Two Scrappers start careers quickly

NILES — Draft day came early for Luis Oviedo and Tyler Freeman, two budding stars with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, and now fans are starting to see why.

When Oviedo was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, he had just become of legal age to drive in the United States. When Freeman was picked by the Indians, he was a senior in high school.

Nowadays, the pair of 19-year-olds are two of the best players at their respective positions in the New York-Penn League. Fortunately for area baseball fans, they both play for the Scrappers.

Oviedo, a starting pitcher, is a hard-throwing right-hander blossoming with the Scrappers like so many other Cleveland Indians have before him. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 170 pounds, he was a non-drafted free agent in 2015 as just a 16-year-old. He endured some ups and downs in his first two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League, but he’s been nearly unhittable with the Scrappers.

He’s the league’s triple-crown leader as of Wednesday, leading the NY-PL in ERA (0.32) and strikeouts (40), and tied for victories (3) over 28 innings (five starts). Some may see that as a small sample size and question how intriguing of a prospect he is after accumulating an ERA of 7.14 last year in Arizona.

Listen to what Scrappers manager Jim Pankovits had to say about him.

“He just has electric stuff,” he said. “He’s got three big-league pitches, and right now he’s commanding them all. When you’ve got his stuff and you can command your pitches, he could get big-league hitters out right now.”

Not bad for a non-drafted signee.

He has certainly made the most of his initial opportunity in short-season Class-A. Pankovits said Oviedo became a different pitcher after his first start — a four-inning no-decision in which he gave up two hits and one run. It was a performance that was “lackluster for him,” Pankovits said.

He met with Mahoning Valley pitching coach Jason Blanton afterward and made a few adjustments and since then, fans have been able to see all he has to offer, including a six-inning gem in which he set a team record with 12 strikeouts.

“He has an upper-90s fastball, and when you have an upper-90s fastball, you’re one of 5 percent in baseball,” Pankovits said. “He’s got a really good slider and changeup he can throw for a strike. When you have to, as a hitter, look for 97, it’s hard to hit offspeed pitches when the guy is throwing them for a strike.”

Oviedo’s next stop could be a promotion to Lake County, and he might have a friend in the clubhouse.

Freeman, also in his first season with the Scrappers after a year in Arizona, has been incredible, both at shortstop and at the plate. He leads the league in hitting with a .402 average (nearly 40 points higher than the second-best player) and hits with 35. His seven doubles are second best in the league.

Just one year out of high school, Freeman’s rise has been steady, his quick development has Pankovits excited about the 19-year-old’s potential.

“Extremely mature,” he said of Freeman. “That has a lot to do with why he’s having the success he is. He obviously enjoys playing. He enjoys the work that we put in. He gets the most out of it. He gets a little bit better every day. His ceiling is so high, it’s going to be fun to watch how his career unfolds and develops.”

A fun-loving teenager from Etiwanda High School in California, Freeman was a second-round pick in last year’s June amateur draft. He can’t help but laugh and show off a big smile when he talks about being a kid playing so well in his first year as a true minor-leaguer.

“A year ago I was in high school,” he said. “It’s awesome. It’s surreal. I had the choice of college or this, and I don’t the regret the decision I made. This is awesome. I’m living the dream right now. Hopefully it can go forward from here, but I’m still living the dream either way.”

The California kid also has just two errors in 17 games — 150 innings — at shortstop (a .973 fielding percentage). He’s played second as well (zero errors) and two games as a DH.

“He’s not going to move off of (shortstop) anytime soon, that’s for sure,” said Pankovits when asked if there was any concern of whether the 6-foot, 170-pound Freeman could play shortstop long term. “He’s shown that he has the tools to play there, it’s just matter of him getting some experience.”

His hitting is what has been most impressive. He can pull inside pitches or drive the ball the other way. He hasn’t shown much home run power yet, but his eight extra-base hits are a sign that could develop down the road. Even if it doesn’t, a high-average shortstop with sharp fielding has his prospectus rising (he’s rated as the 13th best prospect in the Indians’ organization, for now).

“Really good is an understatement,” said Pankovits as a reporter described Freeman’s start to the season. “He’s played extremely well, and he’s gotten better from Day 1 to today.”

Who knows where he and Oviedo will be tomorrow?