By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
The Cleveland Indians’ loaded young roster came into their own last season as the Tribe dominated the American League Central, winning the division by 17 games over the Minnesota Twins, who ended up winning the second Wild Card. The Indians are looking to establish their dominance with even more prospects in the pipeline while the Twins try to give them a run in 2018. The Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox hope to see their rebuilds take shape this year while the Detroit Tigers being one of their own. Here’s a look at one key young player to keep an eye on from each team in the division.
Francisco Mejia, Catcher, Cleveland Indians
The Indians’ top prospect and the No. 1 catching prospect in baseball, Mejia likely won’t start the year with the Indians. His future may not even be at catcher, but if his strong offensive numbers continue in his first stint at Triple-A early this summer, the Indians will do what they can to get him into their lineup. With a solid tandem of Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes behind the plate, Cleveland will explore all avenues with Mejia. The 22-year-old saw time at third base in the Arizona Fall League and manager Terry Francona has hinted he may get some time in the outfield too.
Mejia boasts legitimate pop, but not at the expense of contact. He hit 14 homers with a .297 average in just 92 games at Double-A last year. Mejia made his name known in ’16 when he put together a 50-game hit streak — the longest in the Minors since 1963 — spanning two levels over four months. Although the switch-hitter will spend time in the Minors this year, ZIPS projections have him putting together a relatively full season in the bigs, hitting 13 homers in 109 games.
Byron Buxton, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
Fans have been waiting for Buxton, the second overall pick in the ’12 draft, to break out for some time now. It was a long time coming before the outfielder’s five tools finally translated to the Major Leagues in ’17. Buxton debuted in the bigs three years ago and struggled mightily, hitting .209 with a ridiculously high 32 K% (strikeout rate) in 46 games. Buxton struck out 44 times and drew only six walks in 138 plate appearances that year, and he didn’t fare much better in ’16 with a.225 average and 118 strikeouts (35.6 K%) in 92 games. There were major concerns surrounding Buxton’s future entering last season. Fortunately, the 24-year-old took a major step. Despite hitting just .253 in 140 games (a 28-point increase), Buxton dropped his strikeout rate below 30% for the first time and had career highs across the board — 16 homers, 29 steals, 51 RBIs.
While last season was a breakout, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Considering Buxton hit .306/.380/.505 in 328 Minor League games, there’s reason to believe Buxton can manage to get on base more and hit closer to .300. In order to do so, he’s obviously going to have to improve his pitch selection and cut down on the strikeouts. Even with minor improvements producing an average upwards of .270, Buxton’s major impact as one of the stars on the Twins will be evident. A 20-homer, 30-steal season is bound to happen soon.
Hunter Dozier, Kansas City Royals
Dozier’s name has been at the tip of Royals fans’ tongues since he was drafted 8th overall in ’13. Unfortunately, it’s been a long road for Dozier, who has just 21 big league plate appearances to his name. The two-time Top 100 Baseball Prospectus prospect was coming off his best season in ’16 when he showed his potential with 23 homers, 75 RBIs and a .296/.366/.533 line between Double- and Triple-A before playing just 33 games in an injury-plagued ’17 season. Overall, Dozier has hit .261 with 54 homers in 489 Minor League games.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Dozier has spent most of his time at third base, but he’s seeing time in the outfield and at first base now as the rebuilding Royals hope he can be a factor for them this season. Unfortunately for Dozier, he’s likely heading to the Minors to start after the signing of first baseman Lucas Duda and return of third baseman Mike Moustakas. Nonetheless, with many of Kansas City’s top prospects still a few years away from the Majors, Dozier could and should be the first man up when ready and gives Royals fans something to look forward to for the future if he can put things together in his age-26 season.
Michael Kopech, Pitcher, Chicago White Sox
While Yoan Moncada was the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade with the Red Sox, flamethrower Michael Kopech was hardly just a throw-in. Ranked as the White Sox No. 2 prospect by MLB.com heading into the season, Kopech will begin the season at Triple-A to work his way towards the Chicago rotation. The 6-foot-3 right-hander is coming off a great season in the Minors in which he advanced two levels. Kopech had an 11.7 K/9 and 2.87 ERA in 22 starts in Double-A before he struck out 17 and allowed five earned runs in 15 Triple-A innings.
Kopech is known for his fastball that regularly sits at 100 mph, and he mixes in a still-developing changeup and slider. Turning 22 this season, Kopech is very close to being ready for the bigs, with just a bit more polish needed before the White Sox call on him for the rotation. Kopech struggles with his fastball command at times, walking 4.5 batters per nine innings last year. It’s not easy to control a 100-mph fastball, but Kopech is going to have to rein it in a bit and cut down on the free passes before he can be relied upon in the bigs. If he improves his control and finds more consistency with his changeup, the White Sox should have their future ace in the rotation by mid-summer.
Jeimer Candelario, Third Baseman, Detroit Tigers
A top prospect in a loaded Chicago Cubs system, the Tigers acquired him in July in a trade involving reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila. Candelario is projected to be the starting third baseman for a rebuilding Detroit team with Nick Castellanos moving to the outfield full time, and he’s in the midst of a nice spring as he attempts to secure that gig.
Candelario doesn’t stand out in one particular aspect but he’s a well-rounded player who does a little bit of everything. He really came into his own in Triple-A in 2016, where he hit .333/.417/.542 with nine homers in 76 games at Iowa. After another strong showing at Triple-A last year, Candelario made his big league debut with the Cubs before getting shipped over to the Tigers. In 38 games between the two clubs, Candelario showed what he’s capable of with an impressive .283/.359/.425 slash line with 12 extra-base hits in 142 plate appearances. Candelario can top out at 20 homers with a well-rounded slash line, and while ZIPS seems to expect some growing pains when it comes to batting average (.248), his projected 16 homers and 68 RBIs are reasonable expectations in his first full season in the bigs.