In a structure similar to the 2021 Cleveland Indians breakout starters and breakout relievers articles, this entry will be centered on my personal list of top ten prospects in the Cleveland Indians farm system in my preferred order.
The Cleveland Indians organization’s scouting development groups were integral to the organization’s success during the 2010s. As the only two players left from the 2016 World Series team are Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez, the front office is in the process of shifting to the next core for the next contention window. The front office has emphasized sustaining success by infusing the team with young talent to avoid tanking and make the time between periods of playoff contention as brief as possible.
Some of these prospects are already on the forty-man roster and on the cusp of making their MLB debut. Others are teenagers that are still two to three years away. It is not guaranteed that these talented athletes will be All-Stars, but do not overlook the fact homegrown league-average players are extremely valuable when building a competitive baseball team.
2021 Cleveland Indians Top Prospect List (In Order)
|Daniel Espino||20.0||Short Season-A||Starting RHP||2022|
|Brayan Rocchio||20.0||Short Season-A||SS||2023|
|Aaron Bracho||19.7||Short Season-A||2B||2023|
|Ethan Hankins||20.6||Low-A||Starting RHP||2023|
|Lenny Torres||20.3||AZL||Starting RHP||2023|
Nolan Jones was drafted by the Indians in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of an Eastern Pennsylvania High School where he played hockey and baseball. Jones is a third baseman who bats left-handed and throws right-handed. Despite his work ethic and focus on becoming a better defender, Jones is a below-average defender at third base due to his lack of lateral quickness. Due to Jose Ramirez blocking him at third and holes in other areas of the 25 man roster, Jones will primarily play a corner outfield spot when he gets called up and may moonlight at 3B early in his career.
Nolan Jones’ offensive profile is headlined by his abilities to hit for power and work the count to draw walks. Jones has averaged an on-base percentage of 40% during his four seasons playing Minor League Baseball due to his Votto-esque ability to discern between balls and strikes. Despite having high strikeout rates, Jones does not have issues making contact. Jones frequently finds himself in 3-2 counts because of his ability to draw walks and will strike out looking due to his excellent approach. Nolan Jones can drive the ball for extra-base hits to all fields and frequently hits opposite-field home runs.
George Valera is a 20-year-old outfielder from Queens, New York that was signed as an international amateur free agent by the Cleveland Indians during the 2017 July 2 signing period for $1.9 million dollars. Valera spent his childhood in New York but moved to the Dominican Republic with his family when he was 13 years old because of a family accident. Valera got huge hype after Ben Badler, the Baseball America writer who popularized the coverage of international signings, posted a video of a sixteen-year-old Valera taking batting practice during a talent showcase. Valera’s swing from the left side draws comparisons to Robinson Cano due to the visual similarities.
Valera does not have a long history of performance in the minors due to a broken hamate injury during his first professional season in 2018, and the cancellation of the 2020 MiLB season. Valera was the second-youngest player in the New York-Penn League(NYPL) during the 2019 season, and against older competition, he put up 8 home runs and a 142 wRC+. Weighted Runs Created Plus is an adjusted statistic that measures a player’s level of offense productivity and can provide context on how effective hitters are by taking external factors such as the ballpark, era, etc. Based on Valera’s productivity at a young age, he would’ve been viewed as a potential top ten pick in an MLB Draft if he was draft-eligible.
Daniel Espino is a 20-year-old right-handed starting pitcher from Panama who was drafted out of high school during the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians. Despite being a high schooler the Indians front office has not dismissed the possibility of putting Espino on a fast track through the farm system due to his physical build, flexibility, maturity, and ability to command all four of his above-average or better pitches.
Espino’s fastball sits in the mid-to-high nineties with the ability to touch 100 miles per hour, and his breaking pitches (curveball/slider) get praise for having plus movement profiles. Espino’s changeup is clearly the fourth pitch in his arsenal, but it still grades out as a viable offering against opponents due to its tumble/fade and Espino’s ability to deceive hitters keeping his arm speed up when he throws it. Espino had high makeup grades due to his outgoing personality and work ethic, and since his professional baseball career started he has remained a hard worker, frequently posting workout videos on social media.
Brayan Rocchio is a 20-year-old shortstop from Venezuela that was signed as an international free agent by the Cleveland Indians during the 2017 July 2 signing period for $125,000 dollars. Rocchio is a switch-hitter and throws right-handed. Rocchio tore through the Dominican Summer League(DSL) and Arizona Rookie League (AZL) during his first season of pro baseball in 2018, highlighted by his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and his stellar shortstop defense. Rocchio is highly thought of highly in the Indians organization due to his high baseball IQ and maturity, earning the nickname “The Professor” early in his professional career.
Rocchio stood out when he got defensive reps and plate appearances during Major League Spring Training the last two years, showing his maturity and potential. Rocchio does not project to hit for much power due to his slight build at 5’10” and 150 pounds, although the Indians player development group has a track record of encouraging swing/approach adjustments to increase game power for contact-oriented hitters. Rocchio is the best individual defender in the Cleveland Indians farm system, and he is capable of being an above-average defensive shortstop right now.
Tyler Freeman is a 21-year-old middle infielder from Etiwanda, California that was drafted in the Competitive Balance B Round of the 2017 Draft by the Cleveland Indians. Freeman is known for his elite ability to hit, never posting a strikeout rate above ten percent and hitting near or above .300 in his three years of professional play. Freeman bats and throws right-handed, and has primarily played shortstop in the minor leagues. Because of his fringe-average throwing arm and average speed, Freeman is projected to primarily be a second baseman who can play shortstop in a pinch in the major leagues.
