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Cleveland Indians 2015 draft in review

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Who were the hits and misses of the Tribe’s 2015 draft that featured current number one Indians prospect Tristen McKenzie?

Mathew Carper

As we kick off our coverage of the upcoming 2019 MLB draft, I’ll be reviewing the last four Cleveland Indians drafts, which have added considerable depth to the Tribe minor league system. If you want to turn back time for immediate reactions to this draft, you can find the original Let’s Go Tribe review here.

Just FYI, the age listed below is the age of the players when they were drafted just under four years ago, so just add four years for their current age.

1 (17). Brady Aiken. LHP. Age 18. $2.5MM bonus.

Originally the #1 pick in the 2014 draft but unsigned, Brady Aiken was still on the board at #17 and despite having undergone Tommy John surgery, the Indians took a shot on him.

That shot is looking worse and worse four years later.

Aiken missed all of 2015 while recovering and after a brief stint in short season ball in 2016, he made his full season debut in 2017 for Single-A Lake County. It didn’t go well. Aiken held a 4.77 ERA after a full season at Lake County, allowing 134 hits and walking 101 in just 132 innings pitched. His 1.78 WHIP was one of the worst of all minor league full season players that year.

In an attempt to get Aiken back on track, the Indians kept him at extended spring training for the entire 2018 season working on mechanics and getting him into excellent shape, hoping to hit the reset button for his career.

Aiken returned as a bullpen arm this season for Lake County and it didn’t go well. In both appearances out of the bullpen, he only managed to get one out before being pulled. His line for the season is 0.2 innings pitched, one hit, six walks and three earned runs allowed. After his second appearance, he was pulled from full season ball and was most recently seen working out at the Driveline facility. Perhaps Kyle Boddy can fix him.

Aiken’s stock obviously has taken a complete nosedive.

1A (42). Triston McKenzie. RHP. Age 17. $2.3MM bonus. Interview

Drafted out of Royal Palm Beach High School in Florida, McKenzie is currently the No. 1 ranked Indians prospect. Here’s what Indians scouting director Brad Grant had to say about the youngster after drafting him:

”Triston McKenzie, we have a high school right-handed starter. He still is young at 17, and he’s got a lot of upside to him. Tall, thin frame, 6-5, 160 pounds. What we like with Triston is it’s the fastball that’s up to 93, another one who can spin a curveball, a guy with a good feel for the changeup. And Triston as well throws a lot of strikes and has a very good delivery.”

After embarrassing hitters in 2016 over 83 innings, McKenzie was given an aggressive assignment to High-A Lynchburg, where he thrived. McKenzie led all minor leaguers in strikeouts in 2017, was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year and pitched in the Futures Game that year.

McKenzie has stalled out since while dealing with injuries. His 2018 season was delayed two months for precautionary reasons, although he did pitch well, and he has yet to pitch in 2019 after suffering a back injury in Spring Training. It seems McKenzie’s inability to pack on any bulk to his frame may be catching up to him as he’s only gained about five pounds since he was drafted.

2 (59). Juan Hillman. LHP. Age 18. $825K bonus. Interview

The godson of former reliever Tom Gordon, Juan Hillman was hoping to follow fellow pre-draftee McKenzie into stardom, but it has taken the Florida native a bit longer to find himself.

After a decent 2016, Hillman struggled in his full season debut in 2017 in Lake County, finishing the year with a pretty ugly 6.08 ERA. Hillman repeated 2018 at Lake County and didn’t fare much better, actually increasing his walk rate although he did slightly drop his ERA to 5.18. Some questioned how seriously Hillman was taking his baseball career.

But then something interesting happened. Fellow 2018 prospect Todd Isaacs took Hillman under his wing and he entered this 2019 season in tremendous shape. The results have showed, as Hillman has put up career best numbers despite being promoted to High-A Lynchburg.

Through 10 starts and 57 innings pitched in 2019, Hillman has allowed just 17 earned runs, cutting his 2018 ERA in half to 2.68. His strikeout numbers aren’t particularly impressive, whiffing 36 batters, but he’s reduced his walk rate, WHIP and batting average against. He’s also becoming a workhorse, pitching into the seventh inning in three of his last four starts.

Hillman could regain a bit of luster he’s lost from his prospect status if he can keep these results up.

3 (93). Mark Mathias. 2B/RHH Age 20. $550K bonus.

The first position player drafted by the Indians in 2015, Mathias skipped Single-A Lake County entirely in 2016, and made it to Double-A by the end of the season.

