Nolan Jones is our No. 1 Cleveland prospect for 2021, keeping his No. 1 ranking he held in 2020. He hasn’t been out of the top two in the past four years, finishing second in both 2019 and 2018.
A second-round draft pick in 2016, Jones didn’t waste any time making a name for himself, terrorizing the Low-A New York-Penn League in 2017 with a ridiculous .317/.430/.482 slash for the (now former Cleveland affiliate) Mahoning Valley Scrappers, which earned him short-season All-Star status from Baseball America.
The left-handed slugger didn’t miss a beat in 2018 in his first taste of full-season ball, maintaining an elite 16% walk rate while posting a career-high ISO thanks to 16 home runs, which earned him a late promotion to High-A Lynchburg.
Jones again impressed in the 2019 season, posting a career-high 20.1% walk rate for the Hillcats. He was named an organizational All-Star by MiLB.com, a mid-season All-Star in the Carolina League and garnered his first trip to the Futures Game, getting to play at Progressive Field for the first of hopefully many times.
The 21-year-old was promoted to Double-A after his Futures Game appearance and while his strikeout rate increased, so did his power. Jones posted a career-high ISO of .213, slugging eight home runs, 10 doubles and two triples for the RubberDucks in just 49 games while still walking 14.7% of the time.
After recovering from surgery on his thumb to repair an ulnar collateral ligament, Jones was expected to start the 2020 season in Double-A with a chance to work his way to the big leagues depending on how he performed, but the minor league season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The closest he got to playing last year was watching fellow prospect Triston McKenzie make his pro debut from the parking garage outside Progressive Field to cheer his friend on.
Jones is one of the best players in all of minor league baseball at getting on base, maintaining elite walk-rates while continuing to hit the ball well, and showcase power. Despite all the work he’s put in to improve at third base, with perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramírez blocking his way, Jones has begun putting in work as an outfielder, which is a major area of need for Cleveland heading into the 2021 season.
Look for Jones to begin the 2021 season in Triple-A, and if he avoids looking rusty after missing last season, he could be making his MLB debut at any moment.
Daniel Espino, RHP (Age 20)
2019 (R): 6 GS, 13.2 IP, 30.2 K%, 9.4 BB%, 1.98 ERA, 4.20 FIP
2019 (A-): 3 GS, 10.0 IP, 40.0 K%, 11.1 BB%, 6.30 ERA, 2.60 FIP
2019 first-round pick struck out a third of the batters he faced in rookie ball and only got more deadly in Low-A as a 19-year-old. Fastball sits in upper 90s, occasionally touching triple digits. The first Tribe prep prospect to earn a promotion the season he was drafted since Francisco Lindor.
Tyler Freeman, SS (Age 21)
2019 (A): 272 PA, .292/.382/.424, 3 HR, 11 SB, 6.6 BB%, 10.3 K%, 138 wRC+
2019 (A+): 275 PA, .319/.354/.397, 0 HR, 8 SB, 2.9 BB%, 9.1 K%, 119 wRC+
The 2017 second rounder impressed mightily in his first taste of full-season ball, then impressed in 2020 Spring Training. One of the best pure hitters in the Tribe system, but power and patience at the plate still need work.
Triston McKenzie, RHP (Age 22)
2020 (MLB): 6 GS, 33.1 IP, 33.1 K%, 7.1 BB%, 3.24 ERA, 3.91 FIP
Returned from nearly two years of injury to strike out 10 batters across six one-run innings in his MLB debut, topping out at 97 mph. McKenzie expects to be a key factor in Cleveland’s 2021 starting rotation, although questions about his drop in velocity as the season progressed need to be answered.
Bo Naylor, C (Age 20)
2019 (A): 453 PA, .243/.313/.421, 11 HR, 7 SB, 9.5 BB%, 23.0 K%, 110 wRC+
The 2018 first-round draft pick skipped Low-A entirely and debuted in full-season ball in 2019. Posted double-digit home runs, triples and doubles as a catcher. Younger brother of outfielder Josh Naylor.
George Valera, OF (Age 20)
2019 (A-): 188 PA, .236/.356/.446, 8 HR, 6 SB, 15.4 BB%, 27.7 K%, 142 wRC+
2019 (A): 26 PA, .087/.192/.174, 0 HR, 0 SB, 7.7 BB%, 34.6 K%, 14 wRC+
Has impressed in a small sample size, and was invited to Cleveland’s expanded roster in Lake County in 2020, but needs to put together some at-bats during full-season ball this year to prove himself.
Who should be the No. 2 Cleveland prospect?
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