Freeman’s ability to make contact is buoyed by his work ethic, high baseball IQ, and instincts. He is an average runner but can steal 20 bases and provide value as a baserunner due to his aforementioned instincts. Freeman is not projected to hit for much power due to his line drive-oriented swing and aggressive approach, but he has a history of racking up doubles wherever he plays. While Freeman’s role will be driven by his ability to put the ball in play, he has the ability to be an above-average offensive-oriented middle infielder, which is extremely valuable.
Gabriel Arias is a 20-year-old shortstop that was signed by the San Diego Padres out of Venezuela during the 2017 July 2 signing period, and he was the centerpiece of the six-player package the Padres sent to Cleveland in exchange for starting pitcher Mike Clevinger. Arias bats and throws right-handed, and is very athletic for someone that is 6’1” and weighs around 200 pounds. Arias’ profile is headlined by his plus raw power at the plate and his ability to play plus defense at shortstop with a top of the scale throwing arm.
Arias is a high-variance prospect because he can hit for power that is uncommon for shortstops while simultaneously having more than enough defensive prowess to stick at shortstop long term. Arias’s major flaw is a high strikeout rate due to an aggressive approach and questions about his ability to make contact. Arias showed huge strides in his ability to make contact while playing in High-A ball at the age of 19, being one of the youngest players in the California League during the 2019 season. After July 1st Arias slashed .350/.378/.562 and hit 10 of his 17 High-A home runs, showing his All-Star caliber ceiling.
Many people saw Arias’s offseason participation in virtual reality training to work on his ability to discern between strikes and balls to improve his approach at the plate as an indictment of his ability to hit. I saw his willingness to be the real-life version of Luke Skywalker learning how to use a lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon as a sign that he has a great work ethic and is open to trying new methods to improve. The Indians front office values players that work hard and are eager to step outside of the box to become better players.
Bo Naylor is a 20-year-old catcher from Mississauga, a city in Ontario, Canada that is just outside of Toronto. Naylor is the younger brother of Indians outfielder/first baseman Josh Naylor, both being first-round picks out of high school during their respective drafts and receiving seven-figure bonuses after signing. Naylor bats left-handed and throws right-handed, and is built similarly to his brother although Bo is a lot more athletic than Josh.
The Indians were aggressive with the younger Naylor brother by pushing him straight to full season A ball in his second professional season, which is uncommon for high school catchers. Naylor performed well offensively, putting up more than ten doubles, triples, and home runs while handling the pitching staff really well. While Naylor projects to be a bat first catcher, he has an above average throwing arm, has improved as a pitch framer and has the athleticism to be adept at blocking pitches in the dirt. With the looming possibility of an electronic strike zone, the defensive standards for catchers may change but Naylor still has the tools to be a valuable everyday catcher with the bat and glove.
Aaron Bracho is a 20-year-old Venezuelan second baseman that was signed by the Indians during the 2017 July 2 signing period for $1.5 million dollars. Bracho has a long history of performance, being a known name on the international scene since he competed on Venezuela’s national team for a few years before reaching the eligible age to sign with an organization. Bracho is a switch-hitter that has been lauded for his ability to hit for contact and power.
What makes Bracho’s offensive profile even more appealing is his understanding of the strike zone, as he has a great approach at the plate and the ability to discern between strikes and balls. Bracho has walked more than he has struck out so far in his small sample size in the minor leagues, which is a great sign of future success considering how young he is. He has one of the highest offensive ceilings of all the position players in the farm system currently.
Ethan Hankins is a 20-year-old starting pitcher from Gainesville, Georgia that was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of high school, receiving a two-million-dollar signing bonus. Hankins was seen as a potential first overall pick due to his ability to throw up to 100 miles per hour with good secondary offerings but slid down draft boards after injuring his shoulder before the draft. Hankins is 6’6” and weighs two hundred pounds, and throws right-handed.
Hankins projects to be a middle of the rotation (MOR) arm, with some risk to be a reliever due to his inconsistent mechanics and fluctuating weight. Hankins has bought into the organization’s development plan and many have seen improvements in his conditioning, his pitches, and his mechanics since becoming a professional pitcher. Hankins has a tangible chance of being another alumnus of the Cleveland Pitching Factory.
Lenny Torres is a 20-year-old starting pitcher from upstate New York who was drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of high school in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Torres was a late bloomer due to being from a cold-weather state, but the Indians really liked him. Torres is extremely athletic, being able to repeat his mechanics and throw strikes to every quadrant of the zone. He sits in the mid-nineties with his fastball and can touch 98 when he needs to. His slider is viewed as a plus pitch, as it has a nasty two-plane movement profile and pairs well with his fastball. Torres’ changeup is a work in progress but it is seen as a viable pitch.
Torres runs some reliever risk and had Tommy John surgery in 2019 after having elbow issues during MiLB Spring Training. Dominating the AZL during his first stint of pro baseball in 2018, Torres was seen as the best starting pitcher in the entire league. Despite missing a large amount of time due to injury and COVID-19 canceling the 2020 MiLB season, Torres is still viewed highly by scouts and various outlets. Despite falling behind his peers because of Tommy John surgery, Torres is more than capable of moving through the system quickly.
Follow me on Twitter at @captainvide0 for more of my content! Don’t forget to join our OT Heroics MLB Facebook group, and feel free to join our new Instagram – @overtimeheroics_MLB, and listen to our baseball podcast, Cheap Seat Chatter!. We’ll see ya there!
Come join the discussion made by the fans at the Overtime Heroics forums! A place for all sports fans!
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images