Let’s Argue: Who Is The Tribe’s Center Fielder?

Welcome to Let’s Argue, your weekly opportunity to be #MadOnline. The premise is simple: WFNY’s Mike Hattery and Jeff Nomina will present arguments — maybe just a question or a deep stat dive or a good old fashioned hot take. Then, they will either argue with each other or invite you to come argue with us. This week, Mike and Jeff are starting the argument, but don’t let that stop you for joining in the comment section or coming at us 140 characters at a time on Twitter @SnarkyHatman & @SportsNom.

Jeff: The Indians signed Austin Jackson to a minor league deal last week, adding to some somewhat shaky outfield depth. It’s hard to know exactly how to take this; a sign they don’t trust Naquin? They don’t trust Brantley to contribute this year? Down on prospects of minor leaguers Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen being ready this season? Or was this just a deal that was too good to pass up? I tend to agree with the latter, but there’s probably a bit of all of that involved. My concern? There’s no such thing as a no-risk addition. I could easily see a scenario where Tito falls in love with the Austin Jackson in the same way he did Rajai Davis and takes a player who is useful in a specific role and extends him past that point. This is a player that hasn’t posted a .700+ OPS or positive defensive runs saved score since 2013. Am I being too negative? Jackson has been productive in the past, is the potential for him to have a bounce back season greater than him being a drag?

Mike: You have found an important exception to the “minor league free agent signings are lotto tickets” meme. That is, as delightful as Terry Francona is,  Jerry Sands and Michael Martinez are perfect examples of overused lotto tickets. Of course, calling Michael Martinez a lotto ticket is unfair to lotto tickets. There are reasons to bet on Austin Jackson as a deal that was too good to pass up, indeed, for the lengthy period of time we have been aware of Austin Jackson he is only 29 years old, soon to turn 30. Not in his prime but young enough to not be on the wrong side of the aging curve.

Jackson’s 2016 offensive season was very disappointing prior to injury. Jackson posted both the lowest ISO and lowest BABIP of his career.  Some of it seems like it is merely noise: 2016 batting average on balls in play by contact type:

2016 Ground balls: .264 Line Drives: .581 Fly balls: .130

Career: Ground balls: .292 Line Drives: .678 Fly balls: .161

Finally, his career ISO on Fly balls .360, in 2016 .133.

His contact quality wasn’t exceptional but it wasn’t poor enough for this sort of decline, just turning 30, Jackson can expect an offensive bounce back. The defense, is another question altogether. Though some are optimistic about his health, playing center field post knee surgery seems like a trigger for decline, and, for a now average defender, Jackson cannot handle much decline and remain an upgrade over Naquin’s lost in center act. There is good reason to expect Jackson looks better in 2017, but will that be better than other potential options?

Jeff: Not to turn this into weekly argument about opportunity cost, but I think it comes to play again this week. Signing Edwin Encarnacion gave the Indians a margin of error to test out their own internal options in center field. We have probably over-corrected on Naquin and are now too negative. Maybe he improves defensively and his bat doesn’t regress as much as we’ve assumed. Maybe Abraham Almonte can prove solid enough with both the bat and glove to bridge the gap to Zimmer or Allen. Almonte is hardly an exciting player but he’s not even arbitration eligible yet and under team control through 2020. Plus, as a switch hitter, he could ease roster construction by not needing a platoon. Maybe Zimmer is ready. While scouting reports seem to be all over the place on his defensive profile, we know he’s an exceptional athlete and even mediocre defense with his power and walk rate could be an upgrade in center. And while a major dark horse candidate, we know the team believes Yandy Diaz is ready for the MLB level and played a significant amount of center field in fall league.

Are any of these options great? No. Are any of them sure things? Again, no. But to your point, neither is Jackson, and sorting through some of these options has some value to the Indians on the long-term. Understanding if and where Naquin and Zimmer profile long-term is important, and due to a loaded roster and a weak division, we likely have the cover to experiment with them this season. The signing of Edwin Encarnacion and the escalating contracts already on the roster mean the Indians need to maximize as many of their own minimum-level contract guys. Hopefully this would not prevent that.

Of course, you and I spent all of last season screaming about center field defense. Now, when the team signs a center fielder that is likely a defensive upgrade, we’ve spilled 700+ words complaining about it. Is this a sign the team is finally prioritizing defense at this position?

Mike: Yet, this move doesn’t feel like one which is prioritizing defense. Of course any player signed looks like a defensive prioritization next to Mr. Naquin in center field. Jackson has not posted a positive DRS since 2013, and has only one positive UZR season of the past 4. Jackson of course has never posted an exceptionally poor DRS but no matter measure he is likely an average defender at best in center field at this point without considering his knee surgery. With the variance in defensive metrics it seems like prognosticating Jackson’s defense is dart throwing.

