Monday afternoon, the Kansas City Royals announced that they had claimed Abraham Almonte off waivers (interestingly enough, they released Miguel Almonte to make room) after the Indians designated the outfielder for assignment prior to Opening Day. Almonte was out of options and was removed from the 40 man roster to make room for Rajai Davis.
While ultimately, this decision shouldn’t severely effect either team, the choices the Indians have made here and elsewhere have brought their line of thinking into the open. In particular, this was the decision to keep Tyler Naquin instead of Almonte.
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What is most interesting about the pair of players is how they are viewed by the public. If you poll the fan base (which I did) you will find a split with many vehemently supporting one over the other. Without considering the numbers themselves, defensively many remember Naquin’s gaffe during the 2016 while others remember Almonte’s linebacker like frame and deduct points because he doesn’t “look like a centerfielder.”
According to the actual stats, however, there are significant enough results to say that Almonte was the better defender while Naquin was the better hitter (although most of Naquin’s offense came in 2016 and much of Almonte’s defense in 2014 when he was with Seattle). In the end, Fangraphs had them at nearly identical overall values both last year and for their careers, although Almonte had more playing time in both situations.
So, with the pair we have essentially two replacement level outfielders who can’t hit left handed pitching (although again here Naquin is superior with a 104 career wRC+ compared to 72 for Almonte) with the slight advantage going to Almonte in the field and Naquin at the plate. With Naquin having two MiLB options remaining and the role available on the team being a bench/defense/left-handed bat the decision was obvious, so why did the Indians do the opposite?
To start, the Indians didn’t “need” both players. Placing Naquin in AAA just because they could would have allowed them to keep both, but with Greg Allen already MLB ready, Michael Brantley expected back soon and Yandy Diaz pounding on the door, there are other corner/fourth outfield options. Even if extensive injury situations push the envelope, Richie Shaffer and Brandon Barnes should be able to produce the type of replacement level numbers expected from both Naquin and Almonte if necessary.
Because of the lack of need to stockpile outfielders, it became unnecessary to waste a 40 man roster spot on two replacement level reserve outfielders. This, however, was unlikely to be the only reason. In the end, it may have been public perception that swayed the choice of Naquin. While the SABR leaning crowd prefers Almonte due to advanced metrics like those shown above (and those that show how and why Naquin completely fell apart in the second half of 2016), the Indians fan base is still predominantly old school (at least partially in thanks to the extremely stone age announce crews on both STO and WTAM). This crowd places extreme emphasis on both Naquin’s exciting play (particularly his inside the park home run against Toronto) and on extreme negative emphasis on Almonte’s suspension for PED use. It didn’t matter that the entirety of Naquin’s offensive value came in 2016 and that it was propped up by a completely unstable BABIP, he still hit .335/.399/.629 through his first 70 games and rode that to a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year race. In fact, it was during this period that Almonte was hanging out in Arizona with the Indians extended spring team as he was unable to participate even in the official minor leagues due to his 81 game vacation.
While he was ineligible for the 2016 postseason, there was nothing in the PED suspension rules to keep Almonte from playing in the future, but the Indians appear to be taking a harder line on abusers than the league is forcing. In addition to Almonte, the Indians allowed Luigi Rodriguez, a power hitting centerfielder, to leave in MiLB free agency this year and have parted ways with each of their last three players to fail a drug test beyond this pair as Steve Delabar, Joe Colon and Marlon Byrd (who rode his suspension into retirement) have all left the franchise during the last two years. While it’s possible these moves would have been made without the tainted backgrounds, but it certainly seems the Indians want nothing to do with players who have been caught using performance enhancers.
In the end, this was almost certainly the right move. The fact that both Naquin and Almonte are below replacement level players means that neither really should have any place on this team. Injury problems have forced the Indians to use one, but if you are going to pick between nearly equivalent awful players, at least pick the one that people like. I fully expect Naquin to head to Columbus for Brantley within the next few weeks and if the Indians need help after that, it should be Allen returning. As for Almonte, at least he will get a chance to get some at bats with a franchise that doesn’t necessarily consider that suspension a stigmata.