(Photo: George Valera at 2021 Instructs in Goodyear, ARZ – Joe Coblitz/IBI)
Every year at IBI, we bring you scouting reports of the top prospects in the Cleveland system. Over the last few years, it has been a collaborative effort by multiple writers from the site and this year will be no different.
The 2021 list maye look a little different, however.
In an effort to bring Tribe fans new information on prospects in the system that isn’t largely the same details we provided in the 2020 reports, because we didn’t have a minor league season in 2020 to evaluate players, we will be providing them in a way that mirrors best industry practices in evaluating prospects.
The 2021 IBI top prospect reports will commence in early February, but ahead of that, it’s a good time to take a look at the state of Cleveland’s farm system, as it is in a very precarious and interesting place.
STATE OF THE SYSTEM 2021
The essence of time
The future Cleveland’s farm system can provide the franchise and the progress it makes in 2021 is going to be defined by time.
Starting at shortop and the middle infield, playing time is going to be a key factor.
The only middle infield prospects in a system full of them that have played above Low-A are Tyler Freeman (half a season in High-A) and Owen Miller (Double-A in the Padres system in 2019).
This rough middle infield depth chart is reading more like hockey lines at every level.
|Double-A Akron||Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias|
|High-A Lake County||Jose Fermin|
|Low-A Lynchbug||Aaron Bracho|
|Rookie AZL||Carson Tucker|
This doesn’t include adding Andres Gimenez through trade and he could end up in Columbus with Owen Miller, further adding to the cluster.
And each of those players need time at shortstop as they have all shown capable at times and in order to maintain positional flexibility and future value.
The area that has been the backbone of Cleveland’s success since 2016 has been pitching. Technically, Tyler Clippard is the last free agent to make a start for the club’s pitching staff if you count his appearances in 2019 as an opener. The last traditional start made by a starting pitcher that was a free agent acquisition by Cleveland, was June 17, 2015 by Shawn Marcum.
(That game by the way, also ended with Ryan Raburn and David Murphy pitching in a blowout loss at the hands of the Cubs. To come full circle, it was also the home debut of a former top prospect, one, Francisco Lindor).
Heading into 2021, Cleveland has 11 pitching prospects on its 40 man roster as of this column between starters and relievers.
This bodes well for them, not only because they traded their longest tenured player and second most reliable starter this winter in Carlos Carrasco, but because the rest of the rotation behind Shane Bieber has yet to pitch a full big league season and everyone is coming off of a 60 game season where they might not have the build up they normally would.
About four of the pitching prospects on the 40 man roster should be capable of making a start for the team if needed in 2021.
(Cleveland may choose to start McKenzie in Triple-A after missing all of 2019 and skipping the level in 2020 to control his innings and service time).
|Projected Level in 2021||Player|
|Triple-A Columbus||Triston McKenzie|
Empty behind the dish
One area where Cleveland is sorely lacking in prospect depth is behind the plate.
Bo Naylor (who should start at High-A Lake County) and Bryan Lavastida (who probably starts at Low-A Lynchburg) are the only true catching prospects right now. Yainer Diaz hit well in Arizona and might join Lavastida in Lynchburg but has less raw tools and has much less experience.
It’s actually a little surprising that the organization hasn’t added a catcher to its system this winter, through a Rule 5 pick, in the Francisco Lindor trade or as a minor league free agent. Right now, they don’t have a catcher with any experience above Double-A to join Beau Taylor in Columbus as depth. Mike Rivera has been hurt a lot over his first few years in the system, Gavin Collins hasn’t been a full time catcher for the most part, until 2019. Both have only reached High-A and others below them have very limited playing time serving as moveable backup depth up and down the system.
Where’s the outfield help?
On a vacation far away….(I couldn’t resist a pun involving The Outfield here).
But really, the outfield once again is still a point of contention among the major league club and the system.
At the major league level, Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow, Bradley Zimmer, Jake Bauers and Josh Naylor are all potential outfield options to start in 2021.
At some point in 2021, Daniel Johnson should finally get deserved major league playing time there, and it’s likely that Nolan Jones’ MLB debut will come in the outfield at this point.
Those two could provide some answers in the outfield. For Cleveland’s sake, they should want to hope so.
Below them, their best hope among impact outfield prospects right now look like this:
|Projected Level in 2021||Player|
|Triple-A Columbus||Daniel Johnson|
|High-A Lake County||Will Benson|
|Rookie AZL||Alexfri Planez|
Benson has had his struggles with strikeouts in the minors, and as good of a prospect as Valera is, he has limited reps due to injury so far.
Planez, Halpin, and Greene all have no experience in the minors or very limited, at best, to complex level reps.
The unfortunate key to Cleveland’s strategy to win without the proper financial resources, is to make their roster decisions to time things as best as possible between veterans on the roster and young players being good enough, cheap enough, and controllable long enough to find the right combination.
2020, and now 2021’s circumstances throw challenges into Cleveland’s roster building situation, finances aside.
Missing 2020 as a year of evaluation for the system, Cleveland has several young prospects that don’t have experience above the lower levels of the minors, and with likely all levels below Triple-A starting May at the earliest, they’ll need to make tough decisions based on 2021 as well.
Several very key names need Rule 5 protecion on the 40 man roster by November 2021.
|Projected Level in 2021||Position||Player|
|High-A Lake County||OF||George Valera|
Of course, Cleveland has zero free agent’s scheduled to be off the roster in 2022. RIght now, they figure to have 10 arbitration eligible players and just two players with club options (Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez).
The players added ahead of the 2020 Rule 5 draft: Jones, Morgan, Arias, Carlos Vargas, and Ernie Clement don’t figure to come off the roster either.
Pay close attention to what the San Diego Padres did over this offseason. They turned one of the best and deepest farm systems in baseball into MLB talent for 2021 and beyond by using them in trades over the last eight months.
Cleveland’s system is deep in potential, but the lost 2020 stopped that from being a cemented reality because of the players who didn’t get their first chances to prove themselves beyond the complex leagues to raise the system to that echelon.
They will move some of their shortstop depth to other positions because they value versatility and some will move out of necessity, but with the 40 man situation will force them to make a lot of critical decisions in 10 months. Some will qualify for protection from the minor league portion of the 2021 Rule 5 draft due to not playing above Double-A yet, but there will be organization’s willing to gamble on a young MLB Rule 5 pick to add some players of this talent level to their organization.
Cleveland needs its young talent to be able to play in 2021 (safely, I will add, since we are still in the midst of a pandemic) and they need to be able to turn those talented players into part of their next core players whether it’s through developing and promoting from this group, or trading them to fill holes in the system and at the big league level. But playing time, and the time ticking down to November 2021 will be major factors that shape the system this year, and the club for the next several years.