One of my regular yearly features on Burning River Baseball was a look back at the Indians draft from five years prior. I like to look at drafts five years in the past because that tends to be the time that the Indians have made a decision on a player. With seven years to decide on a man before he becomes a MiLB free agent, the five year mark is a perfect time for a team to give up on, or push a player harder based on his abilities. This normally means taking them to AAA or the Arizona Fall League, but the 2016 draft was a special one for Cleveland and has already graduated three big leaguers with a few others likely to follow soon.

Major League Ready

Aaron Civale (Round 3), Shane Bieber (Round 4), Zach Plesac (Round 12) 

The Indians didn’t make the play-offs in 2019, but things could have been so much worse given the injury (and illness) issues faced by the starting rotation. With long time front end starters Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco out for extended periods, the draft class of 2016 stepped up in a huge way. Shane Bieber had already been up for a season and became the defacto ace, posting a 3.28 ERA over 214.1 innings, winning the All-Star Game MVP and leading the league in shut outs and BB/9 on his way to a fourth place finish in Cy Young voting.

In addition, Civale and Plesac joined Bieber in the rotation as rookies adding 1.5 and 1.7 WAR respectively to Bieber’s incredible 4.6 bWAR. The trio combined for 387.2 innings and a 3.30 ERA. Normally in these reports, I’ll talk about how someone is about to break out big shortly, but this time we have proof about how impressive the starting pitchers drafted out of college already are.

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Top Prospects

Will Benson (Round 1), Nolan Jones (Round 2)

While he was picked a round later than Benson, there’s no question now that not only is Jones the better prospect of the two, but arguably the best in the Indians entire farm system. He jumped from Lynchburg to Akron in 2019 before heading to the Fall League for some extra at bats. He had surgery on his finger, ending that season early, but not before hitting four home runs in 15 games. While he didn’t show much power in his first two seasons, he has been quite the slugger since and has great patience at the plate. This, however, leads to his first problem, an extremely high strike out rate. Combined with poor defense, this keeps Jones from being a sure thing in the big leagues, although he could ultimately be the second best player from this draft behind Bieber.

Benson started with major power and a high strike out rate, but had major issues upon both his promotion to Lake County in 2018 and Lynchburg in 2019. He’s an excellent defender and baserunner, but his inconsistencies at the plate could keep him from being an MLB starter. His base ability level is so great, however, he should get a chance to prove himself there by 2022.

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Mid to Low Level Prospects

Conner Capel (Round 5, currently with St. Louis), Ben Krauth (Round 16), Raymond Burgos (Round 18)

Capel had a killer season in 2017 with Lake County and that was enough to catch the eye of the Cardinals, who took him in exchange for Oscar Mercado, who they didn’t have room for on the 40 man roster. Mercado then became a star for the Indians in 2019 in the big leagues, making Capel an incredibly valuable pick even if he never breaks out himself. He did manage a short stint in AAA last year where he showcased himself well, then had a solid time in the Arizona Fall League. He could potentially break through to the big leagues by 2021 although he probably won’t be a starting outfielder like Mercado.

Burgos was already injured when drafted and needed two years to recover from his Tommy John surgery. After a stellar 2018 season, he missed nearly all of 2019 due to another injury, but was ready to play in 2020 had the season not been delayed. Based on stuff, he is one of the Indians top starting prospects, but like Triston McKenzie from the 2015 draft, that won’t matter unless he can get on the field.

Krauth was a dynamic left handed reliever in his first season, showing pinpoint command and flying all the way to Lake County as a rookie. He never had great velocity and his command fell apart following that season, so he has not been as effective since. Even so, he had a great season in Lynchburg in 2018 and was decent in Akron last year. If he can limit his walks, he’s a potential big leaguer, but his stock has dropped quite a bit since 2016.

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Hanging Around

Hosea Nelson (Round 9), Samad Taylor (Round 10, currently with Toronto), Gavin Collins (Round 13), Mitch Longo (Round 14),  Trenton Brooks (Round 17), Dakody Clemmer (Round 19), Skylar Arias (Round 24), Jon Laureano (Round 25), Tanner Tully (Round 26)

This group includes every single player that isn’t listed above, considered a bust, hasn’t been released or retired. Because it is such a long list, we won’t look at everyone individually, instead focusing on a couple of the more exciting names. First, Samad Taylor was a very fun, speedy second baseman in 2016 with the AZL Indians, but didn’t stick around long as he was traded, along with Thomas Pannone, to the Blue Jays for Joe Smith in 2017. Since he was 17 when drafted, he has always been extremely young for his level and in A ball in 2018 he stole 44 bases despite being just 19. He had less success in high A in 2019, but still is a doubles machine with great ability on the bases.

