Thursday, March 05, 2015

Indians Prospect Countdown: #10-6

Photo credit: Alyson Boyer Rode
10. Justus Sheffield, LHP
DOB: 05/13/1996
Height/Weight: 5’10”, 196 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: 1st round sandwich pick in the 2014 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 3-1, 4.87 ERA, 29 K and 9 BB in 20 1/3 IP for the Rookie League AZL Indians

Scouting Report: Sheffield is my 2nd highest ranked pitcher in the Indians organization right now. He has a lot of upside and projection in him, and even if he falls short of what the Indians are hoping he can be as a starter, he’ll at least have a chance to be an impact arm in the back end of a major league bullpen. Sheffield was committed to Vanderbilt out of his Tennessee high school, and the Indians were able to break that commitment with a $1.6 million signing bonus (slot for the 31st pick is $1.7 million). In high school, Sheffield went 10-0 on the mound as a senior, with a 0.34 ERA. He racked up 131 strikeouts in just 61 2/3 innings, showing why he was pegged as a potential 1st round selection on most mock draft boards. Like Clint Frazier before him, Sheffield was the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in 2014. Sheffield’s brother, Jordan, pitches for Vanderbilt and turned down an offer to sign with the Red Sox when he was selected in the 13th round out of the same high school in 2013.

Sheffield is a slightly undersized lefty who attacks hitters with a three-pitch mix. As you’d expect, everything starts with his fastball, an offering that sits comfortably in the low-90’s and can touch 95 when he needs to. He delivers it from a high ¾ arm angle that helps give the pitch some arm-side run. He compliments the above-average fastball with both a curveball and a changeup. Sheffield throws the curve in any count, and has been able to spot it to both sides of the plate for strikes. The pitch has nice depth, and sits in the mid-70’s. His third pitch is a developing changeup that could really be an out pitch for Sheffield. It flashes plus, with nice late arm-side fade. He does a nice job keeping his arm speed consistent, so the pitch is really deceptive to hitters. It’s a starter’s arsenal, and the Indians see him pitching in the rotation for a long time to come. 

Leading up to and immediately after the draft, all the reports on Sheffield’s makeup were positive. Then, on January 12, Sheffield was arrested for aggravated burglary and underage drinking stemming from an incident in his hometown when Sheffield entered another person’s unlocked house, looking to talk to someone about an incident with his girlfriend. He was drunk, and the police were called. Sheffield pled guilty to a reduced charge in Feb, and the record will be expunged if he stays out of trouble. It’s an isolated incident for a teenage kid, but something to keep an eye on moving forward.
All of his stuff plays up due to Sheffield’s athleticism and ability to consistently repeat his delivery. He’s strongly built with a thick lower half, and should be able to get himself into shape to throw a starter’s workload. There’s a long road between Sheffield and Cleveland, and right now Sheffield needs innings more than anything else. He’s likely to start the 2015 season in extended spring training, and will probably be a member of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers rotation when the short-season New York-Penn League starts up in June.

Glass half-full: A #2/3 starter in a big league rotation
Glass half-empty: A #4 starter or bullpen arm

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
9. Mitch Brown, RHP
DOB: 4/13/1994
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 195 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 8-8 with a 3.32 ERA, 127 K and 55 BB in 138 1/3 IP for low-A Lake County

Scouting Report: A 2nd round pick in the 2012 MLB draft out of a Rochester, Minnesota high school, Brown put together a really nice season for the Lake County Captains last year. Brown began the 2013 season in Lake County, but was quickly reassigned to extended spring training after posting an 11.49 ERA in his first 5 starts in the Midwest League. Brown struggled mightily with his command in 2013, walking 40 hitters in 67 2/3’s innings of work between Lake County and the Rookie level Arizona League. He struggled with his fastball command and as a result was never able to flash the potential that made him one of the top 100 players in the 2012 draft class. Fast forward to 2014, and Brown issued just 55 free passes in 138 1/3 innings, cutting his walk rate almost in half from 2013. It’s amazing how much easier it is to get outs when you’re throwing strikes consistently.

Brown sets everything up with his fastball, an above-average to plus offering that sits consistently between 92-95 MPH, touching 97, with nice sink. Brown struggled with his fastball command in 2013, but improved a great deal in 2014, spotting it much better down in the zone and to both sides of the plate. He compliments the fastball with a cutter, curveball and changeup. The cutter is his best secondary offering, an above-average pitch with late life across the zone. It’ll be his out pitch throughout his career, whether it’s via the strikeout or by inducing weak contact. His curveball remains a little inconsistent, but it flashes plus and is the key to his development as a starter. The pitch can be really good; it’s a 11/5 hammer with excellent two-plane break, changing speeds and really serving to keep hitters off balance. There’s a feeling amongst pitching coaches that the curveball either is in a pitchers wrist or it isn’t, and Brown clearly has a feel for the pitch. He just needs to work on consistency and command to have it be a legitimate third weapon in his arsenal.

