The Cleveland Indians outfield is a mystery.
That was the case last season, and it’s more or less been the case since Grady Sizemore fell apart years before he would eventually stumble his way into a job as the Indians’ special player adviser.
But 2017 could be the most mysterious outfield yet. Michael Brantley’s health is still an unknown, and a whopping four players — Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, Brandon Guyer, and Lonnie Chisenhall — will somehow Voltron into the center and right field positions.
The Indians also added Austin Jackson to the mix in the offseason, though he will likely only appear in an emergency. If the Indians find themselves actually paying Jackson the $1.5 million he would accrue by making the major-league roster, some valves and switches have been hit somewhere that means the outfield is in trouble.
Will it get to that point? Or will Austin Jackson just blow everyone away, injured knee and all, and make the Indians look extremely smart in their minor-league dealing? How well, if at all, will Brantley bounce back?
Let’s ask ZiPS and Steamer.
For everyone not named Merritt Rohlfing, who has a mild infatuation with the outfielder, Abraham Almonte’s role on the Indians is pretty minor. Steamer, which continually tweaks playing time adjustments, has him at just 109 plate appearances as of March 7 — that would his fewest since his rookie season in 2013.
Both systems have him slashing better than he did in 2016, at least. There is a lot of agreement on his strikeout-to-walk ratio as both have him walking around seven percent of the time and striking out 22 percent of the time.
ZiPS and Steamer do not take Michael Brantley’s nagging injury into their equation, but they clearly see a player who has failed to stay on the field last season and was not very effective when he was actually playing. As a result, they both have him pegged as a barely-above-average hitter. Fine for some, but nothing like the 151 wRC+ Brantley put up in his breakout 2014 season.
We will probably never see that Brantley again to be totally honest — and if we do it probably will not be in an Indians uniform — but I would settle for these projected versions of Brantley in a heartbeat if it meant he would get 400 or more plate appearances this season.
Both systems have Brantley striking out over 10 percent of the time, which feels like heresy given how great his contact rates were in 2014 and 2015. But a year away form the game will do that to you, I guess. At least Steamer has him walking a 9.1 percent of the time, which would be the second-highest walk rate of Brantley’s career.
Oh, Lonald. Maligned by a large portion of the Indians fanbase and accepted for what you are by the rest of it.
The Indians’ platooning third-baseman-turned-right-fielder put up a solid season in 2016 with a .286/.328/.439 slash and 103 wRC+, but ZiPS and Steamer do not see that happening again. They both drop him down to below average batting lines, with very little difference between the two projections. ZiPS has him hitting one extra home run, so let’s go with that one as gospel.
Neither projection takes platooning into account — especially ZiPS’ 139 game projection — so I would not be surprised to see Chisenhall surpass these hitting strictly against right-handed pitchers. At least by a little bit.
Similar to Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer’s projections suffer a bit because of his strict platooning. Guyer is one of the best batters against left-handed pitchers in the entire league over the last three seasons, and Tito will likely use him strictly against those southpaws.
Most of Tyler Naquin’s stellar 2016 numbers stem from an outstanding first half, but the projections see right through that. They both drop him considerably below the 135 wRC+ he finished 2016 with, and Steamer even has him getting a lot of playing time. If Naquin can adjust to high fastballs, even if it takes a couple months, he might be able to slash better than .261/.329/.406.
It’s hard to really know how to project Austin Jackson.
He is coming off of an injury, he might not even make the squad out of spring training, and his playing time fell off a cliff last season. Jackson, who just turned 30 in February, is not going to enjoy this new decade of his life if either projection is to be trusted. They both have his walk rate decreasing and his strikeout rate increasing. That, of course, means a below-average hitting season.
At least both of them have him better than the 79 wRC+ he put up for the Chicago White Sox in 2016.