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Best of the Rest: Which unranked Guardians pitching prospects should we keep an eye on in 2022?

Cleveland has one of the deepest minor league systems in all of baseball, so plenty of talented pitchers got left off our community top-20

Los Angeles Dodgers v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

With seven teams in its minor league system, Cleveland has over 200 players under contract heading into the 2022 season, so it’s a bit unfair to stop counting prospects at just the top 20.

Every year I pick some other non-top 20 prospects to keep an eye on and the track record has been pretty solid thus far. Last year, I picked pitchers Logan T. Allen and Cody Morris, who joined this year’s top 20. I also had Nick Sandlin, Trevor Stephen, and Sam Hentges, who will begin the 2022 season in the Guardians bullpen.

Covering the Corner readers finished their voting recently, but here are some prospects who just missed the cut and deserve some recognition as well.

And for clarity’s sake, I’m going to list these pitchers by proximity to MLB, not by ranking.

Starting pitchers

Konnor Pilkington, 24, LHP

Fans at least should be aware of Pilkington after it was just announced that he made the Guardians bullpen for the MLB opening day roster. Originally a third-round pick in 2018, he was acquired from the White Sox in the Cesar Hernandez trade last season. While he was good with the White Sox Double-A affiliate before the trade (71 K, 62 IP, 3.48 ERA), he was absolutely lights out while pitching for Double-A Akron. Over his final eight starts of the season, Pilkington whiffed 49 batters in 38.2 innings while sporting a 2.33 ERA, and now he’s going to get a chance to make his MLB debut (although it could be temporary since he likely holds the last spot on the roster until James Karinchak returns).

Adam Scott, 26, LHP

A fourth-round draft pick in 2018, Scott advanced to Double-A in the 2019 season, which is where he began the 2021 campaign after missing the first few months due to injury. That being said, Scott pitched admirably repeating in Double-A, whiffing 29.7% of batters he faced while walking 3.3 batters per nine innings and sporting a 3.49 ERA and 3.89 FIP over 11 starts spanning 49 innings. Scott struggled after a late-season promotion to Triple-A in a small sample size, but he’s expected to begin the 2022 season in the Columbus rotation, worst case becoming a weapon out of the bench.

Carlos Vargas, 22, RHP

Vargas made a name for himself with a fastball that clocked over 100 mph paired with a lethal slider. He hasn’t pitched professionally since 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year and is currently on the 60-day IL. He should return to the mound this season.

Tanner Burns, 23, RHP

A first-round competitive balance pick by Cleveland in 2020 at No. 36 overall, Burns was a workhorse for High-A Lake County in 2021. Over 18 starts, he sported a 3.57 ERA, a .226 BA against while striking out 91 batters and walking 29 over 75.2 innings. Burns didn’t quite have the standout seasons that a few of his compatriots had, but he was a dependable arm and should advance to Double-A to start the 2022 season.

Joey Cantillo, 22, LHP

Oh, what one season can do in terms of prospect status. After being ranked top 10 in the Guardians system last year following his acquisition from the Padres in the Mike Clevinger trade, Joey Cantillo missed the majority of the 2021 season with an abdominal injury. When he returned, it was just for 13 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, but he did sport an elite 13.5 K/9 strikeout rate and he was left off the 40-man roster for what would have been the 2021 Rule 5 Draft (which didn’t take place due to the lockout). Cantillo will have less pressure to perform this season and hopefully he can regain that elite prospect status.

Josh Wolf, 21, RHP

Another highly-touted prospect who struggled in 2021, Wolf was acquired from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor deal. A second-round pick in 2019, Wolf didn’t pitch like it in his full season debut last year while being bothered all season with a shoulder strain, having a very Dr. Jackyl and Mr. Hyde season where his strikeout numbers dropped, his walks skyrocketed and his ERA paid the price to the tune of a 5.35 mark. At just 21 years old, it’s far too soon to give up on Wolf and I’m hoping an extra offseason with the Cleveland pitching factory can rectify his issues last year.

