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What the heck is going on in the Indians outfield: While We’re Waiting

Rjai Davis Lightning

The Cleveland Indians outfield situation has stayed remarkably true to the initial makeup of manager Terry Francona’s inaugural season. High upside with a healthy helping of risk. In 2013, the Tribe surprised many when they signed not one, but two large contracts to free agent outfielders in order to solidify the position through the contention window they rightfully believed was about to open. Or, at least, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher were supposed to become important components in center and right field respectively before injuries derailed the spots into a free-for-all, which peaked when Mike Moustakas hit a Little League home run as Ryan Raburn spiked a throw into the left field turf in 2014.

What about the 2018 Indians in the outfield? Rather than the expectancy being of stalwarts dominating the playing time in the three positions upon the green expanse at Progressive Field, a mixture of both veteran and youthful volatile components are in place to divide playing time. As WFNY’s Mike Hattery notes:

Current outfield status
Healthy outfielders: Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, Greg Allen, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin
Injured outfielders: Michael Brantley, Brandon Guyer
Minor League contract outfielders: Melvin Upton Jr., Rajai Davis, Brandon Barnes
Non-outfielders who might play in the outfield: Jason Kipnis, Yandy Diaz, Francisco Mejia, Bobby Bradley1

The Opening Day of Spring Training lineup consisted of Rajai Davis in center field, Melvin Upton Jr. in right field, and Brandon “Bucky” Barnes in left field.2 Obviously, the first game of the spring means little in terms of who ultimately comprises the outfield when games begin to count though it is worth noting both Michael Brantley and Brandon Guyer begin on the injured list (and Jason Kipnis as well if you count him as a potential outfield option). The targeted returns are unknown, but initial assessments make it seem that Brantley has reserved a warm place on the Opening Day DL.

Bradley Zimmer is expected to begin the year as the starting center fielder, but the range on his projections is quite high not to mention his propensity to ignore physical safety concerns while tracking down fly balls is fantastic to watch but rather troublesome for keeping up his health. Lonnie Chisenhall is who Lonnie Chisenhall is at this stage with little hopes of more. An above average player in all phases of the game; as long as he is only one half of a platoon. Not to mention another injury concern candidate.

Tyler Naquin (age 27 season) and Abraham Almonte (age 29 season) are end of the organizational depth fodder with only marginal expectations they can ever be something more. Naquin was thought of so highly by the organization that he received an entire 40 plate appearances in the 2017 season despite a multitude of injuries to the initial arrangement. He should receive another opportunity though to give him one more chance to see if he can adjust to MLB pitchers finding the holes in his swing. He even had a double and home run on Saturday.3 Almonte hit .233/.314/.366 (78 OPS+) in 2017 (172 AB). In case you find small sample sizes suspect, he has hit .246/.300/.381 (84 OPS+) in his MLB career (862 AB). He is who he is at this point, which is a below average hitter with some speed that doesn’t always show up in his defense.

Such is the reason Upton and Davis are on the roster. The ability to provide average output in limited samples is the exact type of depth required for the Tribe to stitch together enough innings to make it through the season. Both players have a far more extensive history of being able to provide adequate defense with an average bat than either Naquin or Almonte though neither did so in the 2017 season (hence the cheapness of their acquisition). If things go well, neither will be relied upon. If not, well, it is better to have them at the ready.

Oh, what about Greg Allen? Allen needs to start in Columbus to start the season to keep down his service time. Fangraphs explains service time well with the gist being it is just time acrued in MLB. I suspect we’ll start to use Greg Allen’s options this year, but it might not be until the second half of the season unless things go quite wrong for our outfield in the early portion of the year. Having the outfield go quite wrong is a distinct possibility though.

Any possible free agents?
If you are looking for a free agent outfielder better than Upton or Davis at this point of the calendar year, then you are out of luck. The bottom of the barrel has been scraped quite clean.

Any possible trades?
As this offseason of outfield movement across MLB has taught us, there are always potential trades to make. For example, defensive wunderkind Kevin Kiermaier is currently unhappy with the path the Tampa Bay Rays are taking. He is on a long-term contract and the Rays might decide it is a wise risk management move to shed it if they feel his angst will affect his performance. The issue is that he is only owed $49 million through the 2022 season despite proving to be an above average bat with elite center field defense, and is only entering his age 28 season. He is the type of asset a team can keep to keep fans happy and be someone who can kick off the next contention window in a few seasons. For the Indians to pry away a valuable piece (average just under 6.0 bWAR over past three seasons) that is locked into a contract would take quite a package. Fangraphs has also shown that outfield defense is less important as it was years ago. Still…

Kiermaier expressed his concern to reporters after the Rays moved Chris Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi saying “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset with the moves. No beating around the bush. It’s one of those things that makes you scratch your head, you don’t know the reasoning why.”

Last word
The Tribe’s outfield can become one of the better units in the MLB this season as there are reasonably high ceiling players sprinkled throughout the roster. Or it could be among the worst. There is always the chance the team could acquire another Coco Crisp or Jay Bruce later in the season, but the current options have a bunch of high variability. Of course, the Indians could really increase their variance and just throw out Francisco Mejia, Yandy Diaz, or Bobby Bradley (hey, he lost a reported 30 pounds this offseason) into left field and hope the bats will make up for whatever defensive deficiencies they demonstrate out there.

As recent history has taught us, there is never a dull moment when it comes to the Indians outfield.

  1. I’m kidding, kidding, but, well, just wait until the end of the article. []
  2. Note: His nickname is not Bucky Barnes, but it should be. []
  3. But, can he hit a letter high heater? []