Unfortunately, injuries really halted Mathias’ momentum, beginning with a separated shoulder he suffered in Spring Training of 2017. Mathias struggled and repeated at Akron in both 2017 and 2018, but seems to have made a breakthrough after being promoted to Triple-A Columbus to start the 2019 season, where he’s currently slashing .281/.354/.446 through 39 games played.

Mathias likely isn’t a long-term solution at second base, but he could be a solid stop-gap for the 2020 season while the team waits for Tyler Freeman to arrive.

4 (124). Tyler Krieger. 2B/SH. Age 21. $400K bonus.

After missing all of 2015 with a shoulder injury, Krieger was a revelation in 2016 for both Lake County and Lynchburg after a mid-season promotion, slashing .299/.377/.417 between both levels.

Krieger couldn’t blame the injury bug, he just stunk in 2017, however, hitting just .225/.303/.337. in his first taste of Double-A. He improved his offense significantly in 2018 after the Indians moved him from second base to the outfield in a repeat stint in Double-A, but he again was switched back to the infield for this season and has struggled again offensively..

Krieger has primarily played in Double-A this season but has been sent up and down to Triple-A as infield depth when players have gotten injured. It really seems like he’s stalling out as a prospect.

5 (154). Ka’ai Tom. CF/LHH. Age 21. $250K bonus. Interview

Blaze Ka’ai Tom has played well at every level, and has shown a power spike in 2019 while repeating at Double-A. After hitting a career best 12 home runs in 2018 over 121 games, Tom already has eight big flies through 47 games this season. He leads Akron in OPS at .839 and is coming off being named Eastern League Player of the Week.

6 (184). Jonas Wyatt. RHP. Age 17. $253K bonus. Interview

Wyatt was like Icarus, burning bright briefly, but flying too close to the sun. He was spectacular in his first eight games for the AZL Indians after being drafted, striking out 20 in 16.2 innings while only giving up three runs on eight hits in 2015. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery and was never able to get his mojo back. Wyatt pitched just one inning in 2017 and then just 3.2 innings in 2018, allowing seven runs in his combined stints and spending more time on the disabled list. The Indians unfortunately released him before the 2019 season began.

7 (214). Nathan Lukes. OF/LHH. Age 20. $130K bonus.

Lukes was rock solid in his time with the Indians, earning a promotion to High-A at mid-season last year, but he was sent to Tampa Bay as one of two pieces in the Brandon Guyer trade in 2016. He’s currently batting just .196 in Triple-A for the Rays organization.

8 (244). Justin Garza. C/LHH. Age 21. $170K bonus.

Similar to Brady Aiken, Garza underwent Tommy John surgery prior to the 2015 draft after a slight tear in his UCL during what was a strong season for Cal State Fullerton.

Garza’s results thus far have been mixed. His best season was an injury shortened 2018, where he sported a 3.71 ERA through 68 inning pitched at High-A Lynchburg, but unfortunately his numbers have gotten worse in his repeat stint there this season. Garza’s walks are up, his strikeouts are down and he’s giving up more than twice as many home runs.

9 (274). Devon Stewart. RHP. Age 22. $5K bonus.

Stewart had trouble getting batters out, holding an 8.10 ERA for Lake County in 2016 and he was released by the team on March 23, 2017.

10 (304). Billy Strode LHP. Age 22. 5K bonus.

A left-handed reliever, Strode was dominant in both 2015 and 2016, quickly ascending through the Tribe minor league system, but he stalled out at High-A Lynchburg. He repeated two seasons at Lynchburg in 2017 and 2018, putting up worse numbers each year and was released in the middle of the 2018 season.

12 (364). Ryan Perez. LHP. Age 21. $80K bonus.

The infamous switch pitcher, Perez could hit at least 95 mph with both arms, but he never held an ERA lower than 5.02 out of the bullpen with opponents batting over .300 against him for his career and he was released by the Indians prior to the 2017 season.

13 (394). Daniel Salters. C/LHH. Age 22.

Salters looked like he could become a top catching prospect in 2016, skipping Lake County altogether and then making the Carolina League All-Star team before earning a promotion to Double-A, but then he stalled out badly.

He was surpassed by super prospect Francisco Mejia, did not hit well for Double-A in 2016 and was demoted back to Lynchburg for 2017. He couldn’t get past Double-A and voluntarily retired earlier this month.

