The Cleveland Indians are the hottest team in baseball right now, having won six games in a row in a resounding happen. With 3 1/2 months left in the season, it’s still too early to worry about positional issues, especially with the trade deadline looming 37 days from now, but center field is slowly cooking itself into a concern as the season has progressed.
Some of the Indians’ concerns can be attributed to injuries, not only in center, but with regards to the rest of the outfield as well. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Bradley Zimmer all spending lengthy periods on the DL, the rest of the outfield has had to shift and move to cover all of the open spots. Greg Allen has been called up (and sent down) multiple times from Columbus, and Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin have now become the de facto platoon in center field.
You can talk “game-tying-game-seven-home-run-in-a-game-the-Indians-still-lost” all you want, and you can pray for Naquin upside in a vacuum too, but both players aren’t being placed in an ideal situation to succeed. This is how baseball seasons tend to work though. I’m not acknowledging the fact that “things don’t happen,” but it’s how the team responds going forward that will be key to the team succeeding in the playoffs when the rest of the garbage A.L. Central will be packed up and sent to their winter homes.
This very topic has been discussed in great lengths in the hallowed halls of the Waiting For Next Year’s main office. While I can never divulge any specific details from these important meetings of the mind and soul, it is one conversation in which all the baseball minds converge on with similar thoughts. The Indians have to do something to improve center field, or it could become an issue once the Indians enter the playoff microscope.
The regular season does give the Indians some advantage. I’ve already mentioned the A.L. Central, so manager Terry Francona does have the ability to treat the regular season as a bit of an “extended spring training.” While the thought of that makes my insides churn, the Indians currently have the biggest lead in the division, and the division is sure to find itself selling off all of their pieces for future growth. With the Indians as the only buyers, there really are 3 1/2 months for Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, and Terry Francona to figure out the right move. There’s also the interesting piece that fangraphs.com and The Athletic writer, Travis Sawchik wrote prior to the seasons started. He noted that thanks to a major shift in offensive hit types, overall outfield chances are declining fairly substantially.
Bad outfield defense can get lost in the shuffle in the midst of a full season, but even with outfield chances diminished, in the playoffs, this can become a major detriment. Right, Tyler Naquin?
The Chisenhall took matters into his own hands, little league style…
One play doesn’t make a career, but again, 2016’s Game 6 miscue by Naquin allowed the Cubs to put their foot on the Indians necks throughout that game.
These are the things that can’t happen in 2018. While I hate the word variance in response to playoff baseball, these are exactly the types of events that can lead to said word. The Indians have to do whatever they can to avoid this type of variance if they want to win a World Series.
So where does this leave the Indians heading towards October?
Naquin and Davis can both be effective Major League baseball players if used in the right way. WFNY’s Gage Will has pointedly been on the side of Naquin since the start of this year, as he wrote in this piece earlier in the season. There is an offensive upside to Naquin, especially if you platoon him. This year, Naquin is hitting .321 against righties, which is exactly what he should be doing. He hasn’t been horrible defensively either, but he’s also spent some time in right and left, even though the majority of his time has been in center.
I know what the metrics say this year defensively, but I’ve seen enough of Naquin to know that he’s always been an enigma out there. Much of his early “defensive brilliance” was due to his rather substantial arm strength, but he struggles finding the target. Unlike Zimmer and Allen, Naquin is a passive center fielder. He doesn’t attack balls hit to his area, and his passivity often leads to late, and bad routes. I’m not saying this can’t improve with time, but we’re almost past that point. As WFNY’s Mike Hattery and I have noted several times in our discussions over the years, Naquin probably best profiles as a right fielder, in a platoon role. I will acknowledge that I’m likely pretty harsh on Naquin based on what I’ve seen throughout his development, but having him playing center field in the regular season is fine, as long as they realize they have to improve the position going forward, and likely move him to right, if he sticks with the big league club.
Rajai Davis is a different story altogether. Davis is a career .280 hitter against lefties, as the right side of a platoon. But since 2015, Davis has actually hit righties better than lefties, and in all honestly, just hasn’t been that good of an offensive player. So in essence, the Indians’ platoon currently has a lefty-hitting well against the right-handed pitchers he’s facing, and a righty in Davis hitting .266 against righties (and .190 against lefties). Sounds like a sweet platoon, right?
