Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Indians.
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Even after the promotions of Francisco Lindor and Bradley Zimmer to the big leagues and the inclusion of Clint Frazier in the Andrew Miller trade with the Yankees, the strength of the Indians farm system remains its position players.
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Twelve of the first 15 players on MLB Pipeline's Indians Top 30 Prospects list are hitters. That group includes players on the cusp of the Majors (catcher Francisco Mejia, first baseman Bobby Bradley, shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang, outfielder Greg Allen), on the verge of breakouts (third baseman Nolan Jones, shortstop Willi Castro, outfielders Will Benson and Conner Capel) and newcomers from 2017 signed via the Draft (outfielder Quentin Holmes, shortstop Tyler Freeman) and international market (outfielder George Valera, shortstop Aaron Bracho).
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Mejia should be the first of that group to make an impact in Cleveland, though at which position remains unclear. The game's best catching prospect has an exceptional bat that made headlines when he set a modern Minor League record with a 50-game hitting streak in 2016, and he encored by batting .297/.346/.490 in Double-A at age 21 last year.
While Mejia has a plus-plus arm, he's still polishing his defense. The Indians like what Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez provide them behind the plate, so they experimented with Mejia playing third base during the Arizona Fall League. He looked rough in his first exposure to the hot corner and Cleveland has All-Star Jose Ramirez there anyway, so it's possible that Mejia's bat could be big league-ready before there's a place to play him.
"Mejia's bat is really good but we also have two very good catchers in the big leagues," Indians farm director James Harris said. "If we didn't, you wouldn't have heard about the possibility of him playing third base. We don't want him to be limited to playing one position.
"His receiving has improved gradually, Not as much as his leadership, communication and understanding of the game. All of those things can make his receiving look better and put him in a position to be a great catch and throw guy."
Harris good-naturedly objects to the notion that the system leans heavily in favor of position players. He points to right-hander Triston McKenzie, one of baseball's top young mound prospects, and elite strike-throwers Shane Bieber (first in the Minors last year with 0.4 walks per nine innings) and Aaron Civale (third at 0.8) as evidence that there's not much of an imbalance between hitters and pitchers.
McKenzie was the Carolina League pitcher of the year in 2017, topping the Class A Advanced circuit in wins (12), strikeouts (186, second in the Minors), strikeout rate (11.7 per nine innings) and opponents' average (.203) at age 19. His low-90s fastball plays up with extension and spin rate, his curveball is an out pitch and his changeup isn't far behind his other two offerings.
"His main development goal is to have consistency, game in and game out and for multiple innings," Harris said. "Turn the lineup over multiple times. We know he can do that at high Class A. Can he do it at higher levels? We think he can and we're preparing him mentally and physically to do it."
Mejia hits everywhere he goes, and that has continued in Cactus League games this spring, as he has gone 5-for-10 and slammed a homer off the Brewers' Tyler Webb. Allen, whose speed and defense earned him a spot on Cleveland's playoff roster last October, has gone 9-for-20 with three extra-base hits and a steal.
Mejia isn't the only catcher who has made an impression on the big league staff. Eric Haase doubled and homered in his first game of the spring, showing the power he displayed a year ago when he hit 27 homers and led all Indians farmhands with a .578 slugging percentage. Club officials liked how he responded when he was asked to repeat Double-A and serve as Mejia's backup at the start of 2017.
"You can sulk or say you're going to put yourself in a position where they have to play me, and he sought the resources and the coaching and made himself a good hitter," Harris said. "He's not behind the plate as much as he would be if he weren't on the same team as Mejia. That's the challenge, to find more opportunities for him to catch. He receives well and has a strong arm."
Jim Calis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.