How a Summer Without the Minors Impacts the Cleveland Indians
Contrary to the opinion of many within the fan-base, I’ve long believed the potential loss of Francisco Lindor wouldn’t thrust the Cleveland Indians into a long and grueling rebuild.
Don’t get me wrong, removing a superstar shortstop from the equation does more harm than good. Still, there are a few reasons why his departure shouldn’t trigger tanking.
For one, Cleveland’s rotation is in a good spot. The earliest any of its starters approaches the end of his respective team control is 2023.
On top of this, the Indians still have several key players -- José Ramírez, Franmil Reyes, Oscar Mercado to name a few -- secure for the next few years.
However, one of the biggest reasons why I felt Lindor leaving wouldn’t bring on baseball dark ages was the work Cleveland has done with its farm.
Today SI wrote about the crisis in Minor League Baseball with a feature entitled "Minor League Baseball is in Crisis," talking about the ongoing issues if a season does not happen and how it's going to hurt a ton of minor league teams.
The Indians have solidly built up their minor league system over the past few years, especially with their addition of several intriguing international prospects. Provided all works out, it wouldn’t be too long before they had some new contributors starting the next era of Cleveland baseball.
Of course, the only way things continue on this positive trajectory is having said prospects further their development. Based on how things are looking, that won’t be happening this year. While minor league baseball has yet to be cancelled for 2020, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network, teams are already planning for that to come to fruition.
As a result, many key pieces of the Indians’ future are about to be thrown into a state of flux.
The most obvious player this cancellation impacts is Nolan Jones.
Jones sits at the top of Cleveland’s farm, and is viewed by MLB Pipeline as the No. 42 prospect in all of baseball. He was also likely in mind when the Indians signed second baseman César Hernández to a one-year deal this offseason. It wasn’t lofty to assume this was done to ensure an infield opening would be ready next season after Jones spends this summer in Triple-A.
Now, Jones may not get the final dose of seasoning needed for such a scenario to take place. When determining how to handle prospect development this summer, he’s the first player Cleveland needs to address.
Obviously, he’s not the only one, though.
What about Triston McKenzie?
The lanky pitcher is only a couple years removed from being the Indians’ prize prospect. Thanks to various injuries suffered since, the last time McKenzie threw a live game pitch was August of 2018. It’s safe to say another summer off the mound is the last thing he needs.
There are also several fringe prospects to consider, such as outfielder Daniel Johnson and first baseman Bobby Bradley. Both players appear right on the cusp of the majors, yet each has one hindrance standing in their way.
For Bradley, it’s improving his case of the K's. He may flex monstrous power, but his 33.8% strikeout rate with Triple-A Columbus last season proved he still has room to improve his plate discipline.
Meanwhile, Johnson is the victim of being last in line behind other outfielders currently under consideration with Cleveland.
Each player is someone the Indians ideally want ready for a call-up this year. Unfortunately, a lack of minor league baseball could result in them generating a great deal of rust.
It’s worth noting that there are reportedly alternatives to consider. They may not be ideal for prospect development, but they’re much better than nothing at all.
For one, MLB is considering allowing each team a 20-man “taxi squad." These players would serve as injury replacements, but could potentially train with their respective clubs, as well.
Additionally, Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com notes the Indians are exploring other options. These include intrasquad games being held with their Double-A and Triple-A clubs at their Arizona spring training facility, or these teams holding scrimmages at their respective home parks.
Obviously, these come with their fair share of questions.
Would intrasquad contests be enough to help prospects like Jones, Bradley or Johnson get the final grooming they need?
Would these options be approved by local health officials?
More importantly, what would this mean for prospects below Double-A?
This specifically leads us back to some of the international players Cleveland has used to help improve its farm system. Several of these prospects could play a big role with the Indians down the road, but none will be ready this year or next.
There’s George Valera, the outfielder with a swing scouts fawn over. Switch-hitter Aaron Bracho could find himself playing second for Cleveland within the next few seasons. Within his MLB Pipeline scouting report, Bo Naylor is labeled as one of the best pure hitters in the 2018 prep class.
The Indians are also loaded with shortstop prospects, seemingly preparing themselves for Lindor’s potential departure. Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio and Jose Tena are each making their way up Cleveland’s prospect rankings. Under a best-case scenario, all three could be big league ready by 2023.
Not that it needs to be said, but a year without minor league baseball isn’t anyone’s idea of a best-case scenario.
There are many other up-and-coming prospects this impacts. Pitchers Daniel Espino and Ethan Hankins, outfielder and 2016 top pick Will Benson. Each has yet to advance to Double-A, each risks losing a year of crucial development.
The Indians aren’t alone in this. No big league team sees benefits from their prospects missing out on live game action this summer.
For Cleveland, though, this is quite a blow. The team has been savvy when rebuilding its farm, and said work appeared to create a bright future in the coming years.
In order to ensure this still comes to fruition, the Indians need to be even shrewder when figuring out how to keep its key prospects on the right path this summer.