There are some intriguing battles going on this spring for the Indians as they look to find their 25-man roster heading into the regular season. While recent history has shown that the team hasn’t always brought forth the best 25 men for the job when camp breaks, the team does have some decisions to make before April 4th arrives.
Over the next six weeks, the team needs to find arms for the bullpen and to determine its final member of the starting rotation. While both areas are important moving forward, the outfield mix may be the biggest immediate area of concern for the Tribe and has been, based on the number of offseason moves made to try to strengthen the depth at the position once it was determined that Michael Brantley’s season would be delayed.
It may still be a point of emphasis if there is any validity to the rumors that the club remains interested in free agent Austin Jackson.
While the Tribe’s All-Star left fielder and former American League Most Valuable Player candidate appears to be progressing nicely from his offseason right shoulder surgery, the club will undoubtedly proceed slowly and cautiously with Brantley being such an integral part of the offense and the team’s potential for success. Rushing him back and losing him for an extended period of time once the season is underway would only hurt the Indians further.
Looking beyond Brantley, the rest of the outfield is filled with questions, even though the position battles are seemingly clear.
Abraham Almonte is expected to be the club’s center fielder, especially during the times that Brantley is on the shelf. The problem with Almonte, however, is that he has never had prolonged success at the Major League level. He showed his greatest potential in his return to the AL with the Tribe over the last two months of the season after being acquired from San Diego in the Marc Rzepczynski trade, showing surprising pop (five homers and nine doubles) and speed (five triples and a perfect 6-for-6 stealing bases).
The 26-year-old switch-hitter logged the most MLB action of his young career in 2015, slashing a combined .250/.310/.409 in 82 games between the Padres and Indians organizations. He followed a mediocre .204/.271/.259 mark on the west coast with a .264/.321/.455 line in Cleveland with regular playing time when thrust into the middle of the outfield after the exit of Michael Bourn to Atlanta. He had been lost in the Padres’ outfield shuffle with the busy offseason the club had following the 2014 season and was used sparingly with the Major League club.
But while Almonte impressed in Cleveland, it also marked his fourth organization in two and a half years. He had been with the New York Yankees after signing as an amateur free agent in 2005 before he was traded to Seattle in February of 2013. The Mariners shipped him to the Padres at the deadline in 2014, prior to his deadline deal to Cleveland last summer.
Indians fans are much more familiar with the conundrum that has been Lonnie Chisenhall. He has shown flashes of being a dangerous hitter at the plate, but inconsistencies there and in the field have hurt his ability to stick at the MLB level. Now 27, he will enter his sixth season at the big league level in 2016 and looks to be the club’s regular right fielder.
Chisenhall’s slow start at the plate again in 2015 earned him his fourth stint at Triple-A in the last five seasons. It followed a strong 2014 season overall that was decimated by a second half collapse, as he slashed .332/.396/.519 before the break and .218/.277/.315 afterwards. When he returned from Columbus at the end of July at a new position for the first time in his career, he may have saved his spot on the roster by hitting .288 with nine doubles, three homers, and 25 RBI in his final 54 games. He was also surprisingly effective in his new role, finishing the year with a .989 fielding percentage in right (after a .963 mark to start the year at third) while performing better than league average per nine innings in range factor.
But like with Almonte, Chisenhall’s ability to handle the bulk of the playing time while showing some semblance of consistency at the position long term is one giant question mark.
Free agent acquisition and right-handed hitter Rajai Davis (one-year, $5.25 million) can provide the club with some flexibility with his ability to play all three outfield spots and, at 35, brings ten years of MLB experience with him as one of the elder statesmen on the roster. He should be able to help the Indians bridge the gap until Brantley returns, but his productivity had dropped some in his final season with the Detroit Tigers last year. After six straight seasons of 30 stolen bases or more, he stole 18 in 26 opportunities in 2015. He was on the field for just 112 games last season.
