The Indians farm system is difficult to quantify. While there is a fairly decent depth of mediocre prospects, there is limited high-end talent, and particularly limited high-end fantasy talent. Thus, I would venture to guess that prospect rankings for the Cleveland system may differ more than almost any other team. There are several prospects who are interesting in one dimension or another, but few outside of Clint Frazier and Francisco Lindor really stick out. These rankings are for FANTASY BASEBALL purposes, and thus only take defense into account when it affects a prospect’s ability to see the field on a consistent basis or potential to gain a big league job.
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1. Clint Frazier, OF
Selected 5th overall in last season’s draft, Frazier has huge upside for both fantasy and real life purposes. The calling card for the outfielder is his incredible bat speed, which leads to big power potential. While he started his pro career in center field, Frazier will probably end up as a corner outfielder and will have the pop to fit the positional profile. The question marks for Frazier surround his ability to make enough contact to support the power. Due to the aggressive nature of his hitting approach, he is likely to pile up the strikeouts and thus might end up as a BA risk. During last season’s excellent pro debut, Frazier hit .297 with 5 HR, 5 3B, and 11 2B in only 172 at-bats on his way to an .868 OPS. He did, however, strikeout 61 times, over a third of his at bats. In his first full year in 2014, Frazier will look to improve his pitch recognition and ability to hit breaking balls, a common struggle for high school hitters. If he can improve in those areas and develop a more patient approach, the BA risk will decrease. Speed is unlikely to ever be a critical part of Frazier’s game, so don’t bank on more than 10-12 SB per season in the future. In a system bereft of high-end talent, Frazier stands alone as a prospect with potentially elite fantasy skills. Unfortunately for Indians fans and fantasy owners, he is probably at least 3 years from making an impact.
2. Francisco Lindor, SS
No prospect outside of the Padres’ Austin Hedges has more disparity in his fantasy and real life potential. The calling card for both prospects is their elite defense. Lindor does have solid contact skills and is almost guaranteed to hold down the shortstop position on the merit of his fantastic glove. Across two levels last season, he hit .3o3 and walked more than he struck out. With such a solid approach and contact skills, Lindor at worst profiles as a solid BA contributor likely to hit in the 1st or 2nd spot in the lineup. Add to that the potential to steal 20 bases and score quite a few runs and you have an interesting prospect. Power won’t be a part of his fantasy equation, but the floor here is pretty high for his other category contributions. Expected to take over as the starting shortstop in 2015, Lindor is one to keep an eye on as he gets a full season of advanced pitching. Someone in your dynasty league will likely reach for Lindor based on his high rankings in non-fantasy related lists. Don’t be that guy, but also don’t give up completely on Lindor as a fantasy prospect.
3. Trevor Bauer, SP
Bauer ranks this highly for two reasons. First, as I have said, there is not a ton of high-end potential in the system. Second, I still have some hope that the former 3rd overall pick can turn things around. Bauer ranked in the top 10 of many prospect lists just two years ago and the only thing that has changed since are mechanical issues. Reports abound that Bauer is difficult to work with, does not take advice well from coaches, and puts himself through peculiar workout regimens. Before the 2013 season, Indians coaches worked to change Bauer’s mechanics and create a more streamlined delivery. To say that those attempts failed would be a vast understatement. Bauer posted a 4.13 ERA, walked 73 men, and struck out only 106 in 121.1 innings. His four spot starts at the major league level were even worse. Over the offseason, Bauer has reportedly again tinkered with his pitching mechanics, returning to some of the form that initially made him successful. In a position to compete for the Indians 5th starter position this spring, the UCLA product has seen mixed results during his live bullpen sessions and first game appearance. Watch the control closely this spring. If Bauer starts limiting his walks, a return to his prior dominance may soon follow.
4. Tyler Naquin, OF
Naquin is working hard to shed the 4th outfielder label which has been hung on him since he was drafted. Selected in the first round in 2012 out of Texas A&M, Naquin’s lack of power and elite speed has made it seem unlikely that he would nab a full-time job at the major league level. His hit tool has continued to carry him, however, as he has advanced quickly. After a solid, but unspectacular season in the Carolina League, Naquin finished the 2013 season with a short stint at AA. The 2014 season will be a true test to see how the lefty-hitting outfielder handles AA and AAA pitching. His power and discipline at the plate will need to develop if he hopes to compete for a job in Cleveland in 2015. His 6’3, 190 pound frame leaves at least a bit of room for the power to fill out, but I’m not buying aggressively based on power or speed. Naquin places this high on the list because of opportunity. As the Tribe’s top outfield prospect, and with only David Murphy ahead of him on the depth chart, there will certainly be a chance for Naquin to get a hold of a position in the future. If the power starts to show this season and the K’s are limited, there is some potential for deep league relevance here.
