The Indians have an interesting decision coming up when they get a pair of their outfielders, Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley, back from the 15-day disabled list.
While the time table on Brantley is still unclear, he reported to Columbus with the Indians in Chicago over the weekend to work out with the club. He likely did not get as much work in as the Indians would have liked because the Triple-A Clippers had each of their first three games cancelled on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday by the bad weather in the area.
The same problem affected Chisenhall, who was the closer of the two set to return. The Tribe’s primary right fielder was set to begin his rehab assignment with the team on Thursday, but those weather issues kept him out of the lineup and unable to get in the action that the Indians wanted to see from their long-time lefty.
Chisenhall needed the additional work after a brutal spring, one in which he hit just .077 (2-for-26) while in Arizona during camp. He struggled with, and was ultimately shut down by, an injury deemed a “left wrist impingement” and also fought right forearm issues throughout February and March. He was placed on the disabled list on April 3, retroactive to March 28, and was eligible to return on April 12.
That time frame no longer appears accurate with the lack of playing time he has been able to get at Huntington Park. He finally got his first action of the 2016 regular season on Sunday when he appeared in game two of the season opening doubleheader for the Clippers against the Indianapolis Indians. He went 0-for-3 while batting cleanup and playing in right field.
It may work out for the best, as even had he returned by that first date of eligibility, his action in the Tribe lineup would have likely been limited. After facing a left-hander in the Home Opener and with three scheduled for the rain-shortened series over the weekend with the White Sox, the Indians are set to face two more left-handers, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, when they start their three-game set at Tropicana Field on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays. Thursday’s starter is former Indians prospect and right-handed pitcher Chris Archer, a formidable foe to make a first start against. Chisenhall is hitless in six career plate appearances against Archer with a pair of strikeouts.
When Chisenhall is ready to return, the Indians have a decision to make.
The team is currently carrying four outfielders on the roster – Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill, Rajai Davis, and Tyler Naquin. Switch-hitting utility man Jose Ramirez has already made three starts in left field this season. Byrd made the other start in left and has a pair in right. Cowgill has played in all four games, but made just two starts (both in right). Davis has started three in center, with Naquin, the rookie left-handed hitter, appearing in three games there but starting just once.
With Ramirez seeing extensive action in the outfield already, it would make it all the more likely that one of the other outfielders is removed from the Tribe’s 25-man roster at that point. The utility man gives the Indians bench plenty of versatility and he is hitting .385 in the small first week sample size.
Given his contract, Davis is going nowhere, even despite a slow .143 start with eight strikeouts in 15 trips to the batter’s box. It is hard to imagine that the Indians would already cut bait with the right-handed hitting Byrd, who has a single, double, and RBI in ten at bats (.200). He may be viewed as still in a spring training mode after his late spring addition to the club. The potential pop that he could add to the club from the right side of the plate makes his presence enticing.
Then it comes down to Cowgill and Naquin.
Cowgill has flexibility, playing all three outfield spots throughout his Major League career. His struggles early on at the plate hurt his cause, as he is hitless in five at bats with three strikeouts. A late surge in Arizona salvaged him a .207 average, but he was the Tribe’s strikeout king of the spring with 17 in 58 at bats. The right-handed hitter owns a .200 career average against right-handed pitching and .267 mark against lefties in an almost even number of plate appearances. He has an option remaining.
Naquin won a spot on the club given his impressive spring numbers, when he hit .397 with three doubles, three triples, four homers, and seven RBI. However, four of the Indians’ first six scheduled opposing starters were southpaws, which landed Naquin onto the bench. He appeared late in the opener, after David Price had exited the game, then made his first and only start in game two against Boston’s right-hander Clay Buchholz. Each of Chicago’s three scheduled starters for this past weekend’s series (John Danks, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana) throw from the left side, which kept him on the bench. He is just 1-for-3 with a single, one run scored, and two strikeouts through his first three games.
Defensively, Naquin lacks the flexibility that Cowgill may provide in the field. The gurus of baseball-reference.com indicate that he has played just one minor league regular season game in right field (in Akron in 2014) and an additional game of work for Surprise in the Arizona Fall League in 2013. The rest of his action professionally has come exclusively in center.
While this may be the best chance that Naquin has in his career to make a mark on the Indians outfield, the lack of playing time and opportunities could give him a quick ticket back to Columbus. Byrd, Davis, and Ramirez can each hold down left field until Brantley returns. Davis can get starts in center with Cowgill as a backup option. Cowgill could also garner time in right behind Byrd, albeit more limited once Chisenhall has returned.
The Indians could go crazy and go with a seven-man bullpen and remove one of the options there, given all of the off days that the club has seen already, but that would seem to be a much less preferred route for the Tribe to take.
We will find out, maybe as soon as later this week, if Chisenhall is ready to make his season debut for the Tribe. It may all be a moot point, as both backup outfielders Cowgill and Naquin could be playing in Columbus when Brantley rejoins the club.
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