Cleveland Guardians: Revisiting the franchise-altering 2016 MLB draft class

Starting pitcher Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Starting pitcher Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
Cleveland Indians, Shane Bieber
Starting pitcher Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Let’s revisit Cleveland’s 2016 draft class, which has sent the organization on a completely different trajectory ever since.

The benefit of hindsight allows us to look back and judge a team’s drafts with far more clarity than the day they actually occur. And in the case of Cleveland’s 2016 MLB draft, it has propelled the team to contention perhaps sooner than people realized.

Right now, the 2016 draft is responsible for three-fifths of the team’s starting rotation, including ace and Cy Young winner Shane Bieber (fourth round), Aaron Civale (third round), and Zach Plesac (12th round). It’s an incredible showing for the organization – and the draft class might not be done quite yet.

It just goes to show, too, how much of a crapshoot a draft can be. None of those three pitchers went to major college programs, and in the case of Bieber, he was a walk-on at UC Santa Barbara because he had no other significant Division I offers. Civale attended Northeastern University, while Plesac was a bit of an unknown going into the draft because he had elbow surgery beforehand.

Entering their minor-league careers, you’d be forgiven for perhaps glossing over their names, at the very least unsure of how to accurately gauge what they’d be able to do at a higher level. But all those three have done is anchor the Guardians’ rotation (when healthy, of course) and allow the team to look outside the organization for help at other positions of need.

Despite a right shoulder strain that derailed his 2021, Bieber remains a bona fide ace, with a 2.92 ERA and 515 strikeouts in 388 1/3 innings since 2019. Civale and Plesac have both had their own ups and downs the past few years, though any team would take Civale’s career 3.76 ERA and 119 ERA+ or Plesac’s career 3.93 ERA and 115 ERA+. Not to mention all three of these guys are under 28 years old and continue to be under team control for multiple seasons.

Here is what Civale’s coach at Northeastern – who just so happens to be the brother of Tom Glavine – had to say about his pitcher back in 2016:

"“Obviously, I’m biased, but I think he’s a stud,” said Northeastern head coach Mike Glavine, who is the brother of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. “I think he’s an unbelievable pitcher. He has really advanced skill-and-pitch ability right now. He can pound the strike zone and put up huge numbers for us this year.”"

Brad Grant, who is now the Vice President of Baseball Operations in Cleveland, had this to say about Bieber when he was drafted:

"“He’s another guy that has an advanced feel to pitch,” said Brad Grant, the Indians’ director of amateur scouting. “He really commands the fastball extremely well, and he’s another guy who throws a ton of strikes.”"

What About Cleveland’s Top Picks in 2016?

Where the 2016 draft could get even interesting moving forward is in the players Cleveland took right at the top. Outfielder Will Benson was taken in the first round (14th overall) out of high school in Atlanta. The now-23-year-old split time last season between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, hitting a combined .206/.349/.434 with 17 home runs, 51 RBIs, 18 doubles, 6 triples, and 14 stolen bases.

Benson had arguably the best bat speed in the 2016 draft class, and has shown plenty of pop in the minors, along with an ability to get on base – he’s maintained a .334 on-base percentage in his five seasons despite a .210 batting average. He’s known to work counts deep, showcased in the higher OBP, but also in the high strikeout totals. He’ll spend 2022 in Columbus and will have to show he can hit more consistently at the higher level if he wants a crack at the majors.

Nolan Jones was Cleveland’s second pick in the 2016 draft, taken in the second round (55th overall). Jones was at one point the top prospect in the system, but has since taken a backseat to other names coming up, though it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a possibility for him to make a huge impact in the majors. Also selected out of high school, Jones too has reached Triple-A Columbus.

Though the final line from his 2021 season may not be overwhelmingly impressive, Jones put together a .238/.356/.431 line with 13 home runs, 25 doubles, 48 RBIs, and 10 stolen bases. It’s a more impressive final product when you consider Jones was on fire in August – .280/.382/.452 with four home runs and 13 RBIs – before a high ankle sprain cut his season short.

