Saturday, March 7, 2020

2020 Lynchburg Hillcats Prospect Preview

The Indians don't have many top tier prospects in the upper minors.  However, below High A, the Indians are stacked with as much talent and depth as any organization especially with middle infielders and pitching.  There 2017 international free agent class is looking like a potential monster.

The Indians have had a winning record for seven years in a row.  There budget is not as large as the big market teams but they are a well run organization under Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff. In recent years they have been very good at acquiring talent both through the draft and international free agents.  The Indians are also very successful at developing talent especially pitchers. 

There is a very good crop of prospects that will likely begin the year with Lake County in the Midwest League and could make it to Lynchburg by the end of the year.  There is then another crop of prospects that could finish 2020 in Lake County and spend time in Lynchburg in 2021. 

Best Guess on Assignments
Position  Prospect  Assignment
2B Aaron Bracho Most likely Lake County to start. If he is playing well, he could finish the year in Lynchburg
Bo Naylor Most likely Lynchburg.
SS Brayan Rocchio Lake County to start.  Could be promoted to Lynchburg mid season if he is playing well.
RHP Carlos Vargas Most likely Lake County to start. If he pitches well, he could finish the year in Lynchburg.
RHP Cody Morris Lynchburg more likely than Akron to start.
RHP Daniel Espino Most likely Lake County to start. If he pitches well, he could finish the year in Lynchburg.
RHP Ethan Hankins Most likely Lake County to start.  If he pitches well, he should be in Lynchburg before too long.
SS Gabriel Rodriguez AZL most likely to start with a promotion to Mahoning Valley likely.
CF George Valera Lake County to start.  Could be promoted to Lynchburg mid season if he is playing well.
RHP Hunter Gaddis Lake County or Lynchburg to start.  Should be in Lynchburg for a good portion of the season.
RHP Jean Carlos Mejia Based on his spring performance, Akron is more likely than Lynchburg.
2B Jose Fermin Lynchburg
LHP Juan Hillman Lynchburg or Akron.  It may come down to whether there is a rotation slot available in Akron.
RHP Luis Oviedo Lake County to start.  Could be promoted to Lynchburg mid season if he is pitching well.
LHP Raymond Burgos Lake County to start.  Could be promoted to Lynchburg mid season if he is pitching well.
2B Richard Palacios May start at Lake County but should be on Lynchburg once he shows he is healthy.
CF Steven Kwan Akron
SS Tyler Freeman Lynchburg most likely to start with a promotion to Akron likely mid-year.
RF Will Benson Lynchburg

Returning Hillcats Prospects

Will Benson (6'5" 225 lbs DOB 6-16-98 RF LL 1st round in 2016) is an exceptional athlete that seems to need time to adjust at each level.  Benson is built like an NFL tight end and is a three outcome player with a rare power and speed combination that is never going to hit for a high batting average.  

Benson struggled in 2018 in the Midwest League at Lake County (.180 average and .694 OPS) but was exceptional in the first half of 2019 at Lake County (18 homers and 18 steals with a .894 OPS in 62 games) before getting promoted to Lynchburg.  Benson had the exact same number of at bats in Lynchburg as he had in Lake County but he only had 15 extra bases hits with the Hillcats versus 33 with the Captains.   His home run to fly ball percentage went from 24% with Lake County to 5.8% with Lynchburg which can partially be attributed to luck and that Calvin Falwell Field is a poor park for power hitters.

There is a lot to like with Benson including his patience at the plate (14% walk rate) and strong defense in rightfield (he covers a lot of ground and has an exceptional arm).   The hit tool is the big question mark.  It is going to be a slow rise through the Indians system but as long as he progresses each year he will get there.  There are few prospects that can match Benson's athletic skills.

Lynchburg or Akron

Tyler Freeman (6'0" 170 lbs DOB 5-21-99 SS RR CBB in 2017) was the 71st pick in the draft out of high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California.  Freeman has consistently hit as a professional as he has steadily moved up the organization despite being very young for each level. For Freeman's career he has hit .319 / .379 /.820.  

There is some question about whether any of his other tools besides hitting are plus.  Freeman's defense is solid, but he may not have the arm to stick at shortstop.  Freeman has hit a lot of doubles (32 in 2019), but his flyball distance of 270.9 feet were 150th out of 161 players in High A as tracked by Prospects Live.  Freeman stole 19 bases out of 24 attempts in 2019 which is more a product of being a smart baserunner than a speedster.

It is expected that Freeman will follow a similar timetable as Nolan Jones did in 2019 and play in Lynchburg for the first half of 2020 before getting promoted to Akron in the second half. Freeman is very solid with a very high floor.  It is hard to imagine Freeman not having a long major league career.  

