Abraham Almonte was expected to be the Indians' starting center fielder this season, but those plans will have to change, as Almonte will now be out until July following an 80-game suspension for failing a performance-enhancing drug test.
A year ago an Almonte suspension would hardly have been news, because Almonte didn't feature prominently in any MLB team's plans. The Indians traded the final few weeks of their contract with Marc Rzepczynski to the Padres for Almonte at the deadline last July, and probably didn't think any of letting go of a player with a .204/.271/.259 batting line. Something about the Lake Erie water (and/or Boldenone) agreed with Almonte though, and he hit .264/.321/.455 for the Tribe after the trade, while playing good defense in center field.
Whether he'd be able to come anywhere close to replicating that production in 2016 has been a topic of debate this offseason, but we'll all have to hold our breath a while long on that one now.
Even before this news, the outfield situation felt a bit unclear, especially with the team's best hitter, Michael Brantley, out for a to-be-determined amount of time following offseason shoulder surgery. The most popular theory has been that Rajai Davis would start in left for most games, with Almonte in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. The most popular expectation for such an outfield was "above average on defense, probably pretty bad on offense."
Once Brantley returns, he takes back over in left, and Davis could be moved over to center. At his age his defense probably wouldn't play especially well there, but he shouldn't be some sort of Ryan Raburnesque spectacle either.
The days and weeks (but hopefully not months) without Brantley are now a lot hazier. There are certainly options, one of whom, Will Venable, was only signed by the Tribe this morning. At the time that move felt like potentially overcrowding the outfield down in spring training, but now makes more sense. (The Indians front office would already have known this suspension was coming.) Venable was a pretty good outfielder for the Padres from 2010 through 2012, and then a very good one in 2013, when he hit .268/.312/.484 despite playing half his games at Petco Field and many of the rest of them in California's other pitcher-friendly stadiums. He hit 22 home runs that season, and stole 22 bases, putting him in the moderately exclusive and not entirely real 22/22 club whose other members that season were Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, and Hunter Pence.
Sadly for Venable, his game fell apart on him in 2014, and remained broken in 2015. He hit a combined .233/.303/.336 over those two seasons. You might be thinking to yourself, Why would a fairly young player just fall apart like that? That is a good question, but it also turns out to be inapplicable to this particular situation, because it turns out Will Venable is not a fairly young player. He is somehow already 33 years old.
Venable is another live body though, and has more Major League experience than any of the other candidates to fill a spot in the outfield for the Indians come Opening Day. Folks always love experience, so there's that. Venable's defense hasn't been much to write home about for a while now, and so a Venable/Davis/Chisenhall outfield brings all the same offensive concerns as a Davis/Almonte/Chisenhall one, without the same potential for very good defense.
If not Venable, then who? (Or more likely, even with Venable, who else?) Using the alphabet as an organizing force, here are the other outfielders in camp for the Tribe right now, along with their preferred batting method:
- Joey Butler (R)
- Michael Choice (R)
- Collin Cowgill (R)
- Robbie Grossman (S)
- Tyler Naquin (L)
- James Ramsey (L)
- Shane Robinson (R)
- Zach Walters (S)
You will be forgiven if you've never heard of a couple of those guys, and if their collective talent does not bowl you over. Some of them sort of have power, if you'd like a bit more of that than the Ghidorah known as Venable/Davis/Chisenhall is likely to provide, but none of them really have power. (No, not even Walters.)
The name that stands apart from the rest most in my mind is Tyler Naquin. Unlike the others, he hasn't gotten a crack at the big leagues yet, so there's at least a pleasant uncertainty about whether or not he can cut it at that level, whereas the other guys have mostly gone about collecting evidence that says they can't.
More than anything, this hammers home the idea that it sure would be nice to get Michael Brantley back. Here's to hoping Doc Smooth gets clearances from his medical brethren sooner rather than later, shoring up an outfield that could be in desperate need of it.