Brown is an excellent athlete who does a nice job repeating his delivery. He’s a hard worker on and off the field, a player who stands a good chance at realizing his potential due to his makeup. He’s slated to start the 2015 season in the Lynchburg rotation, and the high-A Carolina League will be a tough test for the 21-year old righty. He closed the 2014 season on a high note, allowing just a .195 AVG and .513 OPS against in 6 August starts. Hopefully he can carry that momentum over to the 2015 season and put together another solid campaign on his way to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Glass half-full: A #3 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: A #4/5 starter or a swingman out of the bullpen

Photo Credit: Perfect Game
8. Bobby Bradley, 1B
DOB: 5/29/1996
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 225 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 3rd round pick in the 2014 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .361/.426/.625 with 8 HR and 50 RBI in 39 games with the Rookie League Arizona Indians

Scouting Report: Selected in the 3rd round of last year’s draft out of a Mississippi high school, Bradley is a somewhat raw high school bat with incredible upside. Thrown into the complex leagues as an 18-year old in 2014, Bradley responded by putting up eye-popping numbers including a league-leading 1.078 OPS, 8 HR and 50 RBI. He was the most dominant hitter in the league despite being one of the younger players, and as a result there are a lot of people talking about Bradley as a steal for the Indians in the 3rd round. Bradley was committed to Louisiana State out of high school, but an over-slot bonus of $912,500 kept him out of a Tigers uniform and locked in to Cleveland.

Bradley is a big, strong lefthanded hitter with impressive raw power. His swing has some natural loft to it, and he uses that to generate a lot of backspin. He has quick, strong hands and outstanding bat speed. Especially considering his youth and experience, Bradley has an advanced approach, which will help his raw power play in game situations and not just in BP. He does have some swing and miss in his game (as you’d expect from someone with his power), striking out 36 times against 16 walks in 39 complex league games. Most of Bradley’s power is to the pull side at present, but he does a nice job staying back on the ball and using the left side of the field, so it’s only a matter of time until he starts developing more consistent over-the-fence power to the opposite field. He’ll still get caught chasing high fastballs, and will need to learn to adjust to the more difficult breaking stuff as he rises through the organization. But the bat is tantalizing, and the power is something that can’t be ignored.

Defensively, Bradley is limited to 1st base, so most of his value is going to have to come from his bat. He’s a solid defender at present, but is going to have to work to maintain his flexibility and dexterity as he continues to fill out his 6’1” frame. He’s already a big guy, and will only add weight as he moves through the minor league system. Still, there’s no reason to think that Bradley can’t be at least an average defender at 1B, and with his bat, that’s more than enough.
Bradley was more advanced than anyone thought last year, and there’s a chance that the Indians send him straight to Lake County to open the 2015 season. He won’t turn 19 until the end of May, so it’s more likely that they keep him in extended spring training to start off the season and send him to the Captains (or Scrappers) when the weather starts warming up. He’s a high-ceiling power bat, something the Indians have struggled to develop in recent years. He’s at least 3 or 4 years away, but he has the potential to slug his way to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Glass half-full: A middle of the order 1B
Glass half-empty: Jesus Aguilar

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
7. Erik Gonzalez, SS
DOB: 8/31/1991
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: International free agent in 2009
2014 Stats: .309/.390/.473 with 4 HR and 62 RBI in 105 games between high-A Carolina and AA Akron

Scouting Report: Gonzalez is one of the biggest risers from last year’s list to this year’s, as I had him ranked 33rd in the organization in 2014. I’ve always believed in the glove, but I just wasn’t sold on the bat going into the 2014 season. Gonzalez made some key adjustments and really improved his overall offensive game, hence the top-10 overall ranking on this year’s list.

Gonzalez began the 2014 season where he finished in 2013, back in the high-A Carolina League. Unlike in 2013 though, Gonzalez hit the ball while in a Mudcat uniform. After posting just a .625 OPS in 39 high-A games in 2013, Gonzalez slashed his way to a .289/.336/.409 line in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. He got even better after he was called up to AA Akron, putting up a .357/.390/.473 line in 31 games as a RubberDuck. When it was all said and done, Gonzalez had posted full-season highs in all three triple slash categories, and the best strikeout/walk ratio of his career (30 BB and 88 K’s). The improvements at the plate came as a direct result of improvements in Gonzalez’s swing mechanics. Gonzalez had been working hard to get rid of a big, unnecessary leg lift that he used for timing purposes to trigger his swing. Last year, he managed to gradually reduce and finally eliminate the leg kick and ensuing long stride, shortening both his stride and swing path. It helped him stay back on the ball and not get fooled as easily by breaking balls, making him more than just a fastball hitter. The results were dramatic, and although Gonzalez would go back to the leg kick from time-to-time, he eventually got used to the new swing, with impressive results. He also started his hands lower so they didn’t have as much movement from stance to load, resulting in a better swing path. It was a dramatic improvement both in mechanics and results, helping convince me that Gonzalez can be more than just a defensive specialist at the next level.

