Youth is power among the low-payroll clubs, and no team exemplifies that more than Cleveland, who has been mostly successful in terms of wins and losses despite constantly feeling the creep of (air quotes) market forces. After an eventful 40-man roster deadline day that saw the club turn over 20+ percent of its personnel, Cleveland is on the verge of something new in more ways than one (cue the Starlord memes). This system is loaded, is what I’m saying, and though they’ve faced a recent downturn in on-field talent, that should be short-lived, especially on the pitching side.
Format: Position Player | Age on 4/1/2022 | Highest level played | ETA
1. SS Brayan Rocchio | 21 | AA | 2023
The team’s top prospect for the real game, too, Rocchio lit it up like Arcade Fire this year, especially in AA, where the 5’10” 170 lb switch hitter slashed .293/.360/.505 with 7 HR and 6 SB in 44 games. He’s been scrawny for much of his career so far but was always an explosive rotator and is adding in-game power as he tacks on his man strength. He’s kind of in a holding zone for dynasty, I think: not hyped enough to sell and too hyped to buy. I’m not sure that says what I’m thinking, which is basically that he’s a hold for now. The team that has him probably loves him and reads the guys who have him top 25. Your offers are likely better sent elsewhere.
2. 1B Jhonkensy Noel | 20 | A+ | 2023
Listed at 6’1” 180 lbs, Noel seems bigger than that in the batter’s box, where he looks casual even while blasting 400-foot home runs. In just 38 games in Low-A, Noel hit 11 HR and slashed .393/.426/.693. I love that Cleveland then sent him to High-A. It’s not rocket surgery, but some teams would wait another month and see if he could bring up his walk rate or whatever, which Noel did anyway in High-A, jumping from 4.3% to 8.1% and slashing .280/.351/.550 with 8 HR and 3 SB in 26 games. Hard to imagine a better couple months from a 19 yo corner bat. Noel is climbing lists and looking like a Top 50 fantasy prospect if he hits early in AA. He might land close to that on my post-org-reports reshuffle.
3. OF George Valera | 21 | AA | 2023
The most famous name on this list, Valera started making noise on the field in 2021, posting an incredible .430 OBP in 63 games at High-A before moving on to AA for his final month. His final line in 86 games across the two levels: .260/.405/.505 with 19 HR and 11 SB. His selective aggressiveness and baserunning acumen should make him an asset in OBP leagues even if he’s slumping. He can get a little pull-happy at times, but that’s partly just him channeling the Cleveland coaching–a good sign for a great athlete who would be among the youngest players in AAA to open the 2022 season.
4. RHP Daniel Espino | 21 | A+ | 2023
Espino is the kind of guy you get questions about in the prospect writing game. The 24th overall pick in the 2019 draft, Espino was a celebrity in prospect circles before he graduated high school, with some projecting him as a top 5 pick. I liked him a lot heading into draft season and was surprised he fell to Cleveland deep in the round. He has repaid the club’s confidence, striking out his opponents at incredible rates since day one, never whiffing fewer than 30% and peaking at 45.1% across 49 innings at High-A this season, where he logged a 0.94 WHIP despite some gopher balls that ballooned his ERA to 4.04. He even cut the walk rate from 12.8% at Low-A to 8.2% at High-A. He’ll open 2022 in AA and figures to post similarly ridiculous rates thanks to a double-plus fastball that sits comfortably around 98 and a death-touch slider that means he could be pretty effective very early in his career a la Alek Manoah. And that’s not all he’s got. He’s a plus athlete at 6’2” 205 lbs and flashes solid curveballs and changeups if he ever needs to get that deep into his arsenal.