Juan Hillman (6'2" 200 lbs DOB 5-15-97 LHP 2nd round in 2015) is making slow but steady progress since being the 59th overall pick in the draft five years ago.  Hillman has been very durable as a pro and had his best year of his professional career in his first year at High A.

Hillman was streaky in 2019.  He had a three start stretch in May where he did not give up any earned runs and closed the year by allowing only four earned runs in his last 26.1 innings.  Hillman is not a hard thrower and he only struck out 16.4% of batters, but he only walked 6.8% of batters.  He can keep hitters off balance with a change up that can be a plus pitch at times. Hillman may begin the year in Lynchburg but should eventually get a chance in Akron.

Cody Morris (6'5" 222 lbs DOB 11-4-96 RHP 7th round in 2018) is a big hard thrower that has not put it all together yet.  Morris had two rough starts at the very end of the year that inflated his ERA and WHIP.  Morris had Tommy John surgery and missed the 2016 season.  He was a solid starting pitcher for South Carolina in the SEC for two years (122.2 innings allowing 108 hits and 39 walking while striking out 134.

Morris can throw in the mid nineties and has improved his change up and slider since being drafted by the Indians.  It seems like Morris has the talent to have better results and 2020 should tell a lot about whether he can take it to another level.

Jean Carlos Mejia ( 6'4" 240 lbs DOB 8-26-96 RHP 2014 IFA signing) a talented big pitcher that has not thrown many innings. Mejia began his pro career in 2014 after receiving a $450,000 bonus from the Indians, but has never thrown 100 innings in a season.  Mejia got off to a fast start with Lynchburg in 2019, but hurt his hip which caused him to miss a month in Mid April.  He came back briefly in mid May but did not pitch after June 7th.  Mejia is in his seventh year as a pro in 2020, but has only thrown 39 innings at High A and will be twenty four in August.

Mejia throws in the low or mid nineties and has a decent curveball and slider.  He also throws a change up that is still a work in progress.  Mejia is on the Indians forty man roster and has been very impressive in spring training for the Indians. Mejia is a skilled pitcher that could move up quickly if he stats healthy and gets a full season of work in. 

Likely To Be Promoted to Akron

Steven Kwan (CF)- a 2018 5th round fifth round draft pick from Oregon State.  A short prototypical leadoff hitter who has a good approach at the plate.  He walked 53 times and struck out 51 times in 2019.   Kwan looks like a potential back up outfielder.   He would be a lot more interesting if he was a little faster.

In 2019 was assigned to High A for his first full season as a pro.  Kwan got off to a great start (.352 / .438 / .922 in April) and finished strong (.372 / .433 / .955 in August) but was mediocre in the middle of season.  He should be a starting outfielder for the RubberDucks in 2020. 

New Hillcats Prospects

Jose Fermin (5' 11" 160 lbs DOB 3-29-99 INF RR 2015 IFA) gets overlooked with the Indians many high upside Indians infield prospects, but Fermin is a good looking prospect.  Fermin was signed for $500,000 as a sixteen year old in 2015 and has steadily improved each year as he has gotten stronger.  In his first year in full season ball in 2019, Fermin walked (42) more than he struck out (40) and stole 28 bases in 37 attempts. Fermin is solid at both second and shortstop but will likely primarily be a second basemen going forward. 

Fermin displayed a bit more power in 2019 with six of his nine career homers.  Fermin is an excellent contact hitter with good good speed and defense.  The fact that there are multiple top thirty Indians lists that do not include Fermin says a lot about the Indian depth.  Fermin should be the Hillcats regular second basemen in 2020 and has a decent shot to big a major league regular for someone in a few years. 

Richard Palacios (5'11" 180 lbs DOB 5-16-97 2B LR 3rd round in 2018) due to the injury that cost him all of 2019, not much has changed from last year for Palacios.

Last year I wrote the following;

Palacios can hit and has good speed.  From a baseball family, he grew up in Brooklyn and went to Towson University.  After signing with the Indians, Palacios quickly established that he was too good for short season ball. He played the last 20 games for Lake County where he hit .300.  Whether Palacios can stay in the infield and if he hit with some power, will likely determine Palacios' level of success.

Palacios will look to get the rust off and get back in his groove early in 2020. 

Luis Oviedo (6'4" 170 lbs DOB 5-15-99 RHP 2015 IFA) had a lot of prospect buzz coming into 2019 after a big year in 2018, but it was a lost year for Oviedo.  Oviedo's velocity was way down in 2019 and he did not pitch after July 17th.  It was later revealed that Oviedo had back surgery.  In addition, Oviedo was not in the best shape. Oviedo may have been 50 more pounds than his listed 170 pound weight. He reported to spring training in 2020 looking like he lost some weight. 

