Today we continue our look at the top performers in the Indians minor league system with a stop over in the Carolina. The headline may be a bit misleading, however, as the Indians have flipped affiliates a few times recently so we’ll actually be considering the Kinston Indians from 2010 through 2011, the Carolina Mudcats from 2012 through 2014 and the Lynchburg Hillcats from that point on. This has not only been the most volatile level for the Indians, but a recent change as the Kinston team had been the Indians high A affiliate from the creation of the level in 1990.
10. Clint Frazier – OF – 2015
From 2006 through 2014, only Beau Mills hit more than 32 doubles for the Indians high A affiliate. In 2015 and 2016 alone four players would do so for the Lynchburg Hillcats with Frazier initially setting a new franchise mark with 36 in 2015. He was playing in just his third year in the Indians system at 20 years old, but it would be his final full year as he was traded to New York for Andrew Miller the following summer.
Frazier had quite the run with the Hillcats to end things, however, batting .285/.377/.465 with 16 homers and 15 steals to go with the doubles. The steals, doubles, homers, hits (143), RBI (72) and runs scored (88) all remain personal bests for any season, including his time in the big leagues with the Yankees. His average, OBP and slugging percent all rank within the top 10 for the Hillcats in the last decade with the OBP leading the way as third best. His 147 wRC+ was the best over one year, tied with Nellie Rodriguez from 2015 as well.
9. Eli Morgan – RHSP – 2018 & 2019
Morgan has been a quick mover through the Indians system, jumping from Lake County to Lynchburg in just his second season. He made just eight appearances for the Captains that year before joining the Hillcats as a regular starter. While he never went deeper than seven innings, he had just two bad starts out of 19, three times going at least six shut out innings. He finished that year with a 3.91 ERA across 99 innings, striking out 100 and walking 26.
With such extreme pitching depth at the higher levels and Morgan still having some things to work on, he remained in Lynchburg in 2019, although not for long. He made six starts there to begin the year, going 11 innings without a run across his first two starts to begin the year (3 H, 2 BB). Across them all he had a 1.87 ERA with 40 strike outs and five walks over 33.2 innings. This prompted a promotion to Akron and one mid-season start with Columbus. Between the two seasons, his 3.39 ERA ranks 10th in the last decade and his 26% K rate is #1.
8. Jodd Carter – OF – 2016 – 2019
Both Carter and the next hitter on this list were major accumulators in high A, but Carter sits behind him due to a lower peak. Despite being drafted out of high school, Carter jumped straight from Mahoning Valley to Lynchburg in 2016 at 19 years old before finishing out the season in Lake County. After a solid performance over those final 38 games with the Captains, Carter rejoined the Hillcats in 2017 for a full season. He had a mediocre season there that year, batting .239/.326/.390 across 115, earning him another year in high A in 2018. He played fewer games for Lynchburg in 2018, but set career highs with 52 RBI and 11 steals. He batted .244/.334/.397 before a season ending call-up to Akron.
Despite the best slash line of his career across those final 20 games in Akron, Carter returned to Lynchburg for the entire 2019 season. Despite this being his fourth season there, he was still younger than the average player in high A and he set new career highs with a .398 slugging percent and 52 walks, tying his previous mark of 11 home runs from each of the previous two seasons. Altogether, he holds the Hillcats records for games played, at bats, hits, homers, runs scored, RBI and walks over the last decade, coming in second in doubles and 9th in steals.
7. Luigi Rodriguez – OF – 2013 – 2016
What Dorssys Paulino was to the Captains, Luigi Rodriguez is to the Carolina League Indians affiliates. He began there after playing a partial season with Lake County in 2013, batting .283/.383/.398 with the Carolina Mudcats, then spent the entirety of 2014 with the same team, dropping off to a .250/.347/.366 line, although he did significantly increase his home runs and steals with the greater playing time. In 2015, he stayed at the level although the affiliate changed to the Lynchburg Hillcats and he hit .293/.335/.492 in a season that ended early due to a positive PED test. After running out his suspension, he rejoined the Hillcats for his fourth season in 2016 and hit .330/.362/.500 across 24 games between stints in Akron.
When you add it all up, Rodriguez was third in games played for the A+ affiliates over the last decade with 249 (behind Justin Toole and Jodd Carter) and came in second in hits (256), fourth in doubles (51), first in triples (14), fifth in home runs (21), second in runs scored (143), fourth in RBI (116), fifth in steals (24) and fourth in walks (98). Individually, his best season was 2015 when he hit 22 doubles, 8 triples, 12 home runs and stole 24 bases. This is Rodriguez’s second and final appearance on these lists after getting credited for his 2010 season with the DSL Indians.
