The Cleveland Indians are no strangers to September injuries to key pieces of their roster.
Just last season alone, the Indians lost Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber to various ailments in the final month of the regular season schedule. While Kluber would return and put the team on his back for the postseason, Carrasco was lost for the duration while Salazar made a brief cameo in the World Series, but only in the capacity of a reliever when the team was in dire need of a starter to ease the workload on the remaining healthy members of the rotation.
Those injuries attacked an area that the Indians lacked good quality depth. The same cannot be said for the disappointing news that came out of the Tribe’s 18th straight win on Sunday night, when Bradley Zimmer was stepped on during a head first dive into first base.
Zimmer hit a roller to Baltimore’s Chris Davis in the seventh inning of Sunday’s win. The first baseman fielded and, likely under the assumption he would not outrace the speedster Zimmer to the bag, ran towards the Tribe rookie to try to tag him out. To both avoid a potentially dangerous collision with the 6’3”, 230 lb. Davis and in a means to avoid being tagged out, Zimmer swung a bit wide in the baseline and dove towards first. As his left hand reached towards the bag, Davis’ left glove was heading towards Zimmer’s shoulder for the tag and Davis’ left foot landed on the outfielder’s left hand.
The play initially appeared to be a repeated head injury for Zimmer, who had just returned to the lineup after missing several games with concussion-like concerns. The far more costly outcome occurred, however, as Zimmer’s fourth metacarpal in his left (fielding) hand was broken.
Monday afternoon, Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan tweeted that Zimmer was done for the year. Rumor of a possible surgery to address the break also spread late in the evening. Indians manager Terry Francona was not willing to discuss the matter publicly prior to Monday night’s win over the Detroit Tigers, but the team announced at the end of the night that Zimmer was to undergo surgery on the fractured hand on Tuesday morning with noted hand and finger specialist, Dr. Thomas Graham, who worked previously last season with Trevor Bauer in October after his drone accident and with Roberto Perez after he broke his thumb in April.
Of course, there are those who will say that Zimmer’s injury was avoidable, that his dive was a foolhardy move, one unnecessary with the American League Central Division all but secured. The results of that one play would have a far more detrimental effect on the Indians moving forward than whatever gains could have been acquired by Zimmer reaching safely at first in that one contest with the Orioles.
Looking back at the play, Zimmer may have avoided a far worse injury. A collision with Davis not only could have resulted in another traumatic head injury, but could have had both players sprawling violently towards the Progressive Field turf, where arm and shoulder injuries could have been sustained while both bodies attempted to brace for their meetings with the earth below.
To be clear, I’m not against head first slides. There is risk any time a player attempts to stop his body from a full sprint. Yes, every head first slide into first base hearkens back to Kenny Lofton separating his shoulder sliding over the first base bag in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in the 1999 playoffs against the Boston Red Sox. Every single slide brings the image to mind. But I’m not against them, if it is the best baseball play to make. There are a handful of circumstances that this would apply to, and Zimmer’s slide may very well have fit into that collection.
Sometimes, Zimmer may look like an uncoordinated baby giraffe with his lanky body sprinting and diving and sliding all around the playing surface, but there is no denying his speed and his athletic gifts that are spread across his 6’5″ frame. His all-out hustle is an asset to his game, and there is a lot of risk in advising a player to remove the aggressiveness from his style of play. It creates doubt, indecision, and ultimately, an increased likelihood for mistakes both on the bases and in the field.
“I know you hear so often, ‘Don’t slide head-first into first.’ You hear it all the time. I disagree,” shared Francona prior to the Indians’ win Monday. “As a base runner, when you’re running that way and the fielder’s coming this way, or the pitcher is coming this way, sometimes the best way to get to the bag is by sliding.
“Yeah, he got stepped on, but you could just as easily blow out an ankle or a knee. I mean, that guy hit his hand. It would have hit his foot. It’s hard for a runner when you have somebody else coming. You’re really vulnerable. Sometimes I actually think going head first is safer. This didn’t work, but he could have just as easily blew his knee out. So, I kind of disagree when people say just don’t do it.”
Francona’s opinion is not a new one for the veteran skipper, who shared a similar sentiment back in April of 2013 when another center fielder, the pricey and recently acquired free agent Michael Bourn, was stepped on by left-hander Matt Thornton after diving head first into first. Bourn’s injury required five stitches to close a cut on his right index finger.
“No, I think you play the game,” Francona was quoted in The Plain Dealer on April 14, 2013. “I knew that [question] was going to get asked. Guys are competing. You don’t want to see anybody get hurt, but he’s doing his best to get to first. If you tell a guy not to slide into first, why wouldn’t you tell him not to slide into second? Nobody ever asks why guys slide into second head first.
“Sometimes, when you’re trying to beat a pitcher, that’s your best way to get to the bag.”
Moving forward, Zimmer’s shoes, glove, and arm are going to be difficult to replace. No one player on the roster with playoff eligibility has the skill set that made Zimmer a top prospect and such an exciting player to watch roam the outfield for parts of five months this season. But Francona and his staff were already staring down an incredibly difficult decision in regards to postseason lineup construction, due in part to the plethora of outfield-capable pieces on the roster.
Jay Bruce, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Austin Jackson would seemingly be locks.
Bruce’s bat was just the additional lineup support that the team needed to protect Edwin Encarnacion and he has been a valuable insurance policy in the event that Michael Brantley cannot make his way back. Chisenhall has three-spot versatility and has been a threat offensively all year long. His arm may be best suited for the outfield corners and he has shown to be athletic enough to make a smooth transition to the outfield while willing to play wherever Francona sees fit. Jackson has, when healthy, been one of the more consistent bats in the Tribe’s lineup (71 games played, .306/.371/.489 with 15 doubles, three triples, seven homers, and 31 RBI).
