GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Francisco Mejia tried his hand at third base during the Arizona Fall League after last season ended. Now, the Indians plan on having the highly touted catching prospect get some experience in the outfield during Minor League camp and early in the season with Triple-A Columbus.
Indians manager Terry Francona wanted to make something clear, though.
"He's a catcher," Francona said.
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On Monday morning, when Mejia was optioned to Triple-A as part of Cleveland's latest round of spring roster reductions, Francona reiterated that message. The manager repeated what has been his go-to phrasing for the plans involving Mejia, noting that "this is by no means an indictment on his catching." If anything, Francona said the way the Tribe is handling Mejia is a great compliment to the promising prospect.
The Indians believe that the 22-year-old Mejia -- ranked No. 1 among the Tribe's Top 30 prospects, No. 1 among baseball's catching prospects and 11th overall on the Top 100 prospects list, per MLB Pipeline -- is an extremely advanced hitter. Cleveland's decision makers feel that Mejia is so polished as a hitter, in fact, that he might be able to help the Major League club at some point this summer.
The only problem is that the Indians have a pair of Major League-caliber catchers in Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes who rank among the game's best defenders, are locked into long-term contracts and have built a strong rapport with one of baseball's top pitching staffs. At the moment, there is no room in the inn behind the plate for a rookie like Mejia, but the Indians do not want that to get in the way of a possible promotion to the big leagues.
"We just kind of told him, 'Look, we have Perez and Gomes. Do the math,'" Francona said. "And he's such an advanced hitter that, if he's able to play another position and then there's an injury or something, he could find himself not only in the big leagues, but playing. And I think he understands. We went to pretty good lengths to try to make sure that he understands that this is not an indictment on his catching. He's just such an advanced hitter. We want to take advantage of it."
In 11 Cactus League games this spring, the switch-hitting Mejia has hit .421 (8-for-19) with two home runs, seven RBIs and a 1.292 OPS. That comes after Mejia hit .365 with an .873 OPS in 15 games for Glendale in the AFL. Last season, Mejia had an 11-game cup of coffee with the Indians down the stretch, but he spent the bulk of the year with Double-A Akron, where he turned in a .297/.346/.490 slash line with 14 homers, 21 doubles, 52 RBIs in 92 games.
That body of work follows Mejia's breakout showing in 2016, when he hit .342 (.896 OPS) between Class A Lake County and Class A Advanced Lynchburg and made national headlines with a 50-game hitting streak. Mejia has participated in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in each of the past two years, rising swiftly up the various prospect rankings.
"From both sides of the plate, he just has a knack," Francona said. "I don't know if a lot of people could hit like that. It's a little bit unique. But, if you break it down, when the pitcher's releasing the ball, he's in a really good place to hit. And even when he gets out front, he's got such good hands and he keeps his hands back so well, he can either foul off a pitch or he's strong enough to get under it and still hit the ball out of the ballpark.
"But like most good hitters, the more pitches he sees and the deeper he gets in the count, he gets more dangerous. So, he's got the knack, because he uses the whole field. And I mean the whole field. But, he can also hit the ball in the gap and out of the ballpark from both sides of the plate."
Francona said the team was impressed this spring by Mejia's defensive progress, which included spending a lot of time under the tutelage of Sandy Alomar Jr., along with Perez and Gomes. Defensively, Mejia boasts a strong arm, but is still "cleaning up" his transfer and working on carrying the strides made in workouts into games.
"We were really pleased with his progression," Francona said.
Mejia tried playing third base in the AFL, but that experiment is over now, according to the Indians manager. In conversations with the young catcher, Francona felt that giving him some time in the outfield might be the more appropriate route. Mejia will still catch for Triple-A Columbus, but the Indians also want catching prospect Eric Haase to get innings behind the plate. That opens the door for some outfield innings for Mejia.
"We kind of told him, we said, 'Hey, if you want to be a full-time catcher, we'll back you 100 percent,'" Francona said. "But, when we kind of laid it out for him there, he was like, 'No, I need to do this.' So, I think we explained it properly and we won't just send him on his way. We'll check and re-check and make sure he's OK, because he's one of our biggest prospects, that's for sure.
"It just seems like he's got that kind of a bat that he could probably step into a Major League lineup and help you."