Venable Vying for a Big League Job in Center in Cleveland Camp

He might have been a rather late addition to the Cleveland Indians roster this offseason, but Will Venable still has a solid chance of breaking camp as a plug for the Tribe’s hole in center field.

The eight-year MLB veteran comes from a bit of a baseball pedigree, as his father Max Venable spent a dozen seasons in the Majors from 1979 to 1991, roaming the outfield for the San Francisco Giants, Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, and California Angels.

The Indians’ Venable is a 33-year-old career outfielder, with eight seasons of work in center at the Major League level, but has done the bulk of his lifting in the right field corner. Center has been statistically his best spot, which is where his signing with the Indians during the first full week of spring camp on a minor league deal made some sense.

It appeared as though Abraham Almonte was going to see the lion’s share of the workload in center this season until his 80-game PED suspension derailed the Tribe’s plans and forced them to quickly look at alternatives. Rajai Davis, one of the bigger additions by the Indians in the offseason, can play some center, but is expected to help fill the vacancy in left field until Michael Brantley returns, which is looking to be a shorter absence than feared with each passing day.

Tyler Naquin has impressed at the plate and in the field so far this spring, but there has been concern about whether or not his bat will play at the big league level. He hit .348 to start the 2015 season at Double-A Akron, but just .263 in his stint with Triple-A Columbus. Through seven spring games, he has hit .467.

Venable has had a few strong seasons to his credit, but several others than have not inspired. He had spent his entire career in the San Diego Padres organization, beginning with his selection by the club in the seventh round of the 2005 draft out of Princeton University, until late last season when the team dealt him to the Texas Rangers to bolster their outfield for their postseason push.

A left-handed hitter, he has been an average hitter at best, owning a .251 lifetime average at the plate with a .317 on-base percentage. He batted .268 and hit 22 homers while driving in 53, all career highs, in a breakout season in 2013, but came back to earth the following season with a .224 mark at the plate with eight homers and 33 RBI.

The Indians could see him as more of a platoon option, given his career numbers thus far. He owns a .256 average with a .324 on-base percentage against right-handed pitching, while he has hit .222 with a .280 OBP against southpaws. The right-handed hitting Davis, whom Venable could split time with if he were to make the club, has a .296 lifetime average against left-handers, but hit just .245 against them a season ago. He has hit .255 against righties in his career, including .267 last year.

Venable has flashed some proficiency on the base paths throughout his career, stealing 29 bases in 2010, but has tailed off some in the last several seasons. He has been a cautious base stealer, or at least a rarely caught one, as he was 16-for-17 on the bases in 2015 and has been caught no more than seven times in any one season. His stolen base percentage last season ranked tops in the Majors.

He made just one error over the course of last season and was spotless in the field in 2014. He owns a .995 career fielding percentage in center with just three errors at the position in 631 chances. He has a .984 mark in right field over seven seasons of work and a .982 mark in left in six seasons of play there. His range factor per nine innings is right around league average at all three positions.

Venable has been healthy enough to maintain a regular role in the field for the Padres and briefly the Rangers throughout his career. He has logged at least 121 games of work in each of the last six seasons.

He had a unique tie to the Indians organization long before he landed a contract with the club. During his playing days at Princeton, his teammate was Mike Chernoff, now Indians general manager. Venable was with the squad from 2002 to 2005, while Chernoff played up the middle for the school from 2000 to 2003.

His bat would be one of his biggest concerns, but he brings in the most experience at the center field position of any of the men in camp, outside of the 35-year-old Davis. The Indians have long shown a tendency to not bring rookies with them out of spring and Naquin is exactly that. He could, however, force their hand some by continuing his hot start to his spring, but even manager Terry Francona was quick to say on Tuesday, “I don’t think you make a club the first week of camp, but I don’t want to take away what [Naquin’s] done, either. The first week, he’s been very impressive, and that’s good.”

With several weeks of play left, Venable could earn himself a look with the Indians. His strong defensive play, his ability to play a solid center field, and plenty of veteran experience all go far to aid in his cause. He will need to show that he can be a consistent contributor and can add something on the offensive side of the game to give him a leg up on the rest of his camp competitors.

Photo: Dave Reginek/Getty Images

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