Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Indians Prospect Countdown: #20-16

Photo Credit: Fred Robelo
20. Grant Hockin, RHP
DOB: 3/5/1996
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 200 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in the 2014 MLB draft
2014 stats: 0-0 with a 3.86 ERA, 19 K and 4 BB in 21 IP for the Rookie League Arizona Indians

Scouting Report: The Indians selected Hockin in the 2nd round of last year’s draft, and was their 4th overall selection. He was the 61st pick in the draft out of Damien High School in California, and signed for an over-slot $1.1 million bonus, breaking his commitment to pitch for UCLA. Hockin has rich baseball bloodlines, as he is the grandson of MLB Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. While Killebrew was a slugging OF/corner INF, Hockin is a big, strong starting pitching prospect. His senior year in high school, Hocking posted a 1.49 ERA with 99 K and 17 BB in 80 innings of work. He carried that over to the rookie-level Arizona Indians, racking up 19 K and just 4 BB in 21 innings as a professional.

Hockin has a four-pitch repertoire that he delivers from a high ¾ arm slot, throwing a two-seam fastball, slider, changeup and a curveball. The fastball sits in the 89-91 MPH range and has touched 93. It has nice arm-side run, and scouts agree that Hockin will pick up a couple of ticks on his fastball as he adds strength to his 6’4” frame. His slider is above-average and projects as a potential plus pitch. It’s a hard, biting offering that sits in the low to mid-80’s. His changeup is his third pitch, and it has nice action down and away from right-handed hitters, almost like a splitter. Hockin’s curveball is just a show pitch at this point, and scouts have speculated that he may scrap the curve entirely in favor of his other three offerings.

Hockin is a good athlete with a projectable frame and a nice feel for pitching considering his age and experience level. He’s a long ways away from the major leagues, and still has to improve his command and control while refining his secondary offerings. He’s going to play the entire 2015 season as a 19 year old, and will remain in extended spring training at least until the short-season New York-Penn League opens in June. If he shows progress in Arizona before then, he could be a member of the Scrappers rotation. But there’s a good chance that he spends all of 2015 in Arizona and then makes his full-season debut in Lake County in 2016. He’s an intriguing arm with a lot of upside, but it’s going to be a while before the Indians really know what they have with Hockin.

Glass half-full: A potential #2/3 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: A backend starter or bullpen arm

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
19. Cody Anderson, RHP
DOB: 9/14/1990
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 220 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 14th round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 stats: 4-11 with a 5.44 ERA, 81 K and 45 BB in 125 2/3 IP for AA Akron

Scouting Report: Anderson was the Indians minor league pitcher of the year in 2013 after he posted a sterling 2.34 ERA and a 3.16 K/BB ratio in 23 starts for high-A Carolina as a 22-year old. Promoted to AA Akron for the 2014 season, Anderson couldn’t repeat his success in the more hitter-friendly Eastern League, more than doubling his ERA to 5.44 and winning just 4 of his 25 starts. Anderson missed fewer bats and walked more hitters, gave up more hits, and allowed more HR, all in nearly the same amount of innings he had thrown in 2014. It was a step back in every way, and it’ll be interesting to see how the now-24 year old bounces back in 2015.

Anderson throws a sinking fastball that sits in the low-90’s with a little arm-side run, and can touch 95. When he’s locating it down in the zone, he uses it to induce weak contact and a lot of groundouts. He lost command of the fastball last year, leaving the ball up in the zone and hittable. He’s never going to be a big strikeout guy, as he doesn’t have the arm to reach back and throw his fastball by hitters. If he’s not able to keep it  down, he’s going to get hit hard. Anderson also throws a slider, curveball and changeup. The slider is his best secondary pitch, showing nice tilt and depth. It’s the closest thing he has to a true swing-and-miss offering, but he can’t afford to throw it outside of the zone when he’s behind in the count. His curveball is a nice change of pace offering that can change the eye level on hitters, but is still inconsistent and can sometimes flatten out, getting loose and slurvy. The changeup lags behind his other pitches, and he tends to telegraph the pitch with his arm speed. It lacks deception at this stage of his development, and will have to improve if he wants it to be a legitimate fourth option.

Anderson struggled on the mound last year for basically the first time in his life. He’s been a command and control guy who induced soft contact, but last year his fastball command deserted him, and everything went downhill from there. Falling behind hitters early in the count forced Anderson to throw his fastball up in the zone, and he got hit hard as a result. He allowed 17 HR in 125 innings after giving up just 16 bombs in 239 innings from 2012-13. If the issue is mechanical with Anderson, hopefully he and the Indians pitching coaches can identify and fix it before the 2015 regular season. He has the size and the stuff to be an innings-eating #3/4 pitcher in a major league rotation, but he’s not going to get there unless he can regain his command. He’ll be 24 this year and a member of the Columbus Clippers rotation this year, and needs to prove that 2014 was just a blip on the radar and not a trend moving forward.

