Ranking the Cleveland Indians' Brightest Young Players to Watch
After spending three of the previous four seasons in the basement of the American League Central, the Cleveland Indians put it all together for an exciting run to the AL Wild Card.
While the Tribe signed free agents such as Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, Cleveland also got rather significant performances from minor league prospects. Danny Salazar and Cody Allen played major roles on the bump while young stars such as Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley carried the load offensively.
In order to repeat the magic that captured their first postseason berth since 2007, contributions from the farm system cannot end in 2014. Do not be fooled by the free agent spending frenzy of last offseason; the Tribe is still a franchise that must rely on rolling inexpensive options in order to compete on a regular basis and, with top prospect Francisco Lindor likely needing more time in the minors, the Tribe will search for reinforcements in other areas.
The following is a list of prospects that, if the Tribe is to repeat their success in 2014, Cleveland will need to step in and produce at some point this season. Rankings are derived from individuals who might be able to fill some of the holes in the Tribe's current Spring Training roster.
Honorable Mention: Francisco Lindor & Clint Frazier
The sole reason these two individuals do not appear higher on this list is because neither of them has a legitimate shot at playing in the big leagues until at least September.
Francisco Lindor is one of the best prospects in baseball. He is ranked in the Top 10 by most major scouting outlets and is widely considered the best defensive shortstop in all the minor leagues. Lindor boasted a slash line of .303/.380/.407 last season split between Single-A Lake County and Double-A Akron, but the Tribe is not in any hurry to rush their top prospect into the big leagues. Although Tribe fans are eager to see Lindor in the big leagues, he will likely begin his season back in Double-A Akron. He will not make his grand entry until September and, by then, his role will likely be so miniscule that he does not qualify for this list.
Clint Frazier was still playing high school baseball in Georgia when the Tribe took the field on Opening Day in 2013. Though he committed to the University of Georgia, the Indians made the No. 5 pick in this summer’s draft and sent him to the Arizona Summer League. Frazier played in 44 games and hit .297 with 21 extra-base hits.
Frazier brings strength, speed and power, plus an overt love of baseball to his game. He’s the guy you want next to you in a foxhole, or on your team. He’s that competitive and impressive. But he’ll get even better.
Frazier will likely start the season at Single-A Lake County and, barring a major turn of events, he will not see time in the major leagues this season. He appears on this list simply because he is a name Indians fans should not soon forget.
He is a future star on Lake Erie.
No. 5: Tyler Naquin
Tyler Naquin was a player that had questions pertaining to "iffy skills" coming out of Texas A&M.
The No. 15 overall pick in 2012 was a lanky center fielder who had decent speed, along with an average bat and arm. He was immediately sent to Single-A Mahoning Valley, where he hit .270 with 13 RBIs and four stolen bases.
Since entering the minor leagues, Naquin has been looking for ways to improve his game. Though it has been a slow process, Naquin is beginning to improve his hitting, as a slight adjustment to make his stance more upright has been crucial in increasing his power. Split between Single-A Carolina and Double-A Akron, the former Aggie hit .269 with 10 home runs, 48 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in his first full minor league season.
Unfortunately for Naquin, there is a logjam in the Tribe outfield. As such, despite his ranking as the fifth-best prospect in the organization, Naquin likely will not get a call-up until September. He has a long way to go in his development.
If he continues his progression, however, Naquin could be the last piece to Cleveland's current outfield.
No. 4: Jesus Aguilar
The Indians have not produced a homegrown power hitter since Richie Sexson in the late 1990s.
That drought could soon end, as Jesus Aguilar continues his steady climb through the Tribe’s minor league system. In 130 games in Double-A Akron, the 6’3”, 250-pound first baseman batted .275 with 16 homeruns and a franchise-record 105 RBIs. He was incredibly consistent, driving in at least 19 runs in every month of the season.
For reference, Jim Thome’s top RBI season in the minors was 102 in 1993 for Triple-A Charlotte.
His monstrous performance continued through the Venezuelan winter league where Aguilar batted .327 with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs in 58 games for the Caracas Lions. According to Ross Atkins, Indians Director of Player Development, Aguilar is no longer trying to see how far he can hit a ball. Instead, Aguilar has become much more aware of the situation when he comes to the plate and turns in professional at-bats seemingly every time he steps to the plate.
With the Indians front office high on Aguilar, the Venezuelan native was elevated to the 40-man roster on Nov. 20 and earned an invitation to big league camp this spring.