In 2018 when Oviedo was at his best, he was throwing in the mid nineties occasionally getting in the upper nineties.  His change up has the potential to be a plus pitch.  Oviedo is still working on refining his curveball and slider.  Oviedo will start the year in Lake County but could be promoted to Lynchburg quickly if he gets off to a good start and appears to be throwing like he was in 2018.

Ethan Hankins (6'6"200 lbs DOB 5-23-00 RHP 2018 1st round compensation pick) dropped significantly in the 2018 draft after he hurt his arm, but Hankins has had no health issues as a pro.  Although Hankins has yet to win a game in thirteen career stats, he was very sharp for Mahoning Valley in the NY Penn League and got promoted to Lake County for five starts at the end of the year. Overall in 2019, Hankins pitched 60 innings allowing 43 hits and 30 walks while striking out 71.  

Hankins throws in the mid nineties and made good progress in 2019 on improving his curveball and change up, both of which potentially can be plus pitches.  Hankins has a great pitcher's body with tremendous talent and he is in a organization that know how to develop pitchers.  Hankins could be a top ten pitching prospect by the end of the year.

George Valera  (5'10" 160 lbs DOB 11-13-00 CF LL 201 IFA) is a prime example of how a prospect can get overhyped without playing and then when he does play, it is considered disappointing  when he actually did quite well.   Valera was one of the top players in the 2017 international free agent class.  He skipped the DSL and went straight to the AZL in 2018 where he broke his hamate bone  after six games and missed the rest of the season.  In 2019 with barely any pro experience, Valera played with Mahoning Valley in the NY Penn League as an eighteen year old. Valera held his own but did not dominate.  He played about two thirds of the NY Penn season and only six players had more homers than Valera who had eight homers and a .802 OPS.

Although Valera did strikeout too much in 2019, he has an elite hit tool with good power despite his size.  Valera is a good, but not great athlete.  He is not going to be a base stealer and is likely going to end up as a leftfielder with a below average arm. However, Valera's bat should carry him to career as a major league regular.  

Bo Naylor (6'0" 195 lbs DOB 2-21-00 C LR 1st round in 2018) had an impressive season as a teenager in the Midwest League (243 / .313 / .734 with 39 extra base hits and only 23% strikeout rate) from a cold weather background.  When Naylor was drafted there was questions about whether he could stick at catcher, but Naylor had a strong year behind the plate (throwing out 36.7% of base stealers  and allowing 14 passed balls) and looks like he will be at least an average defensive catcher.

 Naylor is a skilled hitter that could move through the Indians system even quicker if was not focused on making it as a catcher. Naylor may not quite have the power of his brother, Josh (Padres) but he is a far better athlete at a premium position, which gives him a much better chance at being an impact major leaguer.  

Raymond Burgos (6'5" 170 lbs DOB 11-29-98 LHP 18th round in 2016) the Indians selected Burgos out of high school in Puerto Rico knowing that he would require Tommy John surgery.  After having the surgery and rehabbing, Burgos made his pro debut in the AZL in 2018 pitching 58 innings and ended his season with an impressive start with Mahoning Valley.  Last season, Burgos was given an aggressive assignment with Lake County and pitched reasonably well for eight starts before missing the remainder of the year with a stress fracture in his elbow.

Burgos is a talented pitcher that needs to stay healthy and get innings in.  Burgos can throw in the low to mid nineties with good control.   His slider flashes plus and his change up is still a work in progress.  Watching Burgos pitch, his style reminds me of David Price.

Carlos  Vargas (6'3" 180 lbs DOB 10-13-99 RHP 2016 IFA signing) a hard thrower that made huge strides in 2019.  Vargas was signed out of the Dominican Republic for a $275,000 bonus as a sixteen year old.  Vargas missed 2017 with an elbow strain. In 2018 in the AZL Vargas walked 15.6% of hitters.  In 2019 with Mahoning Valley, Vargas only walked 7.4% of batters.  While the control has gotten better, the command still needs a lot of work.  A pitcher with Vargas' stuff should have a better BAA (.250) in the 
NY Penn League.  

Vargas throws in the mid to upper nineties and he has potentially a very good slider.  At this point, Vargas really does not have a third pitch which makes the chances that he winds up in the bullpen high.  Vargas will likely begin 2020 in Lake County.

Brayan Rocchio (5'10" 150 lbs DOB 1-13-01 SS SR 2017 IFA signing) it is easy to tell that the Indians really like Rocchio because despite being so young, he has played in spring training games for the Tribe in 2019 and 2020. Rocchio is very advanced for his age, with a high baseball IQ and an all around game.  He hits the ball surprisingly hard given his size.  Rocchio is very fast, but does need to become more efficient on the bases.

