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Cleveland Indians: Solving center field, Part I

No position was worse defensively than center in 2016. Let's see how the Tribe can fix it, in three parts.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The World Series fell apart in stunning fashion for the Cleveland Indians in the space of just a few plays. Just like the New York Mets a year prior, their defensive deficiencies laid bare to the world in the final games. A few misplays in center field cost runs and baserunners and gave the powerful Chicago Cubs too much leeway, allowing them to eventually pull away.

Whether it was Tyler Naquin not commanding the position in Game 6 and letting the ball drop or Rajai Davis noodle-arming his way to letting a vital run score in Game 7, it quickly became clear that something is needed if the Indians hope to mitigate their holes and get back to the Promised Land.

With the Winter Meetings approaching and the stove just beginning to heat up, it’s the perfect chance to explore the three methods the Indians could use to improve their outfield. This three part series will begin with the easiest, and perhaps laziest method, simply standing pat and hoping for the best.

Standing pat is not as crazy as it sounds

In doing nothing, the Tribe could easily doom itself for another season to sub-par outfield play. It may even get worse, especially if Michael Brantley comes back, since if anything he’s worse in left than whoever they had fill in this past year. He needs a CF with range next to him, like the Lindor Effect on the infield. Ideally it’s the DH/1B role for Brantley, allowing him to affect the game as little as possible defensively and focus on punishment with the bat and getting a better glove in the outfield. But that’s a story for another day.

Standing pat means another year of Tyler Naquin getting 300 or more at-bats as the center fielder. Rajai Davis won’t be back in 2017, and considering his bat over the course of a year and lackluster arm and range in the field, it’s no great loss. Perhaps signing him as a pinch hitter extraordinaire so he could hit the most timely home runs possible could work, but less time in the outfield for him the better. Naquin though, he is not without his positives. Those being, speed and a decent arm. It’s not great, but it’s better than Davis’s and could have gotten Bryant at home in Game 7. One of our many what-ifs. If the Indians do decide they can gut it out with Naquin getting the lion’s share of outfield play, he has to get to work. Whether that means setting up a series of mortars or just investing in more fungo bats, he needs to get used to running good routes to the ball. That is something that can be refined with practice and he needs a lot of it.

But how much can the Indians rely on Tyler Naquin improving?

The other problem with Naquin, besides being dead against lefties, is that massive hole in his swing. He just cannot hit fastballs up in the zone. Once this was discovered it was exploited hideously, logging a .589 OPS with a 25/3 K/BB ratio in August, before boosting that to .716 and 23/13 in September. He was also bad in the postseason, a .469 OPS and a 14/1 K/BB ratio demonstrating what we all saw, a gaping nothingness at the bottom of the order. Can this be fixed? It’s plain he knows about it. He looks so dejected whenever he strikes out on a high fastball, like he knows he should stop but just can’t. Mike Trout had this same problem and got over it, and Naquin is probably as talented as Trout’s left leg. Maybe he could at least become less dreadful.

In all seriousness though, Naquin has proven most doubters wrong in his rookie year, and he’s still just that, a rookie. He already hits off-speed and breaking pitches so well, often an Achilles’ heel for first year players. While the Indians are certainly in WIn Now mode, based on their presence in the World Series and all that, perhaps it would be a good idea to hope for the best and at least give Naquin a shot at redemption.

Abraham Almonte could be just as important as Naquin, if not more so

The other piece still on the team that we didn’t get to experience in October is Abe Almonte. Whether it’s damning with faint praise or not, Almonte is essentially a younger version of Rajai Davis at the plate with a better glove. He also about 150 more innings in center than Naquin, and many of those were spent in massive Petco Park in San Diego. I am firm in my belief that it is a good place to find defensive outfielders, since the park suppresses their defensive stats and they’ll just be relieved to not be running across the baseball equivalent of Central Park every day. It’s not as bad as all that anymore, but it’s still big. Plus playing in the NL West means AT&T Park, Coors Field and to a lesser extent Dodger Stadium. All big outfields.

Almonte has been a positively rated outfielder every year of his career by WAR, and his Range Factor is above average as well. Of course, he played all of 10 innings in center with the Indians in 2016, but that’s at least in part because of Davis and Naquin being on the team, and neither of them have the tools to be in right. He might be the best option and he's certainly the most versatile, but the fact is he’s slightly above average in the field and not as good at the plate. Maybe a whole spring training would allow him to get off to a better start, but that’s just supposition.

There are probably better ways...

I’ll  be honest, I don’t like this idea of improvement through hope. As said before, it’s lazy and uncreative. The Indians have been so crafty at finding novel solutions and diamonds in the rough and need to put the work in to overcome their resource deficiencies. Surely they can find a better solution than literally nothing. I do like Almonte some, and feel it’s silly he didn’t get to play in October when, say, Aroldis Chapman did.

But this is also a path that relies too much on incredible improvement from Naquin. He certainly has some of the raw tools to be at least a decent outfielder, and if he gets more efficient at pre-pitch positioning and routes to the ball he could be pretty good. It worked for Jason Kipnis, using smarts and pre-pitch preparation to overcome other limitations. Though Kipnis also got to have Francisco Lindor next to him to cover up other holes. This all feels like conversations we had last year, just with the addition of Naquin along with Almonte. There’s got to be a better way, because going the "slightly above average" route doesn’t easily lead to greatness.