Questions in the Indians’ Outfield

Michael Brantley is supposed to be ready in the first two months of the season, but his timetable is not at all set. His replacements include a mix of veterans and inconsistent younger players who can’t play defense. A top prospect waits unready in the minors, while a converted infielder with basically zero Major League experience is hoping that he gets his first full taste of the Majors in the outfield.

Does this situation sound familiar? It’s the exact same one the Tribe was facing a year ago at this time. There are just as many questions as there are possible candidates for playing time. There’s hit-by-pitch machine Brandon Guyer, righty-killer Lonnie Chisenhall, Rookie of the Year finalist Tyler Naquin, switch-hitter Abraham Almonte, utility guy Michael Martinez, prospects Bradley Zimmer and Yandy Diaz, and, of course, Brantley. Each player has his own question marks, but the Tribe will carry at least three of them on the roster next season.

Let’s start with Chisenhall. The Tribe’s main right fielder had a pretty good season slashing .286/.328/.439 with eight home runs in 126 games. According to wRC+, he was 3% better than the average AL hitter, his second highest mark in a full season. Entering just his second year of arbitration, the 28-year-old outfielder is under team control through 2018.

Chisenhall’s questions stem from his platoon splits. Swinging the bat from the left side of the plate, Chisenhall saw southpaws in just 12% of his plate appearances (56 of 418). Like he did with a few other outfielders, Terry Francona put Chisenhall in spots in which he knew he would succeed. Will this change in 2017? Probably not, which leaves him as a platoon right fielder.

Guyer presents the opposite problem. After being acquired at the non-waiver deadline, the Hit by Pitch King put up a .333/.438/.469 slash line in 38 games. Of course, he was also awarded first base eight times after getting plunked. He plays mostly in the other corner (80% of his starts were in left) and bats primarily versus lefties (72% of the time with the Tribe). Most of his success in Cleveland can be attributed to his usage as a platoon player. When he played every day in Tampa Bay in the first part of the year, he slashed .241/.347/.406, significantly worse than his stint in Cleveland. So, Guyer is the Tribe’s platoon left fielder.

The left-handed Naquin could serve as the Tribe’s other half in left. Though he played center field for most of the year (97% of his innings), it was not pretty. Among AL players with at least 700 innings in center, Naquin ranked dead last in defensive runs saved (-17) and third-last in UZR/150 (-9.4). He only committed one error, but most fielding mistakes aren’t counted as errors (need I remind you of the first inning of World Series Game 6?). Hopefully, the Indians can push him to a corner.

Naquin’s bat is potent enough to be given regular playing time (35% better than league average last season), but he struggles against lefties. The league also seemed to figure him out in the last two months. He didn’t club a home run after August 18 and hit just .234/.331/.331 after August 1. He needs to make adjustments in the offseason to avoid a sophomore slump.

The Tribe’s problem, of course, is that they can’t push Naquin to the corners without a solid center fielder. They also can’t move him to left if Brantley is fully recovered, but no one knows when that will be.

The only players who could fill the hole in center are Martinez and Almonte. However, Almonte only played ten innings there in 2016 after playing more than 400 in the spot the year before. Martinez is needed more as a utility player, subbing in the infield when the regulars need a day off, and also serving as a valuable pinch-runner. In addition, both players are below average (at best) at the plate.

Within the organization, the Tribe has two outfielders who could possibly contribute in Zimmer and Diaz. Zimmer has played regular center throughout his minor league career, but Diaz has logged just two professional innings at the spot. Both could be called upon in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

Diaz just switched to outfield from third base this past season, just like Jose Ramirez. After starting the season at Akron, he was called up to Columbus and did not stop hitting. At the Triple-A level, he put up a .325/.399/.461 slash line, missing the International League batting title by two points but leading the league in OBP. Zimmer, the top prospect in the farm system, spent just 37 games in the state capital. The strikeout problems that plagued him in Akron continued to do so in Columbus. Until he solves those, he probably won’t be seeing any time in Cleveland.

Outfield, particularly center field, is an obvious need for the Tribe to target in the off-season. Expect the front office to pursue the same options that they did a year ago, signing a few cheap veterans and hoping one sticks. Perhaps that includes re-signing Rajai Davis, perhaps not. The almost-hero of Game 7 would help to alleviate many fans’ concerns. Just don’t expect Carlos Santana to be trotting back out to left field anytime soon.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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