Rocchio has the defensive skills and arm to stick at shortstop.  One of the questions with a slightly built player that is as young as Rocchio, is how much he will grow as he matures and how it will impact his game. In Rocchio's case, so far he has not grown much and his measurements still seem pretty accurate.  Rocchio will likely begin 2020 with Lake County and if he performs well could be promoted to Lynchburg in the middle of the season when Tyler Freeman should move up to Akron.

Aaron Bracho (5'11" 175 lbs DOB 4-24-01 2B SR 2017 IFA signing) is an offensive first second basemen that is an extremely advanced hitter.  Bracho received a $1.5 million signing bonus out of Venezuea.  He broke his arm and missed all of 2018.  Bracho made his professional debut in 2019 in the AZL and was very impressive with a 1.009 OPS in thirty games with six homers and more walks than strikeouts.  Bracho was promoted to Mahoning for the last eight games of the year and hit two more homers. 

Bracho is unlikely to be more than average second basemen defensively but the bat is his calling card. My guess is that Bracho is assigned to Lake County to begin 2020 but it is possible that the Indians keeps Bracho in extended spring training until short season ball begins since his experience is so limited.  Bracho is more likely to make it to Lynchburg in 2021, but if he hits in Lake County could debut in the Carolina League at the end of 2020.

Notable Cleveland Indians 2019 Draft Picks

The Indians draft was focused on younger players so the impact on the 2020 Hillcats is likely minimal especially at the beginning of the year.  The Indians seem to like players named Will whose last name begins with B.

Round  Pick Player Age Position School Bonus
1 24 Daniel Espino 18 P Georgia Premier Academy $2,500,000
2 63 Yordys Valdes 17 SS McArthur HS $1,000,000
3 101 Joseph Naranjo 18 1B Rueben S. Ayala HS $770,000
4 130 Christian Cairo 17 SS Calvary Christian HS $955,000
5 160 Hunter Gaddis 21 P Georgia State $415,000
6 190 Jordan Brown 17 SS Junipero Serra HS $230,000
7 220 Xzavion Curry 20 P Georgia Tech $125,000
8 250 Will Brennan 21 CF Kansas State $163,900
9 280 Will Bartlett 18 C IMG Academy $275,000
11 340 Nick Mikolajchak 21 P Sam Houston State $125,000
12 370 Allan Hernandez 18 P Miami Christian School $140,000
13 400 Micah Pries 21 CF Point Loma Nazarene $125,000
14 430 Ike Freeman 20 SS North Carolina $125,000
15 460 Trey Benton 20 P East Carolina $100,000
27 820 Landy Pena 17 SS $125,605

Daniel Espino (6'2"205 lbs DOB 1-5-01 RHP) Espino is a very advanced pitching prospect given his age so it is possible he could reach Lynchburg in the second half of 2020.  He is a very hard thrower with solid off speed pitches.

Espino is a divisive prospect.  His supporters thought the bias against high school right handed pitching prospects caused Espino to go later in the draft than he should have.  His critics point to his violent delivery as an injury risk and his lacks projection because of his physical maturity.     

Hunter Gaddis (6'6" 212 lbs DOB 4-9-98 RHP) Gaddis was dominant in mostly three inning stints in the AZL and NY Penn League after being drafted out of college.  The Indians track record with finding and developing pitching, his size and his 2019 performance make Gaddis a name to watch.

One Down the Road To Monitor

Yordes Valdes (18 year old SS), Joe Naranjo (18 year old 1B), Jose Tena (18 year old SS), Lenny Torres (19 year old RHP), Jhonkensy Noel (18 year old 1B), Alexfri Planez (18 year old OF), Yainer Diaz (21 year old C), Bryan Lavastida (21 year old C), Raynel Delgado (19 year old SS), and Johnathan Rodriguez (20 year old RF) are all prospects that have previously played stateside. If things go well, many of these prospects could reach Lynchburg in 2021.  

Junior Sanquintin (18 year old SS), Angel Martinez (18 year old SS), Maick Collado (17 year old SS), Jose Pastrano (17 year old SS), and Luis Durango (17 year old CF)  are prospects that have yet to play stateside.  Sanquintin and Martinez are likely to start the season in the AZL while Collado, Pastrano and Durango will likely begin in the DSL.

Gabriel  Rodriguez (6'2" 174 lbs DOB 2-22-02 SS RR 2018 IFA signing) has a long lean athlete build that is extremely projectable.  Rodriguez did not have great results in the DSL but it easy to see the potential.  The Indians promoted Rodriguez to the AZL for the final month of 2019.  

Rodriguez may eventually become too big to play shortstop and could move to third base.  It may take Rodriguez sometime to put it all together, but only a bad hit tool or injuries have the potential to be his undoing.