Cleveland drafts in the middle of the first round pretty closely to how I’d draft in the horrifying alternate reality where an internet dude like me got that kind of power: lots of college players with long track records of success (with an emphasis on strong peripherals), a willingness to take calculated risks when the board allows for it, and tons of HS players with signability questions to help back up those risks. Let’s get to Mr. Calculated Risk himself…
LHP Brady Aiken (34) is kind of a big deal. I’m guessing if you’re here, you know his story. If 100% healthy, he would have easily been the top pitcher in this class and a top five overall prospect. Hypotheticals like this make my head hurt, but I think I would have had him as the top prospect for a second straight season. A mid-market club like Cleveland taking the gamble on Aiken tells us something about how teams view the draft. When everybody had teams like the Dodgers or the Yankees being the most likely franchises to take the Aiken risk, it was Cleveland of all teams to put all their mid-first round (17) chips in on a player with arguably the most upside in his entire class. Just another reminder that there’s no more frustrating place to be than in the middle. When you’re terrible, the sport does what it can to help you out., most notably through giving up top picks in the draft and the corresponding shot at the potential superstar players picked in the top half-dozen or so selections. When you’re great, you’re great. Simple as that. It’s nice that you have free agency (international and domestic) as an option to flex those financial muscles. When you’re in the middle, however, the best way to get the kind of game-changing talent you need is by taking mighty hacks and swinging for home runs when you get your shot. Aiken is Cleveland’s shot. So what are they getting with him?
My optimistic forecast for the pre-injury version of Aiken last season was a more physical Matt Moore. Ironically enough, that comparison was made just a few weeks after Moore went under the knife for his own Tommy John surgery. Aiken’s arm woes were revealed a couple of months later. It’s obviously very early in Moore’s return, but initial returns are a reminder that nothing is guaranteed when attempting a comeback from elbow surgery. Healthy, Aiken is an ace. I hope he’s healthy. Cleveland hopes he’s healthy.
I really, really like RHP Triston McKenzie (20), a mid-first round talent who fell to the Indians second pick at 42. Reaching out to get names on him after the draft produced some really impressive names: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Wacha, and Vincent Velasquez. Each name was mentioned in the context of the draft version and not the finished product, but elements of each of those up-and-coming stars’s respective games (extension, smarts, ability to hold velocity, frame) can be found in McKenzie. In terms of a more contemporary comparison — because deGrom, Syndergaard, Wacha, and Velasquez are all soooo old — I’ve been reminded some of Grayson Long, third round pick of the Angels. Long managed to fill out physically, but his fastball velocity never made the expected jump along the way. Even if McKenzie follows that same path, he can still be an effective big league starter at his current velocity — presently 86-92, 93 peak — because of plus fastball movement and above-average offspeed stuff (the mid-70s curve is ahead now, but his 82-85 changeup could be plus in time). If he fills out and sees his fastball jump up like some of those names listed above…the sky’s the limit. If Aiken doesn’t make a full return to health, McKenzie has the raw talent, work ethic, and baseball IQ to make up for it.
LHP Juan Hillman (92) brings polish, pitchability, and deception not typically seen from high school pitching prospects. He has the requisite three pitches that go a long way towards making it as a rotation mainstay: 87-93 FB (95 peak), mid-70s CB with upside, and an easy above-average upper-70s CU that he leans on heavily. Too often he was seen on the lower end of that velocity spectrum (87-90) this spring with offspeed stuff not nearly as sharp as those who first fell for him the previous summer came to expect. Hillman is a nice example of how we really don’t know anything about how teams value certain players. On his best day, Hillman is a first rounder with mid-rotation upside or better. On his, shall we say, not best day, he’s more of a third to seventh round type with a back-end rotation or middle relief future. Teams that thought of him as a mid-round player were probably relieved to see Cleveland “reach” on him; obviously, the Indians front office is thrilled with getting him when they did. Consensus and the draft just don’t get along. RHP Jonas Wyatt (299) has a similar upside to the good Hillman if it all works. He’s pretty well physically maxed out for a teenager, but I like his fastball (88-94, 96 peak) and changeup (average low- to mid-80s with above-average upside).