It’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old comes out of the gate in Columbus – at least when the lockout ends, considering he’s on the 40-man roster. Though Jones could certainly be trade bait for an established major-leaguer at a position of need, he could find his way to Cleveland this year as well.

The Rest of the 2016 Draft Class

Here’s a look at Cleveland’s 2016 draft class in full, courtesy of ESPN:

1 (14) — Will Benson, OF, The Westminster Schools (Atlanta)

2 (55) — Nolan Jones, 3B, Holy Ghost Prep (Bensalem, Pennsylvania)

LOT B (72) — Logan Ice, C, Oregon State

3 (92) — Aaron Civale, RHP, Northeastern

4 (122) — Shane Bieber, RHP, UC Santa Barbara

5 (152) — Conner Capel, CF, Seven Lakes HS (Katy, Texas)

6 (182) — Ulysses Cantu, 3B, W.E. Boswell HS (Fort Worth ,Texas)

7 (212) — Michael Tinsley, C, Kansas

8 (242) — Andrew Lantrip, RHP, Houston

9 (272) — Hosea Nelson, OF, Clarendon College

10 (302) — Samad Taylor, SS, Corona (Calif.) Senior HS

11 — Andrew Calica, CF, UC Santa Barbara

12 — Zach Plesac, RHP, Ball State

13 — Gavin Collins, C, Mississippi State

14 — Mitch Longo, LF, Ohio

15 — Zack Smith, C, Eastern Wayne HS (Goldsboro, N.C.)

16 — Ben Krauth, LHP, Kansas

17 — Trenton Brooks, OF, Nevada

18 — Raymond Burgos, LHP, Pedro Falu Orellano HS (Luquillo, Puerto Rico)

19 — Dakody Clemmer, RHP, Central Arizona

20 — Ben Baird, SS, Agoura HS (Agoura Hills, Calif.)

21 — Wil Crowe, RHP, South Carolina

22 — Mason Studstill, RHP, Rockledge HS (Titusville, Fla.)

23 — Michael Letkewicz, RHP, Augustana (S.D.)

24 — Skylar Arias, LHP, Tallahassee CC

25 — Jonathan Laureno, 3B, Connors State

26 — Tanner Tully, LHP, Ohio State

27 — Nelson Alvarez, RHP, Braddock HS (Miami, Fla.)

28 — Jamal Rutledge, SS, Contra Costa

29 — Spencer Steer, 3B, Robert A. Millikan HS (Long Beach, Calif.)

30 — Ryder Ryan, RHP, North Carolina

31 — Chris Farish, RHP, Wake Forest

32 — Kramer Robertson, 2B, LSU

33 — Blake Sabol, C, Aliso Niguel HS (Aliso Viejo, Calif.)

34 — Austin Shenton, 1B, Bellingham (Wash.) HS

35 — Armani Smith, OF, De La Salle HS (Martinez, Calif.)

36 — Andrew Baker, LHP, Ridge Community HS (Haines City, Fla.)

37 — Mike Amditis, C, Boca Raton (Fla.) Community HS

38 — Jacob DeVries, LHP, Air Force

39 — Pedro Alfonseca, CF, North Kansas City (Mo.) HS

40 — Danny Sinatro, SS, Skyline HS (Sammamish, Wash.)

There are some recognizable names on the list for Cleveland fans who follow the minor-league system, but none at the level of the players discussed above. Wil Crowe has broken into the majors with the Washington Nationals and Pirates over the past two seasons; he made 25 starts with Pittsburgh last season, putting together a 5.48 ERA. Dakody Clemmer was recently selected by the Nationals in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft.

The Legacy of the 2016 Draft Class

Even if guys like Will Benson and Nolan Jones never made the majors – though Jones almost certainly will at some point – the 2016 draft will be looked at as a franchise-altering year for the Cleveland Guardians. Being able to solidify almost your entire starting rotation in one fell swoop is the kind of thing small-market teams like the Guardians can often only dream of. But it’s a testament to the team’s scouting department and system of developing young players that this was even possible. So much more goes on behind the scenes in baseball aside from making blockbuster trades or signing big-name free agents, and Cleveland continuously proves to be among the best top-to-bottom organizations in the game.