The Indians went into the off-season without a public plan. For the first time in the Terry Francona era, the team lost multiple, big name free agents without having an obvious internal replacement. Injuries threw the play-off roster into disarray, and rather than reset as soon as the off-season began, Jason Kipnis was told he didn’t have a position and Michael Brantley‘s option was used, giving the Indians an odd combination of talent that doesn’t have an obvious defensive alignment.
The biggest question mark resided at first base as Carlos Santana signed with Philadelphia earlier in the week, guaranteeing that the free agent wouldn’t be returning to Cleveland. With that, there were a few different options. The easiest solution would be to play Edwin Encarnacion at first every day with the DH being some combination of Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis, but there was also talk of converting Brantley to first (which would mean both he and Kipnis in left field would be trying out brand new positions) with a few other options like Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes being available.
While the Indians had plenty of speculation to go around, none of the answers were particularly attractive. Late Wednesday night, however, the Indians finally made a concrete decision, guaranteeing Yonder Alonso $16M over two years with an $8M vesting option for 2020.
Alonso spent 2017 with Oakland and Seattle, hitting .266/.365/.501 with a 1.9 WAR and an All-Star selection. Alonso will turn 31 in the first week of the 2018 season, but despite making his MLB debut with Cincinnati in 2010, has only had three seasons with more than 110 games played. Always a good defender with a high OBP, Alonso completely transformed in 2017, losing his value on defense (possibly because of his age and increased playing time as much as anything else) and adding a power stroke by changing his launch angle. No player was more ingrained with the increase in home runs in 2017 than Alonso as he went from 39 home runs in more than 2,300 plate appearances through 2016 to hitting 28 home runs in 521 plate appearances last year.
Since he had such a great transition, it’s almost worthless to look at Alonso’s numbers from prior to 2017. With that in mind, the left handed slugger’s platoon splits from last year are incredibly dramatic. Since he was used as a full time starter, he has significant stats against both righties and lefties and his line breaks down as follows:
While this kind of line could frighten some, it may play perfectly into the Indians plans for the future. Specifically in 2018, Alonso could form a kind of platoon with Edwin Encarnacion where normally (against RHP) Alonso could play 1B with Encarnacion at DH. Against lefties, however, Encarnacion could move over to first (since Alonso hasn’t been an elite defender of late, Encarnacion shouldn’t be as big of a drop off as he was with Santana) with any number of players taking over at DH.
There is still a lot of the Indians starting line-up left up in the air for 2018 (in fact, the only real “guaranteed” spots are Bradley Zimmer in CF, Francisco Lindor at SS and now Alonso and Encarnacion at 1B/DH), but this does simplify the situation. Should the Indians go back to Jason Kipnis at second and Jose Ramirez at 3B, Yandy Diaz could be that DH against left handed pitchers. If Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes are hitting more like the 2014-2015 than 2016-2017, they could also provide that extra right handed bat, especially if Francisco Mejia is on the roster and catcher at bats are hard to come by. In any event, it’s likely that Alonso will not be as regular of a player as he was with Oakland, but he should be productive enough to be worth what is now a paltry $8M per season salary.
The final interesting part of the Alonso deal is the Bobby Bradley factor. Coming off a positive season in AA, then a slightly less positive season in the Arizona Fall League, Bradley is easily set to be the Columbus Clippers starting first baseman in 2018. However, as seen in the AFL, Bradley still has major plate discipline issues and is likely at least a full year away from the Majors. For a team running out of prime contention years (particularly considering the years of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco not only under team control, but in their prime), the Indians couldn’t afford to wait out a season without a real first baseman. The Encarnacion/Kipnis/Brantley/Gomes fill in combination could have worked, but it wouldn’t have been dominant. Adding Alonso give the Indians a real power threat for the next two years while they wait for their internal power threat.
Looking into 2019 and the possibility of Bradley, he has very similar split stats to Alonso, so a platoon is unlikely. Instead, Alonso’s guaranteed status should make it easier for the Indians to ease Bradley into the role (based on the handling of previous top prospects, the Indians will likely wait until June 2019 to bring him up at all) allowing the Indians to work him in slowly when he has the greatest chance of success. With a vesting option (and $1M buyout) for 2020, the Indians should be able to use Bradley’s performance in 2019 to gauge whether or not to push for Alonso’s option in 2020.
Of course, this is still in the long distant future. For now, the Indians 2018 team is a little clearer, but far from finished. Now, the focus must switch to either acquiring a third baseman or formally stating that they will go back to the early formation from 2017 with Kipnis at second and Ramirez at third. Either way is acceptable, but there is no question that the team would be stronger with a proven Major Leaguer over Yandy Diaz (the potential internal 3B if Kipnis is considered an outfielder with Ramirez at 2B). There is still plenty of time to work something out, and now that 1B has been solved, something should materialize in the near future.