GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Simultaneously building a winner at the big league level and a strong farm system is difficult because those two goals often can be at cross purposes. It's no coincidence that the organizations in MLB Pipeline's new Top 10 Systems rankings include just three playoff clubs from a year ago.
The Indians are on their way to becoming one of the exceptions to that rule. They're riding three consecutive American League titles and six straight winning seasons while stealthily amassing a lot of talent in the Minors. They didn't crack our recent Top 10 but are poised to do so in the very near future.
Cleveland has the youngest group of Top 30 Prospects in baseball, with an average age of just over 21 years on Opening Day 2019. Fifteen members of their Top 30 played as teenagers last season, and their collection of young infield talent is staggering.
Third baseman Nolan Jones walloped 19 homers and drew 89 walks between two Class A levels at age 20. Shortstop/second baseman Tyler Freeman led the short-season New York-Penn League in batting (.352), runs (49), hits (95), doubles (29), extra-base hits (35) and total bases (138) at age 19. Shortstop Brayan Rocchio debuted by finishing third in the Rookie-level Arizona League batting race (.343) as the league's third-youngest regular (age 17).
Shortstop Gabriel Rodriguez may have the highest ceiling of the many gifted international infielders the Indians have signed in the last few years, and fellow shortstop Aaron Bracho isn't far behind. They'll make their pro debuts this summer at ages 17 and 18, respectively.
Shortstop/third baseman Yu Chang starred in the Arizona Fall League at the relatively old (in this system) age of 23. Shortstop Ernie Clement hit his way to Double-A in his first full pro season at age 22 and second baseman Richie Palacios batted .361 in his pro debut at age 21. The Indians also are bullish on middle infielders Raynel Delgado, Jose Fermin, Junior Sanquintin, Marcos Gonzalez and Jose Tena -- all of whom are still teenagers.
"There aren't enough bats and balls to go around because we're so deep at the lower levels," farm director James Harris said. "You have to call them middle infielders and can't call them shortstops because some of them are going to have to play second base for us. There are going to be a couple of guys on each team with one guy playing six out of 10 games at shortstop and one guy playing four.
"You can't predict exactly what positions we're going to need in the big leagues or where someone will be breaking in as an everyday player, so that versatility and understanding of the game helps."
Cleveland's wave of rising young talent isn't limited to the middle infield. Right-hander Triston McKenzie, the organization's top prospect, conquered Double-A last year at age 20 (though he's currently sidelined by a back strain). The Indians began the 2018 Draft by spending three picks on teenagers, an advanced hitter in catcher Bo Naylor and a pair of electric arms in righties Ethan Hankins and Lenny Torres.
Outfielder George Valera has the best swing in a system full of pretty strokes, and he's poised to break out as an 18-year-old after a broken hamate bone ended his 2018 pro debut after six games. First baseman Bobby Bradley already has won three Minor League home run titles and went deep 27 times between Double-A and Triple-A last year at age 22. Left-hander Sam Hentges came back from Tommy John surgery to top the Class A Advanced Carolina League in strikeout rate (9.3 per nine innings) at age 21, while right-hander Luis Oviedo was leading the Short-Season New York-Penn League in whiff rate (11.4) at age 19 before getting promoted.
"It’s a credit to our scouting staff that so many of these guys have come in and hit the ground running," Harris said. "We're excited about our guys. They're not everyday names yet, but guys like Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio and George Valera are starting to get recognized. If they keep working, they'll be everyday names in the future."
The Indians got almost no production out of right-handed hitting outfielders in 2018, which helped spark a trade with the Cardinals for prospect Oscar Mercado last July. Though the deal cost them a pair of promising young outfielders in Conner Capel and Jhon Torres, Mercado may be on the verge of filling the void Cleveland was trying to address.
Mercado has lived up to his reputation as an quality athlete with plus speed and defensive ability in big league camp while showing that his bat may be more ready than realized. Coming off a .278/.348/.390 season in Triple-A at age 23, he has blistered the ball in the Cactus League. He hit .448/.448/.862 with three homers, seven runs and eight RBIs in his first 15 games, leading the club in each of those categories.
"He put a lot of work in when he came over here with some of the guys on the player-development side," Indians manager Terry Francona said on Sunday. "My goodness, he’s really giving himself a chance because he’s so athletic to begin with. But when it starts carrying over to the batter’s box, man, that’s fun to watch."
Signed by St. Louis for $1.5 million as a second-round pick in the 2013 Draft, Mercado struggled offensively until he moved from shortstop to center field in 2017. He's one of just two righty-hitting outfielders on the 40-man roster -- Jordan Luplow is the other -- and Trayce Thompson appears to be his main competition for the role in Cleveland.