April is almost in the books and so far, pitching has been the dominating storyline throughout the farm system with each level experiencing an impressive performance by at least one of their moundsmen. The Indians have a deep, talented staff as it is now, but to see their top prospects put up these kind of numbers is definitely reassuring for the long-term future of the club. Let’s see if it can continue.
Here are my top four takes from this week in the Indians farm system…
1. Julian Merryweather dominating in Double-A.
When you think of top Indians starting pitching prospects, odds are Julian Merryweather is not the first name that comes to mind. With Triston McKenzie, Shane Bieber and Adam Plutko among the big name hurlers spread throughout the farm system, it can be easy to overlook other prospects. Well, Merryweather won’t be staying in the background for long the way he’s pitching as of late.
It’s not like the right-hander is a total unknown, he was ranked the Indians’ #25 prospect by MLB.com heading into the season and #39 in the 2017 IBI Top 75 Prospect list. However, his last three outings have been as dominant as anyone in the organization as he has averaged over six innings per start, only given up three earned runs on 10 total hits, only walked two and struck out 21. That’s good for a 1-0 record and a 1.45 ERA in that span. The right-hander has been working on fastball command this season and has obviously already seen good results as it has helped him get ahead in counts and set up his secondary pitches.
Last season, the 25-year-old got off to a similar red-hot start in Lynchburg posting an even more dominant 8-2 record with a 1.03 ERA in 11 starts before being promoted to Akron. What I find most intriguing, though, is the strikeouts as he has 22 in 20.2 innings so far this year, good for a punchout rate of over 9.5 per nine innings. In his career entering 2017, his strikeouts-per-nine rate checked in at just under eight. It’s a small sample size, but if these factors continue to play a part in his game, Merryweather has a definite major league future with the upside of a #3 or potentially even a #2 starter, in my mind.
2. What does Richie Shaffer have to offer the Indians?
At the end of spring training, Richie Shaffer was one of the finalists for the final roster spot along with Yandy Diaz, Michael Martinez and Erik Gonzalez. His impressive showing in exhibition play and his versatility definitely made him an intriguing candidate for the bench. Well, he ended up being sent out to Triple-A, but that hasn’t slowed him down as he is batting .298 with four homers and 13 RBI’s in 18 games. And it’s not just the one-dimensional numbers either, the 26-year-old is also drawing walks and getting on base with 16 free passes so far versus just 17 strikeouts, adding up to a .446 OBP. Add that to his power numbers and you’ve got an impressive 1.025 OPS.
Of course, Shaffer could easily be a four-A player as he has posted just a .213/.310/.410 slash line in 51 career major league games with the Rays, but the power, the patience at the plate and the versatility intrigues me as he has played both the corners on the infield and the corners in the outfield throughout his career. If the Indians, knock on wood, were to have another injury or need a good bat on the bench, I wouldn’t doubt Shaffer would be the first to get the call.
3. Triston McKenzie finally facing true adversity.
Here is precisely why the Indians were so aggressive in promoting their top pitching prospect Triston McKenzie to Lynchburg: they wanted him to actually face a real challenge. And with the Carolina League being so small, opposing teams and hitters would have the chance to make adjustments more quickly since they’d get the chance to face him more frequently.
Through his first three starts for the Hillcats, it was more of the same for the 19-year-old going 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA to go along with 18 strikeouts in 15.2 innings. However, his last start finally revealed his human side as he lasted only 3.2 innings against Salem this week giving up six runs (four earned) on four hits while walking four and fanning five. Typically you don’t want to see any of your prospects struggle, but I promise you the organization is anxiously awaiting his next start to how he responds as well as his next outing against Salem. If he shows the ability to make adjustments and bounce back from a poor outing, his major league potential can reach even higher.
4. The future of the Indians bullpen.
Alright, so the Indians bullpen is in great shape now, right? In fact, one could argue it’s the best in baseball with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Boone Logan eating up the late innings. However, there’s a harsh reality looming on the horizon as all these guys will be free agents within the next two years. So the question is do the Indians have the kind of bullpen depth to fill those big shoes when the time comes?
