GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Triston McKenzie walked in from the back fields of the Indians’ Spring Training facility on Saturday afternoon unhappy with some of the results from his simulated game. But when he reflected on it Sunday before the Indians’ 10-6 victory over the D-backs at Goodyear Ballpark, he made sure to point out that feeling healthy was the most important takeaway.
The 22-year-old right-hander missed the entire 2019 season with upper back and pectoral strains. He returned to Spring Training in February back in full health, but the Indians are taking it slow with their No. 9 prospect, as ranked by MLB Pipeline. McKenzie has yet to get into game action this spring and instead has thrown live batting practice and tossed simulated innings.
“They didn’t explicitly say [I’d ease into camp], but I kind of knew that coming into it, being that I got hurt twice last year,” McKenzie said. “They don’t want to rush things, especially when the most important part of the season isn’t Spring Training, it’s the actual season, being able to pitch in games and perform at the highest level.
“Just kind of taking everything like grain of salt in terms of like how anxious I am to get on the field. If they give me an extra day, I’m not going to look at it with frustration. They’re trying to help be the best version of me possible.”
McKenzie said the next step is probably getting some innings in a spring game, but he hasn’t been told just yet when he’ll be able to toe the rubber at Goodyear Ballpark.
“I think any young guy in my situation is anxious to be on the field, especially to be surrounded by some of the great names we have out here,” McKenzie said. “So the fact that I’m not able to do it immediately is kind of frustrating, but at the same time, I’m understanding of the situation that the Indians and the front office are coming from and where I’m at in my career.”
Because of his long and slender, 6-foot-5, 165-pound frame, McKenzie might need to take some extra precaution to assure injuries don’t keep occurring. He said he’s done his best over the past year to change his pre- and post-pitching routines and change his workout routines in the weight room to do everything he can to stay healthy in 2020.
Despite his hobbled road, the Indians decided to protect their righty prospect from the Rule 5 Draft last November by adding him to the 40-man roster. He may need some more time to settle back in on the mound in the Minors, but the club has proven it still believes he can be an impactful starter in the near future. If all goes smoothly, he could start finding himself in that conversation later this season.
“I’d say for me,” McKenzie said, “it’s kind of like satisfying in terms of, like, I didn’t play for the whole year, but I think I tried to prove to them that as much as I wasn’t going to perform out on the field, I was going to do everything in my power to become a better player from it.
“I think they recognize it, and I think that their decision to protect me was not only solely based on what they think I can do for them, but the player I’m becoming and what I can provide for not only the team but for the guys around me.”
A glimpse of the future
The Indians were a little short-staffed over the weekend with half of their squad in Las Vegas, where the Tribe lost 8-5 to the A’s on Sunday at Las Vegas Ballpark, so the team asked a few Minor Leaguers to join the roster and help fill some innings. Among those players were a pair of 19-year-old prospects whom Indians manager Terry Francona was excited to watch.
Both Brayan Rocchio and George Valera earned a spot in the Tribe’s starting lineup Sunday afternoon against the D-backs at second base and right field, respectively. Rocchio, the team’s No. 6 prospect, played the 2019 season with Class A Short-Season Mahoning Valley, hitting .250 with a .683 OPS in 69 games. Valera, the Indians' No. 4 prospect, wrapped up last season at Class A Lake County for six games after hitting .236 with an .802 OPS in 46 contests for Mahoning Valley.
In the Indians’ victory Sunday, Rocchio went 3-for-3 with a three-run homer off big leaguer Zac Gallen, over the visiting bullpen in left-center field. Valera went 1-for-2 with a solo shot off former Tigers right-hander Eduardo Jiménez, three runs scored and two walks.
“That was fun,” Francona said. “Rocchio played last year in that [Spring Training] night game, remember? And he kind of had a big night. The enthusiasm that comes with the youth. But we’ve heard so much about Valera. He’s a really young kid, but just to see the way he handles himself, it was fun to watch.”
Because the Indians used nearly all of their hurlers in their split-squad series over the weekend in Las Vegas and Arizona, the team is giving all their regular arms a rest. The Tribe will call over a handful of players from the Minor League side to face the Rangers at 3:05 p.m. ET on Monday at Surprise. Right-hander Eli Morgan will get the ball first for the Indians, facing righty Kyle Gibson.