Welcome to the WFNY 2019 Cleveland Indians preview series. Since we are an unconventional group, we are here to give you an unconventional preview. Some might be breakdowns of positions. Some might be position group battles. Some might be in depth character studies of the intricacies of the art of bunting…just kidding we hate bunts and you should too. We will be here every day for the next two weeks leading up to Opening Day, looking at some of the players and positions of this world-class Indians team.
There were many questions going into this Cleveland Indians off-season and it still does not seem like those questions have been answered. Sure, the Indians have tried to band-aid some wounds with low-level free agent signings on guys that were once upon MLB stardom years ago but it will only be so long before the Tribe cannot stop the bleeding any longer.
Perhaps the weakest position group on the team (outfield) became weaker and are we sure that anyone has an idea on how to make it stronger? Cleveland lost three-time All-Star Michael Brantley, above average bat in Lonnie Chisenhall, and fair hitter in Brandon Guyer. Not only did the Indians lose three guys that made the outfield serviceable but they did not exactly replace them either.
As the roster currently stands, Leonys Martin is about the only sure thing and that is at the center field position; Are we even sure that Martin is a sure thing either?
Where the real question marks sit are in the corners of the outfield at left and right field. Currently, Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, and Jordan Luplow look to be the closest answers to those questions with a few other possible suggestions in Jake Bauers, Oscar Mercado, and now Carlos Gonzalez. The possibilities seem endless with either good or bad outcomes, which allows me to try to breakdown each of these options to see which one sticks out as the best.
Let’s start in right field where that answer looks to be a little bit more clear but is still quite foggy. Throughout spring training Naquin has started 14 games in right field for the Tribe, including the last five games.
Naquin is quite an interesting proposition for Indians in the right corner, considering he has shown before the player he can become. In 2016, Naquin won AL Rookie of the Month in both June and July. He finished the season with a .296 batting average, a .372 on-base percentage and a 1.0 WAR — all career highs. Additionally, he started 92 games in the outfield including two lone starts in right field. In those 92 games on the defensive end, he notched a 99 percent field percentage but finished with a -18 in defensive runs saved above average rating.
In the following two seasons, Naquin only received the opportunity to play in 80 games with the club. Over the 2017-18 span, he batted .240, had an on-base percentage of .273, and a -0.1 WAR. Not horrific but not so good either. As of right now in spring training, Naquin has not quite found his stride. He is batting .238, with an OBP of .256, and only has three extra-base hits in 42 at-bats.
Over the last three seasons with the Indians, Naquin has started in 33 games in right field and played in 51. Despite a small sample size, he has played his best in right field. His defensive runs saved above average stands at +4 and his total zone total fielding runs above average is +3.
Although Naquin has been above average fielding in right field over his career, his hitting woes do not seem like enough to overcome him being the best answer in right field. Considering the latter, it is much of the reason why the Indians signed Gonzalez because of the potential upside on the offensive end.
A three-time All-Star, Gonzalez has not exactly played up to his potential in the last two seasons but has still recorded promising numbers — at least by the Indians standards. In 2016 (his last All-Star season), Gonzalez registered a .298 batting average, a .855 OPS, 25 home runs, and a 2.4 WAR. Over the last two seasons on average, Gonzalez has batted .269, stated a .779 OPS, hit 15 home runs and a recorded a .02 WAR. These stats are not great but they are certainly an improvement from Naquin and the Indians best answer until at least the trade deadline.
Gonzalez has started 619 games in his career in right field and has collected a 98.8 percent fielding percentage, and +7 defensive runs saved above average. The cherry on top is he has also started 419 games in left field and 187 in center field so he is versatile. Now, it is a matter of the Tribe getting his feet under him as fast as they can before the start of the season.
In left field, the Indians can choose to go in a number of different directions. Greg Allen has started the last three games in that position over spring training and Jordan Luplow is currently penciled in at left field according to the Cleveland Indians depth chart after starting 10 games in left field thus far. My colleagues like another choice in left, especially with the addition of Hanley Ramirez; that player is Jake Bauers.
Bauers comes to Cleveland as a guy the Indians will heavily rely on to replace at least some of the bat power of Yandy Diaz. In 96 games last season for the Tampa Bay Rays, Bauers hit .201, with a .700 OPS, 11 home runs and a 0.6 WAR. Not exactly great, especially for an Indians team that needs some power in the lineup. He has made a slight improvement in spring training, but it is not something to write home about. He is currently batting .225, has an OPS of .698 and four extra-base hits in 40 at-bats. The Indians will need much better production than that to make the trade worthwhile this season.
Not only will they rely on Bauers to provide offense, but they could also turn to him to start in left field. As a rookie last season with the Rays, Bauers made 85 starts; 69 starts at first base and 12 games started at left field (8 at DH). It was a small sample size but Bauers was not exactly a gold glove in left field. He recorded a 1.000 save percentage (which was encouraging) but had a -11 defensive runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.
An inconsistent bat and below average fielding is much of the reason why the Indians may initially look towards say Allen in left field. Over the last two seasons with the Indians, Allen has appeared in 116 games and in 16 of those games has played in left field.
Allen batted .243, notched a .640 OPS, and had a 0.3 WAR. His batting was not fantastic but in 2018, there were improvements from the year prior. He also is effective on the basepaths, as he stole 21 bases last season. In 112 games played in the outfield over the last two years, Allen has recorded a 99.5 percent fielding percentage and a -7 defensive runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.
In spring training he has produced some encouraging numbers. Allen has a .441 batting average and 1.163 OPS in 34 at-bats. Overall, he is not head above shoulders a better option than Bauers to start in left field but for now, I think he is the best option at least to start the season.
The Indians could go in the complete opposite direction from mine or my colleagues and role with Luplow who seems like the slight favorite considering he has started 10 games over spring training. Throughout the spring he has struggled, only batting .125 and collecting a .538 OPS.
He (like Bauers and Allen) has only played a month or two’s worth of games in the MLB during the regular season. In 2017-18 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Luplow has played in 64 games. In those games, he has posted a .195 batting average and a .646 OPS. Despite his poor hitting skills, his defensive presence is likely the Indians keep giving him shots. In his career with the Pirates, he recorded a 98 percent fielding percentage and a +12 defensive runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.
The Indians could look in the direction of rolling with Oscar Mercado (optioned to AAA-Columbus) or Jason Kipnis (slated as third-string left fielder and center fielder) but I would say both of those scenarios are unlikely at this point, especially with Kipnis.
For now, the Indians will have exactly six games to get their best idea of how they would like to operate this not so well oiled machine for at least the start of the regular season. Could they option to go young and start Bauers (or even perhaps Luplow) in left field and start Naquin in right field? Or, do they go with the best available option which would be Allen in left field and Gonzalez in right field. Time will tell and our answers will come in exactly one week when the Tribe takes on the Minnesota Twins on March 28 for Opening Day.