If you want an early follow list for 2018 college pitching, look no further to the list of unsigned arms on Cleveland’s draft board. Check out these names…
RHP Chandler Newman (Georgia Southern)
RHP Daniel Sprinkle (Auburn)
RHP Austin Rubick (Arizona)
RHP Chandler Day (Vanderbilt)
RHP Andrew Cabezas (Miami)
RHP Braden Webb (South Carolina)
RHP Hunter Parsons (Maryland)
RHP Tristin English (Georgia Tech)
Day (39) and English (53) both are likely future first round picks in three years. Parsons (473) also made my top 500. And, for good measure, there are two unsigned college juniors going back for one more season…
RHP Lucas Humpal (Texas State)
LHP Jacob Hill (San Diego)
The best college arm taken and signed by Cleveland this year is attached to the body of RHP Justin Garza (156). The reasons for his drop to the eighth round are valid (5-11, 165 pound frame; TJ surgery about a month before the draft), but he’s exactly the kind of undersized righthander that deserves the chance to keep starting until he proves he can’t. Garza is a crazy athletic pitcher with three potential above-average pitches (90-94 FB, 96 peak; above-average to plus 80-86 cut-SL; average yet inconsistent 76-82 CU that flashes better) who held up well as a starter at Fullerton. In fact, he was remarkably consistent in that role: 7.67 K/9 and 1.33 BB/9 (2013), 7.40 K/9 and 1.73 BB/9 (2014), 7.34 K/9 and 1.94 BB/9 (2015) with ERAs/FIPs between 3.05 and 3.54 each year. The history of arm troubles — before the elbow, it was a sore shoulder — could make him remaining a starter a non-starter, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. If he can stay healthy as a starter, I can see Garza as a mid-rotation arm; if not, he’s got the goods to pitch big innings late in games out of the pen. Not a bad gamble with pick 244.
The selection of RHP Matt Esparza is one of my favorite moves by the Tribe this year. He doesn’t overwhelm with his fastball (88-92, 93 peak), but his offspeed stuff is excellent (plus mid-80s splitter/slider hybrid, 76-80 CB with above-average promise), he has experience as a starter (7.36 K/9 and 3.18 BB/9 in 98 IP at UC Irvine), and he’s a fine athlete. It’s easy to imagine his stuff playing up further in a bullpen role — so far, so good as a professional — which is about all you could ask for in a fourteenth round pick. RHP Brock Hartson (428) is another favorite thanks to an excellent 82-85 changeup. His ability to throw three pitches for strikes makes up for his underwhelming college strikeout numbers some. A lesser version of former fifth round pick Nick Tropeano feels like a fair hope for Hartson’s pro future. RHP Devon Stewart (461) has stuff (87-94 FB, 96 peak; average or better low-80s SL; usable low-80s CU) that outstripped his college career numbers. A full-time move to the bullpen could give him a shot to keep moving up. RHP Chad Smith isn’t quite at his level athletically, but there’s some Justin Garza (undersized, big fastball, two useful offspeed pitches) in his scouting profile. LHP Billy Strode missed a lot of bats in his two years at Florida State (9.19 K/9 in 2014, 12.40 K/9 in 2015) and could have a shot as a lefty specialist if he can improve his control. I was pleasantly surprised to see him go as high as he did as a tenth round money-saving senior-sign. LHP Ryan Perez is more famous for his switch-pitching than known as a viable professional prospect, but his stuff from the left side (90-94 FB, above-average to plus 77-81 CB) could also make him a matchup guy with increased reps.
Cleveland didn’t sign a HS position player, but the college guys they managed to bring aboard are plenty intriguing on their own. C Daniel Salters (148) was a pre-draft FAVORITE who feels like a major steal as a thirteenth round pick. Arm strength, raw power, athleticism, and plate discipline add up to a dangerous hitter with a better shot than people think to stick behind the dish. I’ll admit that some patience might be required on the defensive side, but the potential pay day makes it worth waiting on. Interestingly enough, unsigned 33rd round pick C Garret Wolforth (179) will head to Dallas Baptist as Salters’s successor. Circle of life, I suppose.
