The Cleveland Indians farm system had several players break out last season across all levels.
Some, like debuters Andrew Calica, Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale immediately contributed with insane numbers after being drafted. Others, like Matt Esparza, Oscar Gonzalez and Conner Marabell, exploded with huge seasons in their sophomore efforts after a slow feeling-out process in their initial campaigns. Then there were hot shots like Francisco Mejia and Anthony Santander (please come back to us!), who just needed a little extra seasoning at the lower levels before putting forth the best seasons of their young careers.
So what defines a breakout player?
To me, it’s someone who had a slow start to their career whether it was a tougher transition than they expected or they were hampered by injuries, but the potential is still there to rise to the occasion. There’s also the under-the-radar type who has been quietly putting up good numbers but just hasn’t been given much attention in any of the prospect rankings (current top prospects Greg Allen and Yandy Diaz come to mind).
Here are 10 prospects who I feel will have their stock rise big time in 2017
You don’t just go and become the number one overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft for no reason. Aiken’s talent is unquestioned, the real concern is his health.
You should know the story by now, that Aiken was selected first overall by Houston Astros in 2014, but failed to sign after the team panicked during his medicals. Those concerns came to fruition in 2015 when he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. The Indians drafted him anyways with their first round pick and he debuted in June of 2016.
Aiken has talent, but he wasn’t there physically last year, which is to be expected from Tommy John surgery recipients. His fastball velocity started out in the upper 80s when he’d previously peaked in the upper 90s. While his velocity started to return by the end of the season, his prospect status took a major hit as he was dropped off the MLB Pipeline top 100 and took a tumble in the Indians prospect rankings as well.
As long as Aiken can stay healthy, I think there’s a very good chance he returns to form in 2017. Mike Clevinger’s ERA was 9.53 in his first taste of pro action following his TJ surgery so there’s no reason to panic. I fully expect Aiken to have a solid season this year, hopefully starting out in the full season Lake County’s Single-A rotation.
An eighth-round draft pick in 2014 out of Boyle County High School in Kentucky, Micah Miniard has all the measurables that make scouts drool. The right-hander stands 6-foot-7, can reach the upper 90’s with his fastball and is still just 20 years old.
While he’s flown under the radar, taking it slow in his first three seasons, Miniard took a big leap forward in 2016, becoming the Opening Day starter for Low-A Mahoning Valley on a team that featured top pitching prospects Triston McKenzie and Juan Hillman. Miniard was excellent, holding a 2.38 ERA over seven starts before being promoted to Single-A Lake County.
His performance earned some attention and he debuted as the No. 30 Indians prospect on MLB Pipeline this past February. If he can continue to develop and harness his athleticism, there’s some serious potential for him to make a big leap in the prospect rankings.
Dylan Baker has been one of the unluckiest players in the Indians farm system. After debuting with a perfect six innings in 2014 at High-A, he was shelved with a broken ankle. He came back in 2015 with five innings of no-hit ball in his first start and was promptly forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Baker missed the remainder of 2015 and all of 2016 after needing a clean-up procedure plus some bone spur removal. What’s interesting is the fact that the Indians chose to stash him on the 40-man roster once he became eligible last year and he’s remained there ever since.
The 6-foot-2 Alaskan appears healthy now. He won the conditioning test for all Indians pitchers at the Goodyear facility this past February and has finally stepped back on the mound in some spring training minor league games for Akron. His days of being a starting pitcher are likely over, but he has a live arm and could earn a roster spot via the bullpen route.
Regardless, 2017 is likely a make or break season for Baker.
Ben Krauth couldn’t have started his professional career better. After being drafted in the 16th round out of Kansas in 2016, the southpaw promptly threw 30 scoreless innings.
Krauth doesn’t blow away hitters, but he displayed spectacular control as a long relief option out of the AZL and Mahoning Valley bullpen and was forcing batters to swing at his pitches. He was even promoted to Single-A Lake County before the season was over.
The former Jayhawk will continue being promoted as long as he’s successful and it wouldn’t shock me to see him get tested out as a starter this year instead of just piggy-backing with another starter who has a limited pitch count. Krauth was stretched out up to four innings last year and it’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old performs against some more experienced bats this year, but the potential definitely is there for continued success.
