Over the six seasons of manager Terry Francona’s tenure, the Cleveland Indians have been one of baseball’s banner franchises. That cannot be argued.
In every season, the Tribe has finished greater than .500. There have been four total playoff appearances-– yes, this includes that haunting 2013 Wild Card game-– and the most recent three straight American League Central Division titles. The team’s run of success is not likely to end anytime soon given the youth and length of control for the brightest stars.
Despite these accomplishments, there has always been one glaring weakness of every single Indians roster: the outfield. And wouldn’t you know, the only two consistently productive outfielders for the Indians over the last half-decade are both upcoming free agents. That would be Michael Brantley, of course, and, laugh as you may, Lonnie Chisenhall.
A lot of the attention this upcoming offseason is expected to fall on the bullpen. And that’s with good reason, certainly. The Indians bullpen was dreadful in 2018, a complete disappointment from the prior two years. The two headlining free agents-– Andrew Miller and Cody Allen-– may have dented their potential market value with rough finishes to the season. The pair’s unreliability certainly was a major factor in this October’s early exit.
I’d easily counter that the focus should be on the outfield, the outfield and the outfield once more; then, the bullpen. Recall: Position players participate in all 162 games. Outfielders are pivotal focal points of a team’s defense. They can shape the offensive footprint.
The most durable relievers participate in 70-75 regular season games and can swing some playoff matchups. But, you’re only talking about that many innings or so of participation. A great reliever can produce a couple wins of above average value, at best. Position players take precedence. That has always been true about baseball evaluation and salary appropriation.
According to Baseball-Reference.com’s quirky normalized Wins Above Replacement chart, the Indians have had the second-most WAR (61.5) since 2013. But in the outfield department, their -4.8 mark ranks 19th in the league. Organizations like Boston, Los Angeles, and New York not only can afford more roster mistakes, but dominate Cleveland in this specific area of the game.
Let’s play a terrible guessing game: who is the third-best Indians outfielder, as measured by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, from the duration of 2013-18? The answer is in the footnotes. It’s not fun.1 There’s an enormous gap between Brantley, then eventually Chisenhall, then anyone else.
Brantley, who turns 32 next May, had a triumphant return to full-time action in 2018. He was certainly worth his much maligned $11.5 million team option. He hit .309/364/.468 in 143 games, darn near his 2014-15 peak where he hit .319/.382/.494.
Chisenhall, who turned 30 last week, only played in 29 games throughout the 2018 season after playing just half of 2017. He made $5.6 million this past year and given the durability concerns, one could imagine he’d be a very typical Cleveland re-signing for a split platoon role.
Can the Indians just get a full-time, legitimate, no-doubt-about-it outfield starter? The only guaranteed returning contributors are Brandon Guyer, Greg Allen and Bradley Zimmer! This is a significant problem, or at least as significant of a problem as can exist for a roster that should easily glide to a fourth straight division title.
Guyer turns 33 in January and is pretty much what he is. I’d expect the Indians to pick up his $3 million team option out of sure necessity. He’s a good hitter against lefties but really should never be bothered with against right-handed pitching. If he’s your fourth outfielder, it’s fine. But that’s just the beginning!
Allen, 26 in March and under team control through 2023, needs to be given the Rajai Davis role solo, at least. Davis should not be on the Indians roster in 2019 or again in the future. Just stick with Allen.
Zimmer, 26 around Thanksgiving, is an intriguing bounce-back candidate. As a rookie in 2017, he was solidly above average in his 101 games. But pesky injuries limited him to only 34 major league games for his sophomore follow-up. For many teams, Zimmer would be a fun, no-risk, back-up sort of option. But in the Indians current situation? There’s far, far too much pressure on him to be among the most valuable everyday regulars; especially given the possibility he will not be ready for Opening Day.
One must also recognize the possibility of a return for Leonys Martin, who missed the final six weeks of the season with a bacterial infection. At 30 years old and under team control for a final year, there’s a chance his brief six-game stretch with the Indians could lead to a decent-sized role… but again, this isn’t a sure-fire solution. And neither is a return of the 34-year-old Melky Cabrera, who was nearly perfectly at replacement level in 78 games. These aren’t good options for what should be a great team!
It’s an meh situation and requires more than just short-term band-aids the likes of David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Shelley Duncan, David Dellucci or Johnny Damon of yesteryear. If the Indians are going to spend significantly on a free agent, it deserves to be on a regular outfielder. The conditions are fine to do so! With MLBAM money flowing down and a deserted middle class of veteran contracts, there should be ample opportunity.
Opportunity may not just be limited to free agency. Options such as Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Marwin Gonzalez and Adam Jones are intriguing in various ways! I would not expect the Indians to get into the bidding wars for Bryce Harper or Nelson Cruz. Retaining Michael Brantley is also not enough, as evidenced by the faults of this season’s roster. That’s not the intent of what I’m just writing here. It should be more than that alone.
But let this set the table of the upcoming months of anxiety, debate and free agency analysis: Please, please invest in the outfield. Package other assets, such as Zimmer, Allen and/or a minor league prospect. Find a creative way to end this cycle of flagrant ineptitude at one pivotal area of the game. It’s a crucial way to make the next few years even more successful. And it’s staring the Indians organization right in the face.