Indians prospect report from alternate site

October 2nd, 2020

With alternative training sites having ended, MLB Pipeline is recapping the development highlights for the prospects involved for each organization.

Top position prospect: Nolan Jones, 3B (No. 1 on Indians Top 30)

Since signing for first-round money ($2.25 million) as a second-round pick out of a Pennsylvania high school in 2016, Jones has produced throughout his pro career. A .283/.409/.448 hitter in four Minor League seasons, he has plus power and a fine eye at the plate. He led the Minors with 96 walks last year while reaching Double-A at age 21. 

In a normal 2020 season, Jones likely would have opened in Double-A before progressing to Triple-A and possibly Cleveland. At the club's alternative camp at its low Class A Lake County (Ohio) affiliate, he focused on many of the same things he did in the Arizona Fall League last offseason. He worked on refining his approach at the plate and his pitch selection while also improving his footwork and range at the hot corner.

"Nolan is the hardest-working player you're going to come across and it was obvious here in camp with us," Indians farm director James Harris said. "Continuing to expand his ability to play third base was a priority for us.

"What the camp did for him and others was allow him to see upper-level pitching day in and day out. He handled it well. He got to see what will work and how people will pitch him at the upper levels."

Top pitching prospect: Triston McKenzie, RHP (No. 3)

Few pitchers needed innings more than McKenzie, who emerged as one of the game's top mound prospects in 2017 before missing two months in 2018 with forearm soreness and all of 2019 with an upper-back strain. After spending a month at the alternative site, he wound up getting 33 1/3 frames in the Majors.

McKenzie struck out 10 in his big league debut against the Tigers and finished with a 3.24 ERA, .179 opponent average and a 42/9 K/BB ratio. Though his velocity wound up fluctuating with Cleveland, he still averaged 93 mph with his fastball and proved he could get outs with his four-seamer, slider and curveball. His changeup was less effective in his introduction to the Majors but has shown flashes of becoming a plus pitch in the past.

"The first part was getting him healthy, and he was healthy in Spring Training," Harris said. "The next step would have been to face hitters in game situations in Spring Training and the Minor Leagues to see if he was ready, and that couldn't take place. We had to do that at the alternative site.

"He faced advanced hitters and gained confidence. It was more about having longevity and consistency with his body holding up. Once he had that success and faced advanced hitters, he had his confidence. He was Triston again."

Youngest prospect: Aaron Bracho, 2B (No. 9)

Advanced young hitters who can play up the middle form the strength of the system, and the Indians brought several of them to their alternative site. The youngest was the 19-year-old Bracho, who missed 2018 with a broken right arm before batting .281/.402/.570 in the Rookie-level Arizona League during his pro debut last summer.

A switch-hitter with a quick, compact swing and advanced feel for the strike zone, Bracho more than held his own against older pitching while getting defensive work all over the infield.

"We wanted to get Aaron around Nolan Jones, Tyler Freeman and some of our older infielders so he could understand what a day's work looks like," Harris said. "He hasn't played a lot of ball and the ball he did play was in the AZL. We wanted him to compete versus more advanced pitching and he didn't look 19 with a bat in his hands."

2020 Draft picks

None of Cleveland's six draftees came to the alternative site but the entire contingent will be in instructional league, headlined by first-round shortstop Carson Tucker (No. 12).

Pleasant developments

The Indians may have landed the best high school fastballs in both the 2018 and 2019 Drafts. Ethan Hankins (No. 10) has a 92-97 mph heater with command and electric life and fellow first-round right-hander Daniel Espino (No. 7) can reach triple digits with running action on his four-seamer and power sink on his two-seamer. Both were ticketed for full seasons in low Class A in 2020, and while that couldn't happen, they benefited from learning that they couldn't just blow fastballs by older hitters in alternative camp. Hankins owns a solid changeup and has improved his breaking ball since turning pro, while Espino has the makings of a pair of plus power breaking pitches.

Right-hander Kyle Nelson gave up four runs while recording two outs against the Royals in his lone big league appearance, but just getting to the Majors represented a development success story. A 15th-round pick in 2017 out of UC Santa Barbara -- where he pitched with Shane Bieber -- he never has cracked (MLB Pipeline's Indians Top 30. He sits around 91 mph with his fastball but succeeds by relying heavily on his sharp low-80s slider.