During the six-year tenure of manager Terry Francona, the Cleveland Indians outfield has been a work in progress, piecemealed together and full of platoons for much of that time. That has been especially true during the club’s three consecutive division championships seasons.
The quest to try and put together an outfield befitting a team with title aspirations is not going to end any time soon. In fact, the jobs of President Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff could be even harder this offseason than the past few.
The last couple of winters, the outfield buzz often centered around whether or not Michael Brantley would be healthy or not. However, at least when he was on the field, there was no doubt who would play left field on an everyday basis.
After a season in which the three-time All-Star was finally able to stay healthy for a full year and put together a terrific campaign, it is possible that the Cleveland tenure of the Tribe’s star outfielder is about to come to an end. He has a good chance to cash in on a lucrative, long-term contract that will likely prove too much for the small-market Indians to be able to afford.
This means Cleveland, rather than trying to find to fill in two spots in the outfield, will be spending this winter needing to answer concerns in all three outfield spots. There are plenty of questions regarding the outfield and not many answers.
Not only is Brantley likely to strike it rich on the free agent circuit, but the Indians stand to lose other outfielders. Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, and Melky Cabrera are free agents, while Brandon Guyer could be. All three should be in the Indians free agency price range, though all come with questions. Can Chisenhall stay healthy? Can Guyer stay healthy or hit enough when he is? Is Cabrera still enough of an offensive threat as he nears the end of his career?
Of the players the Indians know they will have in the outfield mix for next season, only Greg Allen spent much of this season in a Major League uniform. Allen has a really good shot of opening next season as an everyday outfielder. He can play any of the three positions, however his speed makes him a natural center fielder.
Allen came on in the second half of this past regular season. He played 91 games and had 256 at bats. He hit .257. The biggest part of his game is his speed. He stole 21 bases. He could be a threat for 50 steals in a full season. He is a younger version of Davis, which would be a nice level for the 25-year-old to hit.
Bradley Zimmer had shoulder surgery in July. He may not be able to go for the start of 2019, leaving questions about his contributions. However, even when healthy in 2018, the 25-year-old prospect was striking out too much and not hitting enough, getting sent to the minors to work on making better contact before succumbing to surgery. Zimmer is fast and his bat has potential, but it seems he needs to cut down on what are long swings that are full of holes. He has work to do to become a true, everyday Major League outfielder.
Finally, there is Tyler Naquin. Naquin was a Rookie of the Year candidate during Cleveland’s World Series season of 2016. He fell off at the end of that campaign and never really got back on track. He spent much of 2017 at Triple-A Columbus.
Early on this year, it seemed Naquin was bouncing back. The 27-year-old was hitting .333 on May 12. However, he started having issues with his hip and his bat started going south in June. He played his last game on July 27 before going on the disabled list. He was hitting .264 with three home runs and 23 RBI. Given better health, he could be back in the good graces of the Indians and in the mix for an outfield spot next season. He is probably best served as a platoon outfielder, more so than one who plays every day.
The Indians could very well open next season with a young outfield of Allen, Zimmer and Naquin. It would not inspire a lot of confidence in a fanbase that already fears that the Tribe’s window of contention is slowly shutting. Even bringing back Chisenhall, Guyer, and/or Cabrera does not scream of an outfield that is at the championship-caliber level of the infield and starting rotation.
The Indians are likely to need to do a little bit of free-agent outfield shopping this offseason. With expectations of an already high payroll, there should be little thought of a bank-breaking acquisition the likes of Bryce Harper or even Brantley. However, a player like last season’s first base addition Yonder Alonso, who had a breakout campaign but not a long track record of success, would be a fit. Someone who may come in for $7 million per year for two or three seasons may just be what the Indians are looking for.
The Indians could also trade for an outfielder. There are loud drumbeats for the Tribe to trade from its overwhelming strength of starting pitchers to add an outfield bat.
Then, there is the wild card in Jason Kipnis. The long-time second baseman has been converted to the outfield in time for two of Cleveland’s last three postseasons. He played outfield in college and can play in center or left. Jose Ramirez‘s best position is considered to be at second.
Perhaps the Indians could add a third baseman via free agency or, more likely, a trade, and move Ramirez to second full-time and Kipnis to the outfield full-time. A two-time All-Star at second, Kipnis struggled early in the year at the plate but hit better down the stretch. His .230 batting average was below his standards, however his power numbers of 18 bombs and 75 RBI were around his typical year. He would provide a stronger bat in the outfield than any option currently on the Cleveland roster.
Clearly there are many questions that the Tribe’s front office is facing regarding the outfield this offseason. There are not a lot of clear answers. There is one obvious Major League outfielder on the roster, in Allen, and then few other known answers. What the Indians do in the outfield may be one of the highlights and most talked about stories of this winter. Upgrades are likely needed if the Indians are going to get over the hump as a team that can win a weak Central Division and become one that can compete with the like of Houston and Boston for an American League crown.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images