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Indians minor league midseason report

Which top prospects have overperformed and who has disappointed thus far in 2017?

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

With the All-Star break upon us for not just the MLB but also Triple-A and Double-A, it’s time to start taking a look at player performance. At this point in the season, players who are breaking out should no longer be considered flukes and neither should players who are stuggling.

I’ll take a look at each team in the Tribe’s full-season system and see who’s on the upswing and who has been a disappointment thus far in 2017. If a player has met expectations or not missed them by much, they won’t make the list.

Triple-A Columbus Clippers (46-42, 2nd in International League West)

Who’s up?

Shawn Morimando (LHP) - After a slow start to the 2017 season, Morimando has been a sensation. Something has clicked for the 24-year-old former 19th-round pick as he threw three complete game shutouts in a matter of four starts. The southpaw has given up one run or less in six of his last seven starts which has seen his ERA plummet from 5.26 to 3.29, good for fifth in the entire International League.

Julian Merryweather (RHP) - Merryweather is one of the few players who has already earned a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A this season. The 25-year old has the highest graded fastball in the Cleveland Indians system, which reaches the upper 90s and he throws it with impeccable control, having struck out 80 batters and walked just 17 this year. His first start with Columbus featured eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts. He’s been a bit more hittable since that start and he spent a couple weeks on the disabled list, but he’s definitely a player who’s stock has soared in the past two years.

Eric Stamets (SS) - Acquired in the David Murphy trade back in 2015, Stamets was seen as a glove-first prospect, but that has changed this season. After a rough start to 2017 which saw him demoted to Akron, Stamets has been on fire. Since April 29, the Dublin-native has batted .324 with 17 doubles and 11 home runs in a span of 52 games. The most home runs he’d ever hit in a season before was seven. Stamets has cemented himself as a future MLB player this season, but whether that happens with the Indians or not is the big question.

Who’s down?

Adam Plutko (RHP) - Once seen as a rising star in the Indians system, Adam Plutko has had a rough first-half in Columbus. He currently sits dead last among qualified pitchers in the International League in ERA at 6.56, and that’s not a small sample size. Plutko has simply been too hittable this season, giving up 96 base hits in 81.0 innings pitched. Opponents are batting .307 off him, including 15 home runs already in the first half. He’s often compared to Josh Tomlin, but you don’t want to be compared to Tomlin in that way.

Nellie Rodriguez (1B) - A slugging first baseman should never be batting ninth in the order, but Nellie Rodriguez is dead last among qualified hitters for the International League and it’s not even close. He’s batting .137 on the season and the second worst player is batting .204. Strikeouts have always been an issue for N-Rod, but this year, he’s whiffing in a ridiculous 42 percent of his at bats. The Indians just released Chris Colabello to give Rodriguez less competition at first base, but he needs to shape up fast or Bobby Bradley is going to push him out of the way.

Joe Colon (RHP) - Colon was seen as a solid depth reliever in the Indians farm system and has been on the 40-man roster, but he struggled this year out of the bullpen for Columbus, holding a 4.13 ERA. That wasn’t his death sentence, however. On July 1st, Colon was suspended for the rest of the season after he tested positive for selective Androgen receptor modulator LDG-4022. He was subsequently removed from the 40-man roster and his future with the Indians is likely over considering this was his second positive drug test in the last two years.

Double-A Akron RubberDucks (44-41, 3rd in the Eastern League West)

Who’s Up?

Thomas Pannone (LHP) - Pannone was the first Indians minor leaguer to earn a promotion this year after humiliating opposing hitters in High-A Lynchburg, not even giving up a run in five starts. While he hasn’t been quite as dominant in Double-A, he has still been very impressive with Akron, going 4-1 in 11 starts with a 2.39 ERA, which would be third best in the Eastern League if he was qualified (which he’s about to be). Pannone has been so good, he even made the All-Star team despite not arriving in Akron until May 8th.

Matt Esparza (RHP) - Esparza followed Pannone to Akron three weeks later on May 31st and unlike Pannone, he’s actually been even better in Double-A than he was in High-A Lynchburg. Since being promoted, Esparza’s strikeouts are slightly up, his ERA is down from 3.26 to 2.86 and he’s gone 5-1 in his seven starts. The talented right-hander is also going deeper into games, averaging at least making it into the seventh inning in each of his starts. He also struck out a season high 10 batters over eight solid innings in his Akron debut. He may not be on the top prospect lists, but Esparza is definitely putting a stamp on this season thus far.