If you don’t know who Francisco Perez, don’t be too hard on yourself. The 19-year-old Dominican import hasn’t pitched above the Arizona Rookie League yet in two seasons, but those two seasons have been very impressive.
Standing 6-foot-2 and already hitting the mid-90s as a southpaw, Perez blew opposing batters away last year to the tune of a 2.69 ERA and a rock solid 1.02 WHIP in 13 starts for the AZL Indians, good enough to garner him Pitcher of the Year honors for the level.
There’s no need to rush Perez, so don’t expect him in Cleveland anytime soon, but don’t be shocked if he takes a big leap this season and finally gets his name on some prospect rankings.
Taken in the 20th round of the 2015 draft, Luke Wakamatsu was considered a downright steal. Most teams expected him to play college ball at Rice so he plummeted in the draft, but the Indians took a chance and a $290,000 signing bonus convinced him otherwise.
The son of Kansas City Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu possesses a huge frame (6-foot-3) for the shortstop position and could develop some extra pop in his bat, but first he’ll have to stay healthy. He was expected to have a big year in 2016, but a shoulder strain limited him to just 17 relatively unproductive games.
Wakamatsu appears ready for a fresh start this year and the 20-year-old is hoping for a big bounce-back season offensively to get himself back on the radar among scouts and fans alike.
Another late draft pick, the 19th round of the 2015 draft, Todd Isaacs had a very solid under-the-radar season last year for Low-A Mahoning Valley.
After a rough 2015 debut which saw him bat .214 over 37 games for the AZL Indians, Isaacs blossomed in 2016 hitting a very impressive .333/.384/.514 while manning the Scrappers outfield.
The Indians didn’t quite know what they had in Issacs last year, initially batting him 9th in the order and using him for late game pinch runner duties, but by the end of the year, he was batting second and was a consistent contributor. Strikeouts are a bit of a concern as he whiffed 45 times compared to just eight walks, but hopefully that’s something he can work on to really help him stand out this upcoming season.
Another 2015 draft pick, this time in the fifth round, Ka’ai Tom was well on his way to breaking out last year before his season was derailed with a fluke injury. The speedy outfielder was batting .323 and had walked 23 times compared to just 13 strikeouts over 28 games when he injured his shoulder diving back to first base on a pick-off attempt.
If he had stayed healthy, Tom would likely have been included in the talented core of players who were promoted midseason to High-A Lynchburg like Francisco Mejia, Tyler Krieger, Thomas Pannone, Matt Esparza, Connor Marabell and Willi Castro.
Tom appears ready to go and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians promote him to High-A to start the season where he can join some of his teammates from last year. As long as he can stay in the lineup, expect some serious production and a rising stock. His bat is simply too good for the lower levels at this point.
Many mock drafts last year had Ulysses Cantu going as early as the second round, and all the rankings had him listed as one of the top 100 players available, but for some reason, team after team passed him by when it was go-time.
The Indians eventually picked him up in the sixth round with the 152nd overall selection, but they weren’t exactly able to see him at his best when he debuted with the AZL Indians last summer. Normally a third baseman, Cantu was bothered by an arm injury which limited him to first base and DH duties for the season, where he batted a pedestrian .202 with just one home run and two doubles in 30 games.
Cantu’s arm appears to be healthy now and I fully expect his offensive production to skyrocket. He definitely has plus power potential despite his stocky 5-foot-11 frame, and he should be getting some steady reps at third base this time around as well. As long as he did the right things this offseason, things can go nowhere but up for Cantu in 2017.
Who? Jose Fermin was the No. 28-ranked international prospect when the Indians signed him as a 16-year old in 2015. He debuted at shortstop for the DSL Indians last year but was shut down for the rest of the season after a home plate collision with an opposing catcher caused a knee injury.
Thankfully, Fermin was able to avoid surgery and he not only appears to be fully healthy, but he’s been playing with the big boys in minor league spring training. Despite playing at the DSL level last year, he’s been getting some reps with the High-A club this spring and has been holding his own, reaching base safely 6 times in 16 at bats thus far.
Having just turned 18 years old two days ago, Fermin is the furthest away from the big leagues of any prospect listed here, but he could definitely be one to keep an eye this year at whatever level he winds up playing.