6.Ryan Merritt – LHSP – 2013 & 2014
Following full years with the AZL Indians and Mahoning Valley Scrappers, Merritt played most of 2013 with the Captains before making the final two starts of the year with the Carolina Mudcats. These weren’t particularly interesting, but his 2014 season was one of the best. His 2.58 ERA that season was the second best by an Indians Carolina League player over the last decade behind Cody Anderson the year before and this lead to a 2.71 career A+ ERA that ranks third over the same span. He made 25 starts, tying the team record over the last ten years with two complete games.
Always a good control pitcher, Merritt’s 1.4 BB/9 was the best for any Indians Carolina League affiliate going back to 2006 until Tanner Tully broke the mark in 2018. While he wasn’t known for K’s, his 7.1 K/9 was still #12 since 2010. He played the entire season in high A that year, possibly because his second half wasn’t as strong as his first when he had a 1.58 ERA over 91.1 innings and 14 starts. In 2015, however, he made the jump from Akron to Columbus and he famously made his MLB debut in 2016, a season that included an ALCS win against Toronto.
5. Nolan Jones – 3B – 2018 & 2019
The rapid rise of Jones saw him play half of a season in Lake County before being promoted to Lynchburg in 2018, then another half in 2019 before being promoted to Akron. Considered individually, neither season had the playing time to break into the top ten, but together, he had one of the best careers. He holds the career record for wRC+ at 159 although his cumulative numbers still didn’t rank among the leaders.
Jones’ second season appeared a fluid continuation of his first as he went from .298/.438/.471 to .286/.435/.425. This 2019 season pushed Jones to be considered a top 50 prospect in all of baseball universally and lead into a powerful finish in Akron, then Mesa in the Arizona Fall League to wrap up the year.
4. Cody Anderson – RHSP – 2013
Anderson holds the record for best Indians high A ERA in the last decade at 2.34 and he did it over 23 starts and 123.1 innings. Anderson made just one start for Mahoning Valley in his rookie year, then had a good season with Lake County in 2012, but this was his real break out season. In addition to the ERA, his 23% k rate was third and 3.36 xFIP was second over the last decade, both trailing the #1 pitcher on this list.
Anderson wrapped up his 2013 campaign in Carolina with a 1.74 ERA and .222/.279/.298 slash line allowed over his final 11 starts and 57 innings. This prompted a finish to the season in Akron. After one more full season in Akron in 2014, Anderson made a very impressive MLB debut in 2015 and continued back and forth through 2019.
3. Joey Wendle – 2B – 2013
Wendle made it onto the Mahoning Valley top ten list for his 2012 season, then he skipped Lake County entirely and had an even better year for Lynchburg in 2013. He saw a massive increase in power, hitting 32 doubles and 16 home runs to set a record for best slugging percent (.513) by an Indians hitter in high A (going back to at least 2006).
Wendle also improved his base running, stealing 10 in 12 tries and walked 44 times to push his OBP to .372. This remains Wendle’s best season at any level, although he’s had significant success in the big leagues with Tampa. Among Indians A+ affiliates over the last decade, his .295 average ranked 3rd best for a single season, his doubles ranked fifth and home runs were seventh.
2. Anthony Santander – LF – 2016
It took three seasons for Santander (pictured running the bases during MiLB spring training at top) to make it out of Lake County, but when he was finally promoted to Lynchburg in 2016, he took off running. Clint Frazier had just set the franchise record for doubles the year before with 36, but Santander shattered that mark with 42 in 128 games in 2016 (Mark Mathias also broke it with 39). Santander also hit 20 home runs, one behind Beau Mills 2008 team record while a different teammate, Bobby Bradley, broke that mark with 29.
All this lead to a 137 wRC+ and .494 SLG, the third best mark over the last decade. Santander’s .290/.368/.494 line was enough to grab the attention of the league and his extended time in Lake County made him rule five eligible, prompting a selection by the Baltimore Orioles, who made him a big leaguer in 2017 and he’s played in the Majors every year since.
1. Triston McKenzie – RHSP – 2017
McKenzie has been dominant from the moment he was drafted in 2015 through his MLB debut in 2020, but the first time he really had time to shine was when he was a regular starter for the 2017 Hillcats. For the first (and only) time, he pitched 100+ innings and he maintained a 11.7 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 through that full length season. His ERA was a little higher than previous short seasons at 3.46, but this was still good enough for 6th best in the last decade by a Carolina League Indians starter with at least 25 starts. Of those ahead of him in ERA, however, no one struck out hitters or avoided hits and walks like McKenzie did.
McKenzie was a bit all or nothing in 2017 as he allowed six or more earned runs in three starts and two or fewer in 17, giving him just five average starts during the year. Six of those great starts featured at least ten strike outs, maxing out with 14 in six innings against the Mudcats during a one hit, one walk, shut out performance in May.