This time last year, Cleveland was plagued with question marks above the outfield, and at back then, question marks pointed to doom. This year, however, similar question marks remain; the doom has left the ballpark in a hurry.
A quick recap of 2016, when the idea of Michael Brantley missing any games at all put panic into the hearts of the die-hards. All the starting spots for left, center and right were up for grabs between a few names we knew, some we knew of, and others that were yet to be known. What ended up being the outfield last season is a big part of what will ignite the fire for the coming year, but first the Tribe must start again from square one.
First and foremost, let’s just assume 100% that Michael Brantley is not on the list for possible outfielders when camp breaks. Oddly enough though, a lot rides on if the Indians are going to come out and state this officially or sit on it again. Is it possible a baseball miracle will happen and the Dr. Smooth we rested all our baseball hopes on will come back better than ever? Yes, but not likely. There is a solid take away from this, in that for the first time in a long time Cleveland fans no longer need to rest all their hopes on this single player. The weight of the team playing against the world is more evenly distributed than ever before, lessening the pressure to rush Brantley back (again) before he’s ready.
The crop of guys in camp this season came in with a new confidence, as well they should. Guys like Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez both come off career seasons, both excelling beyond expectation defensively and at the plate. Rightfield will most likely go to Lonnie for the opener, while still playing tag-team with 2016 acquisition Brandon Guyer from the Tampa Bay Rays. As unexciting of an update as that is for the right corner, you could argue it’s more of a positive than anything. No news is good news.
Ramirez on the other hand became Michael Brantley 2.0 in 2016, leaving Tribe fans in the off-season clinging to the hope that he will do it again in 2017. J-Ram stepped up and took over left field like he was born and raised to be there and he completely owned the damn thing. Yes, he did play more games at third than in left, but this article is about the outfield depth, so we’re going with that. For someone who was so successful, it almost hurts to say that the biggest question mark correlates with where Ramirez might end up playing. Just like last year, we still aren’t sure about Brantley, which puts a slight halt in left field until the Indians make a definitive decision. Luckily, Ramirez has proven to be flexible and, as simple as it is, he just wants to play.
With there being more options to look to for leftfield than third base, Ramirez will probably make a few appearances in left when needed while starting as the every day third.
In my opinion, left and center are two spots for the Indians that will be more of a platooned position than anything else. Technically, this plays right into how Tito likes to run his ball club, using every option, opportunity and strength available. For him, that has more to do with the bullpen than the outfield, but same idea.
New signee off of free agency is currently fighting for a role in the depth pool that Tito loves to go to. Dan Robertson made his major league debut with Texas in 2014, played for the Angels in 2015 and the Seattle Mariners in 16. Across those three teams he picked up a DRS of 5 in 337.0 innings in leftfield. Robertson might not be a power hitter, with zero home runs in his major league career, but he does hit about a .300 BA against lefties with a .273 career average. For all we know, inserting him into an order like Cleveland’s might be the official wake up call his bat needs.
One other name that could come up in the left field talks might rub Tribe fans the wrong way, going by how game seven of the World Series ended. Yes, I’m talking about Michael Martinez. He can play the same number of spots that Mike Aviles scraped his cleats on, but with the confidence of Francisco Lindor. Stay with me folks, I’m talking defense here. Since his first game in the outfield for the Tribe in 2015, Martinez has amazed me with his range and eye for pop-ups falling towards the track. Believe it or not, Martinez coming off the bench is an asset to the team that many others would love to have.
Finally, there is Wily Mo Pena, who has had a lot of experience playing the entire outfield in the minors and majors. He’s bounced around a ton through his career, bringing with him his powerful swing and legend-wait for it-dairy home run ball distance. Going by the numbers alone, he looks like your average quadruple-A player, putting up a .329 average over 4 triple-A teams from 2009-2011. Once moved up to the Bigs, his numbers drop noticeably. With 18 years of baseball under his belt, Pena brings a veteran presence to the table that will be needed with the lack of Mike Napoli this year. Aside from that and the hope that he might be able to bring big numbers like back in 2004 with the Reds, Pena is probably going to start in triple-A, with mind-blowing stats, leaving most scratching their heads why it isn’t with the Indians.
With the corners covered, we need to move more towards the center-line and talk about who it is these guys will be flanking for the summer. Last year, rookie Tyler Naquin made strides in spring training and was handed the opportunity of starting centerfielder after Abraham Almonte tested positive for PED use. Don’t get me wrong, Naquin is a young stud with a ton of years left to prove himself, and I don’t believe Cleveland would have made it as far as they did without him. But, when talking about where the World Series was actually lost, my vote is more for the misjudged fly-out in game six and less Martinez being beaten by the shift. Naquin is a mix of two extremes: bad enough you can’t watch, and good enough you can’t look away. He was the outfield version of Bryan Shaw. This might be a testament to 2016 being his rookie year, which means he will have a lot to prove going into 2017 and that is completely doable. He’s mature enough to make the adjustments and learn from his mistakes while balancing his astonishing offense and smart base running that we saw against Toronto with his in-side-the-park homer. That wasn’t a fluke, that was 100% what he brings to the table. My hope is that he can figure out a way to use what he brings to the plate mentally and apply that same confidence in the field and become the well-rounded center field leader we saw through his minor league career.
With vet OF Rajai Davis no longer in a Tribe uniform, Cleveland might again turn to someone new as the back up for centerfield. Bradley Zimmer, top prospect across the board from Baseball Prospectus to Baseball America, might finally see the lights in The Show. The 6’4 left-handed power bat kicked off the Indians spring training games with a 5 RBI game against the Cincinnati Reds, proving that the adjustments he’s made in his swing have huge advantages already. Just looking at the power aspect, he would also fit just as nicely in leftfield, but stay with me. Defensively, he’s a strong leader in the outfield with confidence to spare. A year ago, I felt the same about Naquin, with a small ounce of nerves around his need to throw himself into walls. Tyler looked to struggle with the transition enough to where his confidence waivered just noticeably. I want to say that Zimmer will be able to handle the pressure of playing with the big boys, but you never really know what to expect with a rookie’s first game/play/at bat/season/etc.
The other few options vying for a spot on the major league roster include Austin Jackson from the Chicago White Sox who was signed to a minor league contract, but is well known by Cleveland fans when he played against our boys in Tiger stripes. Could the front office possibly be looking for a similar scenario with Jackson as they saw with Davis? If he does play well enough, starting him could give the Indians more flexibility with the guys who have options. Those guys include Greg Allen, who will probably start his season with triple A Columbus, and OF/3B Yandy Diaz. Diaz isn’t new on the radar for the parent squad, especially after his hot 2016 in triple-A batting a pro-career high .325 in 95 games.
This time last year, the options were as questionable as the questions themselves. No one knew what the right answer was, or even the potential of such a high reward for such high risks. Those risks laid the foundation to build an outfield to match the rest of our arsenal and we’re in the process of perfecting it. So, though we still aren’t sure about Brantley or just what the outfield will look like yet, we now know there is a right answer. Maybe this time next year instead of wondering what the question marks still might be, we will know without a doubt the right moves were made.