Image: Lake County Captains

Thanks for reading the first edition of Justin’side’ Baseball,’ an idea I had for a new column including thoughts on Cleveland baseball mostly, but will occasionally venture into other parts of baseball. My goal is to produce this once a week for Cleveland’s big league club and once a week for just minor league thoughts. The minor league version will be weekly, and will be behind a paywall after this edition. This opening edition will be open for all readers to get a feel for this column:

Let’s break down the minor league rosters for Cleveland by system. Here are some interesting developments and storylines I’ll be watching for this year

Triple-A Columbus

Nolan Jones is going to be mostly playing third base in Columbus. This doesn’t seem to make sense as Jones could be ready to help Cleveland’s offense as soon as July. He has worked very hard to get to being a quality defender at third base, and won’t hurt them defensively there now. He’s come a long way. But long term he is a better fit in the outfield or first base because Cleveland has 500 different middle infielders who might get pushed off shortstop but might be able to play at the big league level. Jones will play some outfield and first base, but seeing the bulk of time at third base is another curious lack of roster creativity that Cleveland should aim for more of.

Pushing Gabriel Arias to Triple-A is an aggressive decision without a single inning of Double-A experience. Arias is only 21 and it’s not unfair to count his 2020 season at San Diego’s alternate site, and Cleveland alternate site, and Fall Instructs. Perhaps he’ll be with his similar age peers with this move, if a lot of other orgs are doing the same thing. Age to level is still a good predictor of future success against competition. Sending Tyler Freeman to Akron might have as much to do with Arias being in Triple-A his own skill level, but with Freeman’s pending 40 man status and both Arias and Freeman being a year away from being ready to crack the big league roster, both needed a full year of reps. There isn’t much difference between Triple-A and Double-A usually, at least, pre-pandemic that was always the through.

Arias fields a ball at second base during an Indians 2020 instructional league game against Cincinnati. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

I can’t remember as many left handed starters in Columbus’ rotation in quite some time. The last time they had anyone that looked like they could help the big league club, even on a smaller level short term, as a LHP starter, it was TJ House, Shawn Morimando and Ryan Merritt. Logan Allen will try to get his command sorted out at Columbus with Scott Moss and Kirk McCarty joining the rotation as fellow southpaws. Jean Carlos Mejia essentially skips Akron and joins Eli Morgan as the rest of the rotation.

There’s no catching depth in Columbus. Ryan Lavarnway and Rene Rivera at emergency depth options and Gavin Collins was a possible sleeper bat a few years ago but offers some versatility now playing 1B/3B and catching. None of these names should stop Bo Naylor from a promotion to Columbus this year.

Double-A Akron

Speaking of Naylor, Cleveland is extremely impressed with his maturity and his mental approach to the game. Obviously that’s important for catchers, but Naylor isn’t your average 21 year old catcher. His experience on the tournament circuit in Canada, playing against older competition, and having his older brother close to him and preparing him for pro ball, has been a big help. Naylor is one of the players who may have benefited more from the Alt Site situation in 2020, being able to catch some of the best pitching prospects in Cleveland’s system and hitting against them as well. He might have been in High-A in 2020 and he wouldn’t have faced anyone like Zach Plesac, Mike Clevinger, Triston McKenzie, etc. Don’t be shocked if he makes it to Columbus this year.

The infield alignment in Akron is going to be challenging and odd. The plan initially is that Richie Palacios (shoulder surgery, missed all of 2019, plus pandemic year of 2020) to handle second base mostly, with Freeman at short, and Marcos Gonzalez and Jose Fermin splitting time at third base. Gonzalez is a quality defender and like Palacios, missing most of 2019 with surgery and then of course 2020 with the pandemic. Both Palacios and Gonzalez were well regarded prospects before that time missed pushed them behind Arias, Freeman, Brayan Rocchio and others in the conversation. Fermin isn’t really a third baseman. His bat won’t profile there and his arm might also be just average there as well. He’ll handle it defensively with the glove and range. But it’s odd he’s not going to play everyday, though his future role looks that of a utility player, so this might start that. 

Palacios hits a fly ball for the 2018 Arizona League Indians at Goodyear Ballpark. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

Trenton Brooks will be the primary first basemen in Akron with Palacios also splitting time there on occasion. He’s going to turn 26 this summer. He’s had interesting numbers in the past, but he’s older and there weren’t a ton of options at first.

The outfield in Akron has a lot of question marks, but Steven Kwan and Will Benson should combine for some very good defense. The rest of the outfielders are suspect defensively. This is a huge year for Benson. Double-A is going to be a major test for him. He struggled after being promoted to High-A in 2019 and struggled in his attempt at Indy Ball in 2020, not that any stock should be put into any of that. But Double-A is often a proving ground for prospects. If he can manage to produce offensively despite high strikeout totals, perhaps he’ll have the ability to make his game work.

Joey Cantillo and Nick Mikolajchak represent two Akron arms that should finish the year in Columbus, but Cantillo’s situation depends on how the rotation options go ahead of him in Akron and Columbus. He’s polished enough to push for that promotion. His jump from Short-Season A (RIP, NY-Penn League) in 2019 to Double-A this year should tell you about Mikolajchak’s readiness. He’s another arm who could be part of the young bullpen in 2022.

High-A Lake County

It’s going to take some time to get used to typing Lake County being High-A.

