While the focus for the Indians right now should be on winning right now and eventually getting back to the World Series in October, a few different things have sparked conversations about the long term future. These include Greg Allen starting the season in AA rather than AAA with mostly AAAA veterans in the Columbus outfield, the extension of Roberto Perez with Yan Gomes already under contract and the potential extension of Carlos Santana.
The long term effects of such moves are made more extreme by the pedestal that top prospects are placed upon. Does signing Perez mean the Indians are going to trade Francisco Mejia? If they sign Santana, does that mean they have given up on Bobby Bradley? While not completely unrelated, in a whole the farm system and Major League franchise are not necessarily run in sync with each other. The goal of the MLB team being to win now, the goal of the farm system being to make sure the Major League team consistently has better than replacement level options for the future. Very rarely does the Major League team specifically hold back on filling a position because a prospect is considered such a lock that he needs an opening. In fact, the only time this happened in recent memory was when the Indians didn’t try to extend Asdrubal Cabrera in 2014 before trading him, then didn’t sign a free agent short stop to fill the position.
The top prospects before and after Francisco Lindor didn’t have such an easy route. Lonnie Chisenhall was considered the Indians #1 prospect prior to his debut in 2011, yet the Indians still ran with Jack Hannahan at third consistently even after his debut. When Jason Kipnis was set to make his debut in the same season, Orlando Cabrera had been signed as a free agent to fill the gap until he was ready. Even recently when Tyler Naquin (and Yandy Diaz) broke through it wasn’t because the Indians left him an open spot, it was because of the injury to Michael Brantley.
While the Indians are unlikely to specifically clear a space for any of their current minor league outfielders, there is a case to be made that it is in the outfield that the minors are strongest. From top to bottom, the Indians system is filled with players who have at least some Major League potential although how they will fit with the team in the future is a complete unknown.
Looking at the talent in the upper minors, the Indians currently have Bradley Zimmer, Allen, Mike Papi and Dorssys Paulino in Akron or Columbus and hold various levels of Major League potential. Beyond them, Andrew Calica, Ka’ai Tom and Connor Marabell for a strong base in Lynchburg while Gabriel Mejia, Todd Isaacs and Connor Capel form an interesting glove/speed trio in Lake County. Even the lowest levels are brimming with talent as Will Benson, Oscar Gonzalez and Hosea Nelson all stand to start the year in short season. This doesn’t even include the fringe prospect Luigi Rodriguez who would also be in Akron now if he hadn’t broken his hand. All 14 of these players were in BurningRiverBaseball’s top 60 prospects for 2016 (all but Gonzalez and Nelson in the top 41) as were Anthony Santander (currently on the DL with Baltimore after being taken in the Rule 5 draft) and part time outfielders Jose Medina and Todd Hankins. This is an extremely outfield heavy farm system, especially considering the legitimate upper minor prospects.
The simple fact is that not all of these players will reach the Majors, but the benefit of having so many options is that should ten burn out, they still have other choices to run with. Papi has always been more potential than production and if he can’t cut it in his second year in Akron, the Indians at least have another outfielder they can plug into that spot.
Looking at the other half of the equation, the Indians Major League outfield is one of the weakest parts of the team and the most susceptible to instability. Contractually, Lonnie Chisenhall is under control through 2018, Brantley has an option for 2018 and Brandon Guyer is signed through 2018 with an option for 2019. Unlike the rotation, catchers and infield where nearly every player is at least under team control through 2020 (with many being guaranteed money), the outfield is ripe for transition.
Of course, as we have seen with Chisenhall’s unfortunate run in with an outfield wall, there are a lot more variables than just contracts. Using Brantley as an example, here are a few:
- Injuries could cause a loss of play from a single game to the rest of his career.
- He could play poorly and be benched and possibly have his 2018 option declined.
- He could play at an All-Star level and have his 2018 used.
- He could play somewhere in the middle and use the option as a starting point for a new extension.
It’s impossible to predict the future and if Brantley, Abraham Almonte (who is pre-arbitration and under team control through 2020), Guyer and Chisenhall can stay mostly healthy, maybe they won’t need a single one of those minor league outfielders until 2019. In that case, it would be up to Zimmer or Allen to play so well in AAA that they forced their way onto the Major League roster where they could replace someone. For the sake of fun, however, let’s look at a couple possible projections for the Indians outfield both this season and beyond.
The first is essentially how we stand now. If everyone stays healthy and productive, Brantley and Chisenhall/Guyer will stay in the line-up through 2018, after which they would essentially be replaced by the Indians top two outfield prospects, Zimmer and Allen. In this scenario, Zimmer could potentially be a late 2017 or early 2018 call-up and Allen the same a year later. Calica is used as a representative for whoever makes it out of the current Advanced A group and Mejia is the same for the current low A group.
While he has shown no reason to doubt him to this point in the season, it still appears that the most likely negative situation would involve Brantley. Should his shoulder pain return significantly or if he can’t hit at a level the Indians are used to, they could decide to decline his 2018 option, although it is so cheap that he would have to have a significant drop in performance for this to make sense. If that did happen, however, Zimmer would likely fill in at center, moving Naquin to left earlier than would be anticipated if everything goes smoothly. This would mean a call-up of Zimmer due to need rather than him pushing the limits at AAA, although his performance during Spring Training was good enough that he appears Major League ready right now. This need could also advance Allen to AAA, a level he seems more than suitable for.
Since these permutations could go on forever, this will be the last one. Let’s say everyone stays healthy and productive, but by the end of the season Zimmer and Allen are playing so well they can’t be ignored. The immediate solution would be to use the final option of Almonte and send Naquin to AAA as well. Where the ramifications would be felt would be in 2018 when Almonte would have to make the 25 man roster or be lost. If both players continued to succeed at the Major League level, it would also be possible to release Chisenhall rather than pay him his escalated arbitration salary for 2018. With these two leaving early, it may be necessary to push another minor leaguer up early although at 23 years old already, Calica could be ready earlier than one would normally expect a 2016 draft pick.
Essentially, the point to all of this is that we have no clue what will happen. By 2019, the Indians will need at least two of their outfielders to work out and by 2021, they’ll need at least two more. Since there are about 14 realistic options, this could be a safe place to trade from mid-season should they need to add more to the Major League roster. In fact, it’s probably the safest place in the whole minor league system. Especially considering the fact that Calica, Allen and Zimmer are all natural centerfielders who should be able to move to a corner without incident (Luigi Rodriguez, Mejia, Isaacs and Capel are also essentially center fielders). While they may not have a single Lindor caliber player in the group, they’ve got quite a few with the same potential that Chisenhall and Kipnis had back in 2011 and Naquin had last year. There’s no way to tell how it will play out even this year let alone five years in the future, but it should certainly be entertaining no matter what happens.