Why The Indians Won’t Be Players in Center Field Market

David Richard, USA TODAY Sports

The Indians made it to extra innings of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series with their current roster.

The seduction of offseason excitement can sometimes skew our view of our team. It’s 30 degrees outside, the Browns are horrid, the Cavs have dropped two straight, and we all need a reason to talk baseball. The offseason can sometime become its own sport, one the Chicago White Sox have won in consecutive years without much to show from it.

So it’s good to remember that the Cleveland Indians made it to extra innings of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series without Michael Brantley or Carlos Carrasco and with hobbled versions of Yan Gomes and Danny Salazar.

This is a damn good team.

But, this is a damn good team with a glaring hole.

Tyler Naquin burst on the scene, providing a much-needed spark for the Indians throughout the summer. But late in the year, and especially in the playoffs, that spark went down in flames. Or at least chased those flames up in the zone for strike three. Naquin’s offense cratered in ways that were fairly predictable. His defense in center field was already among the worst in all of baseball. His inability to hit the high fast ball was exploited in the playoffs and  he’ll had to adjust to have any chance at being a regular MLB player. This isn’t to write Naquin off as a player. He could still very likely have a strong MLB career, it’s just that it is looking increasingly like that career will be in right field, rather than center. The Indians have hinted to as much, with Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal reporting:

The Indians see Tyler Naquin as being able to play all three outfield spots. Roster composition could be the determining factor in where he sees the most time.

If Naquin were to move right field, and with the team unlikely to bring back his platoon partner Rajai Davis, it would seem the team would be spending this off season searching for a new center fielder.

Our own Jim Pete and Michael Hattery have both explored various center field options on the trade and free agent market. The three of us even jumped on a podcast and discussed who the Indians should work to acquire to man center field.

It seems obvious that the team needs to bring in a center fielder. And, considering the questionable health of Michael Brantley and the fact that both Naquin and current right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall present major regression candidates, that new center fielder should probably be an impact player; be it with his bat or glove.

Yet the more I look at the roster, the less I believe a move will be made.

As a small market team, the Indians will always value cheap, controllable talent. That talent will always be given every opportunity to carve out a role on the team. We’ve seen this recently with players like Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin, or more appropriately, Lonnie Chisenhall.

Cleveland Indians 2016 AL Central ChampsChisenhall is one of the major reasons I’m not sure a move is made. If Naquin is to be moved to right field, he would replace Chisenhall, a productive, cheap player. They are more or less identical players (platoon bats with above average defense in right field) so having them co-exist would be difficult, especially considering their need for platoon partners. Naquin could possibly serve as the fourth outfielder who can play all three positions, but his inability to play vs left-handed pitching and with left-handed hitters in Brantley and Chisenhall already in the outfield, this situation makes a bit less sense.

If a center fielder is acquired, and Naquin does move to a fourth outfielder type role, that would likely mean the end of Abraham Almonte. With Brantley, a new center fielder, Brandon Guyer the right-field platoon partner with Chisenhall, and Naquin playing the other backup role, the team couldn’t afford to roster six total outfielders.

Losing Abraham Almonte may not feel like a major loss, but the switch-hitting 27-year old is probably the best defensive outfielder on the roster, can play all three positions, and isn’t arbitration eligible until 2018. Again, he isn’t some massive asset, but the Indians are extremely unlikely to part with a productive piece without exhausting every possibility. I mean, Jesus Aguilar is still on the 40-man.

Almonte could also provide an option in center field. In an admittedly small sample size, he has compiled plus-7 defensive runs saved in 114 games in center field. For comparison, Naquin is at minus-18 defensive runs saved in 109 games in center field. Almonte’s offensive projection by STEAMER projects a 88 wRC+ for 2017, which is also comparable to Naquin’s STEAMER projection of a 96 wRC+ next year.

The more I look at the roster, the less I believe a move will be made.

There is also the fact that Bradley Zimmer, a top prospect, is playing in AAA right now and will likely be ready for MLB action by this summer. While many scouts think he will end up in right field, he is currently playing center field and will likely be given every opportunity to stick there. If the Indians were to acquire a center fiedler, suddenly Zimmer is pushed to being a left-handed right fielder in the mold of Naquin and Chisenhall, again causing redundancy.

Greg Allen is another name in the center field mix. Currently in AA, Allen is a slick fielding center fielder with a developing bat that is shooting up prospect lists. While he has only played 37 games in AA, he will be 24 at the start of next season and likely be moved up quickly.

There are other outfield options, as Jose Ramirez spent time in left field last year and the team has indicated that if the opportunity to acquire a third baseman arises, they will move Ramirez around the diamond. Yandy Diaz, another prospect on the verge of a call-up was brought through the system as a third basement but spent last year learning the outfield and this fall playing center field.

The point is not that any one of these players is the answer in center field. The point is that there is already a logjam in the Tribe’s outfield. Acquiring a center fielder from outside the organization likely forces the team to move on from one or more cheap, controllable, productive players. Based on everything we’ve seen from the Indians over the years, this seems highly unlikely to me.

