Hello and welcome to another exciting season of Cleveland Indians baseball where anything short of October playoff baseball will be seen as a massive disappointment. Offseason activities are wrapping up as team trucks are expected to arrive in Goodyear Arizona on Wednesday. The pitchers and catchers are set to report on February 17 though many have been in and out of Arizona all offseason. However, is the team construction complete? WFNY’s own Andrew Clayman tackled the issues the Tribe might have at third base, but what about the Indians in the outfield?
With Michael Brantley likely out until mid-May (or later) and no other proven, quality MLB outfielders on the 25-man roster, should the Indians still be shopping for options?
Digging out of a standings hole has become an accostomed measure in three seasons with Terry Francona as manager. Under Tito, the Tribe has finished April with records of 11-13, 11-17, and 7-14. Is the team setup for another inauspicious start?
WahoosOnFirst’s Matt Bretz had an in depth article that demonstrated how the Indians could survive in the outfield in 2016 without any further additions. Let’s start with his conclusion and work backwards:
So despite the perception that the Cleveland Indians’ outfield is a black hole that’s completely void of any talent with Michael Brantley on the shelf, if Terry Francona is able to maximize the usage of each player he has on the roster the Tribe has a chance to be above average at all three outfield spots without a single addition from outside the organization. Is the outfield perfect? Far from it. Can the Tribe outfield produce at a better than league-average rate? In my opinion, it absolutely can (with the proper use of platoons).
Bretz mentioned how the Chis-Cow (Lonnie Chisenhall and Colin Cowgill) platoon in right field should yield slightly above average batting numbers with well above average defense. The Raj-Monte (Rajai Davis and Abraham Almonte) platoon in center field leaves much more to be desired. Bretz is higher on this platoon than I am, but it could be MLB average or slightly below average overall.
The real issue is what to do in left field with center field and right field already being overtaken by platoons of high risk players. As noted when WFNY interviewed baseball shoulder specialists Crossover Symmetry, Brantley’s timeline of a May arrival is the best realistic estimate for him returning, which leaves more than a solid month of baseball without him. The Bretz article gives a suggestion of some combination of Joey Butler, Jose Ramirez, Rajai Davis, and Tyler Naquin. However, two of these options undercut the usage of potential platoons in center field (Rajai Davis) and third base (Jose Ramirez). Adding a thirteenth position player to the 25-man roster is possible, but neither Joey Butler nor Tyler Naquin provides much in terms of confidence.
So, yes, the Indians can roll with the current group and they might be fine. But, they are also relying on Chisenhall, Cowgill, Davis, Almonte, and possibly Butler all playing around or above their career averages. Or, a player such as Tyler Naquin making a leap. If a couple of these players fall into the prolonged, severe ruts that have plagued each throughout their career, then the Indians have some black holes on offense at the end of their lineup. The same type of black offensive holes that destroyed the 2015 Indians offense. Why should a team who consider themselves a World Series contender take such unmitigated risks?
WFNY already went through the nitty, gritty MLB revenue details. Those details demonstrated the Indians should have plenty of room in their current for a free agent signing despite obvious financial limitations compared to the biggest market ballclubs.
So, yes, the Indians should be spending more than the $80 million they spent on payroll during their last contention window in 2007-2009. And, the rough figure comes out to as much as $30 million more for a $110 million Opening Day payroll. The difference is enough to sign David Freese for third base and Austin Jackson for center field. Or, it would cover a more high profile player such as the $22 million per year contract the Tigers gave Justin Upton.
Unrestricted Free Agent Outfield Options Remaining ((All statistics listed are from fangraphs.com for the 2015 season.))
Let’s be honest here: All of the players remaining on the market have obvious (and some have significant) limitations to their game along with advanced age for many undercutting their overall value in the marketplace. In fact, Venable, Byrd, Rios, Francoeur, Murphy, Raburn, and Victorino provide no more assurance of being a solid starting outfielder than the players the Indians already have under contract. Adding any of these players would simply be giving the team one more option from which to choose (or protect against injury).
That leaves the list quickly pared down to two options: Austin Jackson and Dexter Fowler. The two players are intriguing for opposite reasons because, while both center fielders, Jackson is known for being defense-first and Fowler an offense-first player.
The only reason Austin Jackson wasn’t tagged with the dreaded Qualifying Offer (which would have required the Indians give up their 2016 first round draft pick) is due to the Seattle Mariners trading him to the Chicago Cubs in August. Jackson is the obvious best outfield talent left among the unsigned players, and his continued existance on the market indicates Jackson will not settle for a below market deal. Jackson has the capability of being a well-above average hitter as he was in 2012, but that season was the outlier in a career more attuned to being a near average hitter with excellent defense. Given the importance of center field defense and his abilities on the basepaths, Jackson would solidify an important position for the Indians, while also adding an asset to be added in the future either through trade or by tagging him with the Qualifying Offer once Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier is ready to take over (likely not until 2017). A contract a shade over $10 million annually would be required to sign Jackson.
Dexter Fowler is an interesting case especially given he was tagged with a Qualifying Offer, which means the Indians would forfeit their 2016 first-round pick. While he has provided far more value than Jackson offensively, Fowler is not a plus defensive center fielder, which has hurt his value in the eyes of many since he has played nearly all of his time there. However, despite being defensive deficient in center field, Fowler could be average (or better) as a left fielder. The center field issue would still pop up once Brantley returned to the lineup. But, the Raj-Monte platoon would have been proven out by then (good or bad), so the Indians could adjust accordingly. Given the QO tag, Fowler would also likely be cheaper in dollars than Jackson.1
WFNY’s Jacob Rosen and I already went through some specific trade targets for the outfield earlier this offseason. However, the Indians have held steadfast in keeping their rotation solidified, which eliminates A.J. Pollock, Yasiel Puig, and Jackie Bradley Jr. The Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins are believed to want to go into 2016 with Jorge Soler and Marcell Ozuna respectively. Brett Gardner (expensive) and Josh Reddick (only one year left) each have their issues, but either could provide similar or greater value than either of the two free agent upgrades. If the Indians find the free agent marketplace difficult to navigate, then pushing lower-level assets forward to solidify the outfield is still an option.
Also earlier in the offseason, the Colorado Rockies were discussing potential Carlos Gonzalez trades, which would have been interesting to see if the Indians could acquire the former MVP-level 30 year old player despite some significant slippage in defense and health issues. But, the Rockies seem more resigned towards teaching Gonzalez first base as a succession plan for rapidly rising center field prospect David Dahl.
And, such is life on the trade market in February. MLB teams would rather hold onto assets and reassess later in the season than make a trade now they would have made months ago if they truly wanted to do it. So, while the General Manager Mike Chernoff should still be discussing trades, the realistic odds of a trade happening this time of the year are minimal.
A quick recap to the 2016 Cleveland Indians likely Opening Day starting outfield:
Left Field : Jose Ramirez or Joey Butler or Rajai Davis (roll the dice!)
Center Field : Abraham Almonte (versus right-handed pitcher) or Rajai Davis (versus left-handed pitcher)
Right Field : Lonnie Chisenhall (versus right-handed pitcher) or Colin Cowgill (versus left-handed pitcher)
The above outfield configuration could survive until Brantley returns. The above outfield configurations might provide enough offense and defense to make an additional move unnecessary.
However, the Indians fashion themselves contenders in 2016. Contenders should not rely on so many risky options to come through when there is room in their budget to patch those holes with better options. So, it is up to the Indians to go out and ensure the team has the best chance of returning a long October run to the southern shores of Lake Erie.