As the analytics and player development era booms in Major League Baseball, organizations prioritize the capacity to be nimble, to adjust their approach based on how the market shifts. While the Indians most glaring holes appear to be at 2nd Base and likely the bullpen, the Indians collection of pieces and bats provide significant flexibility.
Last year the Indians relied on a designated-hitter by committee approach which saw numerous position players and platoon pieces cycle through the position. Yet, Franmil Reyes provides, dare I say it, flexibility. Nothing about Reyes physique implies flexibility but in Cleveland there are certain mitigating factors.
First a presumption, Oscar Mercado appears to be a lock in center field and Jordan Luplow the primary platoon piece in right. Right now the unathletic Reyes is penciled in to DH or play a corner outfield spot. Fortunately for the Indians, they have an advantageous park for the unathletic outfielder via the high wall in left field. First, the distance to the wall is slightly shorter than most parks, limiting the amount of ground to cover. Second, the wall plays kindly and predictably, allowing comfortable ricochets off the wall. Ultimately, if Reyes plays a corner in 2020, it should be left field.
Third, the Indians have one obvious advantage or deficit which is Mercado, Reyes, and Luplow are all right-handed, finding a complementary bat and/or outfielder is key. Reyes is flexible in that he can play 40 passable games in left field, and also can be entirely comfortable being a designated hitter for 120 games.
Reyes, and Jose Ramirez being flexible allows the Indians to attack value be it 2nd base, 3rd base, left field, or designated hitter, the Indians have moving pieces which allow them to target a large variety of players.
It is with the Indians inherent flexibility that the Indians can evaluate a variety of options. Want to sign a mid-tier outfielder? Yasiel Puig, Kole Calhoun, Nick Castellanos, Brett Gardner, and Avasail Garcia are all options to varying degrees, though Castellanos may be cost prohibitive.
A 2B/3B? Howie Kendricks, Asdrubel Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, Todd Frazier, Jonathan Schoop, Brock Holt, Didi Gregorius (converted) or Mike Moustakas.
A DH? Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Abreu.
The point being that the Indians flexibility allows them to look for the best fit from among a larger group of players to improve their roster, and optimize expenditures. With this in mind, exploring the outfield market becomes interesting as a Calhoun + Schoop or Cabrera offseason could quietly fill a lot of needs.
Returning to the outfield, while Reyes has solid splits against both right-handed and left-handed pitching, having an outfielder with a good stick and average or above defense to balance the right-handed bats of Luplow, Mercado, and Reyes makes a lot of sense.
The Indians options in terms of a left-handed outfield bats are not particularly exciting. Tyler Naquin enters 2020 destined to miss additional time from a torn ACL, Bradley Zimmer has spent the last three years under the knife or striking out, and Jake Bauers looked atrocious during his 2019 opportunities. Daniel Johnson is the most enticing of the bunch, and how the Indians organization views him will dictate how they try to complement the current outfield group.
Kole Calhoun rakes has a career wRC+ of 108 against right-handed pitching and is nearly league average at 98 against left-handed pitching. Steamer projection system projects: 1.4 WAR, 97 wRC+ and a .759 OPS over 600 plate appearances.
Based on underlying statistics, I believe those projections are deceptively dragged down by Calhoun’s 2018 collapse.
Visible above is that Calhoun’s expected stats in 2018 are eerily similar to those throughout the past five years. However, despite an xwOBA of .333, Calhoun posted one of the all time fluky poor seasons with a wOBA of .283. Calhoun is not a special offensive player but he is average or better with a platoon advantage that pairs well with Reyes, Luplow, and Mercado.
Outside of offensive competency, Calhoun is an average or better defender by most metrics be it UZR, DRS, or adequate performance via Statcast Metrics. Of course, at 32 years old you would not be getting peak defense.
Now for the Indians flexibility, if they do not further reduce payroll, Zach Meisel’s analysis estimates that the Indians would have roughly $15-20 million to spend in year payroll.
Estimating Calhoun’s earnings is not simple, the Angels just declined his $14 million option at the cost of a $1 million buyout suggesting he is worth less than $13 million AAV.
MLBTraderumors.com projected a 1 year $6 million deal for Calhoun.
Cost per win of $8 million times approximately 1.5 WAR would suggest $12 million. However, the cost per win is not linear, and mid-range veterans are where the cost per win is often depressed downward, so that estimate is messy.
While imprecision is uncomfortable it is necessary here, Calhoun would likely earn between $7 million and $11 million in annual average value barring an unforeseen occurrence. With this in mind the Indians could allocate 35-60% of their offseason budget to a plug and play starting outfielder and retain enough flexibility to add a starting caliber second baseman.
Signing Kole Calhoun is neither flashy nor thrilling but building a deeper lineup and roster is exactly what the Indians need. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santa, are the teams impact bats, now they must strengthen lineup spots 5-9.
Calhoun is but a single option, and as discussed above the Indians have a panoply of options based on their versatility. Indeed, Yankee veteran Brett Gardner may be an even better option to fill the left-handed hitting corner outfielder role. Yet, the Indians are well situated to observe the market and add based on overlooked second-tier contributors.