14 (424). Matt Esparza. RHP. Age 20. Interview

Esparza had a breakout 2016 campaign for the Indians, leading all Tribe full-season pitchers in strikeouts for the year at 141. He had a decent following with the #TeamEsparza fan club on Lets Go Tribe.

Esparza struggled in his first taste of Double-A, then battled injuries for most of 2018. The Indians left him open to be taken in the minor league Rule 5 draft and the Angels selected him last November, but he retired before pitching an inning in the Angels system.

18 (544). Anthony Miller. 1B/LHH Age 20.

Miller never hit particularly well at any level until repeating at High-A Lynchburg in 2018, where he sported a career best slash of .264/.363/.432 over 74 games. Like Esparza, the Indians left Miller unprotected in November and he was selected by the Oakland A’s. He’s currently hitting just .188 in his first taste of Double-A in the Oakland system.

19 (574) Todd Isaacs. OF/RHH. Age 19.

The Bahamas native Isaacs was more known for having a great personality than his ability to fill the stat sheet as an Indians prospect, hosting the home run derby in paradise in the offseason the past two years.

Isaacs repeated at Lake County in 2018 and hit just .232, although he did manage to steal 30 bases. He was among the prospects released prior to the start of the 2019 season.

20 (604) Luke Wakamatsu. SS/SH. Age 18. $290K bonus

The biggest surprise signing of the Indians’ 2015 draft, Luke, the son of Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu, signed with the Indians despite being more of a Hail Mary pick in the 20th round.

Wakamatsu has entered each season with high expectations but has been slowed by repeated injuries. The switch-hitter has managed to avoid the injured list for the first time in 2019, but he’s slashing a career worst .179/.266/.331 for High-A Lynchburg through 45 games despite repeating at the level for the first time.

21 (634) Brock Hartson. RHP. Age 21.

Hartson didn’t blow hitters away, but he put up strong numbers at every level he played, eventually graduating from piggy-back partner to starting pitcher. He spawned the #MamaHartson meme when ballots were stuffed for him to winner minor league player of the week and sported a solid 3.04 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP in 2017 before surprisingly walking away from the sport and voluntarily retiring at the end of the season.

24 (724) Sam Haggarty. 2B/SH. Age 21.

Haggarty broke out in 2017, leading all of MiLB in triples with 13 and stealing an impressive 49 bases at High-A Lynchburg. His numbers weren’t as impressive in 2018 in his first taste of both Double-A and Triple-A, and he was traded to the Mets in the Kevin Plawecki deal along with Walter Lockett. He’s currently batting .288 with four triples and 14 stolen bases in Double-A for the Mets.

25 (754) Conor Marabell. OF/LHH. Age 21.

An absolute steal, Marabell flourished in his first opportunity to play full season ball at Lake County in 2016. He led all Indians minor leaguers in doubles in 2016 with 45 but struggled in 2017 before again bouncing back with a strong 2018, where he hit a career high 13 home runs for Akron while batting .294 for the RubberDucks

Marabell is repeating in Akron this year but hasn’t put up as impressive numbers, although he’s recently shown signs of life with back-to-back multi-hit games and home runs in his last two games as well.

28 (844) Jake Goihl. C/RHH. Age 22.

Goihl hit poorly, never batting over .160 in two years and was released this in March of 2017.

29 (874) Christian Meister. RHP. Age 21.

Meister had decent stuff, but a lack of command (40 walks in 53 innings in 2016) kept him from breaking out. He also was released in March of 2017.

36 (1084) Ryan Colegate. RHP. Age 21.

Colegate struggled in his first taste of full-season ball and was injured at the beginning of the 2018 season before being released in June of 2018. The Padres briefly picked him up but he never appeared in their organization before also being released..

Summary

AAA: 2 (Mark Mathias, Tyler Krieger)

AA: 2 (Triston McKenzie, Ka’ai Tom, Connor Marabell)

A+: 9 (Juan Hillman, Justin Garza, Luke Wakamatsu)

Finding himself: 1 (Brady Aiken)

Rule 5 drafted: 1 (Anthony Miller)

Traded: 2 (Nathan Lukes, Sam Haggerty)

Released: 4 (Devon Stewart, Ryan Perez, Jake Goihl, Christian Meister, Billy Strode, Jonas Wyatt, Todd Isaacs, Ryan Colegate)

Retired: 3 (Daniel Salters, Matt Esparza, Brock Hartson)

Signed players/Still in the organization (23/9)