Eric Haase (C) - While Bobby Bradley, Francisco Mejia, and Yu-Cheng Chang get all the All-Star, Home Run Derby, and top prospect love, it’s been back-up catcher Eric Haase who has really been leading Akron offensively this year. Chang has 19 home runs, Mejia is leading the Eastern League in hitting, and Bradley is playing better than anyone expected, but Haase, believe it or not, is actually leading the entire Eastern League in slugging percentage at .628. Haase is batting .275 and has blasted off for 17 home runs, tying a career high, and he’s done it in just 57 games and 207 at bats. The last time he hit 17 homers was in 2014 at Lake County, and he did it over the full season. Mejia may be the future at catcher, but Haase has proven himself this season as a very serviceable potential back-up or at least a solid trade chip.

Who’s Down?

Tyler Krieger (2B) - Tyler Krieger began the 2017 campaign with a ton of momentum, having played well for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, he batted .400 over the season’s first two weeks, but he has fallen off a cliff since then. Krieger’s batting average and spot in the batting order has steadily dropped since April 23 and he now sits at .228 heading into the All-Star break, good for fifth from last in the Eastern League. The 23-year old has talent, and had a breakout 2016 season where he batted .299 over two levels, but he hasn’t handled the adjustments pitchers are making to him well thus far in his first stint of Double-A.

Mark Mathias (2B) - Mark Mathias has struggled with injuries and performance all season. He separated his shoulder in spring training, then put up a horrid .212/.317/.308 slash over 34 games for Akron before finding himself back on the disabled list with left shoulder soreness on July 4. Mathias blasted 40 doubles last season but he’ll be lucky to hit double digits in this injury-riddled 2017 campaign.

Rob Kaminsky (LHP) - Coming off a very strong 2016 season, Rob Kaminsky was expecting to be promoted to Triple-A Columbus by now, but the injury bug has plagued him yet again. This year, Kaminsky was placed on the disabled list with left forearm soreness on April 19 and he has yet to be activated. Prior to his injury, he only made one start, giving up five runs in five innings while striking out just one batter. Kaminsky has now spent 161 days on the disabled list since the Indians acquired him for Brandon Moss in 2015 and has spent at least a month on the DL each season.

High-A Lynchburg Hillcats (53-35, 1st in Carolina League North)

Who’s Up?

Triston McKenzie (RHP) - Already ranked the top pitcher in the Indians farm system, McKenzie has been a revelation in his first year of full-season baseball, and he’s doing it against players who are on average over four years older than him in High-A. McKenzie is first in the Carolina League in strikeouts by a margin of 20, he’s fourth in ERA at 2.91 and he’s third in WHIP at 1.03 among qualified pitchers. Still just 19 years old and weighing just 165 pounds while standing 6-foot-5, McKenzie still has some growing to do, which makes him that much more exciting. He’s held up physically thus far having pitched more than any prior season already, so look for him to debut in Double-A within a month.

Shane Bieber (RHP) - Bieber was drafted just last season in the fourth round, but he’s sure as hell not playing like it. The right-hander simply doesn’t walk people. In 130 career innings, Bieber has only walked seven batters, and two of those were intentional. For reference, Josh Tomlin walks three times as many batters on average. Bieber recently qualified for the Carolina League and he’s fifth in WHIP at 1.10 and holds a respectable 3.16 ERA on the season. If he can keep this pace up, he’ll be shooting very quickly through the system.

Aaron Civale (RHP) - Civale, like Bieber, was a 2016 draft pick, except he was taken a round earlier. Also like Bieber, he does not walk many opposing hitters. In fact, Civale has only walked nine on the season in 106.2 innings and just one in his last six starts combined, spanning 39.1 innings. Unlike Bieber, however, Civale has been much less hittable. If he can keep up his current pace, Civale will be leading the Carolina League in WHIP at 0.93 once he qualifies, taking the top spot from fellow Hillcat Brock Hartson. Civale is also sporting a sensational 2.36 ERA through eight starts at High-A.

Willi Castro (SS) - Castro received some serious star treatment from MLB Pipeline at the beginning of the season as they ranked him No. 13 in the Indians system (We didn’t even have him top 20 at LGT). The 20-year old shortstop is living up to the hype thus far, currently sixth in the Carolina League in hits at 85 this season and batting a rock solid .286. He’s only one behind his career high in home runs and his walk rate has spiked from last year, jumping from 3.5 percent to 5.6 while his strikeout rate has dropped three percent. Defense is an issue as Castro has 19 errors already (compared to 25 all last season), but that’s something that can be worked on in time.

Sam Haggerty (2B) - From utility role player to featured leadoff star, Sam Haggerty has really risen his stock in 2017, making the Carolina League All-Star team, and leading all of MiLB in triples with 11 and leading all Indians minor league players in stolen bases with a whopping 28 (in 31 attempts). Haggerty was a 24th-round pick back in 2015, but you wouldn’t know it based on his production this year, as he’s already blasted 31 extra base hits, and that’s despite missing some time on the disabled list. Haggerty’s batting average has dipped since the first two months, but he’ll be hoping to return to form in the second half and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so.

