Spring training for the Cleveland Indians is well underway by now, but unlike in past years there are actually very few roster spots up for grabs. Twenty players are essentially locks to be with the team on opening day, while another two injured players (Danny Salazar and Brandon Guyer) stand a chance of regaining health in time to take up two more spots. The remaining jobs seem likely to be claimed by a combination of out-of-options players (Erik Gonzalez, Giovanny Urshela and Ryan Merritt) and NRI veterans in camp on minor-league contracts (Rajai Davis, Melvin Upton Jr. and Matt Belisle).
This means that young players with limited major league experience and an option remaining are highly unlikely to break camp with the team. Those players will probably begin the season off of the active roster and instead serve as depth pieces. That doesn’t mean we won’t see many them at some point this year, though; injuries and ineffectiveness create opportunities at the MLB level frequently throughout the season. The following five players in particular are talented youngsters who I predict will be left off the opening day roster (barring injuries to key players), but could still make a big impact at some point during the 2018 campaign.
Five Dark Horse Candidates To Make A Big Impact
5. Julian Merryweather, RHP – Merryweather was added to the Tribe’s 40-man roster ahead of this past winter’s Rule 5 Draft, and for good reason. The right-hander has all the tools to be an effective big league starter. MLB.com ranks him as the team’s 12th-best prospect headed into the season, citing a fastball that has topped 96 mph at times. He makes good use of his 6’4″ frame on the mound, throwing on a downhill plane and generating a ton of ground balls. Another impressive aspect of Merryweather’s game is his command; he’s never exceeded 2.88 BB/9 in any of his minor-league seasons, and managed nearly a strikeout per inning in 2017. While his 6.58 ERA at the Triple-A level last year looks ugly on the surface, his 3.89 xFIP suggests that he suffered from some bad luck in the homer department.
There are a bunch of talented pitchers above Merryweather in the pecking order. But if he gets off to a hot start, he could at least leapfrog Shawn Morimando and Adam Plutko and potentially earn a spot start or doubleheader appearance. He could also be recalled as a long reliever if necessary; the Tribe doesn’t have the same wealth of minor-league bullpen arms in Columbus that they have in the past.
4. Bobby Bradley, 1B – The Indians already have Yonder Alonso at first base, so Bradley, a fellow left-handed hitter, doesn’t figure to factor into the equation at the start of the season. The fact that he’s never played above the Double-A level only strengthens that rationale. But the 21-year-old slugger has incredible potential. Last year he cut his strikeout rate significantly, and this year he showed up to spring training camp in great shape after losing 30 pounds. Bradley’s slugged at least 23 homers in each of his last three minor-league seasons, and could be ready to mash in the big leagues soon.
Bradley isn’t likely to be promoted any time soon. However, if Alonso gets hurt or struggles for an extended stretch of time, and Bradley excels at Triple-A early on, he could earn a chance at some MLB at-bats. He’d have to quell concerns about his hit tool in order to stick around, but if his power translates to the majors, look out.
3. Cody Anderson, RHP – You might remember Anderson as September’s AL Rookie of the Month back in 2015. He won the honors by going 5-0 across six September starts while spinning a 1.38 ERA. The righty showed up to camp the following season in improved physical condition and won a spot in the rotation. Although his season went quickly south in terms of overall results, the 2 MPH he added to each of his pitches was an encouraging development, and his xFIP was actually better than the mark he posted in his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, health issues that year further prevented him from being able to contribute to the team in a meaningful way. In March of 2017, it was announced that Anderson would undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a sprained UCL in his throwing arm.
There’s no official timetable for Anderson’s return, but based on the typical recovery period following a Tommy John surgery, it’s possible he could return sometime in May or June. Prior to the 2016 season, his improved arsenal had him drawing comparisons to early-career Matt Harvey. If he can harness some of that potential, he could prove a dangerous asset to the Tribe as a reserve starter or a multi-inning relief weapon.
2. Yandy Diaz, 3B – Diaz is an incredible player with a tragic flaw. The 26-year-old Cuban native is absurdly strong and has an uncanny ability to scorch the baseball at incredible speeds… right into the ground. This tendency led him straight to a puny .327 slugging percentage with zero homers across 179 plate appearances in 2017, despite a 91.5 MPH average exit velocity that ranked eighth in the majors among players with at least 100 batted balls. Perhaps that doesn’t tell the whole story (his .302/.407/.402 batting line from August 22nd on indicates he made some fruitful adjustments), but on the whole, Diaz seemed like a character straight out of the Island of Misfit Toys.
Initial MLB impressions aside, Diaz is perhaps one of the strongest baseball players in the game. Check out his biceps if you don’t believe me. If he can learn to elevate the ball, the results could be cataclysmic. Of course, he doesn’t have a clear path to major league playing time right now, but if an injury creates room for him later in the season, there’s a chance we could see him do something incredible.
1. Francisco Mejia, C – You’ve probably heard plenty of buzz about the Tribe’s number one prospect by now. A 50-game hitting streak catapulted him into the spotlight in 2016, and his inclusion as the key piece in the failed Jonathan Lucroy trade made him even more well-known. Headed into the 2018 season, the switch-hitting Mejia is a consensus top-20 prospect in the game, with Baseball Prospectus ranking him as high as number five. MLB.com writes that he generates “consistently hard contact to all fields thanks to his advanced bat-to-ball skills and outstanding barrel control,” also taking care to note his “sneaky raw power”.
There’s little doubt that Mejia will develop into a premium MLB talent. The problem is that the Indians already have Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez locked up at the catcher position long term, and both players are considered to be excellent defensively. Still, the Indians appear motivated to improve his defensive versatility; they gave him plenty of reps at third base in the Arizona Fall League. Thanks to his incredible throwing arm, right field could also provide an alternate path to MLB at-bats. Regardless of how it happens, Mejia will get a shot at some point this year. When he does, I expect he’ll be able to help the Tribe in a big way.