A year ago, no-one could have anticipated that TJ House would go on to start 18 games or that Tyler Holt would make 36 appearances for the Tribe. Both were relatively older prospects (24-25) coming off not especially impressive seasons at AAA/AA. Neither was rated highly (if at all) in the pre-season prospect lists - in fact, looking through the Baseball America Top 30, neither appeared on that list at all for 2012-14 (although House was a rated fairly highly in 2009-11 and Holt also appeared on the list in 2011). Both House and Holt (along with back-up catcher Roberto Perez) might therefore be regarded as "dark horses" who made good.
The question is: Are there any 2015 prospects who are similarly under the radar? First, we should define what we mean by "dark horse"? For the purposes of this article, let's say that it is a player aged 25 or under who has never appeared in an MLB game and doesn't appear in either the 2015 LGT Top 20 or Baseball America Top 30 prospect lists.
Anyhow, that strict criteria means that we have to exclude everyone who is on the 40-man roster as well as older players such as Audy Ciriaco, Anthony Gallas, Ollie Linton and Dustin Molleken and also the lower-rated BA prospects: Adam Plutko, Dace Kime, Casey Shane, Dorssys Paulino, Mike Clevinger, Grant Hockin and Ronny Rodriguez. (I've also excluded the suspended Duke von Schamann.)
So who are the dark horses? I've chosen 11 hitters and 12 pitchers who have a shot at making it to the MLB despite their currently "low" prospect status. I've listed their regular position, current age and the highest level they reached last season (although of course a few might start 2015 with a promotion). Today we start with the hitters.
Yandy Diaz (3B; age 23; 2014 A+)
A Cuban defector, Diaz didn't make his US pro debut until last April, when he promptly broke his wrist base-running in his very first game for the Mudcats, resulting in a two-month absence. However, he quickly made up for lost time and finished the season with a fine line of .286/.396/.367, showing good hitting ability and excellent plate discipline. He recently had a taste of ST action as a defensive replacement (where he continued the fine tradition of recent Tribe 3B by committing an error) and his fielding last year was very highly regarded. He figures to be the starting 3B in Akron this season.
Eric Haase (C; age 22; 2014 A+)
Haase was drafted in the 7th rd in 2011 and wasn't particularly highly regarded until he went on a .270/.338/.514 tear in Lake County last season, earning a late-season promotion to Carolina.
Clearly Haase's outstanding quality is his power (17 HRs in 2014), but he has struck out over 100 times in each of the past two years. Given that he is a power bat who isn't especially highly rated defensively, it's certainly possible that he eventually might end up playing elsewhere than catcher, either as a corner OF or 1B/3B.
Destin Hood (LF; age 24; 2014 Nationals AAA)
According to Baseball America's rankings, Hood was a top 20 prospect on the Nationals' farm for five successive years prior to 2014, after being drafted in the 2nd rd in 2008. (Interestingly, the Nationals paid him a $1.1 MM bonus to lure him away from a football scholarship as a wide receiver at Alabama.) However, his career stalled after some injury problems in 2012 and he ended up spending basically two full seasons at AA, before finally making it to AAA for 84 games in 2014. He did fare well in those games though, recording .294/.344/.482 with 10 HRs
Hood has played fairly often in ST, basically acting as one of Michael Brantley's main back-ups. It remains to be seen whether he will make it to Columbus, where the OF looks fairly crowded. You can never have too much prospect depth, but his chances of making the MLB with the Tribe aren't helped by the fact that he is probably better suited to LF than RF.
Alex Lavisky (C; age 24; 2014 AA)
Lavisky is a local boy, having gone to school at St Edward High (Lakewood). After the Tribe paid him a $1 MM bonus as an 8th rd pick in 2010, Lavisky was ranked as high as No.12 in the farm system by BA in 2012.
However, he has been limited by injuries in 2013, playing just 45 games, and last year he was the main back-up to Tony Wolters, making just 67 appearances. When he was on the field last year, he actually hit pretty well for a catcher (.278/.314/.369) so if he can stay healthy in 2015 he certainly has something to build upon.
Jake Lowery (C/1B; age 24; 2014 AA)
After a strong 2013, Lowery stalled when he went back to Akron in 2014, hitting just .201/.306/.329 (plate discipline has always been his forte) while splitting time between catcher and 1B/DH. He was originally taken in the 4th rd of the 2011 draft and won the Johnny Bench Award for the best catcher in college baseball that year, but he's always been better regarded as a hitter than he defensively, which obviously limits his upside in a position like catcher.
Lowery appeared in a few early ST games, so the Tribe clearly still thinks highly of him.
Jeremy Lucas (C; age 24; 2014 A+)
Since being drafted in the 12th rd in 2012, Lucas has made solid progress through the ranks and he ended up as the primary catcher in Carolina last season, hitting a very respectable .267/.363/.442. The AA/A+ catcher situation is very crowded with Wolters, Lavisky, Lowery, Monsalve and Haase all in the mix, so Lucas faces a tough task separating himself from the pack.
Alex Monsalve (C; age 22; 2014 A+)
The fifth(!) catcher on this list, Monsalve made his stateside debut way back in 2010, following a good year in the DSL. He first appeared at A+ in the middle of 2012, and after a brief spell at Akron in an injury-hit 2013, found himself back there for the 2014 season (since Wolters, Lavisky and Lowery were sharing the catching duties in AA). Although he hit decently (.265/.321/.384), he played fewer games at catcher than Lucas and is probably still beached at A+ for the time being.
Bryson Myles (LF; age 25; 2014 AA)
Myles was taken a couple of rounds after Lowery in 2011 and has made solid progress through the ranks, hitting .263/.333/.393 in 84 games at Akron last season. He doesn't have a strong arm and has been used primarily at LF in the last couple of years, which clearly limits his career prospects given how the Tribe's roster stacks up.
Luigi Rodriguez (OF, age 22; 2014 A+)
After signing for the Indians as an international free agent in 2009, the speedy, switch-hitting Rodriguez tore up the Dominican Summer League as a 17yo in 2010 and by mid-2011 was already at Lake County, reaching the lofty position of No.5 in the farm on BA's 2012 prospect list.
Having made the jump to A+ in mid-2013 Rodriguez was still pretty much on track, but a fairly underwhelming .250/.347./.366 line in 2014 has caused him to fall somewhat off the radar. It remains to be seen whether Rodriguez will start the new season with a promotion to AA, but having just turned 22, he still has time on his side if he can bounce back this year. His plate discipline is excellent - he amassed 50 walks in both 2012 and 2014.
Jordan Smith (RF; age 24; 2014 AA)
Smith is yet another hitter from the 2011 draft (9th rd pick). He progressed rapidly to AA in 2014, but didn't hit particularly well (.248/.300/.331).
Like Hood, Smith has been used reasonably often in ST, where he has played some CF as well as RF. I would imagine that he will repeat at Akron, given how congested the OF is at Columbus, but he will do well if he somehow manages to leapfrog Naquin and Ramsey as a lefty OF.
LeVon Washington (LF; age 23; 2014 A+)
If "#WashTime" is ever going to happen, it needs to happen sooner rather than later (although, I think we say that every year). Since being taken in the 2nd rd in 2010, Washington has been overtaken by a swathe of other OF prospects and has still never even made it to AA. Of course, the main reason for that has been a succession of injuries, but even last year he only managed 70 games (actually his most since 2011). Washington did actually hit pretty well (.294/.402/.393) in those games, but he still really needs to prove that he can stay on the field for a full season.
Next time we shall discuss the dark horse pitchers.