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Finding optimism in the Cleveland Indians outfield

The outfield is the biggest pile of question marks the Indians have, but there's some reason to feel positive about it

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Like every spring, though with varying levels of madness and irrationality, hope runs high that the Cleveland Indians are in for a strong season. Unlike some recent past years though, they boast the best rotation in the league, a strong bullpen, heaps of talent at most positions on the infield, and Juan Uribe. Then you look up a bit and notice an outfield that, coming into the offseason was alright, but with surgeries, suspensions and suspicion of true talent level nobody knows what to expect. But there’s hope there too, especially if you look at it with a half full glass. Even though it’s bourbon, it still counts.

Let’s start where the numbering finishes, the number nine position on your scorecard, right field. It’s pretty much assumed that Lonnie Chisenhall is going to get first crack at the position come April. His tenure in Cleveland to this point has covered the typical failed prospect path, with an early burst of success, having his flaws exploited, handed a job to start a season, then got shipped to the minors. There was a bit more up, down, good and bad in there, including the most absurd offensive game that Indians fans have seen in a long time when he had three home runs and nine RBIs in one game back in 2014. He also had the best offensive game when the Indians got into the inaugural Wild Card game, 3-for-4 in the loss.

But then 2015 saw a resurgence, and he was the best right fielder in the American League. Whether by eye test or by metrics -- after a career of negative defensive ratings on Fangraphs he logged a +10.6 and had a .989 fielding percentage in 51 games -- he was excellent. Alright, "best in the league: is a bit hyperbolic, but he was really good, and also logged a 118 wRC+ in 158 plate appearances. Small sample size, sure, but he was actually valuable as an offensive player after years of being streaky garbage.

Will it continue? That’s the question. My theory is this -- playing third base takes great reaction and athleticism. Maybe Lonnie’s reactions just weren’t good enough, and now he’s got the time to watch the ball come off the bat from 300 feet away instead of 90, he can get to it. He has the athletic ability to play the position and a very good arm. The bat is a question, but perhaps if he’s performing well in the field perhaps he’ll be better at the plate with less in his head. He was a great hitter in his time in the minors and it’s what got him to the majors. Maybe I’m just a sucker for his sweet lefty swing, but I have to believe he’ll be the right-field Alex Gordon.

Center field is where it starts getting interesting. I make no apologies about my hopes that Abraham Almonte was going to crush it in 2016, but then boldenone showed up in pee and dreams are dashed for 80 games. But now, somehow, a lot of people think signing Will Venable the same day in what was more than likely coincidence is the Indians’ response to this. Which is silly, Venable is a good fill-in player, but he can’t hit well and plays middle of the road defense. It could be that, like Almonte, the Indians are tapping into the fabled "San Diego Outfielder" untapped store of talent. Players in that outfield get their offense sunk by the dimensions and weather and up until a year or so ago the massive outfield meant they looked worse than they were in the field. So maybe Venable will be better than we think, but he’s little more than an afterthought at this point.

Then there’s Tyler Naquin. He’s getting work in with the first teamers in Arizona and he’s looked pretty good by all accounts. While he’s not Bradley Zimmer, he’s been a top-ish prospect for the Indians for a while now and the team needs to get a look at him, at least, to see if the investment is worth their time and money. In four years in the system, he holds a .777 OPS and walks a decent amount. In Triple-A he slashed .263/.353/.430, good for a 127 wRC+ with an 11.5 percent walk rate. He doesn’t do anything elite, but he does several things well and is a good sized kid. I’ve always been a bit of a fan because I like his all-around talent, and seeing as he hit well in Triple-A and there’s really no other answer in center, it’s time to give him a shot. He could be a very solid replacement if all goes well and he can hit a slider.

It would have been nice for the Indians front office to spend a little money on Dexter Fowler or even Austin Jackson, but Fowler wanted a multiyear deal and Zimmer is on his way sooner rather than later. Jackson is alright, but nothing special at this point. He didn’t even hit enough to stick with the Mariners so it’s not as though he’s a huge loss. They’re waiting for the big boys to grow up so it makes more sense to see if Naquin is something, and if he is then they can flip him for something real, move him to left for defense and have Brantley DH full time, or any other of a handful of things you can do with a talented young outfielder with a bunch of team control. Justin Upton would have been nice, but pipe dreams always are.

Colin Cowgill, unlike Will Venable, has a real shot to make the major league roster. Now, Cowgill can’t really hit at all, he has a career 79 wRC+ and has been worth 1.1 oWAR over the last five years, a 308 game span. But he's there for defense. He’s an all glove guy and if Naquin doesn’t work out, at least there’s Cowgill’s ability to get to balls. The Indians need to maximize the work of their pitchers, and that comes through defense. It’d stink to have an offensive negative in center field, but if it means making the rotation more comfortable, that's what matters. That’s what will win games.

I really don’t want Rajai Davis in center. He’s just not good at it. For all his flash and dash, he doesn’t have the range. He will get a lot of look in left until Michael Brantley gets back, which can’t come soon enough. That’s the situation in left. The shoulder surgery really put a damper on things, because watching Brantley just rake is one of the great pleasures of being a Tribe fan right now. If all goes to plan, we should only get about a month, maybe less, of Davis in left, and that’s just fine with me. However, what if his production at Progressive Field wasn’t a fluke, what if he’s just great hitting in Cleveland? Sure, that means another 81 games where he’s below average, but another where he hits over .400 and steals about 50 bases. If nothing else, it’s nice to have him on the team just so he doesn’t kill the Indians.

The outfield likely isn't going to be an area of strength for the team, at least not until Brantley returns. But if Chisenhall wasn’t a ruse last August and September and Brantley resumes his old ways, big noise out of center isn’t needed. That said, Naquin is being given a chance here. It’s a slim one and if he doesn’t do well he has Zimmer breathing down his neck in a year, so he has pressure on him to perform. You know he wants to realize his dream and be an Indian. If it all works out and he’s league average, all of a sudden come May it’s not a problem, and the Indians are on their way to October baseball. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and that’s what springtime is all about.