I came on board the Prospects1500 team at the end of May this year. My predecessor has a top 50 list for the Cleveland Indians farm system posted from the preseason. I think now that we have almost hit that half way mark in the MLB year and a lot of the MiLB guys have gotten a solid amount of a ball under their belts for the 2017 season it would be a good time to go back and look at some of the top pitchers from that preseason top 50 list. Today I’ve plucked 5 of the top pitchers from the preseason rankings and updated where they are so far this year as compared to where we thought they were coming into the season. As with all minor league evaluations things have been stellar for some and shaky for others. The biggest question is, who is going to get the shot at the big leagues?
Triston McKenzie, RHP, A+
Evaluating young prospects is never an easy task and it only gets harder when they are under the age of 20. For Triston McKenzie however, well he makes it look easy. This RHP prospect playing for the Cleveland Indians High A affiliate is having himself a fantastic season. In fact he was just invited to the Futures All Star Game this summer. Need I remind you he’s only 19 years old? McKenzie split his time last year between the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Lake County Captains both of which are single A affiliates of the Indians. Between those two assignment he struck out 104 batters and walked only 22.
After getting the promotion this year to High A ball he has continued that trend with 104 Ks to 32 BBs in 82.2 innings pitched. One thing has been consistent through all of McKenzie’s minor league career (even though it may be short as of now), his command. Between the 4 minor league teams he has played on in the Indians system he has never dipped below a 10.1 K/9. This season he is striking out 32.2% of batters he faces while only walking 9.8%. In a day and age where baseball seems to shifting further and further into the shadow of the Three True Outcomes (Walk, Strikeout, and Home run) a pitcher who can command the strike zone is worth his weight in gold.
There is still a lot to be seen with this kid as he progresses up the ranks of the minor leagues but due to his age and his ability to control his pitches at an elite level the odds are very high that he adapts well to higher levels of hitting. We are probably looking at a 3 year waiting period until he hits the majors (2020) but McKenzie remains to be the top pitching talent in the Indians system and will most likely be making large jumps in baseball wide rankings come this off-season. If the Indian’s staff begins to waiver over the next few years it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the kid got an early chance in the bigs.
Juan Hillman, LHP, A
In the preseason top 50 Hillman came out second to McKenzie in the order of pitchers. The drop in overall spots however was 10 spots. This year Hillman has not really done anything to warrant even that high of a consideration. Granted, he is also the ripe age of 20 but is playing a level below McKenzie and is getting shelled. Through the season so far he has 14 starts, a 5.60 ERA and a 5.8 FIP. If you are versed in Baseball Prospectus’ DRA stat he is running a 142.6 DRA-. In his 14 starts this year he has gone 6 innings or more just twice. His most recent outing was a bit of an outlier where he went 7 shutout innings giving up 1 hit and 2 walks. The sad part is this simply just seems to be an anomaly from the rest of his performances this year.
The biggest difference for Hillman between this year and last however is the stark increase he has seen in giving up the long ball. In 2016 his HR% was at 6.2%, in 2017 the same stat has jumped 11 points and is now at 17.8%. The question is to why the increase in home runs and it’s hard to say exactly why. His most recent start might be a promising change though. If added strength can allow him to maintain his fastball velocity late in the game then things can begin to look up for him. His ground ball percentage is high enough where if he can bring down the HR numbers, his runs allowed will begin to even out. The issue right now is that’s a big if. And even IF he can do those things, in my opinion he still is best suited for a long relief type role rather than a starting rotation man.
Time will tell for Mr. Hillman and as he ages maybe he will come into his body more, I will be keeping a skeptical eye on his progression through the minors.
Adam Plutko, RHP, AAA
Plutko is another player who has seen an interesting regression this year in a similar way to Hillman, only difference is Plutko is 5 years older. After a very tiny stint last year with three game appearances out of the bullpen for the Indians, he has spent his time in AAA this year. Plutko’s pitch arsenal definitely requires some work with a fast ball that tops out around 93 and then a slider, curve, change-up that could all use work as well. Nothing really stands out for Plutko.