Ethan Hankins, 21, RHP

A first-round compensation pick in 2018, Hankins looked to be living up to all the hype in 2019, when he was dominant for the then short-season Low-A affiliate Mahoning Valley Scrappers (RIP) with a 1.40 ERA, earning a promotion to full-season ball. After missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic, expectations were high for Hankins entering last year, but he sustained an injury and underwent Tommy John surgery last May. He’ll likely return mid-season this year, but how players perform after Tommy John is a total crapshoot.

Lenny Torres, 21, RHP

Speaking of Tommy John surgery, Torres was a top 10 prospect before going under the knife and he returned to action last year in full-season Low-A Lynchburg. The good news is Torres stayed healthy, making 19 starts over the course of the season, and his velocity returned, easily sitting in the low to mid 90s and touching the upper 90s. The bad news? His command was out the window. Torres jumped from 2.35 BB/9 at rookie ball to 6.29 BB/9 in Low-A. His strikeout rate dropped from 34.9% to 22.3% and he was knocked around for a 6.29 ERA. Still young, I’m hoping and praying Torres had a productive offseason and can turn it around, because when he was on in 2018, his stuff was electric.

Doug Nikhazy, 22, LHP

Cleveland’s second round pick in 2021, Nikhazy sits in the low 90s but already has a strong four-pitch mix with excellent off speed offerings with a 12-6 curveball and a sick slider. Nikhazy is one of those high floor types of starters with the potential for bonus development, particularly with his command, after an offseason working with the Cleveland pitching factory.

Tommy Mace, 23, RHP

Standing 6-foot-6, Mace was a supplemental second-round pick out of Florida last year. He was the Friday night starter for the Gators, has a solid five-pitch mix and is known to be one of the more competitive players in the 2021 draft class. Mace didn’t pitch in the Cleveland system last year, but don’t be surprised if he starts the year in a full-season rotation like Lynchburg or possibly Lake County.

Relievers

Aaron Pinto, 25, RHP

A former 24th-round pick in 2018, Pinto has been one of the better-performing bullpen arms in Cleveland’s system ever since. Overall for his minor league career, he sports a 1.86 ERA spanning 85 appearances with 179 strikeouts in 145 innings. In 2021, Pinto sported a 2.30 ERA with Double-A Akron, striking out 69 batters in 43 innings. He has the ability to help the bullpen in Cleveland this year if he can maintain his momentum.

Nick Mikolajchak, 24, RHP

An 11th-round pick in 2019, Mikolajchak spent some time as Akron’s closer in 2021, earning eight saves and multiple appearances in important situations. He didn’t have quite as good of a season as Pinto, but he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any reliever that spent any significant time with the team. Despite a few blowups, Mikolajchak still sported a solid 3.18 ERA while whiffing 57 batters in 39.2 innings pitched. He also could help Cleveland out at some point this season.

Nathan Ocker, 25, RHP

Another late-round darling, Ocker was a 29th-round pick by the Guardians in 2019. He spent most of his 2021 season in High-A Lake County, but also pitched two scoreless innings with Triple-A Columbus. It appears he’s skipped Double-A entirely as he’s slated to pitch in the Columbus bullpen to begin the 2022 season. Last year, Ocker whiffed 91 batters in 76.1 innings while sporting a 2.95 ERA. He’s definitely an intriguing arm.

Nic Enright, 25, RHP

A 20th-round pick in 2019, Enright had the best strikeout to walk ratio of any pitcher for Lake County in 2021 with a ridiculous ratio of 10.67. He was flat-out dominant at High-A, and while his strikeout and walk ratios stayed consistent at Double-A, he was more hittable there, which is a reason he’s still at Double-A to begin the 2022 season. If he can keep those ratios and miss more bats, he definitely could be a solid bullpen piece for the future.

Jerson Ramirez, 23, RHP

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2018, Ramirez has taken a slow and steady approach with his pitching development, but he took a big leap in 2021. Ramirez was flat-out dominant out of the pen in Low-A Lynchburg, sporting a 0.73 WHIP, a 1.23 ERA and whiffing 31 batters in 22 innings. He was a bit more hittable after being promoted to High-A Lake County, but he maintained his elite strikeout rate while actually dropping his walk rate. He’ll begin the 2022 campaign in the Akron bullpen.