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The Final Spots: Fourth Outfielder

Will Buck win the spot?
Will Buck win the spot?

All indications are that Austin Kearns, Michael Brantley, and Shin-Soo Choo will break camp with the Indians, starting on opening day in LF, CF, and RF. The Indians current active roster includes four other outfielders: Grady Sizemore, Trevor Crowe, Shelley Duncan, and Ezequiel Carrera. Sizemore will return sometime after opening day and immediately step onto the roster. The other three are competing with two NRIs for the fourth outfield spot; the Indians must decide if Kearns or Choo can serve as the primary backup CF or if the fourth outfielder will fill that role. Still in camp are:

  • Travis Buck: ( 35 ABs: .371/.405/.514) Buck's strong spring line is probably less important than his health. His former top prospect status and remarkable major league debut in 2007 have been well covered, as has his checkered medical history. Though he's rarely appeared in CF as a major leaguer, the Indians believe he can cover all three outfield spots. On the broadcasts, the Indians PR machine has drawn comparisons between Buck and Jayson Werth as guys with worlds of talent who just need extended good health. That's unrealistic but Buck still has potential to be more than a fourth outfielder, at least if you squint, which makes him unique among the guys battling for this spot. Buck's 35 ABs is second on the team this spring and, if you like to read tea leaves, that might mean there's a commitment to him. Ryan made the point when Buck was signed that his left-handed swing didn't make him a fit as a fourth outfielder but I think his lack of a real platoon split and centerfield abilities make him an option here.
  • Ezequiel Carrera: (34 ABs: .265/.419/.353) Carrera's werid OBP/SLG reversal isn't a mirage, as he turned that trick over 405 ABs in AA in 2009. EZ is probably not realistically in line to make the big league squad—although he's the only talented defensive center fielder in the mix, he and the injured Trevor Crowe are the only contestants the Indians can send to the minors without potentially losing them. Still, it's been an encouraging spring for Carrera, and I'm pretty convinced his plate discipline and defense will earn him a big league career. His 9:7 BB:K this spring looks a lot more like his OBP fueled 2009 than his weaker 2010 campaign.
  • Chad Huffman: (22 ABs: .455/.564/.836) Obviously, if you were just choosing a line, you'd take Huffman. At 26, Huffman's a year younger than Buck yet has never had any extended shot in the majors and has never hit anywhere near enough in the minors to earn anything beyond a cup of coffee. Huffman is, according to a BP book comment from 2009, extremely limited defensively. In order to take him north, the Indians have to be confident that Huffman will considerably outhit Buck and that Kearns can still play CF in a pinch.
  • Shelley Duncan: (23 ABs: .304/.333/.435) If the competition is really between Huffman, Buck, and Duncan, Duncan's line probably means the least. Shelley spent all of 2010 in the Indians organization and one can only assume the front office has some prediction of what kind of line Duncan will produce in 2010. A similar player to Huffman, Duncan is also a defensively limited right-handed hitting outfielder who can provide some semblance of power to a major league lineup. Duncan will be 31 years old this year and has played in 153 major league games since he debuted with the Yankees at 27. Huffman would be lucky to put together a career like Duncan's over the next four years.
  • Trevor Crowe: (Has not appeared) Crowe has slapped together a a 627 OPS over 681 PAs in Cleveland over the last two seasons. He ostensibly plays center, although watching him play has soured me (and lots of other fans) on his viability there. Trevor can really run but his routes are labyrinthine and his arm is nothing special. Crowe has sat out so far because of a rotator cuff injury and that's likely cost him any real shot at making the active roster.

So who's going to win? I think Buck's in the driver's seat right now. Kearns is another year older and, with Sizemore's timetable unclear, I suspect the Indians are going to go with some defensive flexibility. Duncan will have a shot to make the roster as a bench bat, playing a little bit of 1B, DH, and OF. What am I missing?