This season his ERA is sitting at 6.40 and his FIP at 5.71. His DRA-, the stat I referred to in Hillmans portion, is at 190.5! Just like Hillman, Plutko has seen a large increase in his HR%, growing from 5.9% at the AAA level last year to now being at 13.2%. Plutko simply doesn’t have the speed to blow his fastball by hitters and his off-speed pitches aren’t picking up the swings and misses he needs to be that type of pitcher. As Plutko continues to age, and his time spent in the minors continues to grow the ever looming possibility that he just might not make it becomes larger each day.
I simply don’t see him even being able to hold a back of the rotation starting spot in the bigs. If anything Plutko will find himself being a mid relief bullpen piece to give you a couple innings or a spot start guy who after his options are up gets DFAd.
Shawn Morimando, LHP, AAA
Outside of McKenzie, Morimando might be my favorite of the bunch in this list and its not just because of his name. I’ll tell you up front: Shawn doesn’t have an overwhelmingly stellar arsenal of pitches. In fact his fastball is average at best and the remainder of his pitch offerings keep in line with that mantra, just average. The one thing that has surprised me this season has been his ability to go late into games. Hes been able to consistently give at least 6 innings an outing and in his past 3 starts he has thrown 2 complete game shutouts.
He’s on a hot streak right now, that is for sure but it does make you think. In his most recent start he had 12 Ks which doubles his next highest K mark (6) from an outing this year. Right now his ERA is sitting shy of 4 at 3.72 and his GB and FB rates are nearly identical at 38%. I said up front that he could be my favorite from the bunch and to me it stems from his consistency. His career minor league ERA has hovered in the mid 3’s pretty much the whole time. He did have a very small stint for the Indians last year that got him a taste of the MLB but with his continued work at AAA another stint shouldn’t be too far away for him.
I think end of the day ceiling we are looking at a mid to back rotation guy who can go out and give you 7 innings and keep the runs down and that has value in this day of baseball.
Shawn Armstrong, RHP, MLB
Shawn Armstrong has seen his name called up and sent down between the majors and minors a couple times this year. He most recently was recalled to the big league club on June 27th. Unlike the other 4 pitchers on this list Armstrong is strictly a bullpen guy, and some could consider him a potential closer. Only issue for him on that front is two guys named Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, both of whom are proven MLB closer talents and are going nowhere for the time being. With that said though, the MLB has seen a strong shift in how teams are utilizing their bullpens. Miller arguably is the best bullpen arm and he isn’t even considered the closer. Take a look at Chris Devenski down in Houston as well. These guys are players who teams can rely on to get sure outs in a pinch.
Shawn’s through the roof K/9 rate is something that stands out for him on that front.
In his MiLB career he has sat around a 11-13 K/9 rate. His ZIPs projections for the remainder of the 2017 season would put him at 11.64 K/9. For reference that is just a point below Cody Allen’s projected K/9 rate for the season. Armstrong has seen a spike in giving up the long ball in his 2017 big league opportunity which is something he is going to need to control to ensure he stays at this level. His FB% in his time in the big leagues this year compared to his time in the minors is 47.5 to 27. That’s a huge difference but sample sizes are also small.
Given he is a bullpen arm however, he is going to have to ensure his control is a top priority or else his value goes down the toilet. His SwStr% is on par for his previous MLB stints but the main difference is his contact % on pitches outside the zone has gone up, as well as his swing percentage on pitches inside the zone. Shawn needs to learn his margin for error in the MLB is much smaller and if he is going to miss the strike zone, put it where the hitter can’t reach. With all of that said, the adjustments are definitely doable for Shawn and if he does start to pound the zone effectively and begins to ring guys up at that 11 K/9 rate, the Indians bullpen could be looking even scarier.
Featured image of Shawn Morimando – courtesy indians.mlb.com