The Cleveland Indians have problems to address at every position in the outfield. Right field was a problem throughout the year for the Indians, while center became an issue rather quickly because of Bradley Zimmer’s failure to perform. Left field, on the other hand, wasn’t an issue for the Indians, but it is likely that will change with Michael Brantley’s free agency looming. Let’s look at the outfield’s performance from this past year and what the Indians need to do this off-season.
Michael Brantley occupied left field for the majority of the season. In the past, he had struggled with a number of injuries, but Brantley was able to put together his first full season since 2015 when he had 529 at-bats. This year he was able to get in 570 at-bats and didn’t deal with any nagging injuries. In those at-bats, he was able to hit for a .309/.364/.468 slash line and provided decent defense in the outfield. He held a 3.8 offensive WAR while he held a less than impressive -0.7 defensive WAR. Brantley had six assists which is still a lot, but his range has definitely declined.
Brantley is in line for a moderately sized raise this offseason if he wants to go elsewhere for that raise. Last season, Brantley made 12 million with the Indians and I believe he could make a yearly salary of around 15 million if he went somewhere else. I don’t see the Indians going much higher than 12 million to try and retain the left fielder because they already have a few large contracts on the books (large for the Indians of course, we are not the Yankees). Brantley’s return will likely depend on what he wants at this stage in his career and of course, it also depends on the offers he receives.
What Happens If Brantley Leaves?
It is more likely that Brantley walks in free agency than stays, so with that thought in mind, who would replace him? The Indians would have to sign someone and hope they can produce enough as a starter. Ideally, there would be a guy like Yonder Alonso out there who you can sign for cheap like the Indians did when Carlos Santana left. That signing seems to be a good one for the Tribe.
Who could be a good signing in left for the Indians? A guy to look at would be Marwin Gonzalez who finished 19thin the MVP voting in 2017. He put together another decent season this year and destroyed the Indians in the first round. Gonzalez had a slash line of .247/.324/.409 and he had a WAR of 2.5. If the Indians are unable to sign either Brantley or Gonzalez, they would likely have to sign a veteran like a Curtis Granderson or somebody else to fill the void next season.
In center field, the Indians have an interesting dilemma. Their likely opening day starter, Leonys Martin, was struck with a life-threatening illness towards the end of the season and it is reasonable to question if he will be the same player ever again. His body went through a really stressful time period and it may not be up to the rigors of an MLB season again.
Greg Allen will be another potential option in center. He showed promise offensively but needs to find more consistency at the plate. Defensively he could use a little work as well. His oWAR was 0.6 to end the season while his dWAR was -0.1. Allen is somebody who needs to start impacting the game more, but he is somebody Indians fans should keep their eye on in 2019.
Bradley Zimmer is still worth mentioning because just a year ago he was one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball. Zimmer is expected to miss 8-12 months with his shoulder injury that he suffered in the middle of this past season. Even if he is healthy in the middle of next season he will be starting at Triple-A. Zimmer’s strikeout percentage of 39.3% is unacceptable no matter how good his defense is. Zimmer is clearly an MLB ready defender, but his oWAR of -4.0 won’t cut it. If we see Zimmer in Cleveland in 2019 it will either be because they are desperate for an outfielder or because Zimmer shows significant improvement in Triple-A.
In right, the Indians have a serious issue because they don’t have anybody to get excited about. Melky Cabrera, Brandon Guyer, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Tyler Naquin occupied right for the Indians this season. Neither Cabrera nor Guyer are long-term options for the Indians and Naquin has yet to show that he can stay healthy for a full season. Lonnie Chisenhall will be a free agent this offseason and it is likely that the Indians decide to look elsewhere for a right fielder because Chisenhall, like Naquin, has been plagued with injuries. With a number of players in the free agent market, the Tribe will likely hope for somebody to fall into their lap in free agency.
The majority of the Indians best minor league outfielders are in the lower levels of the system right now. The only guy who could maybe work his way into the conversation is Oscar Mercado, but he has been a center fielder in his career and it is unknown as to whether the Indians would be willing to move him over or if he would even be able to play right.
I believe the Cleveland Indians will likely look to free agency to round out right field for next season, but don’t be surprised if the Tribe end up with Naquin starting on opening day.
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