GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Heading into the 2019 season, right-hander Triston McKenzie was ranked as the Indians’ top prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. And in a year where injuries plagued the big league club, it could’ve been a perfect opportunity for McKenzie to make his way onto the Tribe’s roster at some point during the year. Instead, he was stuck in Arizona.
The injury bug also spread throughout the Minor League system, as McKenzie was forced to stay behind in Goodyear, Ariz., at the end of Spring Training last year to rehab an upper back strain that he suffered toward the end of camp. Just as he was beginning to recover, he then suffered a pectoral strain that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
“On a whole, it was more of a learning experience,” McKenzie said. “It was obviously frustrating as a competitor, you’re not out there able to compete. But it was definitely a learning experience and I think this year, I’m better for it.
“[I learned] just kind of how much I miss the game, how much I love the game and how much I’m willing to do to make sure that never happens again.”
Just three short months after he completed all of his rehab exercises, McKenzie is a part of his first big league Spring Training camp as a member of the Tribe’s 40-man roster. In November, the club decided to protect its 22-year-old starter, along with outfielder Daniel Johnson and lefty Scott Moss, from the Rule 5 Draft.
“Last year was definitely a tough year,” McKenzie said, “but the fact that I get to be out here and be around the guys, especially watching a lot of the guys coming in, me being out here in the offseason. So watching [Mike] Clevinger come in, [Shane] Bieber come in, [Aaron] Civale, guys that I’ve been around, it’s really exciting for me.”
McKenzie spent almost the entire offseason at the club’s Spring Training facility in Arizona, even after he finished his rehab in November. And after all the hours sitting in the training room and all the drills and exercises he had to do to get himself back to full strength, McKenzie said he’s ready for the 2020 season.
“One hundred percent healthy,” McKenzie said with a big smile. “One hundred percent ready to go. I’m excited.”
The Indians’ starting pitching depth is their biggest strength, and the front office certainly believes McKenzie can still play a big role, considering they added him to the 40-man roster. He’ll need to get some games under his belt after missing all of the ’19 season before he gets thrown more into the big leagues conversation, and he’s only reached Double-A Akron thus far. But the right-hander who posted a 2.68 ERA in 16 starts for Akron in 2018 could become an option for the Tribe in the near future, and has found himself as one of the club’s top pitching prospects along with Moss and Logan Allen.
“To be honest, I’m not even focused on that,” McKenzie said of being one of the top starters in the organization. “I’m just excited to go out there and pitch. But it’s exciting to be in that conversation, in general.”
Tyler Naquin tore his right ACL in an attempt to avoid crashing into the outfield wall at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg last August and underwent surgery to repair it in September. He was originally given a seven-to-nine month timetable, which would mean he’d return between April and June, but the outfielder can’t help but work to be back for March.
“[The target is] always Opening Day,” Naquin said. “I’m not sure. I don’t see it being too far after that if it has to go past that. It’s exciting. I’m kind of anxious to see when it actually happens.”
When the calendar flipped to February, Naquin had already advanced to doing a little running and some light sprints, but he was holding off on adding any agility for the time being. Indians manager Terry Francona mentioned at Tribe Fest on Feb. 1 that the coaching and medical staffs were likely going to have to tell him to slow down in his rehab just to make sure everything heals properly.
“I’m just playing it by ear,” Naquin said. “I’m obviously extremely excited to get back out there, but what they say goes. I’m just kind of trusting the process. I’m just listening to my body. It’s not my first surgery, unfortunately, but just taking it day by day. I feel really good though, so I think we’re progressing quickly.”
After having surgery in October to remove bone spurs from his right ankle, Roberto Pérez has reported to camp and will be unrestricted as workouts begin for pitchers and catchers on Thursday.