Trying to figure out how to handle the outfield has been driving me nuts. I planned to so three separate profiles, then put them together. Then I separated them.
In order for you to maintain the flow, I strongly suggest that you read these in the same sitting– in the order that the scorer intended– left, center, right. They build off each other and it’s not going to make a ton of sense if you do it piecemeal.
Let me use the same header in all three spots. The outfield is basically a mess– exactly the kind of mess that always makes me nervous, because the Indians have had these messes before, and have a history of handling them badly.
Let’s begin with some perspective. A year ago, the Indians’ outfield ranked 18th in the majors in Wins Above Replacement. The individual positions ranked as follows:
- Leftfielders ninth out of 30 teams
- Centerfielders 24th
- Rightfielders 13th.
The Indians didn’t win because of their outfield– they won in spite of it. Things do not look substantially more reassuring this season.
Right field is substantially similar to left field– but without the possibility of Michael Brantley taking over. The Indians ranked 13th (four slots lower than left, using nine different players (the same number as left), with many of the players no longer available:
Ok, they can get Almonte and Gonzalez with a phone call; I assume Byrd and Cowgill wouldn’t be hard to scare up. But the hope is Lonnie Chisenhall (61.4% of the innings) will give Cleveland as least as much as he did in 2016, and Brandon Guyer can cover the rest, without losing much of his 2016 production (.333 batting, .907 OPS).
In both cases, that seems a bit optimistic– and that was before Chisenhall ran into a wall trying to make a big defensive play, and jacked up his shoulder.
The problem with Chisenhall is twofold. He hits a little better than the average (now that nobody is juiced up). Major league rightfielders batted .259 (.763 OPS), and Chisenhall is a bit above that. Notice that his splits as a rightfielder are a little higher than his overall nunbers (.286 average, .767 OPS). He’s been jerked around over his career and he doesn’t respond to it well. Every time they ask him to play a new spot, he flounders.
But 2016 (where he was 1.4 wins above replacement) was the second-best offensive season of his life (in 2014 he matched those numbers, but did it in 533 plate appearances– longer is better).
When he moved to right in 2015, Chisenhall looked spectacular defensively– 2.34 plays per 9 innings, 5 assists in only 40 games. Last year, he was under 2.0; even though he played twice as much, he threw out only two more runners. That, plus the drop in plays, suggests that he lost a step..
In six seasons, he’s had three decent years and three bad ones. The Indians have never made it easy for him– he always has had to fight for a job– but he’s almost always struggled. He had a job sewn up this spring, but he hit .268 (.806 OPS) in 41 at-bats. If he has one of those off-years, Cleveland has a problem.
Guyer can probably handle the “hit lefties” portion of the job. His career stats against lefties are good enough: .289 average and an .861 OPS in 224 career games (545 plate appearances), spread over five seasons.
When a player looks unexpectedly good, I’m always skeptical unless I can come up with a storyline that makes sense. In Guyer’s case, it’s pretty easy to see what happened:
- Tampa acquired him in 2011 from the Cubs, thinking he was at least a platoon player and maybe more.
- After a good AAA season in 2011, he had shoulder trouble early in 2012 and needed surgery.
- He wasn’t ready to play until mid-2013.
- In 2014, the Rays fell apart, and nobody was in a mood to fiddle with a platoon player.
But Guyer turned 31 in January. He’s a career .236 hitter (.644 OPS) against righties– meaning he isn’t capable of playing full-time if Chisenhall tanks. He is a defensive liability. You can tolerate him in left, but he’s not going to be able to handle right field.
Some players don’t hit well when they’re playing a position they don’t feel comfortable with. Guyer didn’t show that last year– but he also spent most of his time in left. I don’t expect him to duplicate his 2016, either.
OK, I’m out of stuff to say about right field, so I guess I’ll finish up by talking about the unit. Here’s how the Indians have this planned out:
- Brantley comes back and plays 140 games and regains 100% of his form. His year-long layoff doesn’t affect him at all.
- Pitchers don’t exploit any holes in Naquin’s swing; Jackson regains the level of play he attained 4-5 years ago.
