For this system, the script gets a bit flipped. First, no pitching stone should go unturned in Cleveland. Whereas we’re typically ignoring teenage arms in our quest to stock dynasty systems with power-speed bats, we want all the arms we can hoard in Cleveland. I’m trying to think of another system that operates similarly for our purposes. In Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, we want the arms, too, but we want all the bats just as badly. Plus, those clubs bounce their pitching prospects around between the rotation and bullpen and minors even after they’ve demonstrated they can retire major league bats in order. Cleveland might be the last place you can count on a young pitcher to get a shot at six innings every time out. Take Aaron Civale for example. A third round pick in 2016 and not an elite prospect by any means, Civale lasted six innings or more in 11 or 12 starts in 2020, falling short in only his final turn, a four-inning, eight-run blowup that devastated his season-long statline and dropped him down some draft boards. It’s beautiful to get the sparkling ratios that come alone with the quick analytic hook, but we need Wins in our game, and despite their typically anemic offense, Cleveland is one of the few places to find double digit winners throughout the rotation.
Format: Position Player | Age on 4/1/2021 | Highest level played | ETA
1. RHP Triston McKenzie | 23 | MLB | 2020
The nickname “Sticks” is cool, in my opinion, and it’s exceptionally fitting for McKenzie, who will likely add muscle as he ages because if he goes the other way, he could become two-dimensional or, if he listens to Radiohead, disappear completely, something he almost did in 2019 when a series of muscle-related injuries sidelined him the whole season.
Cut to 2020, and we find Sticks striking out ten Tigers in his debut, allowing just two hits in six innings. His other few turns followed a slightly different storyline. He dominated the Royals in his third start (6 IP, 0 R, 6 K, 0 BB, 3 H) but didn’t last beyond the fifth inning in any of his other four starts. Small sample caveats are loud here, but we haven’t seen much McKenzie of late, and my lasting impression in the moment was that he’d been great in 2020, so it’s interesting to see he was only fantasy-good in two of six starts. I’m definitely buying in redraft leagues given his impressive four-pitch mix (fastball 53.3%, slider 20.2%, curveball 16.5%, change-up 10%), but his price feels incredibly high in my few dynasty leagues. If you’re in one where he’s still available at a reasonable price, I suggest making an offer. McKenzie seems poised to go one of three ways in 2021: 1) typical Cleveland fantasy success story with even better raw stuff than many of their find-an-aces; 2) injured; or 3) too small to handle a starters’ workload.
Click on the following link to read Grey’s thoughts on the matter:
2. SS Tyler Freeman | 21 | A+ | Mid 2021
Few prospects improved their stock during the pandemic. I was going to finish that sentence with “more than Tyler Freeman” but realized in medias res that it was truer without the tag. Cleveland has better publicly available prospect coverage than just about anyone, and nobody benefited more from our behind-the-curtain access than Freeman because we saw him working extremely hard in several videos throughout the season and then saw him putting that added strength into practice on the field. Simply put, this guy is trying to hit homeruns. All day every day from the looks of it. His stat page is that of a contact-oriented base-stealer, but he’s on track to be something different, and I’m here for it. I’ve been kind of low on Freeman, I think, comparatively, but I really want to see what he looks like in 2021 and will seek to pick up a share or two in anticipation of a little value bump when we see the more muscular version in games.
3. 2B Aaron Bracho | 20 | A- | 2023
A compact switch hitter with power and plate discipline from each side, Bracho brings a tremendous skill set for fantasy baseball but doesn’t offer a great floor on defense. If he can remain a viable option at second base, his plus hit, plus power, plus patience profile fits beautifully in our game.
4. OF George Valera | 20 | A | 2023
Lefties just look good with a bat in their hands. Not all of them, I suspect, but guys like George Valera make swinging a bat look so natural it seems to be the truest state of being for all involved: the swinger, the lumber, the viewer and the baseball.
