About David Freier
If you meet the 6’0″, 170 lb. Ernie Clement out of uniform, you might not know that he is one of the Cleveland Indians’ Top 30 Prospects, as determined by Baseball America. He came in at 24 in their preseason rankings. Currently, MLB Pipeline has him in the number 28 spot.
Raised in Rochester, New York, the 22-year-old has been playing baseball since the age of three. His parents encouraged him to play other sports – he excelled at hockey – but he always returned to his first love, baseball.
“I love the team aspect and everybody coming together for one common goal,” said Clement about his deep passion for baseball. “All of my friends played baseball so that made it really fun.”
Right-handed pitcher Eli Morgan began his professional baseball career a little more than one year ago. Now the number 29 ranked Indians prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is in his first full season. Morgan has reached the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats working as a starting pitcher. This path to a career in baseball is a recent development.
“Through high school, I wasn’t even sure about college baseball,” said Morgan. “I wasn’t getting looked at.”
Dalbert Siri is a solidly built right-hander out of Moca in the Dominican Republic. The 6’2”, 190 lb. 22 year-old reliever, signed when he was 19, rather late for players coming out of the Caribbean. The strongest prospects usually ink a contract the day they turn 16, the earliest legal age they can sign with a Major League organization.
Those top international signings often have the benefit of playing at one of the various training centers where they go to school, play ball, and get exposure to one or more Major League organizations. Siri, on the other hand, only started to play baseball at the age of 14 in Little League.
“I had to do a lot of hard work to get noticed,” Siri said. “My mother paid to have someone teach me baseball, so I took it seriously and played every day.”
It is not often that a player marks two rare baseball achievements before becoming a professional. For High-A Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Zach Plesac, this happened in high school. The nephew of former three-time All-Star reliever Dan Plesac went to the mound for the first in-conference game of the 2012 season for Crown Point, Indiana, High School. In the ninth inning, their opposition, Chesterton, led 2-1 from a combination of a hit batter and errors, but had no hits.
“I came to bat in the bottom of the ninth and hit a three-run homer over the left field wall,” recalled Plesac. “It was just incredible. It was one of those things you dream about.”
At first glance, second-year High-A Lynchburg Hillcats first baseman Anthony Miller appears to be your stereotypical corner infielder. He is big, standing 6’5” tall, and weighing in at 240 lbs. You would be wrong in assuming he is a slow, classical power hitter.
“Defensively, he’s very good,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor. “He’s done a good job and just needs to continue to improve his at-bats, making sure he gets good pitches to hit.”
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, is only a few hours east of Lynchburg. It features the Loch Ness Monster, a roller coaster built in 1978 and still the only coaster featuring two interlocking loops over water and a helix tunnel between the two loops. The loops and helix tunnel make for an exhilarating ride, much like the ride dedicated fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats experienced in the season’s first half.
Early season games were marked by temperatures around freezing, while rainouts contributed to the team having four scheduled doubleheaders between June 6 and June 13 – three of them on the road, including back-to-back nights in Frederick. Even with a seven-inning limit imposed by Minor League Baseball rules, that is a lot of innings. Of the eight games in these doubleheaders, the Hillcats lost six. They dropped both games on June 6 in Wilmington, and four games in two days at Frederick. The only victory was a home game against Potomac, where starter Zach Plesac earned his fifth victory on the season, his fourth in a Lynchburg uniform. That night’s second game was washed out by rain.
“Yeah, we haven’t been able to work like we would like to, but there is nothing we can do, it’s just Mother Nature,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor about the team’s weather misfortunes. “When it’s raining we go inside to the cage and do the best to prepare to go out and play the game.”
You won’t find the name James Karinchak listed at Cleveland’s MLB pipeline page, or see it included in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook coverage of the Cleveland Indians. It is likely he will join those ranks next year. Since the start of the season Karinchak has significantly improved his pitching and on May 3, he earned a promotion from Low-A Lake County to High-A Lynchburg.
The numbers between his first season as a professional and those of his second season are radically different. The 6’3” power right-hander out of Bryant University began his professional career with the short-season Mahoning Valley team after being a ninth round selection in 2017. In ten games, six as a starter, he posted a 5.79 ERA over 23 1/3 innings, with a 2-2 record.
These are not the numbers you want to post to move up into prospect status, but Karinchak bore down and made some adjustments on the mound.
If you have the chance to attend a High-A Lynchburg Hillcats game this season, you are likely to find Alexis Pantoja (pronounced Pant-Oh-huh) taking up station at one of the infield positions. He has played second base, third base, and shortstop for this edition of the Hillcats, and his glove is his calling card as a baseball player.
“My first [role] model was Derek Jeter,” said Pantoja about what player he watched growing up.
Starting at three years old, he spent every waking moment on the baseball field if possible. His older brother had played in college and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“My mom would say, ‘Take it easy, take it easy’, but every time I would go play,” he said. “This is the reason why I love baseball.”
For three consecutive years, Dillon Persinger was selected in the summer’s annual amateur entry draft, the Rule IV draft. In his first trip through the draft, the Cleveland Indians selected him in the 31st round of 2015, following a season at Golden West College, a junior college in Huntington Beach, California.
“The first time was a little bit of a shocker, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Persinger about his three trips through the draft process. “As the years went on, there was a little less anxiety each time.”
In the history of baseball, spanning 143 years, there are over 19,265 men who have played in the Major Leagues, according to baseball-reference.com. On the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats, two players have fathers who excelled enough to join that select fraternity, shortstop Luke Wakamatsu and outfielder Michael “Conner” Capel.
The experience of Capel’s father had a significant impact on his love of baseball and the direction of his professional career.
The 6’6” lefty is a towering figure on the mound at City Stadium in Lynchburg. A thin beard frames the face of Cleveland’s fourth round selection of the 2014 draft. With eight starts under his belt, including his first career Opening Day nod, Sam Hentges is beginning to show the potential that he exhibited before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
After suffering the injury midway into the 2016 season (he had 14 starts for the Low-A Lake County Captains), his progress through the Indians farm system was delayed. Now, almost two years since his surgery, he is returning to form as he demonstrates what he can do on the mound.
“I take things from the weight room and the training room and bring them to bullpens and every day throwing,” said Hentges about his recovery from surgery.
Being left-handed in baseball confers certain advantages that right-handed players don’t receive. An old story at Livescience.com (old meaning it was posted in 2008) indicates that about 10 percent of the population is left-handed, but 25 percent of Major Leaguers are left-handed. For High-A Lynchburg Hillcats reliever Ben Krauth, being a lefty has always been an advantage in baseball.
“Growing up everyone always said you are going to have a job (in baseball) if you are left-handed,” said Krauth. “It seems to be true, but pitching is still the same. You have to throw the ball over the plate, challenge the guy in the batter’s box.”