Spring training is an exciting time, as it gives fans an opportunity to see their team’s top prospects play with the big-league club, serving as something of a brief preview. Every once in a while, however, a prospect may make a statement, as Jackie Bradley Jr. did prior to his 2013 rookie season when he hit .419/.507/.613 forcing the hand of the Boston Red Sox.
While we haven’t quite seen anything of that magnitude this spring, one of my favorite prospects, infielder Ernie Clement, has shown some legitimate and relatively unexpected success through the first half, which has resulted in the Cleveland Indians keeping him around into the second half of March. Over 27 plate appearances, the 22-year-old has slashed a stellar .280/.333/.480 (.813 OPS) with just one strikeout. What’s even more incredible about it is that he’s done so with an exceptionally low .261 BABIP.
Just who is Ernie Clement, though? Clement was a guy who caught my attention prior to the 2017 draft, when he was statistically the most difficult player to strikeout in the NCAA for the University of Virginia. Most scouting reports loved his ability to make contact, as well as his speed, glove, and makeup, but considered him to be a utility guy in the major leagues based on limited power and an arm that many didn’t think could stick at shortstop. This profile was enough for me to take Clement in the third round (106th overall) of my real-time mock draft for 2017, which had me picking as though I was an independent 31st team.
Clement has torn through the Indians’ system, having already reached Double-A last season. For his career, he has posted a very strong .286/.346/.365 batting line while posting well above average range factor marks at both second base (4.59 compared to an estimated league average of 4.12) and shortstop (4.45 compared to an estimated league average of 3.9). Furthermore, he has also warmed up in center field and could be utilized at the position to increase versatility. While most prospect outlets have him pegged for a 2020 debut, I see no reason that he can’t make it to the big leagues at some point in the upcoming season, even if it’s for a cup of coffee.
The question remains, however, where could Clement play? When looking at the Indians infield, Carlos Santana is under contract through the 2020 season, Jason Kipnis will likely depart following the 2019 season, and neither Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez appear likely to be going anywhere for at least the next three seasons. In the system they have a surplus of infielders, however, many of them, like Tyler Freeman, are not expected to reach the major leagues until at least 2021, possibly later. Nolan Jones (a top prospect) and Yu Chang represent the other legitimate prospect options expected to reach the majors beforehand. While Chang is currently a shortstop, he’s expected to move over to third base where many believe that he can handle the position well enough, defensively, to serve as a regular. That being said, he has a very flawed hit tool and can probably be expected to hit for an average around .240 with an on-base percentage of about .320. And his power (which is his calling card) has exhibited some red flags as well, namely a massive decline in his fly ball distance, as he’s progressed through the system (hat tip to prospects1500 on this metric). This could hinder his ability to make it as a starter, especially considering that third base isn’t exactly open, as Ramirez has handled it exceptionally well, and if he does move off of the position, it will be to accommodate Jones.
Defensively, Jones isn’t anything special and could very well move to first base or designated hitter, both potential areas of need for the Indians in the coming seasons, assuming Hanley Ramirez departs after the 2019 season. His bat is his main calling card, and he is expected to be a catalyst in the lineup exhibiting an exceptional ability to hit for average and power, as well as elite plate discipline (he posted a 17.1 BB percent in 2018).
This being said, there is a clear opening for Clement to step in for Kipnis in 2020, where I would imagine he would serve as the second hitter in the lineup, while providing the Indians with the flexibility to play him at shortstop and center field, if necessary.
Remember the name Ernie Clement, as he’s certainly somebody who you want to look out for.