5. 3B Nolan Jones | 22 | AA | 2021
I’m afraid Jones will fall just shy in the hit department to consistently impact our game. He’s got the power and patience to win himself a job, but time will tell if his hands are fast enough to match up with elite spin. He’s been fighting to stay at third base, a battle that seems somewhat irrelevant in an organization with Jose Ramirez under contract through 2023 but that matters for our game because if he’s going to be a 1B OF type, he needs to get his reps there so he won’t get Jake Bauers’d out of a job because he’s not hitting while learning to play new positions at the top level.
6. RHP Daniel Espino | 20 | A- | 2023
I’m still a bit surprised the league let Espino fall to Cleveland at the 24th overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft, but I guess you have to draft for your own build and not against your opponents’, and a high school righty doesn’t help many GM’s keep their job. Espino made it to Low A in his draft season and struck out 40 percent of the batters he faced there. The numbers he might post in 2021 as a 20-year-old in A ball boggle the mind. On the bump he features a plus-plus fastball along with two plus benders and a change from an athletic 6’2” 205 lb frame with very efficient base mechanics.
7. SS Gabriel Arias | 21 | A+ | 2023
A little like Cantillo, Arias put it all together in 2019 and posted an impressive statistical campaign against opponents who were much older than himself, which helped get him tracked and targeted by Cleveland. He’s got more swing and miss than you like to see, seen in a K rate at 25 percent across 120 games in A+ ball, but he played those games as a 19-year-old and produced a 120 wRC+ with 11 homers and 8 steals in the process. I like the base mechanics of his swing, there’s plenty of power in his 6’1” 205 lb frame, and he’s got more than enough athleticism, hand speed and bat control to access it in game. The ultimate decider of his fate will come down to pitch recognition and plate patience–something Cleveland works hard to develop in its young players.
8. LHP Joey Cantillo | 21 | A+ | 2022
Creator of perfect backspin on his four-seamer, Cantillo saw a velocity bump in 2019 and combined that with plus control and a plus change-up to slice through the Midwest League and end his season in High A at age 19, where he got hit around a little bit. Cleveland saw something they really liked in the 6’4” 220 lb lefty who looks even stronger than that. If he lives in the mid 90’s like he did at times in 2019, we’re looking at a guy with a long career ahead of him no matter how his third pitch looks a few years from now. If Cleveland saw something they think can be unlocked in the curveball or some other offering that pairs well with his high-riding fastball and fall-away changeup, Cantillo could be special. Even if he’s mostly a two-pitch guy, I think he can make that work given the deception in his delivery, the spin on his fastball and a little natural command projection.
9. OF Alexfri Planez | 19 | R | 2024
Still cheap enough in some dynasty circles to acquire for the price of inquiry, Planez generates impressive bat speed by maxing out his 6’2” frame. He’s listed at 180 pounds but seems more likely to check in closer to two bills when next he meets a scale we can see. Not because he’s lazy or big boned or whatever–just because he looked bigger than that when last we saw him, and that was more than a year ago, when he was 18. That’s not always how it works, of course, tallish teenage athletes gaining five years of man-strength in one off-season, but it does happen, and Planez is a likely candidate.
10. RHP Emmanuel Clase | 23 | MLB | 2019
The primary return for the oft-panned Corey Kluber trade of seventeen years ago (last winter), Clase hasn’t thrown a pitch for Cleveland due to his 80-game PED suspension. He’s not eligible for arbitration until 2024–not a free agent until 2027–so Clase has plenty of time to reward Cleveland’s investment, something he seems almost certain to start doing in 2021 near the back of the bullpen thanks to his high nineties heat and nasty cutter.
I should note here this might be the deepest system I’ve seen. Easily top five. While they’re stingy on the big league side, Cleveland invests heavily in development, creating countless avenues for their young talent to improve, be that through education, diet, coaching, training, access to tech resources, etc. This list could go on for a long, long time, but while I’m here I’ll mention potential 2021 glow ups SS Gabriel Rodriguez, SS Angel Martinez, SS Brayan Rocchio, RHP Tanner Burns, SS Jose Tena, RHP Lenny Torres, RHP Ethan Hankins, OF Daniel Johnson, SS Carson Tucker and personal favorite little engine that could, SS Jose Fermin.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.