Mitch Longo earned himself an invite to MLB spring training in 2020 after a fine season in 2019 with the Rubberducks. He has little power, but is a very well rounded athlete who can play all three outfield positions, but is better in the corners. He projects as a AAAA outfield option who could fill in as a bench player, but won’t likely ever reach MLB starter status.

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Biggest Busts

Logan Ice (Round 2 Supplemental), Ulysses Cantu (Round 6), Michael Tinsley (Round 6), Andrew Lantrip (Round 8), Andrew Calica (Round 11)

To start, there really weren’t any big busts from the 2016 draft, so this shouldn’t be taken as negatively as previous years. In fact, the biggest bust in my mind was Calica, who was taken late enough in the draft that he never would have been considered a top prospect if it weren’t for his amazing on field performance.

In his first season, Calica skipped the AZL and hit .382/.474/.556 between the Scrappers and Captains. After a solid year in Lynchurg, he jumped to Akron in his third season, something Cantu, Tinsley, Nelson, Burgos, Clemmer and Laureano have yet to do. He played fine in Akron with his biggest stand out numbers being 27 steals in 32 attempts and 21 doubles, but was hurt in 2019 and retired after playing just nine games that season.

I’m not going to go deep on the rest of the group except Uly Cantu, who was drafted as a strong defensive third baseman. That was the word prior to his debut, but the Indians used him at third just two games in his first year and he has been 1B exclusive ever since. He certainly doesn’t hit like a first baseman, though, slugging .321 over his first 180 games (including eight rehab games back in the AZL in 2019) and he is yet to surpass Lake County.

Left Overs from 2015

The class of 2015 had so much potential (my five year review from 2015 can be viewed here on BurningRiverBaseball), but has had little MLB talent to this point. After the trades (ex. Sam Haggerty), injuries (ex. Triston McKenzie) and total busts (ex. Brady Aiken), there’s little left to look forward to. Even so, Connor Marabell, Triston McKenzie, Mark Mathias, Tyler Krieger and Ka’ai Tom remain in the system and have the ability to compete for a spot on the 2020 team should one open up.

2017 Up and Comers

The 2017 draft already looks like a huge improvement over 2015 and could compare fairly with 2016 as far as MLB talent is concerned. James Karinchak has already made his big league debut and has closer potential. Eli Morgan, Kyle Nelson and Kirk McCarty are also banging at the door with potential to debut in 2020. Finally, my personal #1 Indians prospect, Tyler Freeman, was selected in the second round of 2017 and I personally believe his total package ability set will ultimately make him a more valuable player than Nolan Jones.

Jamal Rutledge2
Jamal Rutledge gets ready at second base during his only season with the AZL Indians in 2016. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

2016 Draft Notes

  • No player drafted after round 30 signed and only two of the last 14 signed.
  • Of the players not signed, the biggest was  Wil Crowe, who was drafted by the Indians in the 31st round in 2013, then the 21st round in 2016. He finally signed after was taken in the second round by the Nationals in 2017 and is now one of their top pitching prospects in AAA.
  • Also taken but not signed in 2016 were Michael Amditis (37th round) and Pedro Alfonseca (39th round). Alfonseca was drafted again by Cleveland in the 17th round of 2017 and signed while Amditis was taken and signed in the 21st round of 2019.
  • 30th round pick, Ryder Ryan, was traded straight up for Jay Bruce in 2017. Ryan is now a 24 year old in AA. Bruce was worth 0.3 WAR over 43 games, then had a 1.000 OPS in five play-off games.
  • 16th round pick Samad Taylor was also traded in 2017, to Toronto along with Thomas Pannone for Joe Smith. Smith had a 0.3 WAR with Cleveland across 21 games and didn’t allow a run across 2.1 innings in the post-season.
  • Only five of 25 players signed are currently out of baseball, an incredibly low number based on previous draft reports. Of these, only Jamal Rutledge (round 28) was released after one season (pre 2017).
  • Despite having just three Major Leaguers combining for four partial seasons, the class of 2016 has the best career WAR (8.8) of any Indians draft class since 2012 where Tyler Naquin and Joey Wendle have combined for 10 WAR (Francisco Lindor was drafted in 2011 and has 27.6 WAR alone).
  • After taking three high school pitchers to start the 2015 draft, 2016 was the beginning of the Indians new strategy of taking established college starters and trying to add velocity. The first five pitchers taken in 2016 were out of college (Burgos was the first high schooler taken) and 13 of 17 pitchers taken were college athletes (not all 17 signed).
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