Who’s Down?

Daniel Salters (C) - Salters looked like one of the next big things at catcher for the Indians when he skipped Single-A Lake County entirely last season and proceeded to make the Carolina League All-Star game anyway, even earning a promotion to Double-A, but he has not responded well to the emergence of top prospect Francisco Mejia, who took his place in Akron this year. Salters has completely lost it at the plate, struggling all season to stay above the Mendoza line. He’s currently batting .202 and he’s losing significant playing time to veterans Andrew Cervenka and Sicnarf Loopstok, who have outhit him severely this season in both average and power.

Andrew Calica (OF) - The Indians were very aggressive with Calica, a 2016 11th-round pick who tore the cover off the ball last year in Low-A and Single-A to the tune of a .382/.474/.556 slash line. I knew that would be tough to repeat, but in his first taste of High-A, his line has plummeted to .249/.343/.351 as he’s faced more seasoned pitching in the Carolina League. Calica’s walk rate has improved, but he’s not hitting for the same amount of power, he’s striking out twice as much as he was in Low-A and he’s also spent some time on the disabled list. Hopefully the second half is kinder to the 23-year old.

Single-A Lake County Captains (36-51, 8th in Midwest League East)

Who’s Up?

Tanner Tully (LHP) - Lake County began the 2017 season with five prospects from the Indians MLB Pipeline top 30 in their starting rotation. Aaron Civale and Shane Bieber pitched well and were promoted, and long reliever Tully was called upon to start. Tully has been by far the most consistent pitcher on the team since Civale and Bieber left. Despite lacking velocity, Tully is striking out more than one batter per inning while walking only one batter per nine for Lake County and he’s currently the only Captains even sniffing the top 10 in the Midwest League in ERA at 3.07 and WHIP (1.08). Tully even tossed six shutout innings in a spot start for Akron, which might have opened some eyes as well.

Mitch Longo (OF) - Wrist injuries have sidelined Longo all season, delaying his start due to a broken hamate bone, then putting him back on the disabled list for a month, but in the time he’s been healthy, Longo has been Lake County’s best hitter by a significant margin, batting .369 in 18 games and going a perfect 4-4 on stolen base attempts. It’s a small sample size, but Lake County hasn’t had much to be excited about this season due to most of the top offensive prospects from the 2016 draft beginning the year in Low-A Mahoning Valley.

Emmanuel Tapia (1B) - This is all about dingers. Tapia doesn’t post an elite walk rate (7.1 percent) and he strikes out too much (32 percent), but he can hit the ball out of the park. The 21-year-old is leading all Indians organization players in home runs this season with 20 already, blasting past his previous career high of six set last year. Tapia isn’t batting particularly well either (.238), but the extra base hits have him currently sporting a wRC+ of 115, so he’s at least worthy of keeping an eye on moving forward.

Who’s Down?

Brady Aiken (LHP) - Everyone had high expectations of Brady Aiken this season, the former first overall pick in the draft, as he entered his first year of full-season baseball and looked to return to form after 2015 Tommy John surgery, but it just hasn’t happened. Aiken has walked more batters (64) than he’s struck out (56) and he’s been hittable as well, surrendering 84 base hits in 84 innings pitched. This has led to a near Midwest League-worst WHIP of 1.76. Somehow, AIken has avoided disaster and kept his ERA at a mildly respectable 4.39, but that’s simply unsustainable at the current rate he’s allowing baserunners. He’s going to need to find his command soon or his prospect status is going to nosedive.

Gabriel Mejia (CF) - Potentially seen as a future leadoff candidate, Gabriel Mejia’s stock has plummeted this season. Mejia went from leading off for Lake County to batting ninth due a massive drop in walk rate (8.2 to 4.2) and batting average (.322 to .225). Mejia’s vaunted 80-grade speed was also not being showcased as he stole just four bases in 25 games while getting caught four times. He was placed on the disabled list on May 11th with a wrist injury and has yet to be activated. This is looking more and more like a lost season for Mejia.

Micah Miniard (RHP) - Standing 6’7 with a fastball that sits in the mid 90s, Miniard was primed for success this season in what many hoped would be a breakout campaign for the 21-year old, but it just hasn’t happened. Despite having solid velocity, Miniard has been unable to strike opposing hitters out, averaging less than one whiff per two innings. I’m not sure if this has to do with a lack of command or perhaps an inability to improve his secondary pitches, but Miniard is struggling, currently fifth from last in the Midwest League in ERA at 5.94 overall. The second half will be very important for his development if he wants to retain his prospect status moving forward as there are several recovering players like Zach Plesac and Grant Hockin in Low-A who are eyeing his rotation spot for next season.