Glass half-full: A solid but unspectacular back-end starter
Glass half-empty: A #5 or a swingman out of the bullpen

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
18. Carlos Moncrief, OF
DOB: 11/3/1988
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 220 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 14th round pick in the 2008 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .271/.328/.431 with 12 HR and 63 RBI in 132 games with AAA Columbus

Scouting Report: The converted pitcher has himself on the cusp of the major leagues after a solid season with AAA Columbus last year. Moncrief posted a solid but unspectacular .759 OPS for the Clippers, and that marked the first season since his move to the outfield that Moncrief didn’t improve on his OPS from the previous year. He also stole a career-low 8 bases (in a career-low 11 attempts), suggesting that speed may not be a big part of his game at the next level. His walk-rate dropped and strikeout-rate jumped, and his .328 OBP represented a career-low in a full-season league.

At the plate, Moncrief has above-average raw power and an average hit tool. The power won’t play in game to the level it does in batting practice, but he has enough pop to project 15-20 HR in a full season’s worth of at-bats. He’s made remarkable progress as a hitter since moving off the mound in 2010, going from a ~.230 hitter in 2010/11 to a .270 hitter in 2013/14. He hits lefties almost as well as righties, putting up a .740 OPS against same-siders and a .770 OPS against righties last year. He’s a patient hitter with a solid approach, and does a nice job waiting on his pitch and not chasing outside the zone. He’s at his best when he’s sitting back and taking the ball to all fields, but generates most of his power from the RF gap to the foul pole. 

One aspect of Moncrief’s game that did not regress in 2014 was his defense, as he recorded a career-high 22 outfield assists in 129 games in the Clippers’ outfield. As you’d expect from a converted pitcher, Moncrief has a plus arm in the outfield, showing impressive power and carry. It’s a weapon in the OF, and the arm plus his above-average speed makes Moncrief an ideal RF. He’s racked up 18 or more OF assists in every season since 2011, showing that minor league advanced-scouting lags far behind its major league cousin, as runners just haven’t learned not to test him quite yet. He’s a solid defender in an outfield corner, but doesn’t really have the chops to handle CF on more than a fill-in basis.

Moncrief’s developmental arc is pretty much complete. He’ll play the 2015 season as a 26-year old, 
and has always been a little old for his level owing to the two lost seasons that he spent on the pitcher’s mound. Moncrief has more or less reached a plateau; I don’t see him making major strides at the plate at this point in his career. He’s ready to play in Cleveland if the need arises, but is behind James Ramsey in the AAA OF pecking order. Moncrief could be a decent short-term option, but doesn’t look like he’s ever going to be a consistent starter at the major league level.

Glass half-full: A solid 4th OF
Glass half-empty: A career AAA guy with an occasional cup of coffee in the show

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
17. Eric Haase, C
DOB: 12/18/1992
Height/Weight: 5’10”, 180 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 7th round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .255/.338/.514 with 17 HR and 48 RBI in 93 games between low-A Lake County and High-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Selected in the 7th round of the 2011 draft, the man who was named Michigan’s “Mr. Baseball” as a high school senior was wooed away from his commitment to The Ohio State University with an over-slot $580,000 signing bonus. Haase has moved slowly through the system, repeating low-A Lake County for much of the 2014 season. He popped 16 HR in 77 games with the Captains last year, posting a .852 OPS. He was called up to the high-A Carolina Mudcats to finish out the season, and struggled to the tune of a .535 OPS in 16 Carolina League games.

At the plate, Haase has above-average power and an average hit tool. His opposite-field power in particular is impressive for a player with his experience, something that Haase says came from pitchers trying to work around him when he was in high school. Haase had to learn to hit the ball where it was pitched, because it was a rare occurrence for him to see something on the inner half as a prep player in Michigan. He has quick, strong hands and can let the ball travel deep into the hitting zone before deciding whether or not to swing, and does a nice job staying inside the baseball and using all fields. He’s a career .254 hitter in 950 minor league plate appearances, with a .456 SLG (34 HR). If he can continue to refine and improve his hit tool, his raw power will play at a higher level and Haase could be a solid offensive performer.

Defensively, Haase has the tools to be a solid catcher. He has good feet and moves well behind the plate. He allowed 20 passed balls in 755 chances last year, an improvement on the 12 PB in 582 chances in 2013. His caught stealing % went down in 2014, as he threw out 35 of 116 would-be basestealers (30%), down from 36 % in 2013. His pop times are pretty consistently in the 2.0-2.2 second range, and needs to get that more towards 1.8-2.0. His arm is plenty strong enough to get down to that range, he just has to continue to refine and clean up his actions and footwork in order to shave those precious tenths of a second off of his throws to 2B.

Haase struggled in his Carolina League debut last year, but 16 games is hardly a large enough sample size to make a legitimate judgment. He’ll start off back in Lynchburg in 2015, and as a 22-year old catcher is still on schedule for his rise through the organization. Catchers tend to develop more slowly than other positions around the diamond, and Haase is going to be a level at a time guy throughout his career. He’s a better prospect than his numbers indicate, and one of those guys in the organization that I’m probably higher on than most.