1B Anthony Miller (423) hit .443/.556/.974 at Johnson County CC this past spring. He’s currently hitting .202/.288/.253 (give a take or two from when I wrote this to when I’ll post this) for the AZL Indians. Pro ball is hard. Power and a track record — junior college or not — like his are hard to come by, especially once you get down past pick 500. Nabbing Miller at pick 544 feels like a win no matter the outcome.
2B Mark Mathias (77) can flat swing the bat. It’s a risky profile as any bat-first second base only prospect tends to be (Tony Renda sticks out as similarly talented college guy I probably overrated), but snagging a potential regular at a key defensive position in the third round seems about right. I mentioned Mark Loretta as a potential comp pre-draft, so let’s stick with that for now. I thought 2B Sam Haggerty could be a tricky sign as a junior with three solid or better years with the bat under his belt as a college junior, so consider the steady fielding, fleet of foot infielder a potential utility infield sleeper. The Indians took four quality shortstops (signing two) that all ranked in my top 500 overall prospects. SS Tyler Krieger, the highest ranked (58) and highest selected (124) of the quartet, hasn’t yet suited up as a pro due to injury, so it’s unclear how the Indians development staff yet view him defensively. Shoulder surgery sapped some his formerly above-average arm strength, so second base seems like his most likely pro outcome. That puts him in direct competition with Mathias in a battle to man second in beautiful — not being sarcastic here, it’s an underrated town! — Cleveland. The two have actually been really similar hitters from a college production standpoint, so the edge to Krieger is more about speed, athleticism, and the glove. I still think both are future big leaguers. SS Luke Wakamatsu is an athlete who can run, throw, and field his position with the bonus bloodlines that teams love. Unsigned shortstops Nick Madrigal (102) and AJ Graffanino (239) head to the Pac-12 to square off at Oregon State and Washington respectively.
3B Garrett Benge (276) lived up to his reputation as a tough sign by announcing shortly after the draft his intention to honor his commitment to Oklahoma State. He should start right away to the right of returning senior Donnie Walton as part of one of the country’s best (on paper) left sides of the infield.
Between Salters, Miller, Mathias, and Krieger, the Indians did really well to interject some high probability big league players into the mix. I wish for their sake that they had added Belge, but now there’s one more interesting 2017 draft prospect to follow. The Indians then took a similar approach with the outfield prospects brought on board starting with Ka’ai Tom (313). Tom has played left field so far, but the pre-draft speculation that he could get a serious look at second base hasn’t died down as some have hinted that the Indians could give it a shot starting in the instructional league this fall. Such a switch would create an almost comical backlog of college second basemen to come out of this draft, but would fit his offensive profile better. Tom’s an average speed/average pop offensive player with the kind of feel for the game and makeup to play above his tools.
By my rankings both Tom and OF Nathan Lukes (478) were technically overdrafts, but you can see the logic what Cleveland was thinking in liking each guy. Like Tom, Lukes is more of an average all-around offensive player with his most appealing trait being his plate discipline and aesthetically pleasing well-roundedness. Same goes for OF Connor Marabell, the Jacksonville product with “good approach” as the first line on his pre-draft blurb. The safety of those three makes up some for the boom/bust potential of OF Todd Isaacs (316). Isaacs is a true burner with all that you’d want in a future above-average or better glove in center field, but the bat is going to take some time. I had Issacs all the way up as the sixth best high school outfielder in last year’s class. His up-and-down year at Palm Beach State (up: lots of contact and speed; down: approach and pop) knocked down his stock enough for the Indians to wait him out until the nineteenth round this year. It’s a pick that could pay off in a major way just as easily as it’ll wind up forgotten within two years. Analysis!
Top 500 Prospects drafted by Cleveland per me…
20 – Triston McKenzie
34 – Brady Aiken
58 – Tyler Krieger
77 – Mark Mathias
92 – Juan Hillman
148 – Daniel Salters
156 – Justin Garza
299 – Jonas Wyatt
313 – Ka’ai Tom
316 – Todd Isaacs
423 – Anthony Miller
428 – Brock Hartson
461 – Devon Stewart
478 – Nathan Lukes