Continuing on with our position by position look at the strength of the Cleveland Indians farm system, we come to what is potentially one of the stronger positions on the team, center field. In BurningRiverBaseball’s top 50 prospect rankings, five full time center fielders with another three outfielders who have spent a decent amount of time there.
For the sake of considering the Major League possibilities of these players, we’ll ignore the Ka’ai Toms and Connor Marabells and focus specifically on players who will most likely stay in center. The lines between Major Leaguer and prospect are more blurred in center than any position besides catcher. Bradley Zimmer is clearly a Major League starter, but Greg Allen only had 39 plate appearances in 25 games and is likely to start 2018 in AAA. While this disqualified him from the rankings, he is still considered a prospect as far as minor league depth is concerned.
The Top of the Crop
2017 was largely a lost season for Allen, who broke his hamate bone early on and spent most of the season rehabbing. Despite this, Allen is still the player who stole 145 bases in four minor league season, projects to be a Gold Glove quality defender and held a .416 OBP in his last full season split between Lynchburg and Akron in 2016. He has incredible plate discipline and speed, a combination that rarely go together, but complement each other perfectly. When a walk tends to become a double, pitchers will throw more pitches within the strike zone and Allen has proven he can hit those as well with 75 doubles in those four seasons.
If Allen begins 2018 in AAA, it will be more because the Indians currently have too much MLB outfield depth. With Michael Brantley back, they have him, Zimmer, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin and possibly Jason Kipnis. Because of this, he may have to wait a bit longer, but things should clear out soon as Brantley and Chisenhall will be free agents after next season and Guyer could be as well. Allen should be a part of the team in 2018, but even if he isn’t, he should be starting in center (pushing Zimmer to right where his arm is a better fit) by 2019.
High Level Options
None. For the Columbus Clippers this year the three most used center fielders were Naquin (49 games), Zimmer (29 games) and Michael Martinez (24 games). Zimmer is already the MLB starting CF and neither of the others are real options in even a bench role. Behind them were two utility players (Todd Hankins and Ronny Rodriguez) and a player likely to leave in MiLB free agency, Jordan Smith. If any of these players play a game for the Indians in center ever, something will have gone vastly wrong.
In AA, it was the same story. Allen was the primary CF followed by Smith, Hankins and another probably outgoing free agent, Luigi Rodriguez. None of these are real future MLB options. In fact, the highest regular center fielder was Andrew Calica of the Lynchburg Hillcats. Calica had a fine season there as a 23 year old and it was good enough for him to come in 8th overall in our top 50 rankings, but it will still be a couple years until the glove first outfielder is MLB ready. It’s a good thing the Indians have two true center fielders in Zimmer and Allen, because the next group won’t be ready for awhile.
The Next Group
Fret not Tribe fans, for the Indians have been on the search for speedy outfielders with great gloves to play center for a couple years now and we’re beginning to see the results. In out top 50, Gabriel Mejia came in 17th, Quentin Holmes 26th, Conner Capel 27th and Todd Isaacs 42nd. All four are at Lake County or below, but all four are incredibly quick in the field and on the bases and give the Indians an opportunity to discover who is the best of the best.
At the moment, that appears to be Capel. Arguably the best glove in the group (Mejia is the best baserunner, Holmes the fastest), Capel hit an incredible 22 home runs for Lake County this year, raising his slugging percent from .290 to .478. At 20 years old, Capel is the second youngest of the four to Holmes (18), yet he has easily surpassed the two elder players (Isaacs is 21, Mejia 22) at the plate. This is not to disparage Mejia, who missed significant time with injury in 2017, but to say that Capel is vastly exceeding expectations. All three could be in Lynchburg next year where they’ll have to split time, although Isaacs could potentially stay behind so the other two could get more time in center.
Beyond the four bigger names, Hosea Nelson and Tre’ Gantt provide more of the same with extreme speed and solid defense without much of a bat. While Nelson has been used largely in a reserve role, he has stolen 22 consecutive bases in his career without ever being caught. He will be going into his third season, but is still only 20 years old and should split time with Isaacs in Lake County. Gantt was also used mostly as a reserve in his first season and didn’t have the success of Nelson, but should move up to Mahoning Valley with Holmes next year.
Prior to 2017 dating back to 2010, the Indians have had terrible defenders in center. It started with Trevor Crowe, then went to Michael Brantley, then Michael Bourn and finally Tyler Naquin. At points, even Mike Aviles and Michael Martinez were shoved in center as if it were right field on a tee ball team. While Terry Francona may truly have believed that Aviles was great out there, the front office obviously wasn’t buying it and has been making moves since 2012 to improve the situation, starting with the drafting of Naquin. Obviously, not every player who projects to be a great defender turns out to be one, but the Indians are playing the numbers now and chances are, one of the six players between AZL and low A will eventually pan out to be a Major Leaguer. Until then, however, the Indians are stuck with Zimmer and Allen. Of course, that’s not a bad pair to be stuck with.