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Improved farm system gives Indians bright future

MLB Pipeline checks in from Spring Training, unveils Cleveland's Top 20 Prospects @JimCallisMLB

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The last time the Indians turned a first-round pick into an All-Star came in 1998, when they selected CC Sabathia 20th overall in the First-Year Player Draft. Though they've made four playoff appearances and posted six 90-victory seasons since then, they've only signed and developed one purely homegrown All-Star during that time: Jason Kipnis, a second-rounder in 2009.

Cleveland has built its winning clubs mostly via astute trades and occasional free-agent signings. That looks like it's about to change, however, as the Indians have a pair of recent first-rounders who have the look of future stars.

The eighth overall pick in 2011, shortstop Francisco Lindor has the tools to win Gold Gloves and bat at the top of the lineup. He also could force his way into the Tribe's lineup at some point this season, even though he'll be only 20 years old.

"Every aspect of his game has gotten better every year," Indians farm director Ross Atkins said. "Nothing has regressed and everything has improved. Maybe the most impressive part of his game is his maturity. There aren't many distactions with Francisco. His focus is baseball and he's very much an advanced student of baseball."

Last June, the Indians had the fifth overall choice, which tied for their earliest pick since 1992. They chose outfielder Clint Frazier, whose bat is so dynamic that it somehow overshadows his five-tool potential. He'll begin his first full pro season at low Class A Lake County and could move as swiftly as Lindor.

"His bat speaks for itself," Atkins said. "It's electric. But he focuses on his whole game, not just hitting. He loves to work on his defense and his basestealing. He's extremely consistent with his work. He enjoys all things around baseball and his athleticism is superb."

Cleveland's farm system stands out more for its two blue-chip talents than its depth, though Lindor is just one of several promising middle infielders. The Indians will have legitimate shortstop prospects at each of their four full-season clubs with Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, Erik Gonzalez and Ronny Rodriguez. And second baseman Jose Ramirez hit his way onto the big league playoff roster last October.

Add outfielder Tyler Naquin, the first-round pick in between Lindor and Frazier, and the Indians clearly are stronger with position players than pitchers at the Minor League level. They do have hope that Trevor Bauer, who came to Cleveland in the three-team Shin-Soo Choo trade a year ago, will regain the stuff and moxie that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 Draft. Fellow right-hander Cody Anderson, a 14th-round steal that same year, isn't too far away from the Majors.

In addition to Frazier, the Tribe's most recent Draft crop could provide a much-needed infusion of arms. Dace Kime, Sean Brady, Adam Plutko and Casey Shane rank among the system's best starting prospects, and reliever Kyle Crockett could race to Cleveland by midseason.

Three questions with Frazier

The two best high school position players in the 2013 Draft were friends and high school rivals from Loganville, Ga. Frazier went fifth overall to the Indians -- and signed for a franchise Draft-record $3.5 million -- while Austin Meadows followed four picks later to the Pirates. Frazier batted .297/.362/.506 and earned Rookie-level Arizona League All-Star honors in his pro debut, and the only thing that has been able to slow him down is a mild hamstring strain this spring. Scouts thought you had the most dynamic high school bat in last year's Draft, and that seems to eclipse the rest of your game. How much pride do you take in your all-around game?

Frazier: The way I look at that is people say I have the potential to be a five-tool player. If I have the potential to impact the game in five different ways, I want to impact it in all five ways. I don't want to just be the guy who hits home runs. I want to be the best I possibly can. What are you hoping to improve this spring and this season?

Frazier: I've made a lot of progress with my plate discipline. I've toned down my approach and I'm not swinging at every pitch. It wasn't that hard after the prescription in my contacts changed a ton. That went a long way. I've changed the toe tap I had to a little leg kick. I'm seeing the ball better and it feels natural now. I knew I had to change. Good things are going to happen if I swing at good pitches. You guys are in different organizations that don't have lower-level affiliates in the same leagues, so you probably won't play against Meadows for a while. How much do you stay in touch with each other?

Frazier: I didn't see him all summer, but we worked out in the offseason together, two times a week. We exchanged stories, talked about what we faced. We went through everything together, starting in Little League and progressing through high school, so of course it makes sense to keep in touch. I'd love to see him in the outfield in a professional uniform some day.

Camp standout: Crockett

It has taken Crockett just nine months as a pro to establish his control as the best in the organization and himself as someone who won't need much time in the Minors. A fourth-round pick out of Virginia last June, he allowed just one earned run in 24 2/3 innings in his pro debut, posting a 32/5 K/BB ratio while reaching Double-A.

The 22-year-old left-hander tops out in the low 90s with his fastball, but it's hard to hit because it moves so much and he can locate it with precision. Crockett's slider is tough on left-handers, and he uses a changeup to combat righties. His deceptive delivery makes it difficult for batters to pick up his pitches.

The Indians have kept Crockett on the fast track this spring, giving him a taste of big league camp and using him in three Cactus League games. He didn't give up a run in any of his appearances, the most impressive of which came March 25 against the Rangers. Crockett needed just five pitches to record three outs, fanning Prince Fielder on two sliders and then a fastball for called strike three.

"He's had an incredible Spring Training," Atkins said. "He'll start the year in Double-A, but he's very much in the sights of [GM] Chris Antonetti and [manager] Terry Francona. He's so competitive. He has fastball command and deception, a good slider and confidence. It's very exciting for us where he is already."

Breakout candidate: Francisco Mejia

He's only 18 and he has played just 30 professional games, so it's very early in Mejia's career. But it's not too early to say that he has the potential to be the best catcher signed and developed by Cleveland since Victor Martinez came through the system 15 years ago.

Mejia could wind up a more well-rounded player than the offensive-minded Martinez, too. Mejia is a switch-hitter with some raw power, but his most impressive tool is his throwing arm, which rates a 7 on the 2-8 scouting scale

A former infielder, Mejia is relatively new to catching and needs work on his receiving and footwork. The Indians will let him refine his defense skills in extended spring camp before assigning him to short-season Mahoning Valley in June.

"He has a very good chance to be an everyday catcher," Atkins said. "I wouldn't argue if you put a 7 on his arm, but I don't know why you couldn't put an 8 on it. He also has pop. He's one of the stronger athletes in our camp."

Cleveland Indians, Kyle Crockett, Clint Frazier, Erik Gonzalez, Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, Dorssys Paulino, Ronny Rodriguez