When it comes to Jackson versus other potential outfield options he does not project favorably. Steamer/600 projects him 6th among Indians outfielders. Of course, I note the Brantley projection seems optimistic.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Indeed, Jackson appears to be the third best center fielder with solid gap between him and Naquin/Almonte. In many ways the opportunity cost conversation is understandable but the Indians outfield is the weakest part of what is an incredibly talented roster. These projections display that the Indians are actually pretty thin in the outfield and adding another player projected between replacement level and league average makes this area a little less thin.

Further, as high as I am on Allen and to a lesser extent Zimmer, letting them force their way up instead of relying on them is probably advantageous.  Perhaps Austin Jackson fulfills the roll of Marlon Byrd, run into a couple of productive months and disappears when the reserves arrive in Allen, Zimmer and Diaz. In the end, adding an outfielder with some upside to a thin group cannot be anything but positive. Right?

Jeff: So it took us 1,000 words to pretty much say “this was a meh signing.” Let’s talk about what we think is going to actually come of it. I don’t see a scenario where Austin Jackson doesn’t start in center field for at least 50% of the Tribe’s games this year. We’ve seen it with Jerry Sands and Michael Martinez and Mike Aviles and even Rajai Davis to an extent. If you give Tito a veteran like this, he’s going to drive him into the ground. I might as well put the “more like Austin Crapson” tweet in my drafts right now, because we’re going to see him get over used. I’d love to believe this won’t be the case, but it just seems so obvious. Agree or disagree?

Mike: It is a meh signing but a necessary one at that. I think the overarching point in this transaction is that of mistrust in the Indians current big league outfield depth. I think our first instinct regarding outfield acquisitions, and rumors about Zimmer, Allen and Diaz being potential options is that this signals the Indians expect little out of Brantley, which is probably true. But I don’t think the Indians would be talking about Yandy Diaz largely an infielder playing center field in winter ball if it was not for significant doubt about Tyler Naquin. I think the Indians simply don’t view Tyler Naquin as a building block to accommodate.

Jeff: You and I have both quoted this segment from the great Ryan Lewis of repeatedly, but it is truly one of the most revealing things we’ve heard from the font office recently:

— 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.

And that’s the probably the most interesting question of Austin Jackson. If he DOES take a majority share in center field, does he do it at the expense of Naquin? Have they given up on Naquin as a center field option? And if so, where does he rank on the priority list with Lonnie Chisenhall and Bradley Zimmer? All three of them are left-handed hitting platoon bats that likely fit best in right field. And with Zimmer in AAA and Allen likely to find his way there soon as well, where do you put Naquin if not on the MLB roster? He’s sort of caught in the middle of the established guy (Chisenhall) and the up-and-comer (Zimmer.)

Do you think the front office is giving up on Naquin?

Mike: I don’t think the front office is giving up on Naquin as much as they are giving up on Tyler Naquin center fielder. It is not unreasonable to project Naquin as a solid defender in right with significant platoon advantage. As Chisenhall slides up the pay-scale to $5-7 million in 2018, Naquin as a league minimum replacement makes a lot of sense. The Indians can then flip Chisenhall to shed some payroll if Zimmer/Allen/Diaz/Almonte make it obvious that Lonnie is a mere redundancy. I think the truth is as usual in the middle, Naquin is not a building block but he is a cheap platoon bat whose marrow the Indians will suck until dry.  Have we ever talked about a team moving on from a player with 135 wRC+ in a full rookie season? I just think they are more honest about his limitations than many fans are.

Jeff: Agree the team seems down on Naquin, and that’s why I think we’ll see Jackson get more starts in center field rather than a platoon like we saw last year. It may start out as a platoon, but how many bad routes will they let Naquin have before Jackson starts taking starts from him? How many high fastballs will Naquin be allowed to flail at? Unless Naquin comes out of the gate hot, I would guess Jackson, who has hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching for his career, takes over pretty quickly. Do you agree?

Mike:  A lot of high fastballs friend, a lot. I ultimately expect that no Indians outfielder starts more than 60 games in center field, between Zimmer and Allen a replacement is close, further Jackson and Naquin simply aren’t suited to handle regular duty at the position. But hey, time for the readers to decide.

Jeff: So let’s hear it from you. Who gets the most starts in center field this season? Does Naquin hold on to the job? Does Austin Jackson have a rebound season? Or is there a dark horse candidate that comes in and claims the position? Let us know in the poll below, in the comment section, or find us on Twitter and yell at us there.