After a slow start to last season, Cleveland minor leaguer Mitch Brown will look to rebound in 2016 and keep his name on the list of top Indians pitching prospects down on the farm as the club’s pitching depth continues to get stronger and stronger.
The 21-year-old right-hander finished up his fourth season in the organization in 2015 working at the High-A level with the Lynchburg Hillcats, posting a 9-12 record with a 5.15 ERA and 1.59 WHIP. Those numbers were elevated from his previous showings and were marred by a rough dozen game stretch over two months from the end of April through the last days of June and included five consecutive decisions lost in one span.
He snapped out of it in July, ripping off five straight wins, six of seven, and seven of nine. He was a perfect 5-0 in July, working a 3.16 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in those five starts, and followed with a 2-2 August with a 3.10 ERA in five more trips to the mound. On July 24, 2015, he struck out a professional career-high nine Pelicans as Lynchburg defeated Myrtle Beach.
Brown was selected by the Indians in the 2012 draft in the second round out of Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota, but it was understood that the Cleveland offer was going to have to be enticing to keep him from heading to the University of San Diego on scholarship after being named the Minnesota Baseball Gatorade Player of the Year his senior year. He bypassed an opportunity to continue his education at that time, instead signing over slot less than two weeks later with the Indians for an $800,000 bonus and, additionally, the value of a four-year scholarship to San Diego.
“It worked out the way I wanted it to,” Brown was quoted on Star Tribune Sports after signing. “[The negotiations] went the right direction the whole time. Now I can finally get back to playing baseball.”
Less than a month later, he was pitching with the Arizona League Indians. He was named the number five prospect in the Indians organization by Baseball America after the season following his eight starts in Goodyear.
He would return to the desert in 2013 after making five starts with the Lake County Captains. He was 1-1 with an 11.49 ERA in limited action in Eastlake, pitching just once into the sixth inning through May 1 before missing time with a shoulder strain.
He returned to action with the rookie league Indians on June 20 and pitched in 12 games, finishing his year there with a 2-4 record and a 5.37 ERA. His stock dropped some, as he found himself listed the 24th ranked prospect in the system after the year by Baseball America.
He spent all of his 2014 season with the Captains, going 8-8 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. He struck out 127 batters in 138 2/3 innings and looked to be back on track. His stock was back on the rise, earning a 14th-best prospect ranking for the club after the season.
His mid-season turnaround in 2015 might be attributed some to the arrival of Rigo Beltran to the coaching staff of the Hillcats after Tony Arnold was promoted to Columbus to replace Carl Willis. Beltran had worked with Brown in Lake County the previous year and had professional pitching experience of his own upon which to reflect.
After his career-high nine strikeout game, which came with six scoreless innings of work and just two hits surrendered, Brown spoke highly of his pitching coach.
“Rigo and I have a good history together,” Brown was quoted in The News & Advance in Lynchburg. “He really knows what I look like when I’m at my best and he knows what I look like when I’m not at my best. Rigo’s been able to do a good job of trying to preserve my mechanics and just put me in a good spot. I feel like after that, we just try to be athletic and aggressive. Going forward, we look forward to talking pitch selection.”
In the offseason and back in his hometown, Brown was expected to be involved with baseball camps in Rochester working with pitchers 14 and older this January, with one camp dealing with building a base to becoming a more powerful and athletic pitcher and another camp teaching how those in attendance can become more explosive on the mound and how to better transfer their energy.
Looking ahead to the coming season, he has fallen off some of the early prospect boards, but Baseball Prospectus still included Brown on a list of five guys deemed “interesting”. The publication suggested that Brown’s struggles with Lynchburg were largely of his own doing. When drafted by the Indians, the pitcher described himself as “aggressive” on the mound, liking to pitch inside with the fastball and going after hitters by getting ahead of them to keep them off balance. His control in 2015 seemed to get him into trouble, as elevated walk totals and working into hitters’ counts led to more base runners, more runs allowed, and an end of the year stat sheet that was different than his previous efforts.
Brown has plenty of time on his side, as he will only turn 22 midway through April. His fastball is a strength and his curveball is described as “above-average”, but as the list of potential starting pitchers on the farm becomes longer and longer, the young hurler will have to claim his place or run the risk of being buried behind more consistent arms.
For 2016, the early projection is that Brown will return to Lynchburg. If back at the advanced-A level to start the year, he would reunite with Beltran as his pitching coach and Mark Budzinski as his manager for a second season, which could be just the consistency that Brown needs to build a predictable routine and reliable results moving forward.
Photo: Max Oden/The News & Advance