A lot of fans are already familiar with what lies in wait in Triple-A as far as relief pitching goes with Perci Garner, Josh Martin, Jeff Johnson and Joe Colon being the big name arms, plus you have Nick Goody in Cleveland, who has put up impressive minor league strikeout numbers. Elsewhere in the system, though, there are guys like Cameron Hill and Matt Whitehouse in Akron, Billy Strode and Argenis Angulo in Lynchburg and Ben Krauth, Tanner Tully and Ryder Ryan in Lake County.
I know that’s a lot of names and there are others who could be mentioned on that same level, but the bottom line is there is depth. Does that mean the next Andrew Miller or Cody Allen is among those arms? I wouldn’t go that far yet, but there are some very intriguing candidates with a lot of potential to tap into. Lake County might have the most of that type of talent with Krauth, Tully and Ryan, all of whom are strikeout pitchers and, at least with Krauth and Tully, have the ability to pitch multiple innings.
Reader Question of the Week
“Could you foresee a Bradley Zimmer call-up before September?”
– Rodney Crockett
There are a couple of factors at play with Zimmer, starting with the fact that the outfield in Cleveland is full right now and for the foreseeable future. If anyone gets a phone call, it will be Tyler Naquin first should a spot open up as Terry Francona has clearly shown favor with him. So for Zimmer to get the call, some major injuries would have to happen and/or Austin Jackson would have to be cut.
Another potential complication, at least for now, is Zimmer is still looking to find some consistency at the plate. He is batting .271 with two homers and seven RBI’s, but he has also struck out 22 versus six walks in 70 at-bats thus far. Ideally, you’d like to see him improve that ratio a bit before being called up. However, he’s still putting up solid numbers elsewhere as far as extra-base hits (10), runs scored, 12 and stolen bases (five). Zimmer’s upside still remains high, however, but I’m sure the organization is not lamenting having little urgency to call him up at this point.
- Martin Cervenka (C, Lynchburg): I keep waiting for Cervenka to come back to earth, but it hasn’t happened yet through 13 games as he continues to bat well over .300 with now two homers and 10 RBI’s for the Hillcats.
- Gabriel Mejia (CF, Lake County): Looks like Mejia’s bat may be waking up as entering Thursday, he was riding a six-game hit streak while batting .364 (8-for-22). He also has two of his three stolen bases in that span. The more he gets on base, the more he’s going to take off running.
- Thomas Pannone (SP, Lynchburg): Four starts into his 2017 campaign, Pannone has still yet to allow an earned run. While he only pitched four innings in his last start, he still struck out a season-high nine batters bringing his total to 31 in 20.2 innings.
- Yu-Cheng Chang (SS, Akron): Since his first three games of the season where he went 5-for-9 (.556) with three homers and seven RBI’s, Chang has seen a massive drop in production as he is batting just .125 with a homer and seven RBI’s over his next 15 games while striking out 24 times. Clearly an adjustment will be needed.
- Tanner Tully (RP, Lake County): Like teammate Ben Krauth, Tully has been impressive in the Captains bullpen as far as not only pitching dominantly, but also logging multiple innings an appearance, sometimes as many as five as he now has an 0.54 ERA in four appearances as well as only one walk and 17 strikeouts in 16.2 innings.
- Nellie Rodriguez (1B, Columbus): Speaking of guys needing to adjust to a new level, Nellie Rodriguez has been off to a miserable start in Columbus batting just .100 with three homers and four RBI’s in 17 games. Additionally, he has fanned 33 times in 60 at-bats.
- Greg Allen (CF, Akron): Allen’s been off to a solid start batting .284 with four doubles, five RBI’s and 12 runs scored in 19 games for Akron. He has also stolen eight bases without getting caught. During the last homestand, the 24-year-old received his Rawlings Gold Glove for being the best defensive center fielder in minor league baseball last season.
Dylan Baker is finally healthy again and ready to make his return to live-game action as he has been activated at the Double-A level and added to the roster. The right-hander has been on the mend for nearly two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015. Prior to that, the 25-year-old had only appeared in 13 games after recovering from a broken ankle in 2014. Baker will pitch out of the bullpen for the RubberDucks, according to manager Mark Budzinski. Throughout his career, the Oregon native had pitched as a starter, so his return to the mound along with a transition to a relief pitching role will be interesting to watch as the season unfolds.
Jake Dungan is the Managing Editor for IBI and a podcast host on the Smoke Signals Network. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JakeDBaseball.