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Indians Prospect Primer: McKenzie moving up

No. 24 overall prospect ready for upper levels; Mejia eyes Majors
Triston McKenzie finished second among all Minor League hurlers with 186 strikeouts last season. (Patrick Cavey/
March 23, 2018

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2018 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.Shining star: Triston McKenzie, RHPMcKenzie

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2018 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Shining star: Triston McKenzie, RHP
McKenzie has scouts drooling after showing off his potent combination of plus arsenal and solid command at Class A Advanced Lynchburg last season. The 20-year-old went 12-6 with a 3.46 ERA, 45 walks and 186 strikeouts over 143 innings in 25 starts for the Hillcats, leading the Carolina League in whiffs and finishing second with a 1.05 WHIP. He also represented Cleveland in the Futures Game in July.

Drafted with the 42nd overall pick in 2015, McKenzie has piled up 290 strikeouts over the last two seasons, averaging 11.5 per nine innings. At 6-foot-5 and 165 pounds, the wiry hurler doesn't overpower hitters with an upper-90s heater but has thrived due to an advanced feel for pitching that belies his young age.
"He has shot up through our system," Indians assistant general manager Carter Hawkins told "He had an excellent year at Lake County [in 2016]. We moved him up to Lynchburg [in 2017] and he dominated there. He ranked second in all of the Minors in strikeouts. We need to keep him healthy and keep building up his body.
"He has a unique release point -- it's hard for the hitters to pick up. His breaking ball is sharp. His fastball comes out his hand the same way -- a lot of deception."

Though he didn't get a look in Major League camp this spring, it is a safe bet that McKenzie will open this year at Double-A Akron, putting even a late 2018 debut in The Show within reach.
Major League-ready: Francisco Mejía, C
Mejia is listed as a catcher, but don't expect that to be the only position he plays in 2018. Indians brass tried the switch-hitting youngster at third base in the Arizona Fall League. After that experiment, they began giving him a look in the outfield during Spring Training.
With one of the better arms behind the plate in the Minors and decent receiving skills, Mejia obviously could still make a good catcher. However, those position changes are no doubt being floated about to find ways to get the 22-year-old's impressive bat into the lineup as often as possible. Mejia has been one of the standout offensive performers of the last two years in the Minors. After stringing together a historic 50-game hitting streak across the Class A and Class A Advanced levels in 2016, he put together a strong encore performance by batting .297/.346/.490 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs over 92 games with Double-A Akron last year.
Mejia will likely head to Triple-A Columbus to start this season, but his bat is ready for the Majors, especially after hitting .421 in Cactus League ball. Like others before him who have been blocked at the big league level, he will have to continue searching for ways to crack the lineup.
"[Indians infielder] Jose Ramirez has made himself so valuable by being able to move to different positions," Hawkins said. "It's a way to get to the Major team earlier -- especially given we have two Major League catchers right now."
Loudest tool: Bobby Bradley, 1B
Though consistency has been an issue for Bradley, few can dispute the raw power the 21-year-old possesses in his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame. The 2014 third-round pick approached the 30-homer mark in each of the last three seasons and smashed 23 with Double-A Akron this past year. He also tied for the lead in Cleveland's system with 89 RBIs, cementing his status as a middle-of-the-order run producer.
Bradley can be prone to slumps and has never really hit for average, but when the long balls start coming, they often come in bunches.
"When Bobby is on his game, we call it 'Bobby's World,'" RubberDucks hitting coach Johnny Narron told after a game last June. "I think he's going to be a very good big league baseball player."
The Mississippi native put together a solid showing in big league camp, finishing 9-for-23 with four RBIs in 13 Cactus League games, though he did not go deep.

Full-season debutant: Tyler Freeman, SS
Cleveland grabbed a pair of promising teens with their top two picks in the second round of the 2017 Draft: Quentin Holmes (64th overall) and Tyler Freeman (71st overall). The latter was easily the more impressive of the two in his debut season, hitting .297/.364/.414 with two homers, 14 RBIs and five steals over 36 games at the complex level in the Arizona League.
The numbers matched Freeman's reputation as a high-contact, line-drive hitter, part of the reason the Indians pulled the trigger on him. The 18-year-old compiled an eye-popping .526 batting average in his final season at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, tops among all prep players in the state. Still a teenager, Freeman is not guaranteed to break camp with a full-season club. However, a hit tool of his caliber will certainly be worth keeping an eye on in his second year, especially as his other skills begin to develop.
"An unbelievable offensive-oriented player," Cleveland's senior director of amateur scouting, Brad Grant, told after selecting Freeman. "He brings a lot of offensive tools to the game. He's going to be able to hit, and power should come in the future."
Breakout prospect: Will Benson, OF
It might seem strange to peg a former 14th overall pick as a candidate for a breakout, yet that is exactly the position Benson is in after back-to-back uneven seasons at the lower levels of the Minors. The 2016 first-rounder showed flashes with Class A Short Season Mahoning Valley last year with 10 homers, 23 extra-base hits and 36 RBIs in 56 games. However, he hit just .238 and fanned 80 times.
Benson's offensive profile and outstanding athleticism suggest he is capable of more, and perhaps he will be when given a full season of games to work with. His 10 long balls last year projects to an impressive 25 over 140 games. With decent plate discipline and surprising speed given his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, the question will be whether Benson can make consistent contact. Still just 19 years old, he has impressed Cleveland brass with his determination.
"He really oozes athleticism," Hawkins told "He has so much power and strength. He has an outstanding makeup, a real desire to get better.
"He doesn't just talk about working hard, he works hard. That's so important when looking at a player like Will."

More to keep an eye on: Willi Castro showed an intriguing mix of power and speed with Lynchburg last year. His 11 home runs don't jump off the page, but add his three triples, 24 doubles and 19 steals and it's easy to understand what Cleveland sees in the 20-year-old shortstop. ...Shane Bieber has arguably the best command among Minor League pitchers. He walked 10 in 173 1/3 innings across three levels last year, a minuscule rate of 0.52 per nine frames. ...Two players with outstanding individual tools who will be looking to round out their skill sets in 2018 are Greg Allen and Yu-Cheng Chang. Allen swiped 24 bases last season at Double-A Akron, while teammate Chang smacked 24 dingers. ... Sluggers Emmanuel Tapia and Conner Capel were one of two pairs of teammates in the Midwest League to both crack the 20-homer plateau in 2017, belting 29 and 22, respectively, with Class A Lake County.
2018 organization predictions:
Most home runs in the system: Bradley
Most stolen bases: Allen
Most strikeouts: McKenzie
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Ryan Merritt
Non-Top-100 prospect to end 2018 in the Top 100: Castro

Alex Kraft is a contributor to