A full month, or more, of Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and… someone? Jose Ramirez?... in the outfield in 2016 is a real possibility now that Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley is expected to miss 5-6 months following arthroscopic surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. But what can the Tribe realistically do to fix this situation before it gets out of hand? Did they have a plan already in mind?
Going out and making a reactionary signing after an injury is never a good idea, especially when your financial situation is as tight as the Indians, but the front office likely knew about this injury for a while now. Fans have been kept in the dark in regards to how serious his injury is, but there is no way Chris Antonetti and company did not know that Brantley could potentially need surgery heading into the offseason.
Assuming they did know (if they did not, that is a whole ‘nother problem), that also means that Antonetti willingly declined Ryan Raburn’s $3 million option with the idea that Brantley could miss time, making the Indians outfield hole even worse. Granted, Raburn is not an ideal every outfielder, but now the Indians will be tasked with finding a temporary replacement for Brantley while also finding a permanent replacement in center field.
Internally, the Indians outfield is a barren landscape, even digging into the minor leagues. Lonnie Chisenhall has been a fine addition in right field, but no one knows how long that will last. The only other options currently on the 40-man roster include Michael Choice, Jerry Sands, and Zach Walters—each more depressing than the last.
The Indians could also go the weird route and start re-assigning positions. Jose Ramirez is athletic, and if his bat could be at least passable, he could potentially play left field to fill in for Brantley. Similarly, but much less likely, Jason Kipnis has played outfield in the past and could be an option if Jose Ramirez is just awful in the outfield or they can find a temporary infielder more easily.
Getting back to free agents, even if the Indians did want to overreact and sign someone just to replace Brantley for two months at the most, they do not have the money. The best solution would be to find a permanent fixture in center field and temporary slide Abraham Almonte over to left field until Brantley returns. FanGraphs previously linked the Indians to Colby Rasmus and, while 3 years/$42 million sounds like too much money on the surface, such a move could be easier for the front office to swallow now with the outfield being in such a dire situation. This could also bring someone like Dexter Fowler, who received a qualifying offer from the Chicago Cubs, back onto the table. If it means preventing a total disaster in the outfield, losing a first round pick may be worth it.
Sunday, Chris Antonetti told MLB Network Radio that the Indians were open to trading a pitcher if the right offer came along. That may be even truer now, especially if the Miami Marlins come knocking with Marcell Ozuna wrapped in a tidy gift basket. Whether it is Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, or Danny Salazar, someone may be available.
Even when Michael Brantley returns, there is no guarantee that he will be his All-Star self. As we saw with Gomes last year—and even Brantley to a certain extent—injuries linger. Either the Indians could rush him back into action and leave the team with a hobbled Brantley to deal with while he recovers or, ideally, they would give him the time he needs to recover. But by the time he is back to 100%, the replacement-level outfield covering for him could be leading the charge into another abysmal April. Not a single Indians fan wants to have that happen again.
If anything, I think that Brantley’s injury is going to make center field the main focus of this offseason, if it was not already. Prior to this, the bullpen, first base, and third base may have been concerns, but now the majority of resources should go towards fixing the outfield.