MANCHESTER, NH — The Cleveland Indians have some intriguing pitching prospects on the pipeline. The continuing emergence of Triston McKenzie gives them a high-profile arm, but some of their pitching prospects are flying under the radar.
Thomas Pannone won’t be unknown much longer.
The 23-year-old left-hander is no stranger to All Star status. A breakout 2016 split between the Midwest League and Carolina League, earned Pannone All Star honors at the Midwest All Star Game. He has been on the rise ever since.
“It gave me confidence,” Pannone said. “Just being in the locker room with the guys. You look around and you’re like, ‘I’m a part of this group right here.’ There’s a lot of talent in there. It’s just humbling that I can be part of that.”
Pannone was originally a 33rd round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2012. He also happened to be an outfielder at that time.
“Here and there,” Pannone said of missing his outfield days, also reminiscing about a leaping catch at the wall in a youth baseball game. “I miss taking batting practice. But I love the everyday grind of a pitcher, and I love being on the five-day rotation. So, there’s some days I miss it, but mostly I don’t.”
Pannone didn’t sign with the Cubs and went back to the College of Southern Nevada. The following season, the Indians selected him in the ninth round and he has quietly become one of the more reliable pitchers in the Indians system.
Last season, Pannone earned a July promotion to Lynchburg. He handled it with relative ease, ending the season with two consecutive shutout outings.
It was a foreshadowing of a heck of a start to come.
Pannone made five starts in Lynchburg to start ‘17, not allowing an earned run to cross. He hurled 27.2 innings, striking out 39 and walking just seven. He continued his success in his promotion to Double-A, tossing 5.2 innings of shutout ball in his Akron debut.
“For the first three outings, it wasn’t a thought of mine,” Pannone said of the streak. “I just go out there, feel comfortable, pack the strike zone, and turn lineups over. That was my main goal.
“Then before you know it I was at 20 innings, then it was 25. Then I had some attention from reporters. I was like, ‘this is a big thing.’ I knew it had to come to an end at some point. It was pretty cool to start the season off that way. It was definitely a good cushion. You start the season off with 35 some odd innings of all zeroes and you put yourself in a good spot to succeed.”
The lefty’s success comes from maturing as a pitcher. Once reliant upon his 90s fastball, he has admittedly learned to harness his other weapons.
“I’m getting ahead with my fastball,” Pannone said. “I’ve done a good job at that this year, utilizing it to both sides of the plate, in and out to righties and lefties. My curveball has come a long way, too. And my changeup. I’m just mixing my pitches well. I didn’t have to do it all that much when I was in Lynchburg. I was more fastball dominant, mixing in the curveball. Here, I use my changeup more and my curveball a lot. I like to keep the hitters off balance.”
Pannone has the luxury of throwing to arguably the best catching prospect in the game. Francisco Mejia and Pannone have climbed the ladder at essentially the same pace, and have a familiarity with each other that helps both succeed.
“It’s big,” Pannone said of Mejia. “He’s a weapon back there. I’m sure you guys have seen his arm. The kid has a cannon. He back-picks guys at first base, throws guys out at second, and calls a great game. He’s evolved over the years. I was drafted in 2013, and he started with me in rookie ball then. He knows me pretty well, and I know him pretty well. He knows what I like to do and how I like to attack hitters.”
“He’s one of the aggressive pitchers we have on the team,” Mejia added. “He likes to throws strikes.”
Pannone sits at 4-1 with a 2.39 ERA and 3.04 FIP in 11 Eastern League starts. He’s striking out a bit of a low amount for him (just 8.30-per-nine) but continues to keep his walk rates very manageable, allowing 2.67 free passes per nine.
And now, the Rhode Island native is back on his home turf in the northeast for the Eastern League All Star Classic.
“I actually didn’t know it was here until about two weeks ago,” Pannone said. “My pitching coach told me it was in New Hampshire. I was kind of blown away. I knew I had a good run going and had a chance of making it, but I didn’t know it would happen that fast. I didn’t envision myself being in the Double-A All Star Game at the beginning of the year. I knew I felt good coming out of spring training, I was confident in what I was doing.”
Pannone entered the game in the third and left the game unscathed. He hurled one inning, pitching to his long-time battery mate Mejia. As Mejia said, Pannone was aggressive, landing seven of his ten pitches for strikes. His pitches were hit hard, resulting in two fly outs (one to deep left at the wall) before a weak come-backer to the mound. His fastball was working 89 to 92 miles per hour, while his curve and change were hitting in the low-70s and mid-80s respectively.
It was a nice showing by Pannone, albeit an extremely small sample size. While no one is anointing him the next great Indians ace, should he continue his yearly progressions, he could etch out a nice spot in the back of the rotation before too long.