The Captains rotation is going to start someone almost every night out that you’re going to want to watch for. All 3 college arms from the 2020 draft, RHP Tanner Burns, LHP Logan T. Allen, and RHP Mason Hickman, are all in the rotation. All three should have good command, limit walks and have interesting pitch profiles. It would be no shock to see all three in Akron this year, if Cleveland had the upward space to do so. They’re all more than good enough to earn that promotion, but upper level pitching options among young arms may keep them in Lake County a bit longer than they should be. Allen could be the first pitcher in the 2020 class to be ready for the majors in this group, with Burns not being far behind.

The Captains will have a six man rotation with the six game series in 2021. Hunter Gaddis, Alex Royalty, Allen, Burns, Matt Turner and Hickman are the six. Gaddis is a prospect in his own right with good command, a mid-90s fastball and some good spin options to go to. Turner has good command but threw 87-90 in 2019. He did bulk up over 2020, so maybe he adds some velo, which makes him a little more interesting.

Our of the Captains bullpen, keep an eye on Tim Herrin. A 6’5 lefty, Herrin is an uncomfortable at bat for left handed hitters, throws in the mid-90s and has a good slider. 

Bryan Lavastida should have a chance to prove his legitimacy as a catching prospect on this roster. He’s got a good arm, some athleticism as a former infielder and is still really a bat first prospect. If Naylor gets to Columbus, perhaps he can get to Akron.

It’s a young, young lineup but an exciting one. Aaron Bracho, Brayan Rocchio, Georgia Valera, and Jose Tena are all young prospects with good hit tools who will play daily. Joe Naranjo will man first base, a contact over power first basemen who is athletic and a rare first basemen with a good arm. Keep an eye on Victor Nova, who might just have enough of a swing, contact ability, and approach to be a hitter. Not sure where he plays, but his skill set suggests he might be able to hit. 

This might be the last stand for Quentin Holmes who has missed time with injuries in the past, struggled with a raw swing and obviously didn’t play in 2020.

Low-A Lynchbug

How many starts will Daniel Espino make in Lynchburg? Talent wise, 5-6 starts might be all he needs. But again, upward mobility might be a challenge for Cleveland in pitching promotions because of a backlog of prospects and young arms.

Lenny Torres Jr. finally gets back on the mound after recovering from TJ in 2019 and missing the pandemic year of 2020. He’s still very young (20 until October) with a lot of growth potential being a young for his class, cold weather arm. People are still high on him as a prospect, so don’t be shocked to hear his name even more this year. 

Josh Wolf won’t turn 21 until September and will join this young rotation as the key arm in the Francisco Lindor trade. He’s got a ton of room for physical projection to go with a mid-90s fastball already. There are some similar traits to Jacob deGrom including his buld.

Torres makes a start for the Indians during 2019 extended spring training. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

Lynchburg’s pitchers should have plenty of help from its infield. Christian Cairo, Angel Martinez, Gabriel Rodriguez, and Yordys Valdez are all natural shortstops who will all have to rotate around the dirt for playing time. Jhonkensy Noel is a big man with power who is also an agile defender. 

Alexfri Planez is finally making his non-Arizona affiliate debut as one of the most tooled-up prospects in the organization. He can throw, run some, and hit for power, when he makes contact. He has an aggressive approach, so we’ll see how he adjusts to full-season pitching and how that approach holds up. 

I’ve always been intrigued by Johnathan Rodriguez’s tools. He was Cleveland’s third round pick in 2017 and is now 21 and no longer a switch hitter (right handed only). He’s a corner outfielder now, but has patience, a good foundational swing for power and contact. He’s still very raw and should have some time left to develop, given his inexperience, tools and lack of other options, but this is a year it might need to show up more consistently on the field. 

Notable names not on rosters yet/injured:

RHP Carlos Vargas – he had Tommy John surgery the last week of April. This is a crushing blow for an arm just added to the 40 man roster. Cleveland will likely need to sit on a dead 40 man spot on the roster all season now. If they add Vargas to the 60 day IL, he accrues service time and gets paid MLB money. They’ll probably avoid that all costs. He could have helped their bullpen this year, if they needed it. Now, he’ll be in Arizona until probably next June/July.

RHP Ethan Hankins – He got a second opinion on his elbow injury. It looks very likely he is headed for elbow surgery and will be in the same recovery timeline as Vargas. Another big blow for Cleveland’s system.

LHP Brady Aiken – Recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome. Was not in Arizona for spring training as last we heard. 

RHP Cam Hill – Still recovering from his wrist injury from his off-season car accident. He’s on the 60 day IL. With Nick Sandlin up now and other options, I wonder if his 40 man spot is going to be there when he gets back.

RHP Cody Morris – Morris is one of my sleeper arms in this system. But he had TJ in college, and Cleveland shut him down when they drafted him in 2018. Now he has had other shoulder trouble. I think he’s now destined for the bullpen, which with his fastball lacking real movement, might be a better fit. I’d still like to see him get another shot at starting, but with the arms this system has, Morris might be ready for a bullpen move.

LHP Adam Scott – Another command lefty whose FB ticked up to mid-90s. He’s throwing again in Arizona building back up after an injury. Expect him to head to Akron along with Morris when he gets back.

LHP Raymond Burgos: No injury update here. At least not that we’re aware of. Burgos was throwing in Fall Instructs but has had injury troubles in the past. Rotations are crowded, so perhaps he will need to find a spot in a bullpen at some affiliate, but he’s still an upside arm without a spot right now.

  • Other names to wonder about: LHP Ben Krauth, RHP Liam Jenkins, 1B Michael Cooper, INF Ike Freeman – these are all names that have been on Low-A and higher rosters before and it’s a surprise none are anywhere in the system yet.

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