Glass half-full: An offense-oriented starting catcher
Glass half-empty: An offense-oriented backup catcher

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
16. Dylan Baker, RHP
DOB: 4/6/1992
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 215 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 5th round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 3-3 with a 4.05 ERA, 28 K and 18 BB in 46 2/3 IP for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Baker got off to a hot start in 2014, throwing six perfect innings in his first outing of the season on April 8. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for that game in Frederick, and Baker was (as you’d expect) extremely impressive. He had all three of his pitches working, was spotting the ball extremely well throughout the strike zone, and had the Keys hitters flailing at his breaking ball. I came away from that game extremely impressed with the young righthander, and fully expected that he’d move up to Akron before the end of the season. Unfortunately, Baker broke his right ankle before his next start and didn’t appear in another full-season game until July 21 when he made it back to Carolina. It was a wasted summer for Baker, but he was at least able to get back on the mound for the last month+ of the season, and then got some innings in with the Arizona Fall League in an attempt to make up for lost time.

When he is on the mound, Baker throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. The fastball sits consistently between 91-94, and can touch 97. The pitch has nice natural sink to it, and Baker uses it more to induce weak contact than as a true swing-and-miss offering. He does occasionally like to change the eye-level on a hitter and pump a high fastball by him after setting him up with fastballs down in the zone early in the count. His primary secondary offering is the power curve, a pitch that is still a little inconsistent but can flash plus. It’s a sharp offering with nice two-plane break, and I’ve seen it make a couple of hitters look awfully foolish. It can also get loose and slurvy, hanging up in the zone and hittable. In addition to the curveball, Baker is developing a changeup that’s a work in progress and not yet a reliable offering. The development of that third pitch is make or break Baker as a starter. He won’t be able to pitch deep into games without it, even if he does have two above-average to plus offerings in the fastball and curveball.

Right now, Baker needs innings more than anything else. He turns 23 two days before the minor league season opens, and because of the injury last year he’s thrown fewer than 200 professional innings outside of the complex league. There should still be plenty of life left in his arm, as he didn’t exactly wear it down in while in high school up in Juneau, Alaska. Innings will help Baker improve his secondary offerings, and the Indians are going to keep him in the rotation until he proves he can’t make it there. If he continues to improve and refine the curveball and (especially) the changeup, Baker could turn into a solid middle of the rotation starter. If not, he could be an effective two-pitch pitcher out of a major league bullpen. Either way, it’ll be good to see Baker back healthy and on the mound again. He’ll likely open back in high-A with Lynchburg, but expect him to see time with AA Akron no later than July.

Glass half-full: A solid #3/4 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: A two-pitch late inning reliever

Monday, March 02, 2015

Indians Prospect Countdown: #25-21

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
25. Shawn Morimando, LHP
DOB: 11/20/1992
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 195 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: 19th round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 10-9 with a 3.31 ERA, 108 K and 52 BB in 152 1/3 IP between high-A Carolina and AA Akron

Scouting Report: Morimando pitched all of 2013 with high-A Carolina, going 8-13 with a 3.73 ERA, 102 K and 76 BB. Command was an issue for Morimando, as he was unable to pitch deep into games owing to the walks and associated high pitch counts. Morimando went down to instructs following the 2013 season with one goal; improve his command so he could limit those walks. The Indians staff worked with him to identify an issue in which Morimando would fall off to the side of the mound in his follow-through, effecting his ability to command his fastball to both sides of the plate and making his delivery less repeatable than it otherwise could be. Morimando worked to fix that flaw, and it was reflected in his 2014 performance. Back in Carolina to start the year, Morimando went 8-3 in 18 starts with an even 3.00 ERA. More importantly, he cut his walk rate dramatically, issuing just 35 free passes in 96 innings of work. Promoted to AA Akron for good in July, Morimando went 2-6 with a 3.83 ERA in 10 Eastern League starts, walking 17 and racking up 38 K in 56 1/3 IP. Morimando’s K/BB rate jumped from 1.34 in 2013 to 2.08 in 2014 despite his overall K rate falling, as he learned to pitch more effectively in the zone and limit the damage caused by all the walks.

Morimando throws a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. The fastball sits between 89-92 MPH and can touch 94. It has nice arm-side run and sink from his ¾ delivery, and he uses it early in the count to both sides of the plate. The slider is his best secondary offering, as it sits in the mid-80’s and looks like the fastball coming out of his hand. It has sharp, late life across the zone, and it’s Morimando’s out pitch, particularly against southpaws. His curveball is still a little loose, but projects as at least an average pitch. His changeup has nice fade down and out of the zone, but he can get into trouble if it stays up. It’s a deep arsenal that should allow Morimando to turn over a lineup several times and pitch deep into games, as he can vary his sequencing to give hitters different looks each time up.

Morimando is a good athlete with a feel for pitching. He did a much better job in 2014 trusting his stuff and getting ahead of hitters early in the count. Being able to trust his fastball location and spot it to both sides of the plate was a big step for him. He’s going to pitch the entire 2015 season as a 22-year old, and is ahead of the developmental curve having already pitched over 50 innings in AA. He’ll likely be back in Akron to begin the 2015 season, and depending on how things shake out in front of him, could be in line for a AAA look before the year is up. He doesn’t have front of the rotation potential, but could be a valuable innings-eating lefty even as a #4.   

