The Indians have a farm system on the rise, and its greatest strength is its collection of advanced young hitters. Four of their best will play at High A Lake County this year, despite possessing six games of full-season experience between them.
Outfielder George Valera and middle infielders Brayan Rocchio, Aaron Bracho and Jose Tena -- all part of a potentially special 2017 international class for Cleveland -- will play the entire season at age 20. Rocchio and Valera were the youngest regulars in the short-season New York-Penn League in the summer of 2019, when the latter played six games in Low A. Tena hasn't played above the Rookie-level Arizona League, where he formed the primary double-play combination with Bracho two years ago before Bracho moved up to the NY-Penn League for the final week.
With the cancelled 2020 Minor League season, Valera and Bracho participated at Cleveland's alternate training site and instructional league programs. Travel restrictions for Venezuelans prevented Rocchio from attending either, while Tena played in instructs.
"As we were putting rosters together, we were high on all those guys and knew they all have succeeded in the past, so let's see how they do," Indians farm director James Harris said. "They lost a year of development last year but they've all grown physically. We think they're ready."
Valera has the prettiest swing in the system, a left-handed stroke that could help make him a .300 hitter with 25 or more homers per season. Rocchio and Bracho are both switch-hitters, with the former displaying plus speed and the latter a penchant for loud contact. The nephew of 16-year big leaguer Juan Uribe, Tena bats left-handed and owns a .319 average in two years of Rookie ball.
Cleveland will move the infielders around to make sure they get regular at-bats. Rocchio will be the primary shortstop and see some time at second and third base. Bracho will be the regular at second base while getting action at the corners, while Tena will play the most at the hot corner while receiving a couple of starts per week at shortstop.
The bottom line, however, is that all of these guys can hit. They did throughout Minor League Spring Training and are equipped to do so this season despite being two to three years younger than the typical High A player.
"It's been impressive," Harris said. "Imagine what you saw in 2019 but add five to 10 pounds of muscle. They've all been high-contact guys and now they're hitting the ball harder. We're really excited to see how they perform.
"We met with each guy individually to tell them they were going to High A. Every single one of them said they had worked so hard for this opportunity. They're ready and they want to be challenged."
Tyler Freeman is the best prospect among all the sweet-swinging infielders in the system, and he played like it this spring. He hit .423/.516/.577 in 26 Cactus League at-bats and continued to make line-drive contact throughout Minor League Spring Training. A career .319/.379/.441 hitter in three pro seasons, the 2017 supplemental second-round pick will open the season in Double-A at age 21.
"Freeman hits wherever he goes, plays above-average defense and is probably the hardest worker in camp," Harris said. "That's the formula for success. He'll be the primary shortstop in Akron and also play second base to add some versatility and be ready for whatever opportunity might come up."
Alternate training site
Left-hander Sam Hentges endured a rough 2019, yielding the most runs (89) and baserunners (213) in the Double-A Eastern League while also sustaining the most losses (13) and logging the highest ERA (5.11). Though he didn't get a chance to redeem himself in actual Minor League games last year, he stood out with increased velocity during Spring Training and at the alternate training site.
Hentges has done so again at both venues in 2021, continuing to sit at 96-98 mph in short stints with his fastball and honing a mid-80s cutter that's effective against right-handers. The Indians promoted him on April 17 for what was expected to be a brief stay, but he's still with the club.
"Hentges was as advertised," Harris said. "He's an uncomfortable at-bat for left-handers with that kind of velocity and how big he is, and that cutter has really helped him. Now he has movement inside on right-handers and he's really effective."
Cleveland's alternate training site at its Triple-A Columbus affiliate features several players who performed well in brief looks in big league camp. Shortstop George Arias went 8-for-13 (.615) in the Cactus League, outfielder Daniel Johnson went 7-for-19 (.368) with a pair of homers and shortstop Ernie Clement went 6-for-11 (.545). Right-hander Nick Sandlin made six scoreless relief appearances while fanning nine in five innings.
Prospects we’ll be talking about in 2022
Middle infielder Angel Martinez has been an organization favorite since signing for $500,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2018. He's a switch-hitter with a quality swing from both sides of the plate, solid speed and arm strength and a high baseball IQ developed growing up around the game as the son of former big league catcher Sandy Martinez. Just 19 years old, he'll make the jump from the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League in 2019 to Low A Lynchburg this year.
"Having Martinez on that roster is evidence of how good he looked this spring," Harris said. "We worked with Tena, Rocchio and Bracho and it was hard to distinguish them from him. We couldn't leave him behind in Arizona. He's a very confident kid who's been around baseball his whole life."
The Indians also have high hopes for two prospects returning from injury. Back from Tommy John surgery in May 2019, right-hander Lenny Torres has regained his power stuff (fastball to 98 mph, slider in the low 80s) and has a smoother delivery with less effort. Second baseman/outfielder Richie Palacios, who hit .361/.421/.538 in his 2018 debut but missed 2019 following shoulder surgery, once again looks like an on-base machine with solid speed.