In his second season in spacious Comerica Park, he did nearly double his previous single-season career-high in triples by racing out eleven and matched his eight homers of 2012 and 2014. He could benefit the Indians at the bottom of the order to set the table for the more lethal hitters at the top of the lineup, but if he is forced into the top of the order as a result of the Brantley-related lineup shuffle, the career .269 hitter with a .316 on-base percentage may take at bats away from others on the roster who could better benefit the team with extra AB’s in a temporary spot atop the lineup card.
While those three are no locks for significant contributions to the Indians lineup, the options behind them provide even less reassurance.
Collin Cowgill was acquired in a cash swap with the Los Angeles Angels, who were not planning to tender him a contract after an injury-shortened 55-game season in 2015. He hit just .188 on the year, but missed more than three months recovering from a right wrist sprain.
Like Almonte, Cowgill is heavily travelled, with Cleveland becoming his fifth stop in the last four-plus years. He was traded by Arizona to the New York Mets in December of 2011 and then traded to Oakland a year later. After his trade by the Mets to the Angels, he had spent two and a half years with the club. He played all three outfield spots for the Halos, but spent more time in the corners and as a right-handed bat, could come to platoon with Chisenhall in right. Defensively, he is sound, but he boasts just a .236 career batting average at the MLB level.
Then there is Joey Butler, who was similarly picked up from the Tampa Bay Rays when he was designated for assignment ahead of the Rule 5 draft. A late bloomer, the soon-to-be 30-year-old right-handed hitter has spent parts of the last three seasons in the Majors with Texas, St. Louis, and last year with the Rays with minimal success. His 2015 was his first regular exposure, with 88 games of action after just 14 combined over his first two trips to the show. He hit .276 with 12 doubles, eight homers, and 30 RBI, but averaged nearly a strikeout per game. He may even show some similarity to another player acquired by the Tribe after a season in Tampa – Jerry Sands, who like Butler was a corner outfielder and designated hitter by trade.
The Indians also added Shane Robinson and Robbie Grossman on minor league contracts with invites to Goodyear in the offseason. The 31-year-old Robinson has six years of MLB experience to his credit via stops in St. Louis and Minnesota. He hit .250 last season with the Twins in 83 games, working at all three outfield spots (and one inning of relief against the Indians with a walk and a strikeout) with seven doubles, three triples, and 16 RBI to his credit. Grossman saw 103 games of action in his second season with the Astros in 2014, striking out 105 times in 103 games while hitting six homers and 37 RBI and batting .233, but appeared in just 24 games in 2015, hitting .143. The 26-year-old switch-hitter is another corner outfielder.
Internally, the depth candidates who spent time at Columbus last year leave little to be excited over. Michael Choice, 26, was a late season purchase from the Texas Rangers who hit .204 for the Clippers, but was named the MVP of the Governors’ Cup for his International League postseason play. He has been a corner outfielder almost exclusively the last two seasons and has made trips to the MLB rosters of Oakland in 2013 and Texas in each of the last two years. Michael Martinez played well for the Clippers and in a short stint with the Indians last season, but is now 32 and has only spent half of his pro career in the outfield, working more as a super utility guy. Prospect James Ramsey stalled out in his first full season in Columbus, hitting .243 with 128 strikeouts in 126 games. The left-handed hitter played all three spots in the outfield, but turned 26 in the offseason and failed to build on a better 2014 season.
Further off on the horizon, but unknown by how much in the grand scheme of things, are top prospects Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin, and Clint Frazier, all of whom presumably are non-factors in the early going. Naquin would seem to be the closest after time with Columbus last season, while Zimmer and Frazier topped out at Akron.
The long term outlook of the Indians outfield may be more sound with the potential of the prospects, but there should be concern in the short term when looking at the 2016 season. The Indians will not be able to replace the production lost while Brantley is out, but will hope to at least curtail the damage some with the replacement parts. What may be much more worrisome is the group’s ability to produce enough offensively to stay close in the AL Central while he is out of the lineup, as well as over the course of an entire season.
It isn’t to say that the group can’t play or won’t play well, but more so is a reflection on the lack of sustained success that the collection of outfield options has had at the top level. The Indians’ ability to get something from their outfield will be a key in how the season plays out.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images