In BurningRiverBaseball’s ongoing look at the Indians minor league system position by position, we come to the corner outfield positions. We’ve already looked at center field and found it to be relatively strong with expectations that multiple players could eventually move to corner spots as their careers progress. This time, we’ll specifically focus on players who are primarily left and right fielders to determine the health of the organization at what are typically more power focused instead of the glove/speed heavy center fielders.
To begin, eight of the top 50 prospects in our prospect rankings were listed as a corner outfielder, although only one of the top ten. Of those, all the legitimate prospects ended the 2017 season at class high A or lower. In addition, this is a position of apparent weakness at the Major League level depending on moves. Michael Brantley is only under control through 2018 and his health is extremely questionable and a similar statement could be made for Lonnie Chisenhall. Brandon Guyer has a 2019 option, but is only guaranteed through 2018. As a whole, the Indians have a ton of options at the Major League level for corner outfielders (including Jason Kipnis, Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte and more), but no great options.
The Highest Ceiling
The Indians top corner outfield prospect came in at #10 in our rankings and potentially has both the highest ceiling and lowest floor at the position. Will Benson is a large man with great speed and a great arm. After seeing him play for a year in Arizona, there is definitely potential that he could be a four tool player. However, the one tool he is missing (hitting for average or OBP) could keep him from taking advantage of the other four.
There was an argument that Benson should have spent two seasons in the AZL after his poor debut, but the Indians ended up promoting everyone from the 2016 draft to Mahoning Valley (or higher) this year and Benson did show major improvements a level higher. Despite this, he still struck out 80 times in 236 at bats with just 31 walks. He will likely see another promotion this year and we’ll get to see how he fares in his first full MiLB season, but unless he can become a little more selective at the plate, he’ll never be able to show off his wheels on the bases or make it far enough up the system to show off his incredible power.
While everyone likely has heard of Benson since he was the Indians first round pick in 2016, another player with a more consistent profile from the 2016 draft has already hit Lynchburg. Mitch Longo came out of college rather than high school, so he’s already 22, but he absolutely crushed the pitching in Lake County before a dominant, but short, stint in high A. Longo also has the bonus of being born in Mayfield, Ohio and having gone to Ohio University, so there is a local angle to root for. If he can jump to Akron by the end of next year and continue to play anywhere near his current offensive level, he could be a Major League option by the end of 2019 while Benson will likely be beyond 2020.
The Best at the Top
The Clippers used 18 different players in right and left field in 2017 and only two could be considered slightly legitimate prospects, Connor Marabell and Mike Papi. In Akron it was more of the same although Dorssys Paulino‘s name could potentially be added to the list. Of the three, Marabell has the greatest potential although Paulino was once considered the Indians top prospect and is only 22 despite being with the team for six seasons.
Marabell has played all three outfield positions, but will probably end up sticking in right. Like Longo, he had a great season in Lake County (although in 2016) that continued into Lynchburg, however, he had a very rough 2017 while splitting time between all three of the Indians highest levels. Most of that time was spent in high A where he saw all of his rate stats drop significantly compared to the previous years. Generally, the Indians won’t use prospects they consider highly as injury replacements in upper levels as they used Marabell this year as it can interfere with their development and since he’s already 23 years old, there may not be much hope for the future within the system.
Papi is a year older, but played primarily in Akron this year, spending significant time in Columbus this year as well. He’s always been well thought of within the system and finally had the breakout year offensively we’ve all been waiting for. As someone who can play all three outfield positions and first base, there is need for a player like Papi at the Major League level right now, but chances are Papi won’t be ready for at least another year.
As for Paulino, it’s incredible the Indians haven’t given up on him yet and there is no chance he’ll be protected by the end of next season, when he’ll become a minor league free agent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them cut their losses before then, although they did hold on to Luigi Rodriguez (recently signed by San Francisco) until the bitter end.
Finally, looking back at Lynchburg, Ka’ai Tom was used more in center field than any other player, but is more suited in a corner. He is a little old for his level, but played in the Arizona Fall League this year to help his advancement. Prior to 2017, he always had great plate discipline, but he gave up some of that for improved power. He isn’t incredibly fast, but is great on the bases and has moderate power with his update approach. Because he can play all three outfield positions in a pinch, he sets up to be a solid fourth outfielder in the future and has a better floor than all the other players listed in this section.
Potential Long in the Future
The Indians drafted quite a few outfielders in 2017, but none are more interesting than their biggest international signing, George Valera. Considered one of the best hitters on the international market, Valera should make his debut in the Indians minor league system next year, when we’ll finally get to see what they paid for. Prior to seeing him live, it’s impossible to judge as Paulino came in with just as much if not more hype when he was signed. Valera is, however, the biggest international name to come to the Indians since Paulino.
One final name of interest at the lowest levels for the Tribe is Oscar Gonzalez. He won the Arizona Rookie League MVP in 2016 after leading the league with eight home runs, then struggled in the past season against more advanced talent in Mahoning Valley. At the moment, he is an atrocious defender and refuses to take a walk no matter how far away a pitch is thrown. These two things make him a less attractive version of Benson at the same level, but there’s always possibility of improvement, especially for a player this young. Given his power potential, the Indians will certainly be working on the weaker aspects of his game next year and he could eventually turn into a very interesting corner outfielder.
Overall, things aren’t great for the Indians in the corners, particularly in the upper levels where many of the at bats were taken by utility men (like Erik Gonzalez and Michael Martinez), veterans who never will get back to the Majors again (like David Lough and Michael Martinez) and those who never will make it for the first time (like Jordan Smith and like we wish Michael Martinez hadn’t). Luckily for the Indians, that may not matter. With so many centerfielders and Bradley Zimmer likely the mainstay for the long term in the Majors, they have the opportunity to move some elite defenders from center to right or left. Until those in the lower levels like Longo and Benson are ready, they essentially will have to.