5. RHP Peyton Battenfield | 24 | AA | 2023
Acquired at the deadline from Tampa for OF Jordan Luplow and RHP DJ Johnson, Battenfield should flourish in Cleveland. At 6’4” 224 lbs, he brings an electric momentum to the mound via constant movement and consistent strikes from a brisk delivery. His heater eats up in the zone and tunnels well with his changeup and curveball, which he didn’t have to throw all that much in 103 innings that netted him a 0.825 WHIP across two levels. Tampa typically gets what it wants from its trades, but I’m a little stunned they bailed on Battenfield to add what they did. You want to sell Joe Ryan to add Nelson Cruz to the lineup? Sure, makes sense. Could’ve just signed him in the off-season but whatever. You want to trade a fire-breathing fastballer like this guy for Jordan Luplow? I mean, you’re the Rays so you do you and continue to be smarter than me and almost everyone else, but this is a weird one.
6. RHP Cody Morris | 25 | AAA | 2022
Like his dad Zach, Morris always looks cool and composed in the center of the frame, even holding a cordless phone twice the size of his head. He was a 7th round pick out of South Carolina in 2018 and follows a long line of big conference college arms through the Cleveland pipeline in that his pitches tunnel well, he has command of his off-speed arsenal and he’s added some velocity as a young Guardian. He dominated both upper levels last year, registering a 1.00 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 61 innings. He was pitching around 96 mph with an 81 mph curveball in most of the outings I watched this season, so he’s not some finesse guy: we’re looking at a legitimate angle on some Cleveland pitching magic-slash-technology.
7. SS Tyler Freeman | 22 | AA | 2023
The dream for Freeman is that he adds power to his double-plus hit tool, and if you believed reports from the alt site in 2020, he was doing just that in the controlled setting of glorified batting practice. When the games resumed in 2021, Freeman was back to his singles-focused self, hitting just two home runs in 41 games. He did slash .323/.372/.470, and he was 1.9 years younger than the average at AA, but it’s hard to envision what kind of role he can fill without adding power. At 6’0” 190 lbs, he has the size to do it, but his swing is extremely short and quick—geared more toward long at bats than long bombs. He also spent a bunch of the season on the IL with a shoulder injury that ended his season and required surgery. He’ll open the year at AAA and could quickly establish himself as an option for Cleveland if he looks healthy.
8. SS Gabriel Arias | 22 | AAA | 2022
Which trade was this again? Oh yeah, Clevinger, which if you’ll recall, also included Cal Quantrill, who was excellent and certainly much more valuable than the absent Clevinger in 2021. Arias is a smooth defender who has taken his excellent hand-eye coordination to the batter’s box over the past few years. In a full season (115 games) at AAA in his age 21 season, Arias slashed .284/.348/.454 with 13 HR and 5 SB. Not a superstar season but damn impressive for a guy who skipped AA. I keep thinking about Cristian Pache as I type this, except that Arias never had the hype or speed of Pache but is similarly excellent in the field, which should secure his playing time as he continues to grow as a hitter.
9. LHP Logan Allen | 23 | AA | 2022
A great athlete with plus balance and command who repeats his delivery with ease, Allen fits the Cleveland mold for pitchers who exceed their on-paper projections. He’s not an ideal candidate to add velocity at 6’0” 190 lbs, but Cleveland tends to find a way, not that Allen has needed more than his low-90’s fastball, plus changeup and average curveball to this point. He went 9-0 in 19 starts across two levels this season with a 0.93 WHIP and 143 strikeouts in 111.1 innings. He’ll open the season in AAA and could be in Cleveland by July.
10. 3B Nolan Jones | 23 | AAA | 2022
Could put about fifteen names here, but the lanky lefty corner bat gets it over the rest because of his proximity and patience. I’ve always been down on Jones, comparatively, because I’m not sure he’s aggressive enough within the strike zone to hang against guys who just don’t give you much to hit and sure as shit aren’t going to walk you if you’re not going to swing. His numbers have always been padded by poor command at the lower levels, and he’ll simply need to adjust, which he started to do after a slow start in AAA. He finished with a functional .238/.356/.431 slash line along with 13 HR and 10 SB in 99 games, which isn’t great but would be an improvement on Cleveland’s outfield production over the past few years. If Jones doesn’t get a chance early this year, I’ll be wishing I gave this spot to Jose Tena or Gavin Williams, who offer more long-term upside for our purposes.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.