Glass half-full: A solid back of the rotation starter
Glass half-empty: A swingman out of the bullpen

24. Sean Brady, LHP
DOB: 6/9/1994
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: 5th round pick in the 2013 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 2-5 with a 3.18 ERA, 46 K and 29 BB in 73 2/3 IP between short-season Mahoning Valley and low-A Lake County

Scouting Report: Selected in the 5th round out of a Florida high school, Brady turned down a scholarship to the University of Florida and signed with the Indians in 2013 for a over-slot $800,000 bonus. The almost-Gator made an impressive but brief pro debut in 2013, striking out just under a batter per inning in the complex leagues and posting a 1.97 ERA in 30 IP. Brady was held in extended spring training last year and assigned to the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers in June. He made 14 starts for the Scrappers, going 2-4 with a 2.97 ERA in 71 IP. His strikeout rate fell off last year, as Brady punched out just 44 hitters in the NYPL, good for a 5.6 K/9 rate. Brady was bumped up to low-A Lake County for his final start of the season on September 1, and got lit up by the Dayton Dragons. He took the loss, allowing 6 runs (4 ER) in just 2 2/3’s IP. It was a solid season for the 20-year old southpaw, and he’ll be looking to build on that success here in 2015.

Brady throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. The fastball sits in the low-90’s, touching as high as 94. It has nice arm-side run, as Brady works from a ¾ arm slot. He does a nice job spotting the pitch to both sides of the plate, and works well in the strike zone to induce weak contact. He compliments the fastball with a changeup and curve, both pitches that project to be at least average at the next level. The curveball already flashes plus, with nice, tight break. It can get a little loose at times, and it’s one thing Brady is working on as he moves up the minor league ladder. Brady’s changeup has nice fade, and should give him a legitimate third offering and remain in the starting rotation for the long haul.

Brady is a good athlete and has clean, repeatable mechanics on the mound. His command is one of his greatest strengths right now, and being able to spot his pitches helps him get by without an overpowering fastball. One issue for Brady moving forward is his platoon splits; righties had a .724 OPS against him in 2014, as opposed to just a .615 OPS against left-handed hitters. I’d like to see Brady add a cutter to his arsenal, as it would give him another weapon to attack righties. Brady should open the season in the rotation for the Lake County Captains, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’s been able to add some strength to his frame this offseason. If he can pick up a tick or two on his fastball, he could be 10-15 spots higher on this list come next year.

Glass half-full: A back of the rotation starter
Glass half-empty: A versatile swing lefty out of the bullpen

Photo Credit: Baseball America
23. Willi Castro, INF
DOB: 4/24/1997
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 165 lb.
Bats/Throws: Switch/Right
Acquired: International free agent signed in 2014
2014 Stats: .239/.258/.348 with 2 HR and 11 RBI in 43 games with the Rookie League Arizona Indians

Scouting Report: Castro signed with the Indians in 2013 out of the Dominican Republic. The Indians gave the then-16 year old an $825,000 bonus, making him their 2nd highest-paid international signing in that class. Castro is extremely raw right now, as you’d expect for a player who would normally be complaining about having to take Calculus his senior year of high school. But Castro was born outside the US and Puerto Rico, so instead of worrying about prom, he’s worrying about 95 MPH fastballs in spring training.

Castro has a nice collection of tools, including a short, compact swing from both sides of the plate. He has surprising present pop for his size and age, and that should continue to mature as he adds strength to his 6’1” frame. The Indians challenged him with an assignment to the Arizona League last year, a league that typically features mostly recent college and high school draftees. Castro held his own, recording 10 XBH and stealing 9 bases in 13 attempts. His approach is predictably raw, as he walked just 6 times against 33 strikeouts. Castro is going to be challenged with the advanced offspeed stuff that he’s starting to see, and is going to have to improve on his fastball-hungry approach. The sooner he can recognize and track spin, the sooner he’ll be able to move up the organizational ladder to a full-season league.

Castro is a very good athlete with a slick glove. He projects well to SS right now, but could eventually grow off the position depending on how much bulk he adds. He has excellent present range and an average arm, and if he does eventually have to move off of SS he should have no problem at 2B or 3B. He’s a good instinctual fielder with clean actions in the infield. Castro appeared in 29 games at 2B and 15 at SS last year in the complex leagues, committing a total of 9 errors.
Castro should open 2015 back in extended spring training, but there’s a chance the Indians move him to Mahoning Valley when the New York-Penn League starts up in June. It’d be an aggressive assignment, but he does turn 18 in April. Castro has more room between his current and future tools than anyone else on this list, and it’ll be interesting to see where he is physically in 2015.

Glass half-full: He’s 17. Give it a couple of years
Glass half-empty: Seriously, he’s 17. Ask me again in 2017.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
22. Shawn Armstrong, RHP
DOB: 09/11/1990
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 210 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 18th round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 6-2 with a 2.41 ERA, 15 saves, 72 K and 22 BB in 56 innings of work between AA Akron and AAA Columbus

Scouting Report: Armstrong has been one of the highest-ceiling bullpen arms in the Indians organization for the past few years. In 2013, he took a step backwards in terms of command, walking 31 batters in 48 1/3 IP. He cut down on the walks in 2014, but maintained a sky-high 11.6 K/9 strikeout rate. For his career, Armstrong has racked up an impressive 219 strikeouts in just 143 innings of work. The 11 K/9 strikeout rate has the 24-year old on the cusp of a major league bullpen slot, as he ascended to AAA Columbus last year to bring his developmental curve near a finish.

