Allen, Curry ready for changing of the guard
Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club. Cleveland experienced something of a transition year after trading one of its franchise
Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
Cleveland experienced something of a transition year after trading one of its franchise cornerstones. And even though the team finished on the wrong side of .500 at the Major League level, there were plenty of exciting building blocks on display in 2021.
The farm system compiled an overall .524 winning percentage as four of its six affiliates finished the season with more wins than losses. Akron was one of the best teams in the Minors, capping a stellar campaign with a three-game sweep of a talented Bowie squad in the Double-A East championship.
Most of Cleveland's Organization All-Stars are not represented among the team's top prospect rankings, but the talent that jumped out most during the 2021 season shows just how deep the system could be overall. And with the potential for more deals involving big names this offseason, prospect pool could soon rival some of the best in the game.
Cleveland Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Bryan Lavastida, High-A Lake County (48 games), Akron (29 games), Triple-A Columbus (seven games): The club’s 13th-ranked prospect profiled as a bat-first backstop, mostly because he was short on playing time behind the plate. But he logged more than 400 innings at the position in 2021, and the bat did not drag behind.
The 22-year-old committed 10 errors as a catcher and threw out 16 of 74 would-be base stealers -- which is about 12 percent lower than his success rate in his first two professional seasons.
“He really made a huge jump with his blocking, obviously, and also his receiving,” said vice president of player development James Harris. “We were really excited about how much he matured behind the plate. And the bat carried as well.”
Lavastida batted .289/.380/.456 with nine homers across three levels this season. His 83 total hits, .836 OPS, 51 RBIs and 50 runs scored were the most by any catcher in the Cleveland system.
The 2018 15th-rounder was second to No. 6 Cleveland prospect Bo Naylor in homers (10) and was only slightly behind fellow backstop Yainer Diaz in most other offensive categories. Diaz completed his excellent year in the Astros system after being included in the trade that sent reliever Phil Maton to Houston and brought outfielder Myles Straw to Cleveland.
First baseman -- Trenton Brooks, Columbus (79 games), Akron (23 games): The organization was confident that Brooks would show a little something extra this season. And after a full-time move to first base, the 26-year-old delivered.
Brooks batted .256/.351/.433 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs. His .784 OPS was the best of his five professional seasons, and his 26 doubles were the most among first basemen in the system.
“He's done a really good job of swinging at good pitches, making good contact and, on occasion, impacting the ball,” Harris said.
Brooks had primarily played in the outfield for most of his career and was able to bring some of that athleticism to the new position. He committed seven errors in 669 total chances at first base this season.
Second baseman -- Richie Palacios, Akron (66 games), Columbus (37 games): Prior to the season, the club’s No. 14 prospect was limited to 45 professional games after being drafted in the third round in 2018. Palacios suffered a torn labrum that wiped out his 2019 season before the pandemic created a wider gap between professional games.
Back at full strength this year, Palacios displayed tremendous bat-to-ball skills that produced one of the best offensive seasons in the system. The 24-year-old led all Cleveland second basemen with a .297 average, .404 on-base percentage, .874 OPS, 141 wRC+, 72 runs, 33 doubles and 20 stolen bases.
“He's giving you a quality AB every time he's up,” Harris said. “He's grown into a little bit of power. He's always been a guy who has been bat-to-ball but now some of those balls are leaving the park or at least consistent line drives.”
Palacios played mostly at second base, but logged some time in left and center field as well. Harris explained that Palacios had to work to build up arm strength after the injury, but he has the versatility to move around a couple different positions in the future. This could become an important quality within a system that’s deep on infielders like Freeman, their top prospect, fourth-ranked
Third baseman -- Jhonkensy Noel, Lynchburg (38 games), Lake County (26 games), Rookie-level Arizona Complex League (six games): An ankle sprain limited the 19-year-old to just 70 games, but when he was healthy he produced one of the best seasons in the system.
Noel was an absolute terror at Low-A Lynchburg, batting .393 with a 1.119 OPS, 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 150 at-bats. Overall, he led all Cleveland third baseman in just about every offensive category, batting .340/.390/.615 with a 1.005 OPS, 161 wRC+, 19 homers and 66 RBIs.
“First thing that comes to mind is how hard he hits the ball. So much power at a young age out of a righty,” Harris said. “He did it in Low-A, and then we moved him up to High-A and he continued the trend of impacting the ball.”
The club’s No. 25 prospect was a primary first baseman in two years of short season ball after signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. But the organization expanded his defensive profile to third base and eventually the outfield. Noel committed five errors in 79 total chances at the hot corner.
Shortstop -- Brayan Rocchio, Lake County (64 games), Akron (44 games): There were plenty of options for this slot on this list, but the club’s No. 7 prospect edged out Arias and Jose Tena. Rocchio was one of only two prospects in the system with at least 15 homers and 15 stolen bases. His 21 bags and 79 runs scored were the most among all of Cleveland’s Minor Leaguers, and his 15 long balls were a career high in his first full season.
The 20-year-old is a notoriously intelligent ballplayer with tremendous bat-to-ball skills. He batted .277/.346/.460 with 63 RBIs and 122 total hits.