- Chisenhall doesn’t slump and Guyer (who’s older than Andrew McCutcheon and Carlos Santana) keeps providing the punch in the combo.
That’s a lot of “if”s.
If something goes wrong, the next man up is Abraham Almonte. Paul Hoynes inadvertently provided a capsule summary of his value as a player, by saying that the Indians could afford to keep Jackson, because Almonte still has an option left.
Almonte is 27 years and 276 days old– and he still hasn’t cemented a place in the majors.
Fans and writers in Cleveland have been thrilled with Almonte, because he has been a .264 hitter (in 390 PA’s) with a .735 OPS. They ignore his struggles in his past:
- In two years and 195 PA’s in Seattle, he posted a .225 average and .612 OPS
- In two years in San Diego (63 games, 169 PA’s), he hit .243 (.628 OPS)
You can view those failures as his apprenticeship and see his time in Cleveland as the point where he developed. Or you can just say “He’s only made 390 trips to the plate as an Indian.” If Almonte had 5 hits less, he’d be a .250 hitter, and everyone would see him as just some guy. ( 10 hits less and he’s batting .236 and he’s a stiff.)
Almonte isn’t a utility man because he can’t handle centerfield and he hit .236 when he played right. And that wasn’t because, as I thought, he was playing right after he came back from his suspension and moved to left down the stretch. The game logs show he played both spots after his return. When he was playing left, he hit well– when he was in right, he didn’t.
The Indians do have other options, but none are “plug and play”, and they’d all force the team to work outside its comfort zone. Let me run through them.
1. CF Brad Zimmer. He’s 24 and clearly on his way:
- 2014: OPS of .892 in rookie ball and a low A league
- 2015: OPS of .814 in a high A league and AA.
- 2016: OPS of .790 in AA and 37 games of AAA
Pretty obviously, the next number in that sequence will be a repeat of his last three years– an OPS around .900 in AAA and under .700 when he’s promoted in mid-year..
That won’t help the Indians win a pennant. They’d have an option if they still had 22-year-old Clint Frazier. But they used him to rent Andrew Miller. If they have to go to Zimmer, they’ll need to be patient.
2. OF-1B Yandy Diaz. I’ll get to him elsewhere, but I’ll put him here because he would solve the outfield issues.
Diaz will turn 26 in August (he played in Cuba until he was 22), and is unquestionably ready. He hit .325 (.860 OPS) in 93 games in Columbus last year, and is hitting .429 (1.129 OPS) in spring.
Diaz began his pro career as a 2B– a statement that only illustrates the evils of the communist regime. The Indians moved him to 3B (the results were somewhat painful) and last year tried him at second (4 games), third (28 games), in left (24 games), center (1 games) and right (28).
Having watched the Indians deal with prospects for nearly 50 years, I’ve seen this movie before. They haven’t been giving his systematic trials– play 20 games here and we’ll evaluate, now go here and let’s see. The game logs for 2016 show how badly they were flailing with him– here one day, there next..
Ideally they’d like to put him at third base, because he’d win a few silver slugger awards (at least he’d give Manny Machado and Kyle Seager a stiff challenge). But they know he can’t really play the position– they’d effectively negate the value of Francisco Lindor by butting him beside Diaz.
But they can’t simply pick a role and let him do it.
If it were my team, I’d settle it fast. I’d ask and answer one question: “Are we going to re-sign Carlos Santana?”
If the answer to the question (as it probably is; the Indians don’t get what they have) is “No”, it’s easy: Let Santana and Edwin Encarnacion handle first and DH and send Diaz to Columbus to learn first base. Diaz is 6’2″ and isn’t horrific at third– assuming that he can catch throws from the right side, he’d probably be good-to-outstanding at first.
When Santana leaves, Edwin Encarnacion can be the DH and Diaz can step in at first. He’ll hit like a first baseman.
But if the Indians keep Santana, put Diaz in right field. He moves fairly well and has a strong arm. He’ll kick a bunch of balls– but he’ll hit a sight better than Chisenhall and Guyer and get by defensively.
