Since before the 2016 season, the Cleveland Indians’ outfield has been comparable to the Island of Misfits.
The only established MLB outfielder on Cleveland’s roster in the past calendar year has been Michael Brantley, who has been sidelined for all but 11 games since late 2015 with a shoulder injury. Instead, the Tribe navigated 2016 with rookies (Tyler Naquin), platoon-players (Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer), and veterans far past their prime (Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, Marlon Byrd). All in all, the team played nine outfielders with 50 or more plate appearances in 2016.
On the surface, it seems that despite the hodge-podge of players roaming the outfield for Cleveland, the team made it work. For one, the Indians won the AL Central, the American League, and were two runs away from winning the World Series. A quick look at Fangraphs also reveals that the Tribe’s outfielders actually finished fourth in baseball in Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Unfortunately for Cleveland, a more in-depth look reveals that Cleveland has as much uncertainty in their outfield as ever. As good as the final numbers were for 2016, it is hard to have much confidence in the outfield entering 2017.
Many of the positive numbers for Cleveland outfielders in 2016 were carried by Jose Ramirez, who played 48 games as the Tribe’s left fielder. He was by far the Indians’ best “outfielder,” registering 4.8 WAR – almost double Tyler Naquin’s’ 2.5 WAR, which was second best on the team. Unfortunately, Ramirez will play no part in stabilizing Cleveland’s outfield going forward, as he has carved out a role as the team’s third baseman.
The second and third best Tribe outfielders in 2016 – Naquin and Davis – probably can’t be counted on going forward either. Both players finished with season with solid numbers, but were carried by non-sustainable first halves.
Through August 20, Naquin was slashing a stellar .305/.367/.549, fueled by a .399 BABIP. Eventually, teams realized Naquin’s extreme weakness against high fastballs, and the rookie only managed to slash .235/.338/.283 in his final 42 games of 2016, including the playoffs. Perhaps even more concerning was Naquin’s inability to make contact, striking out in 30.6% of plate appearances for the season.
Though Naquin was a great player in 2016 with 2.5 WAR in just 116 games, the projection systems peg Naquin to drop off significantly in 2017: Steamer projects Naquin at 1.5 WAR in 146 games and Depth Charts has him at 1.7 WAR in 150 games. As such, it might be a bad idea for the Indians to pencil Naquin in as an every day player for next season, especially not in center field, where he was among the worst players in the league defensively, registering -18 defensive runs saved.
Likewise, re-signing the 36 year-old Davis and hoping for solid production in 2017 seems like a mistake. As Joe Coblitz pointed out in a recent article, Davis’ age appeared to catch up to his bat halfway through 2016, as he slashed just .214/.267/.302 after July 5, despite hitting .275/.333/.450 in his first 74 games of 2016. Like Naquin, neither Steamer (0.4 WAR in 148 games) or Depth Charts (0.3 WAR in 133 games) are optimistic on Davis in 2017.
So, although the Indians had the fourth best outfield by WAR in 2016, their three biggest contributors to that statistic won’t have the same (or any) impact in 2017. Instead, the closest thing Cleveland has to a sure-thing in their outfield in 2017 will be the platoon of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer. Chisenhall is unspectacular, but can offer a roughly league-average bat against right-handed pitching (career 102 wRC+) along with solid defense (career 7.1 UZR/150 in RF). Meanwhile, Guyer provides a big bat vs. southpaws (career 144 wRC+), while also providing good defense (career 5.3 UZR/150 in OF). Between Chisenhall and Guyer, the Indians will not have to worry about who is playing right field in 2017.
Of course, the same can’t be said for center and left field. With Davis and Naquin both probably out of the picture (at least for every day roles), the situation is murky. Michael Brantley, the Indians best player and left fielder in 2014 and 2015, is scheduled to enter spring training healthy, but coming off two surgeries, is he ready to resume playing the majority of the innings in left field? Perhaps he is, but the safe move would be to play Brantley at DH, especially early in the season.
The team is also likely to deploy Abraham Almonte in the outfield next season, but it is uncertain to what degree. His 80 wRC+ in 67 games last season didn’t indicate he was ready for full-time duty on a contending team. Almonte’s outfield defense is above-average (9.7 career UZR/150), but much like Naquin and Davis, at this point, he still seems more like a 4th outfielder.
The Indians also have a couple of internal options in Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer, and Greg Allen. Out of the three, Diaz is probably the most MLB-ready. Considering the 149 wRC+ Diaz put up against AAA pitching in 95 games last year, his approach (11.3 BB%, 16.8 K%), and ability to play multiple positions (LF, RF, 3B, 2B), Diaz would seem to deserve a shot of making the opening day roster in 2017. Zimmer and Allen are options to play center field (Diaz cannot) but both are not quite MLB-ready yet. However, both could potentially reach Cleveland by the middle of the season.
Still, assuming the Indians don’t want to rely on Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, or Rajai Davis to man center field every day in 2017, they would need to find an external option. This early in the offseason, the possibilities seems endless. The team could target Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gomez, or (most likely) Jon Jay in free agency, and also could pursue trade candidates like Andrew McCutchen, Ender Inciarte, Yasiel Puig, AJ Pollock…or just about anyone else.
It remains unclear exactly what route the Indians will take to sure up their outfield for 2017. If the team wants to get back to the World Series, it probably shouldn’t rely on Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, or Rajai Davis to play every day. Ultimately, the team’s course of action probably depends on their confidence in Michael Brantley. If they expect him to be close to his normal self, any major trades or free agency signings become unlikely. However, if they want him to be handled with care and eased back into action, the Indians may be forced to acquire another legitimate starting MLB outfielder.