How Will Tribe Distribute Outfield Playing Time?
Eddie Kerekes | On 05, Jul 2016
Heading into this offseason, everyone knew that the Tribe’s weakness was in the outfield. With Michael Brantley hurt for an unclear amount of time, it was unknown exactly who was going to be patrolling the green grasses of Progressive Field when the season started. The only sure players were recent success story Abraham Almonte in center and newly converted outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall probably in a platoon in right. So the Tribe started signing players.
From November through March, the team acquired seven outfielders and gave each the opportunity to make the club in spring training. It seemed the front office’s strategy was to stock up on low cost options and hope that they had three players who would work out, even if they turned out to be Larry, Curly, and Moe. Among those players was a well regarded veteran in Rajai Davis and also players who had barely been on a big league club like Joey Butler and Shane Robinson. They started giving Jose Ramirez reps in the outfield as well, to try to prepare him for his expected super utility role.
All of these signings happened before another injury, this time to Chisenhall, and a PED suspension, 80 games for Almonte, caused an even bigger headache. Two projected starting outfielders were gone from the mix.
A strong spring from prospect Tyler Naquin earned him an Opening Day roster spot, but the starting outfielders for the Tribe in the first game against the Boston Red Sox were still Marlon Byrd (left), Davis (center), and Collin Cowgill (right). No one would say that they were the greatest three the Tribe has started in the outfield, but they certainly weren’t the worst possible combination.
Now, halfway into the season, a few surprises have both helped and hurt the situation. Ramirez turned out to be a pretty permanent solution in left, so far getting the most playing time of anyone, deservedly so too, as he has seized his chance to play every day by putting up a .296/.352/.423 slash line and collecting 1.4 wins above replacement. Byrd, who had been playing about average so far (98 OPS+), was suspended for 162 games on June 1 for using performance enhancing drugs. This, however, opened up a full-time roster spot for Naquin in center, who had been riding the C-Bus back and forth between Triple-A and Cleveland. In what little playing time he did receive, he justified Terry Francona’s original selection of him for the Opening Day roster, and has continued to produce throughout the year. His .317/.379/.568 slash line is better than any of his minor league seasons. And not to mention, Chisenhall has proved the doubters wrong with a career year out in right. He’s proven to be a reliable bat against right-handers and has a .305/.358/.476 slash line in the first half.
To add on to all of that, Davis has found his step again in center and left. The 35-year-old leads the AL in steals with 22 and has been no slouch with the bat either, hitting a career-high nine home runs while batting a respectable .275. Even Michael Martinez, who started in the outfield nine times and appeared there twelve more before being designated for assignment on July 2, was hitting well.
With Almonte’s return from suspension on July 3, it appears as if the plan to stock pile on outfielders has backfired. There’s a logjam right now that even an experienced lumberjack would hesitate to try and fix. Almonte, Davis, Chisenhall, Naquin, and Ramirez all deserve playing time, but Francona can only pencil in three of them on his lineup card. It’s a good problem to have, one any manager would envy, but still a problem nonetheless.
How will Tito do it? Well, he probably won’t go with a straight platoon. Ramirez and Almonte are switch-hitters, with both showing more power against righties. Chisenhall and Naquin are both lefties which leaves Davis as the only true right-handed bat. Unfortunately, Chisenhall and Ramirez are stuck in right and left respectively, while Naquin and Almonte are primarily center fielders (Naquin has had a look in right this season, while Almonte started there on Monday). Davis somehow has the most flexibility and can play all three spots.
Technically, Ramirez has the most flexibility as he can play at third, short, and second. So one solution would be to use him more and more at third while cutting back Juan Uribe’s (69 OPS+, .226 average) playing time. This would put Davis in left, Almonte or Naquin in center, and Chisenhall in right. Francona can also try to ride the hot bat between Naquin, Almonte, and Davis, or bench the guy whose bat has gone cold. He may have to start doing that sooner rather than later, as there’s no way they can all keep hitting at their current rates. Naquin, with his absurdly high .442 BABIP, is due for a regression in the near future. Almonte has a career slash of .244/.297/.378, so his bat may go cold frequently, too.
This is all said while not considering the fielding aspect of the Tribe’s current crop of outfielders. With two converted infielders and one rookie, catching fly balls has certainly been an adventure at times, with little hope of improving.
Frequently, Naquin has miscommunicated with other outfielders (and sometimes, infielders) and he’s also misplayed other balls. Ramirez, after a rough first month adjusting to the new position, has settled in, but still ranks 19th out of the 30 left fielders with at least 250 innings in defensive runs saved. That’s not to mention the pain of watching Davis, who ranks 46th out of 53 outfielders with at least 500 innings in DRS, man center and left. Though the fielding hasn’t been pretty, there are no better options. And Francona doesn’t want to remove any of their bats from the lineup just yet.
Whatever rotation Francona decides upon, he may have to find a new outfield equilibrium when the calendar flips to August, as the Tribe are still looking to improve by adding even more players. Jay Bruce, who the team is reportedly interested in, or even Brantley, who according to GM Mike Chernoff is the “highest-impact ‘acquisition’ we could make,” will affect the alignment if/when either are added to the team.
Good luck solving that log jam, lumberjack Tito.
Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images