Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Cleveland Indians.
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Indians had a terrific 2016, winning their first American League pennant in 19 seasons and coming within a run of their first World Series championship in 69 years. Their farm system fueled a lot of that success and should continue to do so as Cleveland chases that elusive title in the next few years.
For much of the playoffs, more than half of the Indians' starting lineup consisted of homegrown players, headlined by ascending superstar Francisco Lindor. Rookies Tyler Naquin and Mike Clevinger plugged holes that sprung during the regular season, and fellow first-year big leaguer Ryan Merritt came up big with 4 1/3 scoreless innings in an emergency AL Championship Series start. The system also produced enough fodder (including a pair of former first-round picks in Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield) to acquire Andrew Miller from the Yankees and Jonathan Lucroy from the Brewers, though Lucroy vetoed the latter trade.
"It was certainly an exciting time," said Carter Hawkins, who oversaw the system as Cleveland's farm director before being promoted to assistant GM in November. "It has a lot to do with the scouting process, bringing the right guys in, signing the right guys out of Latin America. The staff did a great job of helping guys fulfill their potential.
"The most rewarding part of it was seeing the scouting and player development staff come in for the League Championship Series and the World Series, and seeing the look on their faces when they saw the players out on the field."
While right-handers Shawn Armstrong (No. 25) and Adam Plutko (No. 15) could play complementary roles this year, most of Cleveland's top-shelf pitching prospects are on course to arrive in 2019. Righty Tristan McKenzie (No. 3) and lefties Brady Aiken (No. 5) and Juan Hillman (No. 12) were the organization's first three picks in the 2015 Draft and signed for a combined $5.6 million.
"There are clearly names in Triple-A, Double-A and down through the system that we'll be talking about in the near future," Hawkins said. "The cool part is we've realized we can help guys develop who weren't on the radar. Jose Ramirez, nobody thought he'd have Michael Brantley production last year.
"Yandy Diaz wasn't known two years ago, and now he's winning a batting title [in the Triple-A International League] and on the verge of helping the big league team. Mike Clevinger was in a very small trade for Vinnie Pestano and now he's ready to contribute to the big league staff."
Mejia made headlines last summer by hitting in 50 consecutive games to set a modern Minor League record. He finished the year at .342/.382/.514 with 11 homers in 102 games between two Class A stops, and his bat hasn't cooled off this spring. The 21-year-old switch-hitter has gone 7-for-18 (.389) with a pair of homers in big league camp, and he also has a well above-average arm behind the plate.
Cleveland has several pitchers vying for what may be just one open spot in its bullpen, and Armstrong is doing his best to claim that role. He hasn't allowed a run in six appearances while permitting just four baserunners and fanning six in 6 1/3 innings. Attacking hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a tight slider, the 26-year-old is throwing more strikes than usual.
A fellow Dominican but no relation to Francisco, Gabriel Mejia is the fastest player in the system. The 21-year-old switch-hitter batted .322/.378/.375 at short-season Mahoning Valley last year, leading the New York-Penn League with 85 hits, and has stolen 140 bases in 194 pro games. His speed also plays well in center field, and Hawkins says it can't be accurately gauged by the 20-80 scouting scale.
"Mejia is a 90 runner," Hawkins said of the Indians' No. 20 prospect. "For him, it's just a matter of continuing to refine his approach. He's figuring out how to have consistent at-bats, how to make smart decisions on the basepaths, how to do the little things. The key for him is finding that consistency to his game."
The Indians have excelled at unearthing pitchers in the late rounds of the Draft, including closer Cody Allen (23rd round, 2011), 13-game winner Josh Tomlin (19th round, 2006), Cody Anderson (14th round, 2011) and Armstrong (18th round, 2011). They could have another find in Matt Esparza, a 14th-rounder out of UC Irvine in 2015. The 22-year-old right-hander went 10-10 with a 3.36 ERA and a 141/36 K/BB ratio in 139 1/3 innings between two Class A levels in his first full pro season.
"Matt Esparza was really under the radar last year but we look at him as one of most valuable pitchers in our system," Hawkins said. "He throws a breaking ball, a changeup and a fastball in the low 90s. He really understands how to pitch and knows where to put his pitches."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.