The value of Rajai Davis at this stage of his career is as a fifth outfielder. He’s the guy you want to plug in every so often if the guys are tired. Actually, now that I say that out loud, he’s probably used up his service. While I’ve had to listen to the “HE REALLY SHOULD BE THE GUY AND GREG ALLEN SHOULD BE IN COLUMBUS FIGURING IT OUT” crowd all year, I could likely make a case for a slew of other outfielders as opposed to Davis, specifically because of his platoon issues.
Davis and Naquin work as a band-aid, and I could probably buy into some sort of platoon instead of Davis if the Indians decide to focus completely on the bullpen over the next two months, but this platoon cannot be the thing that ends up in October. Please don’t make Rajai Davis the next Michael Martinez.
The road for Bradley Zimmer has been a long one, that has seen him hit the DL, get sent to the minors, and now has him back on the minor league DL with “inflammation of his right shoulder.” That sounds good, doesn’t it?
Now Zimmer defensively, injury or not, is a worthwhile option in any outfield, as I’ve already mentioned. The one thing that wouldn’t happen with Zimmer patrolling center is the type of error that Naquin produced 20 months ago in that World Series. But you have to wonder about that sore right shoulder. Is this what’s been causing his substantial offensive difficulties? Will he have enough time to come back, and get the swing into something that is playoff worthy? Zimmer should be back to his minor league gig by mid-to-late July, giving him five or six weeks of Columbus at-bats to get ready, but is that enough time for a player that hasn’t found his swing much since his MLB debut?
Zimmer doesn’t offer any platoon help, as he really struggles against both righties and lefties equally, so I can’t say with any certainty that Zimmer will be on the playoff roster. Would I take his defense over the complete Naquin/Davis platoon? Yes. Will Francona? Who knows.
I’m a huge Greg Allen fan, as many of you know, and I’ll readily admit that he’s struggled this season in his yank-ups and downs with the big league club. But where things could get interesting as the season progresses is if Francona would choose to actually find a decent platoon for Naquin, if he’s hell-bent on doing that. In Allen’s minor league career, he’s hitting .299 against lefties, with 30 doubles, a triple, two homers, 44 walks, and 73 strikeouts in 609 plate appearances, for a 7.1 BB% and an 11.9 K%.
What’s best about this option is that defensively, the only player in the system in the outfield that can rival him is Bradley Zimmer, so Allen won’t hurt you in the playoffs. As a switch-hitter, if you want to hit him against righties, you can, since he’s a decent hitter on both sides of the plate if you give him that option. Sure, he’s struggled, but when compared to Rajai Davis, there really isn’t any performance criteria that allows you to pick Davis.
Sure, Davis has the experience, and obviously had the big at-bat that nobody will ever forget in the World Series, but in an “extended spring training,” this theory is idiotic. Get Allen up and playing at this level, and keep him in the platoon if you want.
And yes, Allen can play left and right as well…so he can fill the role of a “platoon” or relief outfielder in any situation. In other words, he’s a better version of Davis.
As I’m writing this, I’m involved in an interesting discussion involving who the Indians would trade for in center, a list is…well…not a great one. Probably the perfect guy on the list is a player that’s been raking for the Detroit Tigers, and that’s Leonys Martin. Mike Hattery mentioned him last night, and while he’d really be the perfect fit, as a rental that wouldn’t cost much, I just don’t see the Indians and Tigers making a move. Honestly, I’d exclude almost every team from the Central when it involves a centerfielder.
Past Martin, the list starts to get pretty thin when you look at teams that might sell. Billy Hamilton is up there, and while ‘Indians-Twitter-Metrics-Guru(Kevin needs a better title)” Kevin Dean loves him, and Hamilton certainly provides the type of defense and speed that you could really grow to love, even though he strikes out 30% of the time. What Hamilton can do, you really can’t teach. His speed is as good as it gets in the game, he’s one of the best defending center fielders in the league and a fantastic base runner. On top of that, there are several interesting ways in which you could use his legs. Again, Travis Sawchik mentioned one such way a couple of weeks ago:
“A creative team, particularly an AL team, could better utilize Hamilton’s speed. While the Reds are not seemingly ready to experiment, maybe someone else is. After all, this is the year of “the opener.” Perhaps Hamilton could create a new label, a new role for an early-game pinch-runner who remains in the game as an elite defender and baserunner. Perhaps Byron Buxton would also fit this role. Before Hamilton’s gift, his speed, declines, let’s hope someone finds a way to maximize it. For baseball, it would be a lot of fun.”
Whether or not the Indians would be “creative” with Hamilton is a question worth asking, but it’s an outstanding ‘outside the box’ idea that could change the complexity of a playoff series.
