The Indians completed one of the offseason priorities this past week. With the signing of Yonder Alonso, Cleveland figured out who would replace departed free agent Carlos Santana at first base. Alonso may be a slight downgrade to the player who called Cleveland home for the last eight years, but he and his 28 home runs from a season ago will be a good addition to the Tribe’s batting order.
With that box checked on the Indians’ winter to-do list, there are still a couple more. The biggest area of concern may very well be sorting out the outfield, which is going to take some doing and could take a good deal of time this winter and on into the spring.
The Tribe has seven big league-caliber outfielders, all of whom are capable Major League baseball players. That does not even consider Jason Kipnis, who could be moved more regularly from second base to the outfield, nor does it consider free agent Jay Bruce whom the Indians could still ink to a contract before spring training rolls around.
Two of those outfielders were highly considered as first base candidates before Alonso joined the Tribe. Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall were both regarded as in-house replacements, had the Indians decided not to add a first baseman from the free agent market. Now they are both back firmly in the jumbled outfield mix.
Brantley, when healthy, is an All-Star and MVP-caliber player. He rebounded from a 2016 season that was lost to a shoulder injury to be an All-Star this past summer. After the break, however, he had ankle issues that wiped out most of his August and September and made him a shell of himself in the five-game ALDS.
Brantley had ankle surgery after the Indians’ exit from the playoffs and is expected back by Opening Day. Given a return to health, and that the Tribe has its first baseman in tow, the outfield begins and ends with Brantley. He is a lock to play every day on the outfield grass and may be the lone regular outfielder in that category.
Chisenhall may be Cleveland’s second best outfield option. Like Brantley, he struggled through injuries much of last season. When healthy, the Chiz Kid has shown he can be a near-.300 hitter with decent pop. His issue is staying healthy and hitting lefties. The left-handed-hitting Chisenhall fares much better against righties and is better served in a platoon role.
In August of 2016, the Indians seemingly traded for the best possible right field platoon partner in Brandon Guyer. Guyer, a right-handed hitter who is better against southpaws, formed a formidable right field combination for the stretch run of that 2016 campaign and into the playoffs. You may be sensing a theme here, but Guyer’s 2017 season was also riddled with injuries. He missed a lot of the second half.
This past year’s rookies Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen could well have a place in the Tribe outfield in 2018. Zimmer spent a lot of time with Indians this past season until, you guessed it, an injury, in this case a broken hand, caused him to miss much of September and to be declared out for the postseason. Zimmer flashed good speed and a great glove, but has work to do to be a good Major League hitter. He was not a disaster at the plate in 2017, but he may need to do more work to get his bat more into big league shape.
Allen was not supposed to be on the MLB roster this past year, but the injury bug put him there. His defense and speed landed him a spot on Terry Francona‘s postseason roster. Allen is almost definitely ticketed for Triple-A Columbus. He played in just five games with the Tribe, jumping from Double-A Akron to Cleveland when rosters expanded in August. He was only on the postseason roster because Zimmer and Guyer were out, Brantley and Chisenhall were rebounding from injuries, and Abraham Almonte and Tyler Naquin had fallen out of favor with the Indians.
Almonte and Naquin round out the seven players on the Tribe roster with ample outfield experience who have played on the big league roster. Naquin was third in the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year voting. However, he did much of his good work in the first half of that season before a horrible second half slump. He could not get his bat going in April this past year and was in the minors and also spent time on the disabled list.
Almonte has been an okay hitter, decent defender, and has a fair amount of speed. When everyone is healthy for the Indians, Almonte probably is an odd man out.
Among the seven Tribe outfielders, Brantley, Zimmer, and Chisenhall probably make up the best possible trio, in terms of hitting and defense. It also leaves something to be desired. While Zimmer and Chisenhall are nice players, they are not necessarily guys who are going to make a big difference on a ball club with designs on a third straight division championship and hopes to finally bring a World Series title to Cleveland for the first time since 1948.
That is where the waters get really muddy. If the Indians are going to upgrade the roster, as they should, it would probably be in the outfield. Zimmer, who could be really good in a couple years, and Chisenhall would be excellent options as role players coming off the bench as the Tribe’s fourth and fifth outfield options, with Chisenhall serving in a utility role as a part-time first baseman.
Enter Kipnis. Much like many of the other players mentioned above, Kipnis had a down 2017 season due largely to injuries. In August and September, when the team was really starting to gel, Kipnis was out and his second base job was taken by Jose Ramirez. Ramirez, who has also proven to be a very good third baseman, seemed to take a shine to second base. He is better defensively there than Kipnis. With Ramirez at second and Francisco Lindor at shortstop, Cleveland’s up-the-middle defense was as good as any in the game in the latter stages of last season.
Kipnis was moved to the outfield for the ALDS. He has had bad moments but also showed he could be a fine outfielder with some work. When healthy, Kipnis is an excellent hitter and an All-Star. The Indians have been mostly noncommittal as to what Kip’s role will be this coming year. Part of that is likely due to rumors that Kipnis’ name has been bandied about in trade talks. He is one of a few players the Indians could center a package around in a deal and get some upgrades in the outfield or bullpen in return.
If Kipnis is still an Indian come April, the guess is he will be back at second with Ramirez at third. Kipnis could always play outfield part time to allow J-Ram to have time at second.
Still, the Indians could use a upgrade in the outfield. Bringing back Bruce is still an option, but right now, he is out of their price range. However, Edwin Encarnacion was out of the Tribe’s price range at the start of last year’s offseason and we know what happened. The market dried out a bit on him and his price tag came down to a more manageable amount for the Indians. The same could happen with Bruce who is reportedly seeking five years around $17 million per. The years and probably dollars would need to come down to get into Cleveland’s range. Three years and $45 million may be about right for a power hitter with an average glove who will be 31 on April 3. However, doing so would extend the Indians’ payroll into even higher territories than its current all-time highs.
If not Bruce, there are plenty of options out there on the market, which is why Bruce’s asking price could come down as the market to break the bank on an outfielder could dry up. ESPN ranks Bruce as the fourth best available outfielder right now. Ahead of him are Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, and Carlos Gomez. Howie Kendrick is an intriguing name on the market, who would come cheaper. So would Austin Jackson, who revived his career playing in a part-time, platoon role with the Indians this past year.
Clearly there is a lot to sift through for the Tribe’s deep thinkers. There are a lot of outfielders currently on the roster with a lot of big league experience. Only Brantley offers much real hope as a big-time player. With Brantley, of course, it is always a case of whether or not he can stay healthy.
With so many question marks and so many average outfielders currently on the roster, a team that desperately hopes to finish the job it started in Francona’s first year as manager in 2013 and came agonizingly close to finishing in 2016 almost must add an upgrade to the outfield. Whether that involves trading Kipnis or perhaps Danny Salazar or it involves patiently waiting out the free agent market for prices on good players to drop remains to be seen.
It would be shocking if the Indians do not add to the current crop of outfield options. Believe it or not, more outfielders could help clear up the picture, so long as they are real upgrades over what is already here.
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