With Nick Swisher currently manning first base, the Tribe could soon turn to the 23-year-old Aguilar as the team’s everyday designated hitter. Aguilar does have a reputation as an above-average first baseman and could be a viable option to spell Swisher at first base.
No. 3: Jose Ramirez
Outside the pitcher’s mound, the biggest question mark for the Tribe remains at third base.
Will Lonnie Chisenhall finally take the next step in his development? Is Carlos Santana strong enough defensively to warrant a full-time job at the hot corner? If the answer to both of those questions is no, then manager Terry Francona will rely heavily on Mike Aviles to step in and produce.
Assuming that is a real possibility, the Tribe will be in search of another option as a utility infielder.
Ramirez has taken an uncharted path to become a possibility to enter the season as a member of the Goon Squad 2.0. Before his call-up last season, Ramirez was widely unknown among fans, but an impressive September left Cleveland fans wanting more. If the Tribe is lucky, fans will see more of the video above this season.
Ramirez spent most of the season in Double-A Akron and hit .272 with three homeruns and 38 RBIs. At 5’9” and 165 pounds, Ramirez stole 38 bases and has shown the confidence needed to be successful at the next level.
If Chisenhall and Santana prove unworthy of the everyday job at third base, Ramirez may be used throughout the season to spell Aviles, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, especially in late-inning defensive situations. For the Tribe, Ramirez would be an intriguing option in the lower-third of the batting order. He will steal bases and play outstanding defense. In 15 games with the Tribe, Ramirez hit .333 with four hits and scored five runs.
While Ramirez may start the season in Triple-A Columbus, he will likely be a call-up candidate if Cabrera, Kipnis, Chisenhall or Santana need a break during the season.
No. 2: C.C. Lee
Pitching is the key to a second consecutive playoff berth for the Tribe.
Just as Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir left in free agency this winter, relievers Joe Smith and Chris Perez will be suiting up for different teams in 2014. As such, the Indians will need to some back-end relief from the likes of prospect C.C. Lee.
The Indians signed the now 27-year-old reliever as a free agent out of Taiwan in 2008 and he quickly made his way through the Tribe’s minor league ranks, eventually reaching Triple-A Columbus by the end of the 2011 season. During the 2011 season, Lee worked a total of 71.1 innings, striking out 99 batters and surrendering just 23 base on balls.
Unfortunately, Lee's arm was not prepared for the workload.
He began experiencing pain in his pitching elbow, eventually leading to Tommy John Surgery, and the Tribe lost one of their highest-rated pitching prospects for all of 2012 and much of 2013. In eight games with the Tribe last season, Lee allowed four hits and two earned runs while posting a 4.15 ERA. Like many pitchers returning from Tommy John, Lee experienced some issues with his command last season.
The eighth-rated prospect in the Tribe's farm system, he possesses the best slider among pitchers. Entering the 2014 season, Lee has possibly the best chance of any young reliever to make an impact in the Tribe's bullpen. The most important key for Lee: Regaining control and throwing strikes.
Given his repertoire of deceptive secondary pitches, the rest will take care of itself.
No. 1: Trevor Bauer
The Cleveland Indians need Trevor Bauer.
Just as they relied heavily on the young, unproven right arms of Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber last season, the Tribe will lean on Bauer to anchor the back end of their starting rotation. The Indians allowed Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to walk in favor of Bauer, the more cost-effective option.
Just over two years removed from being taken as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bauer is now viewed almost as a bust. After ranking as high as 21st in Keith Law’s top prospect rankings in 2012 (subscription required), he fell completely outside of the top 100 this year, a tumble likely accelerated by his defiance of convention.
In his last two seasons at UCLA, Bauer led NCAA Division I in strikeouts and posted a 1.25 ERA as a 20-year-old during his junior season. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, Bauer is slight in frame and his delivery is as quirky as Tim Lincecum and Dontrelle Willis. His routine consisted of long-tossing from 350 feet before starts (which he has gotten rid of this spring) and, on the mound, he boasted a consistent arsenal of mid-90s fastballs and effective secondary pitches. Such power pitching was enough to dominate the college ranks, but it has yet to translate into the big leagues.
Bauer will compete with Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum and Aaron Harang for the fifth spot in Cleveland’s rotation.
Bauer split last season between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland. He started four games for the Tribe and went 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA, giving up 15 hits in 17 innings. He averaged nearly one walk per nine innings and was largely inefficient in each of his four starts.
If the Tribe is to repeat their success from a year ago, they do not need Bauer to be a Cy Young candidate. They do, however, need the former Bruin to pound the strike zone and give the Indians an opportunity to compete on a nightly basis.