Armstrong is pretty simple as pitchers go; he throws a fastball, a cut fastball, and a breaking ball. He doesn’t nibble, but attacks hitters early in the count and dares them to try and put the ball in play. His fastball sits consistently in the mid-90s, and can touch as high as 98. The pitch has a lot of life, and plays up due to the deception in his delivery. He compliments the fastball with a wipeout slider with impressive tilt, a particularly devastating weapon against righties. The cutter is still a work in progress, but it’s a nice third pitch that Armstrong can use to attack hitters. It’s a textbook back-end bullpen arsenal, one that is simple but extremely effective when Armstrong is working in the strike zone.

Part of Armstrong’s command issues lie in his delivery, a violent and deceptive motion that can be difficult to repeat on a consistent basis. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because Armstrong’s delivery both holds back his command and helps make him more deceptive to hitters. He can afford to walk more than most because he’s so effective at missing bats and allows so few hits, but walks have a way of turning into runs at the big league level. Armstrong is also a little more susceptible to lefties than righties, allowing southpaws to hit .259 against him in 2014 as opposed to just a .179 average for same-siders. If he can continue to shore up his command and find a way to get lefties out with more consistency, Armstrong could be a weapon in the back end of a major league bullpen.

Glass half-full: A closer or dominant set-up man
Glass half-empty: An effective late-inning arm against right-handed batters

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
21. Luis Lugo, LHP
DOB: 3/5/1994
Height/Weight: 6’5”, 200 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: International free agent signed in 2010
2014 Stats: 10-9 with a 4.92 ERA, 146 K and 40 BB in 126 1/3 IP for low-A Lake County

Scouting Report: Slowly but surely, the Indians are removing the training wheels from Luis Lugo. Originally signed as a 16-year old in 2010 out of Venezuela, the big lefty’s previous career high in IP 2as 64 2/3’s back in 2013. Lugo nearly doubled that last year, and turned in an impressive season in the low-A Midwest League. He struck out 10.4 batters per 9 IP with a 3.65 K/BB ratio with the Captains, and most importantly he remained healthy and in the rotation for the entire season. It looked as though Lugo was tiring in July of last year, as he went 0-3 with a 9.12 ERA in 6 starts. But he bounced back in August to close the season with the best month of his career, going 5-0 in 6 starts with a 2.14 ERA and 29/5 K/BB in 33 2/3’s innings.

Lugo throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. The fastball sits in the 89-93 MPH range, and should continue to improve as Lugo adds strength to his 6’5” frame. He’s made strides in fastball command over the past few years, lowering his walk rate and showcasing an ability to spot the pitch within the strike zone. Lugo’s curveball is a potential plus pitch, a hammer that is a real swing and miss offering. His changeup offers a weapon to use against righties, and has shown a lot of improvement from 2013 to now. Lugo actually had reverse-splits on the mound last year, holding righties to a .237/.300/.367 line (in 379 AB) while lefties managed to hit .315/.361/.593 off of him (108 AB). If he can develop a cutter or a slider to use against southpaws, Lugo could go from a good pitching prospect to an elite one.

Lugo will pitch the 2015 season as a 21-year old, and should pitch under normal restrictions for a prospect. He should open in the high-A Lynchburg rotation, and is on-track for a major league look as soon as 2017. With his size and command, Lugo has as high of a ceiling as any starting pitching prospect in the organization despite being far from the major leagues. I’m a lot more comfortable projecting a future in the rotation this year than I was last season, as Lugo was able to replicate his short-season success in the Midwest League, keeping his walk rate down and his strikeout rate up despite the jump in competition. If he can repeat that trick in the Carolina League this year, we’re going to be talking about him as a top-10 guy in the org next offseason.

Glass half-full: A #2/3 starter

Glass half-empty: A backend starter or relief arm

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Prospecting on a Lazy Sunday: Intro and #30-26

Photo credit: Al Ciammaichella
It’s finally that time of year again. Spring training is underway in earnest, players are in the Best Shape of their Lives™, and my prospect countdown is finally ready for press. As always, it’s a massive labor of love that I’m going to remember much more fondly now that it’s done. I put a ton of work into this every year, and hopefully you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. I’m publishing the countdown with a bit of a heavy heart this year, as 2015 is going to be the first year this decade that I’m not making my usual pilgrimage to Goodyear for spring training. A combination of work schedule and other factors outside of my control conspired against me this spring, and I’m hoping to restart the tradition in the spring of 2016. So I’m living vicariously through those of you who are headed for the sunny skies of Arizona, and anxiously planning my minor league schedule for this season. I’m going to get to see Lynchburg (the Indians new high-A Carolina League affiliate) for opening day as they take on Lucas Giolio and the Potomac Nationals, so that takes a little of the sting out of missing Arizona.

The Indians have a solid system with some high-end talent and nice depth. There are 20-25 players who have major league futures, and there are a couple of potential all-stars as well. Four 2014 draftees made the list, with another coming in on the “just missed” section. The 2014 draft was extremely well-regarded throughout the baseball community, as independent talent evaluators like ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Indians as having the best draft in baseball last year. It was a nice influx of talent, and the Indians made the most of their two extra picks (one as compensation for losing Ubaldo Jimenez and one awarded through the competitive balance lottery). When you account for the recent graduations of players like Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House, it’s easy to be encouraged by the Indians collection of young talent across the entire organization.

