The Cleveland Indians managed to get to the World Series in 2016 with a a rookie center fielder who they couldn’t play against left handed pitching and even despite controlling his playing time, managed -17 defensive runs saved. They also found production from a 35 year old outfielder who led the American League in steals but struggled his fair share in center and getting on base.
This article isn’t meant to pick on Tyler Naquin or Rajai Davis. Naquin has had enough success in the minors to be a productive major league contributor and should have enough speed to have even average range in centerfield. The Indians outfield is a little crowded with platoon players, but bringing Davis back (at a reasonable cost) wouldn’t be a bad idea.
With that, the Indians cannot expect that a healthy Michael Brantley flanked by Naquin/Abraham Almonte (who inexplicably didn’t regularly play centerfield in 2016 despite statistically being one of their best at the position in 2015) and Lonnie Chisenhall/Brandon Guyer to be enough to get to the World Series again. Could it happen? Sure. It already did once sans Brantley, which is amazing, but if they want to get there again and win this time, an upgrade in center wouldn’t hurt.
The free agent market isn’t exactly flush with centerfield help that’s going to be within the Indians comfort zone or worth the cost to begin with. Dexter Fowler is coming off the best year of his career at age 30, putting up a 129 wRC+, his highest non-Coors ISO (.171) and rebounded defensively with the help of better positioning to the tune of a +1 DRS and 1.0 UZR/150. At the age of 30, he’ll likely receive a four year contract with an annual average around $16 million and that’s not where anywhere where the Indians should be or want to be.
Jon Jay hit .291 thanks to a .371 BABIP (0.31 above his career average), only posted a 100 wRC+, only stole two bases and was -5 DRS in centerfield (although playing centerfield at Petco Park and then a lot of times at Coors Field isn’t all that easy). MLB Trade Rumors predicts the Indians will give him two years and $12 million. Steamer projections currently have him at 0.7 fWAR and 88 wRC+ in 2017, which isn’t awful for $6 million a year. But the Indians can do better.
It goes against everything the Indians have done basically since the Hank Peters/Dan O’Dowd/John Hart regime, but the Indians should give Greg Allen a shot to at least impress them in Spring Training and consider giving him a shot in center field before the All-Star break.
Allen only has 145 at bats at AA and doesn’t have to be added to the 40 man roster until December of 2017, but this is a unique situation and represents a chance for the Indians to do something outside of their normal operating practices without having to spend more money. That $6 million a year can be spent to add another bullpen arm, upgrade their utility spot and give extensions to Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez. On defense alone, Allen could add more value than Fowler, Jay or Naquin, Davis and Almonte in centerfield.
He will be 24 before he would likely open the season in AA, maybe AAA, which is going to make him on the cusp of being the average age for those leagues rather than younger, potentially giving him less of a challenge and wasting some value.
His upside might be limited, but Allen brings a lot of skills to the table that should translate well if he were to be given a shot to earn the centerfield job. His work ethic and makeup are both exceptional. He’s a switch hitter without an exceedingly unfavorable platoon split from either side (.264/.364/.347 vs. LHP in 121 ABs at High-A, .316/.453/.431 vs. RHP in 225 ABs; 1.0003 OPS vs. LHP in AA, .785 vs. RHP), puts the ball in play (15.5 K% in Double-A, 10.9 BB%), has great speed (45 steals in 58 attemps in 2016) and is rated as a good to great defender in centerfield.
Allen just finished a stint in the Arizona Fall League with an .829 OPS and 12 steals in 14 attempts. While complex league stats and against AFL pitchers should be taken with a few grains of salt, Allen has proven he can get on base and steal.
The Indians don’t like to push a prospect’s timeline because of service time, arbitration, eventual free agency and as well as development and the risk of having to send them back to the minors. Normally, I agree with that plan given the club’s financial situation and building process, but Allen isn’t Lindor where they need to be careful about his development and service time in order to maximize their window. Giving Allen a chance to play centerfield at the big league level this year would be a move that could help them win this year and in the next few seasons.
Lindor had the kind of maturity where if he struggled and had to be sent back that he would handle it just fine. Allen is cut from the same cloth. While he’s not as talented a hitter or defender, he’s the best defensive centerfielder in the organization with a combination of speed, instincts, route running, athleticism and flair.
Allen was a little hesitant and unsuccessful stealing at AA after his promotion (7-for-13) because he had to learn the pitchers in the league. He is fast and has the ability to learn to read pitchers and pick his spots. The Indians coaching staff, led by Sandy Alomar Jr., really helped Indians base runners this year maximize their base running and stealing potential by getting the book down on pitchers and catchers. Allen is already a smart base runner and would fit into that extremely well.
Jay would be a waste of money when Allen can already play better defense, steal more bases and is just as likely to put up a lucky BABIP fueled average. Fowler could help the Indians win in 2017, maybe even 2018, but they won’t spend that kind of money and with that long term AAV, that $16 million would be banking on hoping the first two years were as promised with a World Series title because the last two might not be so pretty. Signing Fowler would be a huge mistake for the fact that the Indians would lose a draft pick in a year they are already picking low and thus are dealing with a reduced bonus pool. It’s an area they cannot afford to drop at the moment.
At the very least, the Indians should invite Allen to big league camp and see what he can do. They can roll with Naquin and Almonte in centerfield to open the season once they decide to send Allen back for development and save a year of service time while they see how he performs in AAA. If he proves he can handle more advanced pitching and maintains his defensive prowess, he could be the centerfielder they are lacking and the young table setter and base runner they need.
Allen clearly has value as he was a big piece of the failed Jonathan Lucroy trade. He represents the future of their outfield but also can represent the present. The Indians should be in win now mode and Allen may be able to provide average to above average production in centerfield at some point as soon as 2017. It’s a risk that wouldn’t cost them additional resources in money or prospects. If they’re not going to stupidly overpay for a free agent or trade Allen and other pieces for a more ready-now solution, giving Allen a chance in centerfield in 2017 is a risk the Indians can and should take.