The more likely scenario is they give Naquin and Almonte every opportunity to claim center field to start the year. If they fail, Zimmer will get an opportunity to prove himself there. There’s an outside chance that Diaz or Allen also get a shot in the first few months of the year. If all of those players fail, the team will look outside the organization to bring in someone to man center field at the trade deadline next year.

It isn’t exciting, and it’s hard as a far to watch a team that is this close not go all in, but… this team made it to extra innings of Game Seven of the World Series with their current roster. They likely have the talent to manage the first part of the year assessing internal options before being forced to look outside the organization for a center fielder to help them in the playoff push. And if you were to predict how a Chris Antonetti team would operate, doesn’t that seem like the most likely path?

  • Chris

    Memo to starters… ground balls and strikeouts only. We’re playing with an extra infielder this season.

  • jpftribe

    I like Almonte a lot and he will definitely be a key for them next year. But if the Tribe stays true to form, Zimmer will get some extensive time in AAA before coming up here. Allen is a wildcard.

    If Diaz can hit, I really like the thought of putting Kipnis in the OF. Kip is a rock solid 2nd baseman, but average on turning DP’s. I like keeping JRam’s glove at third and having a stellar middle. I’m also thinking we will be seeing Brantley at 1B before the end of the year.

    The overall point of the piece is a good one. As Greg P pointed out in the other thread, they have the luxury of waiting up to the trade deadline assuming they stay healthy.

  • I agree with the sentiment here, but I can’t recall a time where there was such a glaring hole that could be easily filled given the want to. Starting pitching is plus. Bullpen is elite. Left side of the infield is plus to elite depending on how you feel about J Ram.

    Center field is so, so important to defensive success. Almonte may be average (and average is a huge upgrade over what they had last season), but why limit the ceiling?

  • Chris

    WFNY has written about several options for center field. Is the availability greater than the demand? I’d have a problem if the Indians KNEW they needed a center fielder and just sat on it. However, if the FO truly believes any of these guys can be adequate, it might be worth waiting until the trade deadline. There may be bigger holes that make themselves evident over the first 80+ games.

  • Jeff Nomina

    I agree completely – I’d love to acquire a CF. Even if it’s just a defense-first guy with a meh bat. I should’ve included this in the piece – but it’s odd how little they prioritize CF defense. There were a lot of games where Rajai played CF and Almonte LF – which is crazy given their defensive abilities. at least when they did that with Naquin you could argue he needed the reps. I’m just not sure CF defense is a priority to the team.

  • jpftribe

    Really interesting point, circa 2016 season. Indians addressed holes at LHRP and catcher, which would not have been prevailing sentiment in training camp. Ultimately CF and injured starters caught up with them. Catcher kind of worked out OK.

  • Chris

    For the longest time I attributed athleticism with defensive ability in CF. Foolish me. The play that still irks me the most was that 200-ft tag-up by Bryant. That is unacceptable in varsity ball. Horrible. How a 10+ year vet like Davis failed to leave himself a 5-8 foot head-start on a pop up is beyond me. (can’t remember if he was in left or center that game, but it doesn’t matter)

  • Hopwin

    If Naquin isn’t playing our starting CF then he should be sent down to improve his centerfield defense (unlikely) and to figure out how to close the Mack-truck sized hole in his swing (possible). I see no upside to platooning him right-field with his currently sub-par defense and it might hinder his offensive development as he would not be an every day option.

  • Jeff Nomina

    I thought about that, too – but with Zimmer already in Columbus and Allen on the way – I’m not sure Naquin would be the priority there. We’d much rather give Zimmer those reps, right? And with Allen’s trajectory – he’s probably a priority there, too. This is what I kept coming back to – there’s just SO MANY guys that it’s hard to imagine the team adding another.

  • Hopwin

    If Naquin is the long-term answer I would send him down for the reps and sign a cheapy CF or platoon it with “good enough d00ds”.
    If the long-term answer is Zimmer or Allen and they are close to ready then I’d leave Naquin in Centerfield and accelerate Z&A’s advancement.

    If the long-term answer is Zimmer or Allen and they are NOT close to ready then I’d bury Naquin in the minors (or trade him) and sign a good CF as a placeholder.

  • architrance

    I could see them not upgrading CF this off season, but they still will need to offset the loss of Napoli, right?

  • Steve

    One WAR shouldn’t be too difficult to find.

  • Dr.Excellent,AstonishinglyMD.

    who would play 2nd then?…I always assumed Ramirez would be moved there if Kip went to OF or was traded

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  • jpftribe

    My bad, this should have been prefaced with “if Yandy Diaz can hit MLB pitching”. He is a natural 2nd baseman.

  • Dr.Excellent,AstonishinglyMD.

    cool….thought he was a pretty big guy though?

  • Hopwin

    I thought Yandy was a 3b?

  • jpftribe

    He’s a natural 2nd baseman. Indians had him playing at 3B and OF last year to get him experience there. He played some games at 2nd as well.