With LGT No. 3 prospect Triston McKenzie making his debut tonight against the Detroit Tigers, the talented 23-year-old right-handed pitcher will finish a long and wild journey through the Tribe’s minor league system that began over five years ago.
Taken No. 42 overall in the 2015 MLB Draft in the competitive balance round, McKenzie made an immediate impact. He made his professional pitching debut Aug. 4, 2015 with two scoreless innings against the AZL Mariners in the Arizona Rookie League. In four appearances fresh out of Royal Palm Beach High School, McKenzie allowed one run on four hits in 12.0 innings with 17 strikeouts and three walks.
The Indians were patient with McKenzie at first, beginning at half-season Low-A Mahoning Valley in 2016, but he didn’t last long there due to his absolute dominance.
In nine starts for the Scrappers, McKenzie sported a 0.55 ERA over 49.1 innings with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks, which earned him a promotion to full-season Single-A Lake County on Aug. 3, 2016. McKenzie wasn’t at Low-A long, but he earned mid-season All-Star honors for the New York Penn League.
Impressively, McKenzie’s strikeout rate actually improved after his promotion to full-season ball, whiffing a career best 12.97 batters per nine innings and walking a career-low 1.59 batters per nine over six games and 36.0 innings pitched.
His performance was impressive enough for that to be his only stop in Lake County as the Indians promoted him straight to High-A Lynchburg as a 19-year-old to begin the 2017 season.
The 2017 season was when McKenzie really started gaining national attention as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Despite being one of the youngest players in the Carolina League, McKenzie dominated. Over 25 starts in his first full season of pitching, McKenzie whiffed 186 batters in 143.0 innings pitched, which was good for the second most strikeouts of any pitcher in minor league baseball that season. That list includes some of the best pitching prospects in the game (No. 3, AJ Puk, No. 5 Michael Kopech) and one of the best pitchers in baseball today (No. 17 Shane Bieber).
McKenzie’s performance earned him some major accolades in 2017, garnering Carolina League Pitcher of the Week twice (May 14 and July 9), a Carolina League All-Star nod, an invite to the Futures Game and Carolina League Pitcher of the Year.
This should have set 2018 as the year McKenzie made the leap to the big leagues, but everything doesn’t always work out the way we plan. He missed the first half of the season as a precautionary measure with forearm soreness, although he didn’t miss a beat in his Double-A debut, sporting a 2.86 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over 16 starts and 90.2 innings pitched, although his strikeout rate dropped below one per inning at 8.64 K/9.
That was the last time McKenzie has pitched in a professional capacity. He was shut down indefinitely in spring training of 2019 with an upper back strain. Things only got worse when he suffered a pectoral strain while recovering from the back injury, and he did not pitch the entire season.
On the bright side, none of the injuries McKenzie has experienced were to his shoulder or elbow, and he appears to be fully healthy now.
The Indians added McKenzie to the 40-man roster in the offseason and he will make his pro debut today after never pitching beyond Double-A, although he would have been pitching at Triple-A this year had the minor league season not been canceled.
Word is he’s used his downtime effectively, adding a slider to his previous three-pitch mix of curveball, fastball and change up. We’ll find out tonight.