As you’re going to see over the next week, the Indians are stocked with up the middle talent. The top four players (and six of the top ten) in the organization play in the center of the diamond, whether it’s at SS, CF or behind the plate. It’s a lot easier to move a player from an up the middle position to a corner than the other way around, so that’s an encouraging aspect of the system. The Indians are still short on impact SP talent, as only two of the top ten players on my list are starting pitchers. There are a slew of arms in the back-half of the list, guys who are either too young to project into the rotation or who’s stuff still leaves questions as to their future role.

One new rule for this year’s list; no one with major league experience is going to appear in my countdown. Usually, I’d include players who remain under the Rookie of the Year thresholds (50 IP/130 AB) here, but I decided not to spend my time writing up guys you’ve already seen for yourself. The way I see it, you don’t need me to tell you that Austin Adams is a potential impact bullpen arm, or that Roberto Perez is an incredible defender who can also stick a little. You’ve already seen those guys perform in Cleveland, and are likely to see them again very soon in 2015. I’d much rather spend time telling you about guys like Dylan Baker, Eric Haase and Tony Wolters. Players who you probably haven’t seen too much of, but that I’ve seen play several times and can hopefully offer some interesting and valuable insight into. If you really want to hear what I think about Roberto Perez, you can check out last year’s list, or read through my twitter feed (hint: I love him). There will be none of my ranting about how Jesus Aguilar still can’t hit (or lay off) sliders in the dirt, at least not in this countdown.

I kept the list to 30 this year, but there are plenty of other players in the Indians system that are worth watching. They’re going to run five at a time starting today, so we’ll wrap it up this Friday. But before we get into our first installment, here are some other guys in the org I like or are still worth keeping an eye on this year but didn’t write up. Call it the “just missed” list(in no particular order): Sam Hentges, Jordan Cooper, Jordan Smith, Dace Kime, Bryson Myles, Jeff Johnson, Joe Colon and Trey Haley.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
30. Kieran Lovegrove, RHP
DOB: 7/28/1994
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 185 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 3rd round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 2-2 with a 3.90 ERA, 14 K and 23 BB in 30 IP for the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers

Scouting Report: Lovegrove got off to a slow start last year, being held down in extended spring training after coming down with a case of the yips in March of 2014. Lovegrove went through a month or so where he simply had no idea where his fastball was going, a nightmare scenario for any pitcher. It was more of a mental issue than a physical one, and Lovegrove was able to work through it in Arizona and make his way to Mahoning Valley as a member of the Scrappers rotation. Once in the NYPL, Lovegrove’s season was a tale of two months. In June, he struggled again with his control and had a 10.38 ERA in his three starts, walking 10 batters in just 8 2/3’s innings. July was a different story, as Lovegrove posted a 1.27 ERA in 5 starts, walking “just” 13 in 21 1/3 innings with 12 strikeouts. It was a roller-coaster year for the young righty from South Africa, and Lovegrove is going to need to be much more consistent in 2015.

On the mound, Lovegrove throws a fastball, slider and changeup. The fastball sits in the 91-94 MPH range and can touch 97. Since signing with the Indians, Lovegrove has really worked to leverage his lower half better, and it’s helped him add several ticks on his fastball from where it was in high school. The mechanical tweaks could also be what’s holding back his command, as it generally takes some time to get used to alterations in a pitcher’s motion and build back the muscle memory needed to repeat his delivery consistently. The slider is Lovegrove’s best offspeed pitch, flashing plus and showing sharp, late life. Lovegrove has really concentrated on developing his changeup over the past two seasons, and the pitch has shown a great deal of development. Lovegrove was actually throwing his changeup and slider last season when his fastball command deserted him, which is the inverse of how young pitchers usually develop.

When he was still in high school, Lovegrove co-founded a charity, the Going to Bat Foundation. Through the foundation, Lovegrove helps provide balls, bats and other baseball equipment to disadvantaged youths throughout America and Africa. That’s an impressive thing for a high school kid to do, and shows advanced maturity for a teenager. He's also pitched internationally for Team South Africa in the preliminary rounds of the World Baseball Classic, getting a chance to play with and against guys much older and more experienced than him. Lovegrove has outstanding makeup and his attitude on and off the baseball field will help him maximize his tools and reach his ultimate potential on the mound. It’s part of why I’m still a believer in him even after a rough 2014 season, as I think he has both the mental and physical tools to bounce back and re-establish himself as a legitimate prospect in short order.

Lovegrove is coming off of a tough season, but I’m still a believer in his future potential. He’ll play most of the 2015 season as a 20-year old, and should start off in low-A Lake County. So he’s still on a normal developmental timetable, despite not pitching in full-season ball since he was drafted in 2012. He has a chance to have three legitimate major league offerings, and provided his issues with fastball command were an aberration and not a trend, he’s still a starter as far as I’m concerned. His mental toughness and makeup are off the charts, and I think he can bounce back with a successful 2015. I’m not ready to call this year make-or-break for Lovegrove, but I’m definitely going to look for improvement in the full-season Midwest League. There’s a big gap between Lovegrove’s performance and his potential right now, and this year needs to show that he’s narrowed that gap.