If Brantley comes back and is able to stay back, one would feel pretty good about the looks of that four-man mix. He was hitting .299 at the time of his injury and had just hit the century mark in hits on the year through 88 games, but he has not suited up since August 8 and does not sound as if he is close to returning. It would likely force Jackson into a lot of work in center (something he is more than capable of doing), but Chisenhall is not unable to spell him there from time to time or from matchup to matchup.
Each of the next wave of outfielders on the roster brings something unique to the table, but none are quite Zimmer-like.
Brandon Guyer has had a tough year. An injury in the spring and another during the season has left him relegated to 67 games, hitting .236 with a .328 on-base percentage in the process. Ten of his 38 hits have been for extra bases, but he has not found his way on the bases via hit by pitch nearly as much, having been plunked just eight times this season in his limited action. One of his biggest strengths last season (and throughout his career) – hitting against left-handed pitching – has been minimized this season as in 107 at bats, he has hit .252 with a .333 OBP. Guyer can play all three outfield spots, but he has worked solely in the corners in his year-plus in Cleveland.
Abraham Almonte, like Guyer, has missed two stretches injured (right biceps strain; left hamstring strain) and spent some time in Triple-A Columbus with a crowded roster in Cleveland preventing an earlier reunion with his teammates. He has appeared in 60 games, slashing .228/.315/.367 with seven doubles, three triples, three homers, and 13 RBI. His numbers are far down from last season, but he does bring a bit of speed and the ability to switch-hit and he can play all three outfield spots with more ease than Guyer. The 28-year-old hit .264 last season with a career-high 20 doubles.
Greg Allen becomes an intriguing candidate to consider because of his strengths on the defensive side of the game and on the base paths. While he has yet to log two full weeks on the Major League roster, he has been active on the offensive side of things with five hits in 20 at bats (.250). He has doubled, hit a homer, and driven in five. He hit .264 with a .344 OBP at Double-A Akron before his surprise September call-up, hitting 16 doubles, a triple, and two homers while driving in 24 and adding 21 bases stolen in 23 attempts. He brings plenty of speed to the club, something it could benefit greatly from in a potential bench option, with 145 career stolen bases in four minor league seasons. The switch-hitting 24-year-old has played just center and right in his professional career.
Tyler Naquin has had a tough go at the Major League level and was optioned out early in the season, but did perform well at Columbus (.298/.359/.475 with 14 doubles, four triples, ten homers, and 51 RBI) when not limited by a back injury. He did not return to the Indians until September 5, but he has gone 2-for-3 with a double, a walk, and his first RBI of the year since rejoining the Indians. He was not expected to get much, if any, playing time in the lineup and was instead to work with the coaching staff on his game, but the Zimmer injury may have given Naquin’s season another glimmer of hope. Like Allen, he has worked in center and right field in the minors and has done the same for Cleveland.
Erik Gonzalez, who already is at risk of seeing a postseason spot pinched by the emergence of both Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz at third base, has logged just seven innings in the outfield this season while serving primarily as a utility guy on the roster. He also saw 23 innings in right field in Columbus before being called back up to the Indians roster. He is 6-for-15 in September with a pair of homers and five RBI and is hitting .277 on the year.
Jason Kipnis becomes an intriguing option to jump into the mix in the outfield, specifically in center. He played his college ball in the outfield and worked there briefly for the Indians organization in his first year of pro ball in 2009 with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (142 innings in left, 62 innings in center), but that a long time ago now. A crowded picture in the infield, one that Francona does not want to tinker too much with, has left Kipnis’ job at second base manned out to All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez, with Diaz and Urshela filling in admirably at third in the meantime.
There is a fair chance that such a gamble will not pay off with a look at Kipnis in the outfield grass. His right shoulder shelved him to start the season and twice he has dealt with right hamstring strains, not an exactly ideal circumstance for an outfielder in a prime coverage position. But, Kipnis has flashed plenty of offense throughout his career and he was a big piece of the Tribe’s postseason run last season, putting up particularly good numbers in the ALDS and the World Series. The two-time All-Star second sacker has had a notably bad year, one derailed by injuries around every corner dating back to spring training. He has hit .228 this season with a .285 on-base percentage, 22 doubles, 11 homers, and 30 RBI.
None of the depth pieces can bring to the table what Zimmer has provided in his debut season, but he is not irreplaceable from an offensive standpoint. The rookie had appeared in 101 games since joining the club in May, slashing .241/.307/.385 in the process. He had contributed 15 doubles, two triples, and eight home runs while driving in 39, but he had struck out in 29.8% of his plate appearances on the season (including 38% of his trips in August and 36.4% in September). He had struggled to find a consistent happy home on the lineup card and was coming off of his worst month of the regular season schedule after hitting .141 with a .215 OBP and a .155 slugging mark in 27 games in August. He was hitting just .150 in September before his injury.
A player who can change a game with his legs, Zimmer was having a hard time making his way onto the bases in order to make an impact there. Some of the other candidates for postseason play in the outfield may be able to find their way on with a little more ease, allowing the other big bats in the lineup to do their parts to move the runners around and ultimately across home plate. There is no denying that attempting to replace his 18 stolen bases in 19 tries is difficult, borderline impossible with what is available. Defensively, the same could be said as he had not committed an error in 697 2/3 innings and 176 total chances while covering more ground than the traditional ball player and making his fair share of improbable catches.
It will be a tough task for Francona, but unlike last season’s injury issues, this one does have a list of qualified, versatile, and overall generally experienced candidates from which to choose.
Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images