MLB

Cleveland’s top prospects 2021: Nolan Jones, Bo Naylor among top five in farm system

The arrival of the offseason means that it’s time to rank stuff. Already this winter, we’ve sized up the 60 best free agents, both on an overall and positional basis. There’s no law that prevents us from ranking minor-league players in addition to their big-league counterparts. As such, we’re going to spend the winter evaluating every team’s farm system. 

The lack of a minor-league season makes that more of a challenge this year. It doesn’t help that some teams opted against sharing video and data from their alternate-site camps with the rest of the league. As such, we’ve opted against overthinking this. Our rankings will essentially be the same as they were last winter with a few changes. First, we’ll exclude anyone who graduated by exhausting their rookie eligibility; second, we’ll replace them with draftees or other worthy prospects; and third, and lastly, we’ll present the information in a new format.

In every article in this series, you’ll find a team’s top five prospects as well as five others we felt like including, either because of their promise or some other reason. For those top five prospects, you’ll find a quick summation of their pros (their saving grace, if one will) and their cons (their fault line), as well as beefier report and our attempt to peg their “likeliest outcome.”

These rankings were compiled by talking to industry folks — scouts, analysts, and other evaluators — and include a touch of our own evaluative biases. Remember, that this is more of an art than a science, and that the write-ups matter more than the rankings themselves.

Now, let’s get on to the top five prospects in the Cleveland system.

Age (as of 4/1/2021): 22

Height/Weight: 6-foot-2, 185 pounds

Acquired: Second-round pick in the 2016 draft (Holy Ghost Prep High School, Pennsylvania)

Highest level: Double-A

Saving grace: On-base/power potential

Fault line: Defense

Scouting report: It was a little surprising that Cleveland, who badly needed offense throughout the year, never gave Jones a look at big-league pitching. He has the potential to be an above-average contributor at the dish thanks to his command over the strike zone and his above-average strength. Alas, Cleveland left him at the alternate site, where he ostensibly worked on his third-base defense (he might have to move off the position) and his ability to make more consistent contact (he struck out in roughly 30 percent of his Double-A plate appearances in 2019). There’s no reason to think Jones won’t debut in 2021.

Likeliest outcome: Starting corner infielder

Age (as of 4/1/2021): 21

Height/Weight: 6-foot, 195 pounds

Acquired: No. 29 pick in the 2018 draft (St. Joan of Arc Catholic, Ontario)

Highest level: A-ball

Saving grace: Power

Fault line: Hit tool

Scouting report: Cleveland acquired Naylor’s brother, Josh, as part of the return on the Mike Clevinger trade. There’s a possibility, then, that the two will be teammates in the not-so-distant future. This Naylor appears likely to remain behind the dish, and he has above-average power potential. The one possible snag in his game is his hit tool. He struck out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances in 2019, and it’s easy to foresee that ballooning as he moves up the system. His on-base and slugging potential could help him make it to the Show anyway.

Likeliest outcome: Slugging backstop

Age (as of 4/1/2021): 20

Height/Weight: 5-foot-10, 150 pounds

Acquired: International amateur free-agent signing (Venezuela)

Highest level: Low-A

Saving grace: Defensive and on-base skills

Fault line: Power

Scouting report: Rocchio has been regarded as a potential breakout candidate who could, in time, top this list. That hasn’t happened yet, but he does look like a future big-league starter based on his bat-to-ball skills and keen eye at the dish, as well as his defensive ability in the field. Rocchio has the strong arm, the quickness, and the soft hands to be a middle infielder, even if he ends up sliding to second down the road, perhaps after adding some bulk to his frame.

Likeliest outcome: Starting middle infielder

Age (as of 4/1/2021): 20

Height/Weight: 5-foot-11, 185 pounds

Acquired: International amateur free-agent signing (Dominican Republic)

Highest level: A-ball

Saving grace: Well-rounded nature, offensive potential

Fault line: Experience, strikeouts

Scouting report: Valera has been limited to 58 professional games since signing in 2017 because of injuries and now the pandemic. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that he’s still young enough to enjoy a full developmental cycle. Valera has the makings of a well-rounded player whose bat could play above-average at maturation. We’ll have a better feel for his chances of living up to that after a full and hopefully healthy season. 

Likeliest outcome: Starting outfielder

Age (as of 4/1/2021): 21

Height/Weight: 6-foot, 170 pounds

Acquired: Second-round pick in the 2017 draft (Etiwanda High School, California)

Highest level: High-A

Saving grace: Hit tool

Fault line: Power

Scouting report: Freeman has impressive bat-to-ball skills that have enabled him to hit .319/.379/.441 with a strikeout rate south of nine percent for his professional career. Unfortunately, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. He’s not going to walk or hit for much power, and he’s certain to remain on the shortstop side of the second-base bag. It might not matter if he continues to display this kind of feel for making contact and notching hits.

Likeliest outcome: Regular middle infielder

Five others to know

Cleveland plucked Tucker, Cole’s brother, with the 23rd pick in the 2020 draft. The industry was jamming on him more than most public-facing types, so it wasn’t the reach that it may have otherwise appeared. Tucker is an athletic shortstop who should stick at the position. 

Burns’ medicals pushed him down the board to the 36th pick, later than he deserved to go based on his performance in the SEC and the mid-rotation gifted to him by his command and three-pitch arsenal. So long as he can stay healthy, he should be on the fast track.

Allen was the third of Cleveland’s top-60 picks. He’s not going to win any velocity contests, and he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. He has a plus changeup and knows how to pitch, however, and that should enable him to work out of a big-league rotation someday soon.

Cleveland popped Espino with the 24th pick in the 2019 draft. He’s on the leaner side, but he generates big-time velocity and spin thanks to his flexibility and athleticism. He needs to throw more strikes if he’s going to remain a starter for the long haul. 

Hankins’ story is somewhat similar to Espino’s: he’s another prep righty who showed big-time velocity and promise as an amateur. Since turning professional, he’s had control problems get in the way of him living up to that draft-day hype. 



 

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