Cleveland Indians 2016 Top Prospects: #13 Mike Papi

Cleveland Indians 2016 Top Prospects: #13 Mike Papi

An advanced college bat who has surprisingly struggled, Mike Papi still comes in at Number 13 on our 2016 Cleveland Indians Top Prospect countdown.

Who is Mike Papi?

Papi was the Tribe’s third first-round pick in the 2014 draft (38th overall) and signed for $1,250,000 ($245,400 under slot). The 6’2”, 190-pounder attended the University of Virginia where he helped lead the Cavaliers to the 2014 College World Series where they finished as runner-ups after falling to Vanderbilt two games to one in the Finals. The 23-year old Papi swings from the left side and has played both outfield and first base. He spent the 2015 season with the Tribe’s Advanced-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Papi’s biggest strength in college was his bat as he hit .327/.463/.511 in his three seasons at Virginia. He hit 11 home runs in his final season, and for his career, he walked over 30 times more than he struck out (121 BB, 88 K). His .184 ISO (Isolated Power) showed real promise as well. However, things haven’t translated quite as easily to the professional level as many thought it may. In his one and a half years with the Tribe, Papi has hit just .221 with a .680 OPS. He has only hit seven home runs and has a mere .113 ISO. While power was never the biggest part of his game, those are still hardly the numbers one would expect from an advanced college bat taken in the top 40. 

Baseball America was so high on him that they ranked him as their fifth best prospect in the Tribe’s system last year (and they weren’t alone in this sentiment). This year, however, they dropped him all the way to 19th in the Tribe system. I haven’t dropped Papi that far as there are still some positives in his game. Despite the low batting average, Papi has still shown a knack for getting on base.  He may have only hit .236 at Lynchburg last year, but he did have a rather good .362 OBP and 117 wRC+ (weighted runs created) thanks to his 81 walks in just 505 plate appearances.  That 16.0% walk rate ranked best in the Carolina League and second best among all Advanced-A players (minimum 200 plate appearances).  It’s his ability to work counts and get on base that keeps him as a top 15 prospect for me.

Papi won’t be able to survive on walks alone, though. He’ll need to start hitting for some power and show that he can hit a bit better than what he’s done to this point.  Unfortunately for Papi too, he doesn’t provide a ton of value anywhere besides with his bat. He is somewhat athletic and doesn’t have the worst speed for a corner outfielder/first base type but it’s hardly an asset for him. Defensively he’s been getting looks in the outfield as he used to throw 90mph as a pitcher so the Indians are hoping he’s able to be at least average out there. However, there’s a chance (possibly a good one) that he ends up as a first base/designated hitter type.  We’re still a little ways from that, however, and the Indians will give him every opportunity to stick in the outfield.

Where Does He Go From Here?

Perhaps the Indians were a tad bit aggressive putting Papi at Advanced-A Lynchburg to begin the season. Despite the great walk rate he struggled otherwise at Class-A Lake County in 2014 and despite being considered such an “advanced” hitter, maybe he should have stayed back to get more a feel for hitting professional pitchers. Then again, perhaps his issues were tied more to a wrist injury he suffered at the end of the 2014 season. He did hit a lot better after the first few weeks, hitting .271 with a .811 OPS from June 1st onwards.

Given his turnaround, there’s reason to think the Indians may push Papi up to Double-A Akron to begin the 2016 season. Fellow 2014 first-rounder Bradley Zimmer already has seen time there so wouldn’t be a stretch to think Papi could be put there as well. Personally, I would be a bit aggressive here and push Papi to Akron; however, I think the Tribe may error on the side of caution and let Papi begin the season at Advanced-A Lynchburg again to not put too much pressure on him and let him just hit.

No matter which level Papi begins at, I still expect to see him with the Akron Rubberducks at some point in 2016, probably by Memorial Day at the latest even if he starts with Lynchburg. There’s just too much potential in that bat for him to struggle for too long at the lower levels. The real question will be can he ever hit the better pitching he’ll face at the higher levels, and then, eventually, in the big leagues? That remains to be seen of course, but I’m still a believer that a healthy Papi can develop into a solid big league hitter. 2016 will be a big year for him though as he needs to get off to a hot start to regain some of that value many feel he’s lost.