Jackie Bradley Jr. has always been on my “go get him” list, and it appears as though the Indians have tried on more than one occasion, including this past offseason. Rumor has it that the Red Sox knocked on the Indians door asking for Edwin Encarnacion, and the Indians countered with JBJ. The Red Sox politely declined. But JBJ is struggling offensively, and even though he’s their primary center fielder this year, they have a couple of alternatives that are pretty solid defensively (don’t hit me for “pretty solid,” I’m generalizing here) in Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi. With J.D. Martinez DH-ing, it’s feasible that the Red Sox could be interested in a deal for JBJ. I doubt it, but worth a look for the Indians, if they’re inclined to look for an outfielder of substance.
Probably the guy that will get the most shine in trade talks is Adam Jones. In four separate conversations this week, his name has popped up, simply because the Orioles are likely to be getting ready to sell some parts. With the Indians likely inquiring about some of their relievers, it’s likely Jones, in the last year of his six-year, $89 million deal, will come up in those talks as well. Jones has 10 homers and 18 doubles, to go along with a .293/.316/.453 slash. If you’re wondering, though, why that OBP is so low, it’s because he walks less than 3% of the time. He’s a hacker for sure, and a defensive liability in center. He’d be tough to bear on this team if the Indians chose to do it.
Perhaps the Indians can go another route, and contact the Toronto Blue Jays regarding Randal Grichuk. Grichuk is a solid defender, and while his best position isn’t center field, he can certainly play it. While his overall numbers are bad, in June, Grichuk has been raking. He’s hitting .281, with six homers, and five doubles. But is Grichuk ideal? Probably not. He would bring his own intangibles to the table, and his own questions.
The other option with the Blue Jays is Kevin Pillar, who won’t kill you offensively, and is still one of the better defenders in the league. I’d likely choose Pillar over Grichuk, but again, not a perfect fit, by any stretch. Pillar has entered the “flyball” revolution, and hit a career-high 16 homers last season, and while he still doesn’t walk enough or get on base enough, if you utilize him in the line-up appropriately, his defense is still plus, so you get yourself a nice patch at a position you had issues with. Pillar is also controlled through next year, so you’re getting a guy for 18 months, which isn’t long enough to see him post-peak. His splits are wonky this year…normally he crushes left-handed pitching but is actually hitting righties better this year (.280 vs. .170). That’s likely to even out as the year progresses, so you could likely utilize him in some interesting platoons, but he’s an everyday guy if you make that deal.
There are other names on the list, but you can see that dealing for an outfielder is going to be a tricky proposition for the Indians if they want to actually improve the position.
In the end, it may be most feasible for the Indians to either figure out a way (no way) to work a deal out with the Tigers for Martin or to bring Greg Allen up and send Rajai Davis on the way. Since both aren’t likely to happen at this point, the best we can hope for is a healthy Bradley Zimmer to re-emerge from his 2018 depth in late August or early September.
It’s strange, the music that influences you. I’ve always been a Rock and Roll guy, of any sort. I like it all, from the initial bang of it in the 50’s, through today’s…rather strange version of rock that’s out now. That said, I’ve never not listened to any music, as rap, country, pop, independent, Americana, classical, and everything in between has weaved its sound through me during interesting times in my life.
In 1994, I was dealing with a bad break-up, not on my part, but on hers. It was a long relationship, built out of me feeling like I had to take care of her. Late in that year, the Cranberries, an Irish band fronted by Dolores O’Riordan put out a song entitled “Zombie.” It was written in response to an IRA bombing and just struck a chord.
She passed away earlier this year, and while I hadn’t thought about The Cranberries or O’Riordan in years, the playing of that song, as good music always does, took me back to 1994, and allowed me to look at that year as a tremendous year of learning about myself. I came out of a 2 1/2 year hole in which I dated the wrong person, drank way too much, and let everything slide. This song didn’t break me out of it, but it certainly was around when I did.
Ms. O’Riordan was in London when she died, about to add vocals to a new version of her song, by the band Bad Wolves. I hadn’t listened to it, until today, and even though her vocals were never added…the song is as powerful as ever. Here’s Bad Zombie’s version of “Zombie,” followed by the original. Bad Zombie’s version is so well done, and connects to the original in a really meaningful way if you know the original video. The third video is of another Cranberries’ song, Linger. Seth Avett, of the Avett Brothers, sang this song in memory of O’Riordan in a dressing room…and it’s…amazing.
Have an amazing Monday…and a fantastic rest of the week!