Glass half-full: A #3/4 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: A minor league washout

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
29. Ronny Rodriguez, INF
DOB: 4/17/1991
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 170 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: International free agent signed in 2011
2014 Stats: .228/.270/.324 with 5 HR and 34 RBI in 118 games with AA Akron

Scouting Report: Rodriguez has his worst professional season in 2014, posting just a .594 OPS while shuffling all over the diamond defensively for AA Akron. Heading into 2014, Rodriguez was primarily a shortstop, but in the crowded middle infield at AA Akron, he bounced around at all four infield positions. Rodriguez appeared in just 8 games at short last year, spending most of his time at 2B (45 games) and making his debut at 3B (40 games) and even 1B (23 games). Rodriguez had never fielded a chance at a corner infield spot before last season, so he was understandably uncomfortable while trying to adjust to the new positions.

At the plate, Rodriguez has surprising pop for his size, especially to the pull side. He has loose hands and a quick bat, but gets too pull-happy at times. He hit a career-high 19 HR in 2012 with high-A Carolina, but has combined to hit just 10 HR since in two seasons in AA Akron. Rodriguez can get caught lunging for balls on (or off) the outside part of the plate, and needs to do a better job sitting back and driving those pitches to the opposite field. His hit tool is below-average, and not improving with reps the way I’d hoped it would. He’s still very susceptible to breaking balls down and out of the strike zone, particularly sliders. He swings at too many bad pitches, and his K/BB rate has remained stagnant from year to year. Rodriguez struck out 92 times against just 25 BB last year while repeating AA after a 79 K/19 BB season in 2013. One thing I look for in evaluating players, regardless of age, is whether or not they can improve when repeating a level and Rodriguez had a worse 2014 in every way possible.

Defensively, Rodriguez is an average shortstop in a system with several really good defensive shortstops. He has an above-average arm and decent range, allowing him to make plays deep in the hole at short. But his defense lags behind that of Francisco Lindor, Erik Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez, so the Indians needed to find a home for him somewhere else on the infield. He’s a decent 2B, but blocked there as well. I haven’t seen him play 3B or 1B, but his arm and athleticism should work well at either position.

Rodriguez has been one of my favorite players in the organization for several years now. He’s a guy that loves to play the game of baseball, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. But he’s struggled to make the necessary adjustments at the plate these past two seasons, and sliders in the dirt have been the death of him. Rodriguez has a tantalizing package of raw tools, but his hit tool is holding him back behind several other middle infield prospects in the org right now. There’s still a chance that Rodriguez figures it out, but that chance gets slimmer and slimmer every season that he doesn’t show marked improvement at the plate. If Rodriguez has a 2015 similar to his 2014, he’ll be reduced to the ranks of the non-prospects.

Glass half-full: A utility infielder with some pop
Glass half-empty: His hit tool dooms him to a career in the minor leagues

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
28. LeVon Washington, OF
DOB: 7/26/1991
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 170 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in the 2010 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .294/.402/.393 with 4 HR and 28 RBI in 70 games for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Washington is on this list because of his tools and athleticism, not because of his on-field production. The man they call #WASHTIME has spent four full seasons in the Indians organization, but has appeared in just 223 games during that time. His career slash line is .286/.393/.407, and has hit 13 HR and stolen 40 bases during his professional career. It’s easy to lose track of how young Washington still is, because he was drafted out of a JuCo and feels like he’s been in the org forever. But Washington is still just 23 years old, and although it’s looking less and less likely with every injury, it’s still possible that he makes it to the major leagues and contributes for the Indians.

Washington’s calling card is his speed. He’s wiry and strong for his size, but has below-average power and doesn’t project to anything more than that. He should hit plenty of doubles and triples due to his speed, but will probably never hit double-digit HRs. He has an average hit tool and a solid approach, walking 45 times against 63 strikeouts last season. If he’s able to stay on the field, he could be a .290/.380/.425 guy at his peak, but that just hasn’t happened so far in his career.

In the field, Washington has the tools to play CF, but spent all of 2014 in LF. He’s up against guys like Clint Frazier, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer for playing time in CF, and all three of those guys have passed Washington on the organizational ladder. He doesn’t have the arm for RF, but should be able to be a Brantley-esque defender in LF. He still has above-average speed and an average arm. His arm got a lot of negative attention coming out of college, but Washington had surgery to repair a torn labrum and has worked hard to regain at least average arm strength in the OF.

Washington is going to be 24 at the end of July, and is starting to run out of chances in the Indians org. The raw tools and athleticism are there, but the on-field results need to match those tools at some point, and it simply hasn’t happened.  He’s such a frustrating talent, because when he’s good, he’s really good. I’ve seen him look like the best player on the field in spring training, spraying line drives all over the park, stretching doubles into triples, stealing bases and making outstanding defensive plays in CF. He’s a hard worker and clearly loves the game of baseball. But health is a skill too, and it’s a skill that Washington just doesn’t have for whatever reason. He’ll get a shot with AA Akron this year, but if he can’t at least crack that 100 game barrier, we could be looking at the end of WASHTIME in Cleveland.

