Lonnie Chisenhall is set to return to the Cleveland Indians today from the 10-day disabled list and magically the Indians puzzling offense issues are going to clear up. However, in the event that Chisenhall doesn’t return and turn into Barry Bonds, the Indians need to keep the hitters on their roster putting together the best at bats as they attempt to crawl out of this early season offensive slump.
That would mean keeping Abraham Almonte on the roster. Almonte only made the Opening Day roster because of Chisenhall’s injury, so it would appear that he’s going to have his last option used and sent back to AAA. This would be a mistake. Last July when Almonte came back, I never thought I’d be making this argument. Almonte didn’t look like he fit on this roster and didn’t add much to the team, but people change and so do approaches. LIke Almonte’s new found patience, which should be more than enough to earn him a permanent home on this roster until Bradley Zimmer can break down the door.
It already seems as if the Indians are mismanaging their roster with Almonte. When the Indians traded for him in 2015 for Marc Rzepczynski, he took over center field right away and finished the year worth two defensive runs saved (DRS)and a 7.4 UZR/150 rating. Then he got suspended to start 2016 after seemingly being ready to open the year as the regular center fielder. By now you know Naquin took the job, played fairly well in the first half before crashing to a half in the second half in 2016. But he BABIP’d his way into making people think he was at least a platoon bat in center field.
Now in 2017, Almonte only makes the roster due to circumstance of an injury while Naquin was apparently guaranteed a spot. Naquin was worth -17 DRS last year and posted a -9.4 UZR/150 in center field and froze in Game 6 of the World Series and was benched to start Game 7 despite strictly starting vs. RHP all year. For whatever reason, the Indians have gone away from playing Almonte in center field even though looking at past data and their current roster, he’s probably their most capable center fielder.
Defense aside, Almonte looks like he’s settled in offensively. While he came into Wednesday’s game with a totally unsustainable .429 BABIP, Almonte has a walk rate of 31.3% (and to be fair, a 25% strikeout rate). He’s averaging 5.29 pitches per plate appearance. He doesn’t have enough at bats to qualify among league leaders in that area, but if he did, the switch hitting 27 year old would rank first in baseball. Naquin currently sits at 4.11 pitches per plate appearance, which would rank around 40 if he qualified. His walk rate sits at 5.6% and strikeout rate at 27.8%.
While we’re obviously only eight games into the season and neither player has enough plate appearance for even strikeout or walk rates to stabilize, their minor league track records and at bats this season to date are very different. Almonte consistently neared 10% and above walk rates in the minors, albeit with high strikeout rates as well. However, Almonte doesn’t carry Naquin’s BABIP and breaking ball mistake tendencies at the plate. Naquin has 72 strikeouts against fastballs in his major league career (51% strikeout rate). Meanwhile, Almonte has a .526 slugging percentage vs. four seam fastballs with just 25 strikeouts on the fastball since 2015.
Almonte is also a switch hitter, and while he has been better as a left handed hitter, he at least gives Terry Francona the option of flexibility and can hang in there vs. LHP. Almonte also stole eight bases last year without getting caught in just half a season despite only playing vs. LHP and less once Coco Crisp was acquired. Naquin stole six all of the last year and never ran much in the minors.
Naquin has two options left and Almonte is on his last one. The Indians will likely keep Naquin and send back Almonte to re-add Chisenhall, because Naquin has manned center since spring training and platoons with Jackson. Meanwhile, Almonte has played every outfield spot at some point since 2015 and could offer that late game flexibility. At one point this past off-season, Indians GM Mike Chernoff said that Naquin’s position would depend on the Indians roster construction and that they said long term he would be a good fit in right field, but even with Almonte around early in the year, they didn’t exactly stick with that line of thinking.
Almonte offers more patience at the plate at this point, he’s been a better defender in center, offers position flexibility, is a switch hitter and doesn’t have a giant glaring hole in his swing that’s been exploited since last August like Naquin’s issues with high fastballs. This is an important year for the Indians to maximize roster flexibility and to keep their best 25 players on the roster at all times. And with their offensive issues at the moment, it seems short sighted to send Almonte back and keep Naquin.
Almonte drove in what proved to be the winning run in the first game of the season at Texas and walked twice in that game. He drew a six pitch walk to load the bases to bring up Carlos Santana, who also walked, to tie the third game in Texas before Francisco Lindor won it with his grand slam. He’s been in the middle of most of the Indians big offensive moments (which were really only in Texas for some reason) and while you shouldn’t draw too much on an eight game sample, Naquin has two options still and could use some more seasoning in AAA as Almonte offers the Indians that roster flexibility they love so much. He can split time in center and right field with Zimmer in Triple-A and work on hitting the high fastball and a patient approach.
For the time being, Almonte is the better fit on the Indians roster and this wouldn’t likely even be a debate if he doesn’t get suspended last year. And Almonte has earned his second chance.