5. Jesus Aguilar, 1B
Aguilar is a first baseman through and through. In the past, this has limited his upside on traditional prospect lists. With power down around the league and a dearth of fantasy first base prospects, that actually helps him on my list. After posting a solid .275/16/105 line at AA in 2013, Aguilar absolutely destroyed the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason. At 6’3, 250, Aguilar translated his size and power into 18 home runs and 50 RBI over only 226 at-bats. For a power hitter, Aguilar does a solid job of limiting strikeouts and taking walks. Aguilar should start the season at AAA, but could be one injury away from getting his chance with the big club. Buy now, because if he wins a job, it will be too late.
6. Francisco Mejia, C
Mejia is the biggest true upside play in the Cleveland system. As a catcher with big power potential, he is definitely on the radar for fantasy owners. The downsides? He is only 18 years old and his skills behind the plate have been compared to Carlos Santana. That’s not a compliment. But again, after the guys with high floors and high opportunity are gone, we are looking for the guys who can be top 10 at their position if everything clicks. Mejia hit over .300 with 4 homers in only 105 ABs in his pro debut and managed to limit strikeouts. This is a case where defense will be extremely important. Mejia is much more valuable to the Indians and to fantasy owners if he can stay behind the plate, and much of his ability to advance through the minors will depend on his glove. Catchers tend to develop slowly, so patience is necessary, but a switch-hitting power catcher is worth the wait.
7. Cody Anderson
Anderson is another hurler looking to quiet his doubters and push his way into Cleveland’s future plans. A 2011 draft pick out of a California community college, Anderson has put up solid numbers along the way. The skill that sticks out the most is his ability to limit walks and command his pitches in and out of the strike zone. That played well in 2013, resulting in a 2.34 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 123.1 innings of A ball. A three game stint at AA was not as successful, but that can be expected from a young hurler. Anderson is a converted reliever, so there is still some room for growth and improvement as he continues to learn and develop. The upside isn’t huge, but I’m always willing to bet on a guy with excellent command and a solid four-pitcher arsenal. A #3 starter is probably the ceiling here with mid 2015 a reasonable ETA.
8. Dorsyss Paulino, SS
If there is one area where the Indians minor league system is plentiful, it is the middle infield. With Lindor almost certainly the shortstop of the future in Cleveland, Paulino likely ends up at second or third base, maybe as soon as this season. Paulino does not have the hit tool that Lindor possesses, but he does have a bit more power upside, with double-digit home runs a possibility at his peak. He also has the speed to be able to contribute in the stolen base category. An aggressive approach at the plate has kept Paulino from being able to put up a solid BA thus far in his career, but he will play all of 2014 as a 19-year-old, so time is definitely on his side. The Indians have pushed him aggressively so far, and a High A assignment for the coming season is likely. Paulino appeared to make some progress in the second half of 2013 after struggling to start the season. Another season of development and work on a more patient demeanor at the plate could sky-rocket his fantasy value. If he can stick at second with potential for double-digit home runs and steals, I am interested. If third base is the destination, I am slightly less intrigued. This is another one we will have to wait for, but keep an eye on the plate discipline in 2014 for an idea of how much progress he is making.
9. Tony Wolters, C
Wolters is a fascinating case, because he spent the 2013 season making the transition from shortstop to catcher. With Lindor, Paulino, Ronny Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez, and Joe Wendle all vying for organizational position in the middle infield, Wolters moved to a position with far less depth. The result is a setting back of his prospect clock. He will have a lengthy transition, but early reports on his progress were positive. Wolters does not possess the power upside of Mejia, but he projects better defensively and has a very solid approach at the plate. In 2013, walked 41 times and struck out only 58. Even in the midst of struggles in the Arizona Fall League, the plate discipline remained consistent. If Wolters’ defense can continue to progress, he makes for a catching prospect with some intrigue.
10. Ronny Rodriguez, SS
Yet another shortstop prospect for the Indians, who seem likely to move or deal at least one in the coming year. Rodriguez probably has the most power potential of the trio, but his batting eye and contact skills are inferior to Lindor and Paulino. Rodriguez has yet to walk more than 20 times in a season, leading to some pretty terrible OBP. 2013 was a disappointment, as Rodriguez put up only 5 home runs after tallying 30 over the previous two seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rodriguez return to AA to start 2014, even after a full season there in 2013. Rodriguez needs to learn to take his free passes and that change in approach will be critical if he wants to earn a major league job.