season to Akron and had similar numbers there, finishing the year with a combined 3.73 ERA, 10.0 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 through 26 starts and 132.2 innings.
The final member of that 2018 crew deserving of mention here was reliever Aaron Pinto. Pinto started the season in Lake County, but posted nearly identical numbers in Lynchburg, finishing out the season with a 1.57 ERA, 9.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 through 74.1 between both clubs.
Two of the big movers this year on the Hillcats could very well be the Indians number one and two position prospects heading into next season. Nolan Jones started the season with Lynchburg and used his extreme mastery of the strike zone to walk 65 times in 75 games, leading to a .435 OBP. He didn’t hit for much power and his defense at third remains extremely suspect, but there is no questioning that Jones is a professional hitter who will be a big leaguer one way or another.
As Jones moved up, so did Tyler Freeman. The short stop jumped from Lake County to Lynchburg and continued to hit as he always has. Taking few walks and striking out rarely, Freeman hit .319/.354/.397 following his promotion as one of the youngest players in the Carolina League. In addition to his offense, Freeman is an extremely proficient defender at short and second and a good base stealer (8 in 9 attempts in Lynchburg, 38 in 47 career attempts).
Finally, we need to credit a pair of relievers, Yapson Gomez, Jonathan Teaney. Gomez was released by the Cubs last year having never reached AA, but was amazing for the Hillcats with a 2.27 ERA and 9.4 K/9. He allowed few hits and fewer walks and continued this success following his late season promotion to Akron.
Teaney has been with the Indians longer (since 2017), but didn’t really stick out until this year. After walking nearly eight batters per nine innings in Lake County last year, he dropped that number to under six and his ERA fell from nearly six to 2.77. He still has a long way to go, but made great strides in improving the worst aspect of his game.
We have been espousing praise towards Kirk McCarty for years here at BurningRiverBaseball, so his 5.66 ERA could be seen as a surprise, but don’t worry. This ERA came with a .424 BABIP and his FIP was just 2.55. The left handed starter struck out 9.7 in high A with a 2.6 BB/9, both in line with his career averages. Only his extremely high hit rate was out of line with his norms, so I fully expect him to return back to normal next season.
Like McCarty, Cody Morris started the season in Lake County, then saw his numbers dip in high A. Also like him, he had a high BABIP (.390) and much worse ERA (5.52) than FIP (3.95). Morris is in his first season with Cleveland after missing 2018 with injury and has one of the best fastballs in the system.
Mitch Reeves spent about half his season in Lake County and half in Lynchburg, hitting better at the higher level. A pure singles hitter, Reeves still managed to slug over .400 despite hitting just two home runs at this level. He is a good defender at 1B and, with little competition, one of the Tribe’s top prospects at that position.
Cause for Concern
Jodd Carter lead all Hillcats with 11 home runs, but posted a slugging percent under .400 due to lack of overall hits. He has been in Lynchburg since 2017 and hasn’t improved significantly since then. While he spent 20 games in Akron last year, he played the entirety of 2019 in Lynchburg.
Will Benson also had a surprisingly low slugging percent after his promotion after making the All-Star team for the Captains. He played nearly equally with both teams and incredibly hit 18 home runs in Lake County in the same amount of at bats that he hit four in Lynchburg. He ended the season on an extremely cold spell, batting .169/.247/.215 over his final 18 games. He should start next season in Lynchburg and we’ll see if he simply takes awhile to adjust to a new level as he made a tremendous improvement in his second season in A ball.
With 119 innings pitched, Justin Garza has finally pitched a full season for Cleveland, although it wasn’t as positive as he may hoped. He finished his second season in Lynchburg with a 4.99 ERA, 8.2 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9. He has a few more years of team control after beginning his career with a really rough start due to injuries, but appears to be fully healthy now and needs to turn things around quickly.
Anderson Polanco just finished his ninth season with the Indians, already hitting free agency and returning to the franchise. This could be the end, however, as he is again a free agent at the end of the year and finished the season on the IL in Akron. In his third season in Lynchburg he had a 4.40 ERA and walked nearly six per nine innings. His 10.0 K/9 was right in line with his career numbers, but he will turn 27 next week, so he should be dominating the kids in high A. I would say now is the time to move on from Polanco, but that time was probably two years ago.
There are a lot of things I like about Luke Wakamatsu. He’s a great athlete and stole seven bases in seven attempts this year. He’s one of the better defensive short stops in the Indians system as well. However, he has now hit .168/.253/.270 across 153 games and two season in Lynchburg. With Marcos Gonzalez and Richie Palacios coming back from injuries that cost them all of 2019 and others looking good up the middle, like Jose Fermin, Jesse Berardi and Raynel Delgado, there doesn’t appear to be room in Lynchburg for Waka in 2020 and he certainly isn’t ready for Akron.
Most Power: Oscar Gonzalez
Best Bat: Nolan Jones
Best Wheels: Steven Kwan
Best Glove: Tyler Freeman
Best Arm (Field): Mike Rivera
Best Control: Kirk McCarty
Best Stuff: Adam Scott
Most Likely to be an MLB Hitter: Nolan Jones
Most Likely to be an MLB Pitcher: Adam Scott