Cleveland Indians

Middling Indians Could Use Some Daniel Johnson

Sometimes things go as expected. Sometimes things go a little wrong. Sometimes things go so far off the rails the path back to the desired path is obfuscated by every bad break or decision that led there. The early returns of the Cleveland Indians 2019 campaign have resembled the last example.

The blame is not biased — there are plenty of iterations of it to go around. You can blame the front office for poorly allocating their seemingly finite resources. Oh, hey Brad Miller, Hanley Ramirez, and Carlos Gonzalez. You can blame ownership for slashing payroll. You can blame the manager for a relentless commitment to conceding tactical margin plays. Oh, hey sacrifice bunts in the second inning. You can blame the players for falling short of their potential. Oh, hey Jose Ramirez and Carlos Carrasco and others. However one chooses to dole out blame, it is likely there is at least a shred of truth to their vehicle of choice.

All is not lost, though. Division title odds winnow by the day, but there is opportunity in failure. The current opportunity manifests itself as the ability to allow your youth to figure things out. With various spots in the roster offering no reprieve, it’s difficult to imagine letting the kids play would have an associated cost.

There may not be a better representation of that opportunity than a young outfielder that recently made the trek down I-71 from Akron to Columbus. Daniel Johnson, a 23-year-old received as a portion of the Yan Gomes trade this offseason, is lighting the minor leagues on fire.

In 200 plate appearances between Akron and Columbus, Johnson has 11 homers, 11 doubles, and two triples. Nearly one out of every eight plate appearances has resulted in an extra base hit. He has also made strides on the plate discipline spectrum, posting a career best walk rate that falls just shy of 10%. Though his prospect pedigree took a hit during a lackluster 2018 in the Nationals organization, Johnson still sports tools in spades — an 80-grade arm to pair with 70-grade wheels makes for solid watchability.

Toolsy with extra base hit potential is just the type of gamble that the Indians need right now, not unlike Oscar Mercado. Though he has only played seven games at the AAA level, Johnson makes sense in the same tone as Mercado… Take a guy who is riding a confidence high and thrust him into the fire.

As of now, the Indians are giving daily reps to 31-year-old Leonys Martín. While this move made theoretical sense two months ago when you needed baseline levels of production, the goalposts have shifted drastically. Thanks to a hot Twins start, an abysmal Indians start, and a lack of production from Martín, it gets more difficult to justify playing him, no matter how great the story or person behind it. Baseball is a what have you done for me lately world, and Martín simply hasn’t done enough.

If projections are your thing, the decision tilts even more to Daniel Johnson’s side. According to Steamer’s wRC+ projections, Johnson slots in at 91 while Martín falls 10 points lower at 81. Quite simply, there is no legitimate excuse for a middling small market team to waste time on an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 that hasn’t produced and isn’t projected to produce.

Daniel Johnson might not be ready. The organization might have a legitimate reason or two to leave him in Columbus for a little while longer. That said, the Leonys Martín experiment is starting to clog up valuable developmental space, and one would be hard-pressed to construct an argument that favors him over the youthful question mark that is Daniel Johnson.

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