There isn’t a strong excuse for having Jackson and Guyer on the team– and Diaz in AAA. On a smart, aggressive team, he would be their opening day right fielder.
3. Jason Kipnis. Now we come to one of those those moves that is correct on paper and a potential nightmare in real life. Kipnis would go berserk at what he would see as a “demotion”– the media would scream. Paul Hoynes and Terry Pluto– who always prefer that the team keep doing what the team has been doing, even if it hurts the team– would lead the riots. Everything that went wrong– whether at second, third or the outfield– would be traced back to the switch.
But it’s the correct decision. I’ll go into it when I get to the position, but there are six irrefutable reasons that Kipnis should not be playing second base.
4. CF Greg Allen. This also isn’t an options this franchise would consider– it’s not in their DNA– but it’s actually rational, if not desirable.
Allen is 24. He was drafted at in 2014, at age 21, after playing several years at San Diego State. Rather than assume “he can probably handle AA”, the Indians sent him to a rookie league in 2014, moved him to Lake County in 2015 and only permitted to move up to Akron in time to play 32 games of AA ball last year.
Allen won’t be any kind of a hitter– his career average is ..276, and his OB% (.386) is higher than his slugging (.377). But let’s walk through the other points:
- In 312 games– about two full years– he has 121 steals and 34 caught stealing.
- He has hit 59 doubles and 11 triples.
- He doesn’t strike out much (164– only five more than his walks),
- He’s a switch hitter who can bunt.
- He gets to a lot of flyballs in center field.
Do I like him as a player? No, not much. But this franchise gave Michael Bourn $53 Big Ones to play center for a few years, and a lot of people felt that was brilliant. Allen is the same type of player.
You bring him to the majors, he’ll probably hit .210– he hit .244 in spring. But the chance that one of the players currently slated for outfield duty will hit .210 this year (for one reason or another) is high. If the player doing it were performing at a Gold Glove level at a key defensive position, you could justify it. They got to Game 7 of the World Series with both catchers below the Mendoza line.
If I had a choice between Greg Allen hitting .210 and Austin Jackson hitting .235, I know which one I’m going to pick. I grew up watching Paul Blair struggle to reach the break-even point offensively; I know you can win with players like this. In fact, if you’re hoping to win with pitching, defense is what you have to demand– especially up the middle.
If the Indians have an outfield of Almonte in left, Jackson and Naquin in center and Guyer and Chisenhall in right, catchable balls will drop in. The pitching will look weaker than it actually is.
Then you have a problem.
I might– as I often do– be focusing on the most gloomy scenario. It is entirely possible that things won’t end up that bad. The Indians have a long history of downplaying serious injuries and rushing players back– only to watch them flounder and then have to shut them down. But maybe Brantley (and/or Kipnis) won’t turn into Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner.
Maybe Naquin– even though he’s a month away from turning 26– still has a lot of headroom and will develop. Maybe he’ll stabilize his production and be a credible corner option.
The platoon in right might hold up. Or maybe Diaz or Zimmer will come along fast.
Or maybe they’ll end up moving Ramirez back to left. God only knows.
Here’s what I do know. When you see a team hoping to go back to the World Series giving Allen (who’s a year away at least) 45 at-bats and Dan Robertson 61 at-bats, they’ve got major problems in the outfield.
Robertson is 31. He’s 5’8″ and 200 pounds, working on his fifth team: San Diego, Texas, the Angels, Seattle and now here. He was sold, traded for cash, selected off waivers and signed as a street free agent. In 298 major league plate appearances, he’s a .273 hitter, with a .647 OPS.
And this guy– the 2017 version of Collin Cowgill— is competing for a spot on the roster of the AL Champs? A team trying to get to the World Series shouldn’t have a never-was like this in camp. It shouldn’t be giving him the time of day. It should reserve opportunities for prospects it is trying to groom– players with a chance to contribute to a championship team (if not this year, then someday)– playing time and cultivation.
The Cubs didn’t give 61 at-bats to a player as bad as Dan Robertson this spring. That’s why they are infinitely more likely to return to the World Series than the Indians.