Let’s Argue: Bradley Zimmer Opening Day Starter?

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.

The prospects of Bradley Zimmer’s impact on the 2017 Indians has fallen in recent months. Struggling through his appearance at AAA and a strikeout rate the size of Francisco Lindor’s smile have all but killed the idea that he would takeover a center field position in flux. Various reports of his defense have also left questions as to whether he is truly a better option than Tyler Naquin. But, as great athletes often do, Zimmer did his best to quell those fears in his first Spring Training contest; going 2-3 with a homerun, a walk, and a total of five RBIs.

Mike, you’ve been a bit down on Zimmer, mostly due to that huge strikeout rate and questions regarding his defense. Is there anything he can do this spring that would make you clamor for him on the opening day roster?

Mike Hattery: This conversation is ignoring the Super-2 issues and discussing player readiness specifically. I get the reputation about being down on things, a counter to counter-culture of sorts. Really my emphasis with Zimmer has long been that there is a very clear flaw, which presents a sort of ceiling on some parts of his offensive game. The hubris around Zimmer entering 2016 I found discomforting, people were discussing him as perhaps the best offensive prospect in the Indians system in a decade and my goal was to add some nuance to the discussion. Zimmer in plain terms, strikes out a ton, and for guys who played in college and are not particularly young, this generally does not improve significantly. Zimmer is likely to strikeout roughly 30% of the time at the big league level which pretty clearly limits the hit or on base tool offensively. Further, he pulls the ball a ton which aides in producing power but- as can be seen with Carlos Santana- causes shifts limiting batting average.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

I have started with what is a substantial flaw but I also believe Zimmer has carrying tools. As seen in the Tribe’s first spring training game he has significant power to the whole field and is very athletic. Indeed, I think we often visually underrate players like Zimmer defensively because his strides are long but not demonstrative. A gliding speed is often underrated because it is less obvious visually. Outside of batting average, Zimmer can do the three other offfensive things super well, power, draw walks and steal bases. Indeed, Zimmer’s peak could feature a .340 OBP + and a 20/20 line. Similar to the 2+ WAR seasons posted by Ian Desmond and Gregory Polanco in 2016. This sort of production at a high impact position like center field or right field offers pretty significant value.

This is perhaps a long way of saying I think he is going to be a really solid cost-controllable big leaguer but without star upside which for the Indians is very useful. However, Zimmer likely will not show anything in spring training that will make me clamor. The contact issues are significant and if rushed could be damaging mentally to experience too quickly. I would rather see Zimmer get a few more months seeing more secondary offerings in AAA.

Is his power enough for you to push for an early season promotion?

Jeff: I was right there with you on Zimmer’s issues limiting his ceiling, but I do think Jordan Bastian had an interesting quote following Zimmer’s breakout game:

Last year, the center fielder undertook a series of mechanical adjustments with his swing, changes that played a role in his diminished production at Triple-A Columbus. This spring, those alterations are becoming more natural to Zimmer, who is working to hone a style that will be more effective in the Majors.

I realize we can file this right up there with “he’s in the best shape of his life!” but I do wonder if some of his struggles last year weren’t related to making adjustments at the plate. The Indians have had much more success teaching contact hitters to add power (Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin) than teaching power hitters how to make contact, but maybe these tweaks take hold and bring him to a level where contact isn’t an issue.

That, of course, is a double-edged sword. If we’re saying he’s in the midst of remaking his swing, there’s likely nothing he can do this spring to earn a spot on the big league club. He’ll need to continue to work on that in Columbus and not on a team with World Series aspirations. You asked if his power was enough to push for an early season promotion, and I’d likely say yes, depending on what else is happening with the Tribe’s outfield. If he’s able to maintain his power while tweaking his swing, that would be one of the more encouraging signs we’ve seen from Zimmer over the last twelve months.

The larger questions are probably his defense and ability to hit left-handed pitching. His .487 OPS vs left-handed pitching in AAA and .623 OPS vs southpaws in AA is concerning. Reports vary on his ability to stick in center field. You pointed out that his power, walk rate, and speed will make him a valuable player no matter how much contact he makes, but he needs to show he can be an everyday player to maximize his value. If he can play every day and stick in center field, we’re talking about a much more valuable player than if he is a platoon hitter in right field. And if we’re discussing his ability to make the club early this season, it will likely be in center field and not competing with Lonnie Chisenhall or even Naquin in right field. If he can master those things, it changes his outlook, but I’m not sure he can prove that in a Spring Training environment.

What is your check list for Zimmer this spring? Obviously his strikeout rate is a concern, but what are the other boxes he needs to check?

Mike: One of the very first things to stabilize is K%, so for those watching this is really the only number worth following, although the WBC could cloud this by thinning the pitching quality in camp.  The other box worth viewing is how the Indians organization discusses his defense, with Naquin getting time in right field and Zimmer in his mid-20’s if the Indians speak positively of his defense it will be an indicator of a quick transition to the big leagues. I think the Indians passivity in regard to a long term upgrade in center field and Brantley’s risk in left is reflective of the Indians confidence that their long term and near term solutions are in house. Whether it be Diaz, Zimmer or Allen the Indians have a lot of help that is close on an already loaded roster. I doubt he breaks with the club but I think he ends the year in Cleveland.

Jeff: That may be the most interesting thing to watch: who out of Naquin, Diaz, and Zimmer are the priorities. And how aggressive the Indians are in finding opportunities. Does Naquin have a hold on center field? If he and Austin Jackson struggle how quickly do the Indians turn to Zimmer? Also, if Brantley isn’t able to return, who gets the first shot in left field? Diaz would probably be the most natural choice there, but if Zimmer gets a shot there it’ll show they’re prioritizing him over other options.

In the end this argument sort of shows the abundance of riches for the Tribe. We’re sitting here picking holes in a top 30 prospect who we both agree is likely to be a 2+ WAR player. Meanwhile, there isn’t even a spot for him on this loaded roster, yet. He’s unlikely to be an option for the opening day roster, and that’s probably more about other available options than his own shortcomings. That’s not to say he’s a perfect prospect, but if he continues to mash as he did in his first game, he’s going to force the team to find a spot for him sooner rather than later.

So, tell us what you think. Is Zimmer an option for the opening day roster? If not, how quickly will we see him?