Glass half-full: A 4th OF with speed
Glass half-empty: An injury-plagued minor league career

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
27. Adam Plutko, RHP
DOB: 10/3/1991
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 195 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 11th round pick in the 2013 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 7-10 with a 4.03 ERA, 144 K and 30 BB in 149 2/3 IP between low-A Lake County and high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Selected in the 11th round out of collegiate powerhouse UCLA, Plutko opened the 2014 season in the rotation for the Lake County Captains.  Considered an advanced arm coming out of college, Plutko pitched extremely well during his time in the Midwest League. He made 10 starts for the Captains, going 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA and striking out 66 hitters in just 52 2/3’s innings of work. His best start came on May 8, when he worked 8 innings shutout innings while allowing just 3 baserunners and striking out 13. Promoted to the high-A Carolina League just prior to Memorial Day, Plutko went on to make 28 starts for the Mudcats. He went 4-9 in Carolina with a 4.08 ERA, 78 K and 18 BB in 97 IP. It was a solid season all the way around for Plutko, and helped solidify his status as a legitimate back of the rotation SP prospect.

On the mound, Plutko has a deep arsenal, throwing a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. The fastball is merely average, sitting in the 89-92 MPH range with a little bit of arm-side run. He spots the fastball early in the count and then uses his offspeed stuff to keep hitters off balance once he’s ahead of them. His changeup is consistently above-average and flashes plus, a nice offering with a lot of late fade. He does a really nice job with his arm speed to make the pitch more deceptive, and it’s usually 15 or so MPH slower than his fastball. He also throws a somewhat slurvy slider that’s slower than most sliders and doesn’t have the hard, late life you’d associate with a true swing and miss offering. His curveball is more of a show pitch that he uses to change the eye level on hitters, as it’s a big 12-6 breaker that’s not very deceptive. He works primarily off three pitch FB-CH-SL mix, and will throw all three at any point in the count.

Plutko is a good athlete and an intense competitor. He does a really nice job repeating his delivery and has impressive command and control in the strike zone. He has an excellent feel for pitching and does a nice job sequencing to keep hitters off balance and induce weak contact. He posted good strikeout numbers in 2014, but as he moves up the organizational ladder he’s going to be a guy who pitches to contact and lets his fielders do their thing. He has excellent makeup and work ethic, and is going to be a guy who gets the most out of his talent. He projects to be a classic innings-eating starter in the back-end of a major league rotation. He’s not a guy who’s going to be on any national top prospect countdowns, but he has a chance to be a valuable piece of a major league rotation. He reminds me of Josh Tomlin; a “crafty” righty without an overpowering fastball, but who will have excellent command and knows how to pitch. They’ll both give up their share of HR, but most will be solo shots and they’ll get plenty of flyball outs to go with them.

Glass half-full: A #4/5 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: Lack of a true strikeout pitch holds him back to middle relief

Photo Credit: Michael Hudson
26. Ryan Merritt, LHP
DOB: 2/21/1992
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 165 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: 16th round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 13-3 with a 2.58 ERA, 127 K and 25 BB in 160 1/3 IP for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: When it comes to on-field production, no pitcher in the Indians minor league system had a better season than Merritt. He led the Carolina League with 13 wins, and put up a sparkling 2.58 ERA. His 5.08 K/BB ratio was 2nd in the league among players with more than 15 starts. Merritt started the Carolina League All-Star Game, and was named the Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year following the season. And to put a cherry on top of all that, he was added to the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. All in all, it was about the best season the 23-year old southpaw could’ve hoped for, one that he’ll be looking to build on in 2015.

Merritt is a classic command and control lefty. He’s not overpowering by any means, but does a nice job spotting his fastball and inducing soft contact. The fastball sits in the high-80’s and is hittable when Merritt leaves it up in the zone. But that’s a rare occurrence, as he gave up just 1 HR every 13 1/3 IP last season, Merritt has an above-average changeup that flashes plus, and it’s that pitch that helped him find success in Carolina last season. He made real strides with the changeup last year, gaining consistency in both command and pitch performance. It has nice, late fade and really comes down and in hard on left handed hitters. He also throws a solid but unspectacular breaking ball, and refinement and development of that third pitch will help define Merritt’s future as a starter or reliever.

Merritt is a good athlete who repeats his delivery well, helping to keep his command sharp. He’s not going to overpower hitters, but does a nice job with his sequencing to keep hitters off balance. He’s a deceptive pitcher, changing the eye level, pitch speed, and location on hitters in every at bat. He’s not going to be ready to start in the major leagues anytime soon, but the Indians rostered him this offseason in case another team decided to take a flyer and turn him into a two-pitch reliever or swingman out of the bullpen. Lefties who can throw strikes are valuable assets who can have long and productive major league careers (see Orosco, Jesse), and Merritt could at least be a bullpen arm down the road. He held same-siders to a paltry .197/.236/.308 line last year, showing that he at least has that LOOGY potential. But he’ll start for as long as he can, and open the season in the AA Akron rotation. The hitter-friendly Eastern League will be a tougher test for Merritt, and hopefully he won’t scuffle in AA the way the 2013 Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year (Cody Anderson) did.

Glass half-full: A soft-tossing back of the rotation starter

Glass half-empty: A soft-tossing lefty reliever