According to just about everyone, the Cleveland Indians are everybody’s favorite to win the American League Central. They have the best starting rotation, with Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber, and they have two of the top five players in the American League in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and they have one of the top ten closers in baseball in Brad Hand. You could do a lot worse, even taking into account the injuries that have kept Francisco Lindor out of the Indians line-up as the season kicked into full gear last week.
The outfield, though?
Forget Michael Brantley, who signed a two-year, $32 million contract with perennial American League favorites, the Houston Astros. Forget Bradley Zimmer, who’s torn labrum ended his 2018 season, but who was posting a near 40% K percentage when he went down anyway. Not even Jason Kipnis, the Indians de facto playoff center fielder was slated to play in the outfield, and was injured anyways. Leonys Martin, Jake Bauers, Jordan Luplow, Greg Allen, and Tyler Naquin: this is your 2019 outfield Indians’ fans.
Last season, according to FanGraphs, the Indians’ outfield ranked 17th out of 30 in total wins above replacement, at 5.6. Brantley took his 3.5 fWAR to Houston. The five players taking over the roles to start the season off in Cleveland come in at a combined 3.5 fWAR last year, and while those numbers are a bit skewed because all of the five players listed didn’t play a full season due to injury, platoons, or just being young, but they are five players that didn’t play a full season due to injury, platoons, or just being young. In other words, this is an outfield filled with a ton of questions, and those questions don’t likely have answers that equal the outfield of a World Series contender, let along a division contender. Thank god the rotation is good.
That’s not to say this outfield doesn’t have a bunch of really interesting stories. EHC’s Gage Will discussed Jake Bauers being a solid play for the Cleveland Indians in the trade that also brought back Carlos Santana. Bauers brings to the Indians some pedigree, having been listed in some top 100 prospect listings. That alone doesn’t mean much, but when you take into account his near-elite level 13.9 BB% in his initial volley in the bigs, to go along with a decent power profile, and you have a player that should be a solid full-time left fielder. Of course, we have less than 100 games in the bigs, so while this profile fits what he did in the minors, Bauers isn’t likely to match Brantley’s 2018 profile, let alone his prime profile. But Bauers has some upside, and will be a fun story. This is likely your 2019 anchor.
Leonys Martin is coming off a much-told story of near death in 2018. That story can’t be told enough, as Martin had a bacterial infection that ended his season, and had he not gone to the doctor, would have ended a lot more than that. It’s not even a baseball story, but you have to include this as he enters the season as the Indians’ starting center fielder. But that’s where we are this season. It IS a baseball story, because Martin is our starting center fielder. Thankfully, everything worked out, and if Martin can capture some of the play from last year that included 11 homers in 84 games, and solid defense, you have a player that is a nice piece on a playoff team. What Martin is for the Indians is likely the only player out there that has been somewhat consistent as far as playing time goes in the past. From 2013-2016, Martin never played less than 143 games in Seattle and Texas. Of course, that was three-plus seasons ago, and last year his season was curtailed by near-death.
Tyler Naquin hit third this week in real big league games.
I repeat…Tyler Naquin hit third this week in real big league games.
The erstwhile Gage Will took a look at why the Indians might have considered Naquin over some other choices, such as Oscar Mercado, or even Greg Allen. Naquin hasn’t really had a tenure with the Indians long enough to establish whether or not he could adjust over long periods of time. Naquin has struggled with injury (and just playing well) which has possibly kept him from making said adjustments. The same sorta folly followed him throughout his minor league career as well. Naquin had a nice window in 2016 in which he looked like a full-time, big league player. Of course, we’d have to ignore the .411 BABIP that season, as well as the declining numbers the second half, but there is reason to think that he could be a serviceable fourth or fifth outfielder.
But he hit third…
over the past week…
in real big league games. And I know it’s only April, and I know the Indians are dealing with injuries, but if you have to roll Tyler Naquin out there, hitting third, you have to revisit my lede. This is a team that should be contending for the flipping World Series! What’s next, an Erik Gonzalez resigning so he can take over the “the next Michael Martinez” mangle again? Sorry, that was really unfair to Erik Gonzalez…I think…
Greg Allen is an interesting young player. For anyone that’s read my stuff over the years, you know that Allen is one of those guys that I watched come up through the system, and does things on a day-to-day basis that often gets overlooked when you’re in the minors, and not listed as an elite-level prospect. I’m not trying to compare him to Jose Ramirez in that regard, nor am I ultimately comparing him to Kenny Lofton either, but I did sense that in Greg Allen, there was a guy that could make a good case for 130-plus games as an outfielder on a yearly basis, and who has an interesting skill-set both defensively, and offensively.
He has speed, impeccable (spectacular, if you ask me) defense, and I think is the type of player that has a higher ceiling than is expected, because he works his butt off, has a great eye at the plate (which will showcase itself as he gets time, if he gets time), and I think has the ability to build the type of strength that will increase power to at least be interesting. I’m not saying he ever plays up to a prototypical lead-off hitter, but he might, if he gets a chance to play regularly. Again, you’d love to have this guy as your third or fourth outfielder on a contender. The problem with the Indians is that we have a bunch of those players on this team, who will likely be forced to press, especially with Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis out of the line-up.
I’m also intrigued with regards to Oscar Mercado and Daniel Johnson, who perhaps may be the best two outfielders of the ones listed in the piece, over the long haul. I know a lot are discussing Mercado because of his hot spring. Mike Hattery wrote a piece, the first in the relaunch here at EHC, discussing Mercado-upside. I also wrote about Oscar Mercado at WFNY, when the team first traded for him. Mercado has a really interesting skill-set in that he has a lot of the Allen intangibles, with perhaps slightly better defense, and perhaps a bigger potential for a power bat. Mercado made a jump from a no-hitting infielder to center field, and suddenly became the prospect everyone thought he was. He’s a diamond in the rough, and while some time in Columbus may help him, I think he should, and could help this team in 2019. Unfortunately, the Indians signed a couple of guys in Carlos Gonzalez and Cameron Maybin, who like ensured Mercado a year-long stint in Triple A, which also may lock Johnson in Double A.
In the end, the Indians have an intriguing outfield in that there are some guys who, in the right situation, could thrive at the big league level. Unfortunately, Terry Francona has often utilized these players in roles far beyond what they should be given, or for the youngsters, far less. For every Jose Ramirez, there is a Yandy Diaz, and on a team that is really depending on health, the fear of pressing is real, and the fear of strange situation…such as Tyler Naquin hitting third…is equally troublesome.
EHC’s Mike Hattery, Jim Pete, and Gage Will discuss the Indians outfield, in our annual positional previews. It may be fun, but not sure it’s going to be pretty.