There is a Power Outage in Left Field
By Robert Toth
Despite the two-run home run supplied by Johnny Damon in the Indians’ 8-1 win Wednesday versus the Cincinnati Reds, the veteran left fielder has been slow to provide the offense the team had hoped to acquire after signing the 38-year-old on April 17. Damon has struggled to reach, and then stay above, the Mendoza line, batting just .202 with three home runs and 13 RBI in 129 at bats.
Damon’s defensive exploits have not gone unnoticed either, as he has crashed into walls, taken bad routes to balls, made numerous underwhelming throws, and has been frequently lifted from his starts for defensive replacement Aaron Cunningham. Damon has finished just 13 of the 31 games he has started in left field on the season.
Damon came to town to provide the team with a veteran leader in the clubhouse who could platoon or even supplant 32-year-old Shelley Duncan in left field.Duncan, though, has been equally as underwhelming at the plate in his opportunities to play. Hitting just .195 on the season in 128 at bats,Duncanhas been a disappointment for a team craving a power-hitting, right-handed bat. His four home runs and 12 runs batted in have not nearly been enough, and he is averaging more than twice as many strikeouts as his platoon mate (36 to Damon’s 18).
Cunningham, the youngest of the trio to see frequent action in left this season at 26 years old, is with the team more so for his glove and legs than his bat. Cunningham’s .191 batting average is compiled of 13 hits in limited plate appearances, despite defending left field a total of 37 times on the season.
The numbers say it all – the Indians are not getting the consistent production they need offensively from their left fielders. So how do they fix it?
The first place fans tend to look to is the trade market. It is believed by many that the Indians will again be active in trying to bolster their roster, just as they were in 2011 with the acquisitions of pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. However, the team’s perceived biggest need, a right-handed power hitter, was glaringly absent in their successful trades, and the problem persists still today. With inconsistencies abound in left, an ideal solution would be to find a player who could fill both of these needs.
Some big names may be available, but with a little less than six weeks until the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the market is still far from truly developed. A glance around the league shows a handful of teams (San Diego, Colorado, Chicago Cubs, Houston, Oakland, and Seattle) already well below the .500 mark and trailing their respective division leaders by more than double-digit figures. Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Miami all find themselves one decent losing streak away from falling out of contention as well.
The Cubs and Padres are both already said to be in a rebuilding mode and will be looking to be sellers in the next month, so it is no surprise that the Indians have already been linked to their right-handed hitting left fielders, both who conveniently have more pop than any of the trio the Tribe has run out this season.
In Chicago, Alfonso Soriano’s 13 home runs put him on pace for a 30-homer season, which would make his 11th straight year with 20 or more. His batting average is at its highest since 2008. He has been a leader in the Cubs’ locker room and has extensive playoff experience from his years with the New York Yankees (including two World Series wins). But for a Tribe team who has operated with a notoriously tight wallet in recent years, the expensive contract of Soriano may make him too difficult to obtain.
The 36-year-old makes $18 million this season and in each of the last two years of his contract. The Cubs, who seem open to moving Soriano to begin a youth movement, would have to eat much of the remainder of the eight-year, $136 million dollar contract he signed in 2007, in order for the Tribe to be legitimately in contention to acquire the slugger. Oftentimes, when a team eats as much salary as the Cubs would likely need to, the other team in the trade often has to purge a top prospect in their system, or more, and there is some debate as to whether the Indians have the trade chips that they would be willing and needing to move.
Carlos Quentin is another outfielder who may be on the Indians radar. Quentin is a familiar face to Tribe fans, having played with the Chicago White Sox over the last four seasons before being traded to the San Diego Padres during the off-season. He missed the first 49 games of the 2012 season recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, but has returned with a bang. Through 20 games, he is batting .338, has an on-base percentage of .456, and has hit six doubles and six home runs in 65 official at bats. The two-time American League All-Star does come with his baggage though, as he has spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list over the years, having played no more than 131 games in any season in his career.
With the uncertain nature of the trade market and an undesirable free agent market, do the Indians have a future Jason Kipnis-type prospect in the minor leagues who could provide a mid-season spark for the offensively-deprived left field position?
Matt LaPorta, the key acquisition of the C.C. Sabathia trade, has already been called up and sent back down toColumbusafter failing to make the team as a first baseman or left fielder out of spring training. During his call up, he had two hits in just 11 at bats with the big league club and did not start any of the games in left field. At the Triple-A level for Columbus, he has started 19 of his 53 games in left field. His offensive production looks good on paper – .308 batting average, 15 homers, 35 RBI, but he averages a strikeout once every four times up to the plate, and his offensive numbers have not seemed to translate to major league pitching.
Russ Canzler may be an intriguing option at some point. Purchased from the Tampa Bay Rays on January 31st, Canzler has split time between first base (33 games) and left field (27 games) for the Clippers. He has batted .275 with eight home runs and leads the team with 36 RBI. He has hit double-digit home runs in four of his last six minor league seasons, and last season, was the International League’s MVP after hitting .314 with 18 home runs and 83 runs batted in. He is a right-handed stick who could provide lineup relief for Damon or Casey Kotchman when facing a left-handed pitcher.
Grady Sizemore’s return would also create the addition of a potential bat, but like some of the above-mentioned players, his presence comes with a question of what he could provide the team in the event he could actually remain healthy. He is an unknown commodity at best at this point, given the setbacks in his recovery and the extensive amount of time he has missed each of the last few seasons due to injuries.
The Indians may be waiting to see what Sizemore could bring to the team before making any roster moves, but it may be a mistake to gamble the season on a former star player who cannot seem to stay on the field for any significant length of time. Even when he does, Sizemore is a left-handed centerfielder by trade who is known for his athleticism and the occasional long ball, and better known for his injury history and too many strikeouts from the leadoff position. His return could possibly spark the lineup, but would shift Michael Brantley, who has thrived this season offensively and defensively in center field, to left field. What would remain still is the failure to add a right-handed hitter or power hitter to a club desperately in need of both.
With the offensive struggles and slumps seen throughout the 2012 season, how long can the Indians wait to address the glaring needs for a consistent, every day left fielder and a right-handed hitter with some pop to make the lineup more credible and dangerous against left-handed pitching, without losing ground or even falling out of contention?
The team has endured injuries (Sizemore, Hafner, Santana, Cabrera) and underperformances (Santana, Kotchman, all left fielders). The likes of Kipnis and Brantley cannot be expected to stay both healthy and consistent throughout the season, nor should two young players be expected to carry the full load like that for an entire season.
The 2011 collapse makes the need to acquire a player of this caliber that much more essential. The next five weeks or so will prove quite telling as more teams become sellers and the trade market becomes clearer.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images