“Lots of bat to ball, growing into his power a little bit,” Harris said. “You can tell he loves [the game]. Like one of those real scrappy-type players, but yet with quite a bit of skill and talent.”
Rocchio also has the athleticism and defensive versatility to move around the diamond. He mostly stuck at shortstop but got some time at second and third base.
The Caracas, Venezuela native went 4-for-12 in Akron’s sweep of Bowie in the Double-A East championship series. He’s continuing his season with Tiburones de La Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he’s already gone deep twice in the first 11 games.
Oscar Gonzalez, Columbus (72 games), Akron (49 games): The 23-year-old hit 37 total homers in his first five professional seasons but nearly matched that total in 2021. His 31 long balls, 84 singles and 83 RBIs were the most by any prospect in the system.
“He impacted the ball more than he has in the past. He grew into some power this year that was a little bit of a surprise to all of us, including Oscar,” Harris said. “He's done a better job of selecting better pitches to hit, and I think that's allowed him to impact the ball.”
Overall, Gonzalez batted .293/.329/.542 with 24 doubles and 70 runs scored. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound outfielder was quickly promoted to Triple-A after batting .330 with a .968 OPS and 41 RBIs with Akron.
George Valera, Lake County (63 games), Akron (23 games): Cleveland’s second-ranked prospect ended his season on a pretty incredible high note, collecting six hits, including a pair of doubles, in the RubberDucks’ championship sweep.
Valera was out for nearly a month with an oblique injury and limited to 86 games throughout the regular season. He earned the promotion to Double-A for the final month of the season and actually posted better numbers at the higher level.
The 20-year-old batted .260/.405/.505 with 19 homers, 65 RBIs and 51 runs scored across both levels.
“[He] swings at good pitches,” Harris assessed. “He's always shown that he can impact the baseball. And this year was no different.”
The No. 63 overall prospect got some time at all three positions in the outfield this season, with the lion’s share of his reps coming in right field.
Steven Kwan, Akron (51 games), Columbus (26 games): On first glance, the one thing that’s evident about Kwan is that he really doesn’t miss. The 24-year-old had a 9.1 percent strikeout percentage, the lowest in the system and the eighth-lowest among all Minor Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances.
“He puts the bat on the ball, and he puts the ball in play. And he does that night in and night out,” Harris said.
Kwan had 97 hits in 77 total games, including 12 homers and 15 doubles, while batting .328/.407/.527 with 44 RBIs and 65 runs scored. He suffered a hamstring strain just three games into the season that forced him to miss nearly all of May and June.
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Xzavion Curry, Lake County (13 starts), Lynchburg (five starts), Akron (one start): It was no easy task to outshine No. 92 overall prospect Daniel Espino this season. But the 23-year-old Curry was fantastic in 2021, and one of the few pitchers in the organization to move across multiple levels.
“He just keeps getting better and better as he knows himself,” Harris said. “Of course, it starts with the fastball, but he was able to mix in some of his secondary stuff and attack hitters, and he's an uncomfortable at-bat.”
The club’s 30th-ranked prospect pitched to a 2.30 overall ERA with 123 strikeouts in 97 2/3 innings across three levels. He allowed a run on two hits while punching out eight batters over five innings in Game 2 of Akron’s championship series.
Curry mostly relies on a low-90s fastball and his slider, but Harris said there’s plenty to be excited about with Curry’s curveball and his changeup will probably need more work to get him to the next level.
The 2019 seventh-rounder out of Georgia Tech allowed two runs or fewer in all but six of his starts, including nine scoreless outings.
Espino deserves credit for leading the system with 152 strikeouts and 14.92 K/9, but his 3.73 ERA gives Curry the edge on this list.
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Logan Allen, Akron (12 games), Lake County (eight starts): Not to be confused with the Cleveland southpaw of the same name who made 11 starts for Columbus and 11 in the Majors this season, but Logan Allen, the club’s No. 10 prospect, had one of the best seasons in the Minors.
The 23-year-old pitched to a 2.26 overall ERA with 143 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings across both levels.
“The guy just took the ball night in and night out and performed. Every time he was up there, we had a chance to win,” Harris said. “Another guy who is mostly fastball-slider, but he mixes in the changeup as good as anyone else and we're really excited about that.”
Allen was second to Espino in total strikeouts, and he made nine starts with at least eight punchouts. He only yielded more than two runs in an outing four times, and held left-handed hitters to a .174 batting average.
Relief pitcher -- Francisco Perez, Columbus (19 games), Akron (11 games), Cleveland (four games): There was an opportunity for the 24-year-old former starter to earn his first big-league promotion in the Cleveland bullpen this season. And the southpaw embraced the challenge, pitching to a 1.87 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 53 innings in the Minors this season.
“He's extremely competitive. Went out there and was able to always give us a chance to win,” Harris said. “He just took advantage of when he was given the ball. And when he was given the ball, he got guys out. Sometimes the game is a little simple, and for him that's what it was.”
Perez was claimed off waivers by the Nationals on Friday, but his year still stands out as the best among relievers in the system.
Also deserving of consideration is Aaron Pinto, who held a 2.30 ERA in 43 innings out of the bullpen for Akron.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.