Many Indians fans were disappointed when they learned the news that Jay Bruce had signed with Mets last week. While he played less than 50 games combined for Cleveland over the last two months of the regular season and the ALDS, the disappointment had more to do with the Indians inability to retain a single one of their exiting free agents as Carlos Santana and Bryan Shaw had already signed elsewhere, than the emotional loss of a long loved hero.
Despite this cumulative outlook, each of these cases must be considered individually. In the case of Shaw and Santana, the free market value was simply too high for the Indians while with Bruce, there was the question of if the Indians actually needed him or not. While the $39M he signed for wasn’t quite the amount he was looking for or enough to wreck the Indians payroll, his three guaranteed seasons certainly weren’t in the Indians long term plans.
The primary problem with bringing back Bruce or any other free agent for that matter is that the Indians roster is essentially already set for 2018. Looking exclusively at position players, the Indians have three starting quality catchers (all under team control through at least 2021), Yonder Alonso at first, Edwin Encarnacion at DH, Jason Kipnis at second (all three signed through 2020), Jose Ramirez at third and Francisco Lindor at short (each signed through at least 2021) to fill out the infield.
In the outfield, things are less permanent as both Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall are free agents after 2018, but both are also guaranteed their 2018 salaries already for over $16M combined. In center, Bradley Zimmer was the Indians top prospect from the time Lindor broke through until he himself debuted in 2017 and looks to have a bright future as a good gloveman with a great arm, incredible speed and a large potential for power. Behind him, Greg Allen is a lighter version without the power or arm, but with greater speed and defense. With Brandon Guyer signed through 2019 and a necessary half of Chisenhall’s right field platoon, the only real open position player spots on the 25 man roster are bench roles that will likely be filled by Erik Gonzalez and Yandy Diaz. As it is, this leaves Allen, Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte off the projected roster.
So, in order for the Indians to make room for Bruce specifically, the Indians would have to have removed Chisenhall from the roster. Why, you may ask, couldn’t Chisenhall and Bruce exist on the same roster? Because they are essentially the same person.
|Bruce vs RHP||4078||.258||.330||.493||22.5%||9.6%|
|Lonnie vs RHP||1838||.269||.317||.435||18.5%||6.0%|
|Bruce vs LHP||1728||.226||.291||.421||26.6%||7.8%|
|Lonnie vs LHP||427||.250||.312||.385||19.9%||7.5%|
Extremely potent against right handed pitching, but near useless against lefties, both are acceptable defensively in right field as well. While the numbers above include the entire careers of both, things get more interesting when looking at the last three seasons against all competition. This is especially true when you remember that Bruce is about a year and a half older than Chisenhall and that it took a three year guarantee for the Mets to acquire Bruce while Chisenhall was already under team control through 2018 for Cleveland.
As they say, the grass is always greener at Citi Field, but the fact is that Chisenhall has been the better player in every facet except hitting home runs over the last three years. In fact, had he been healthy for all of 2017, there is no way that the Indians would have brought in Bruce in the first place. By holding on to Chisenhall, the Indians don’t have to deal with an elderly outfielder holding back players like Allen and Zimmer in 2018 and beyond, but still have a placeholder for the upcoming season in case he is needed. Especially considering the questionable health of Brantley, there is a good chance the Indians will ultimately rely heavily on Chisenhall with an otherwise young outfield.
The real question then isn’t whether or not Chisenhall was a better choice than Bruce, but whether or not he is good enough to be the starting right fielder on a World Series contender. The easy answer is of course, because he literally was in 2016, however, he had little to do with the Indians success in that postseason. As great as he can be (.315/.335/.537 from June 24th through August 20th, 2016), he also has a tendency for prolonged slumps (.244/.280/.326 to end 2016 after that hot stretch) and strikes out far too much for a non-home run threat.
What other options do the Indians have, though? Around the league, there are few better and since 2014 (when Chisenhall became a starter although he didn’t move to right field until 2015), Chisenhall ranks 18th in all of baseball in fWAR among right fielders (Brandon Guyer ranks 23rd). While J.D. Martinez (ranked 5th) is available as a free agent this off-season, the players listed above Chisenhall are generally the type of players teams that aren’t run by Derek Jeter would never allow to leave a franchise. For the Indians to greatly improve upon Chisenhall immediately they would have to drop a ton of talent for someone like the Diamondbacks David Peralta and they would still have to try to move Lonnie to make room.
Lonnie represents the difficulties in having an established veteran line-up. He’s paid his dues and shouldn’t be mercilessly dumped, but doesn’t provide quite as much value at the position as the Indians would prefer. This is a similar situation to Josh Tomlin (who is essentially guaranteed a rotation spot, likely pushing either Mike Clevinger or Danny Salazar into the bullpen), Michael Brantley (if he can even play) and Jason Kipnis (who is pushing Jose Ramirez off his preferred position and potentially keeping Yandy Diaz on the bench). At some point, there will have to be a major shift in the Indians roster towards youth and they will have hopefully readied the next generation by the time that comes.
That time is likely to come at the end of 2018 when Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Tomlin, Brantley, Chisenhall and Zach McAllister all look to hit free agency. In the mean time, Chisenhall is at least good enough for another run, but he isn’t so good that he would hold back the next generation if they become ready ahead of (or on) schedule.