Speaking of defense, Gonzalez is easily the 2nd-best defensive SS in the organization, better even than Justin Sellers and Jose Ramirez. He doesn’t quite have the range or instincts of Francisco Lindor (who does?), but he actually has a better arm that the (SPOILER ALERT!) Indians top prospect. He has great range both in the hole and up the middle, and has really made strides in his ability to throw on the run. He has a 7 infield arm and is a 6+ overall defender at SS, something that’s extremely valuable in its own right. Gonzalez played all over the diamond prior to 2014, appearing in more games at 3B and 2B than at SS. That changed in 2014, as he was exclusively a shortstop in all 104 games last season. The Indians seemed to be toying with the idea of making him a superutility player who could spell a regular at any infield position, but wisely settled him in at short last year knowing that’s where he could provide the most value.

Going into 2014, I wasn’t really a believer in Gonzalez’s future in Cleveland. I was a skeptic when he was added to the 40-man roster in the offseason, thinking the Indians jumped the gun by putting him on the roster. This is one of those cases where I am extremely glad to have been wrong, as Gonzalez proved he could be a major-league contributor on both the offensive and defensive side of the ledger. He’ll likely start off 2015 back in AA Akron, but will be able to slide up to AAA to replace Francisco Lindor if and when Lindor gets the call to Cleveland. Gonzalez will be blocked by Lindor for the foreseeable future, but is a very solid depth option and an intriguing trade chip. He’s part of an impressive collection of up-the-middle talent in the Indians organization, and is a guy to keep an eye on this year leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. He’s a fun guy to watch on the field, and will be a popular name in trade conversations as long as he’s sitting behind a guy like Lindor.

Glass half-full: A defense-oriented starting shortstop in the major leagues
Glass half-empty: A defense-oriented utility infielder in the major leagues

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
6. Tyler Naquin, OF
DOB: 4/24/1991
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .313/.371/.424 with 4 HR and 30 RBI in 76 games for AA Akron

Scouting Report: Naquin was on his way to a solid 2014 with AA Akron when he broke a bone in his hand in late-June, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Naquin’s last game was on June 27, so his counting stats look rather pedestrian. But he posted the highest AVG, OBP and SLG of his young career, showing that the adjustments that he made to his swing in 2013 helped generate more power without sacrificing contact. It was a good year for the young CF, and it’s a real shame it was cut short as it cost him a chance to get his feet wet in AAA Columbus.

Naquin was considered one of the best pure hitters in the draft in 2012, but his swing had a bit of a hitch in it and was geared more towards contact as opposed to driving the ball. The Indians started re-working his swing in 2013, trying to smooth it out and add a little loft. The bat profiles best in CF, but it’s not going to be completely empty. He’s always going to be geared more towards batting average and doubles power rather than home runs.

Defensively, Naquin has one of the best outfield arms in all of minor league baseball. He has both incredible arm strength and accuracy, using both to record a total of 28 OF assists in 255 career games (mostly in CF). At a game in Bowie last season, I saw Naquin record a walk-off outfield assist on a single into CF. Naquin charged the hard grounder and made a perfect throw to the plate to preserve a 1-run Akron victory in the bottom of the 9th. It was an incredible play that brought the normally-reserved scouts in attendance to their feet, and was a great example of how Naquin can impact a game with his arm. He’s an above-average runner who has really made strides in CF after not playing the position in college. Naquin has reached the point where he’s a good bet to stick in CF defensively, which will help his overall profile as the bat really isn’t what you’d like to see in a corner OF.

Naquin is an intelligent, hard working player who should be able to get the most out of his tools. The hand injury delayed his likely promotion to AAA, and he’ll probably begin the 2015 season in AA Akron. But expect him to move to Columbus in short order, with an outside chance at making an appearance in Cleveland this year. Naquin is going to get the first shot to be the long-term replacement for Michael Bourn in CF, and if Bourn struggles with leg injuries in 2015 the way he did in 2014, that replacement could be needed sooner than any of us would’ve guessed when Bourn signed a four-year deal prior to the 2013 season.

Glass half-full: A defense-oriented starting CF

Glass half-empty: Tyler Holt with a better arm

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