The Indians’ outfield is a problem. Luckily there’s already a blueprint out there for how to fix it.
The Cleveland outfield ranked 17th in terms of FanGraphs WAR in 2018, with 5.6. Of playoff teams, only the Rockies got fewer wins (4.2 fWAR) out of their outfield than the Tribe. At Baseball-Reference, the Indians collection of outfielders ranked 22nd, with -1.8 wins above average. The problem with the Indians’ outfield is not just the cumulative quality of the players, however; it was the type of players getting innings.
Consider the two teams that just competed in the World Series. Both the Red Sox and Dodgers had talented core outfielders, such as Mookie Betts and Yasiel Puig, and supplemented that talent with utility players that could be moved like chess pieces between the infield and the outfield. The Red Sox had Brock Holt (79 appearances in the infield and 16 in the outfield) and Steve Pearce (34 appearances at first and 15 in the outfield between Boston and Toronto) and LA had Cody Bellinger (110 appearances at first and 81 in the outfield), Chris Taylor (center, left, and second in the series) and Enrique Hernandez (center, left, and second in the series).
It is no coincidence both World Series teams had such players, as successful teams in recent years have redefined the utility role. Beyond Boston and LA, you can point to any number of good teams — the Astros (e.g., Marwin Gonzalez), Braves (Charlie Culberson), Brewers (Hernan Perez), and Cubs (Ben Zobrist) — who all got value (literally, Ben Zobrist made the most of the players mentioned, with $16m in 2018, but he was an outlier, as the next costliest player was Steve Pearce at $6.25m) from players that could move between the infield and outfield competently. In Cleveland, just two players logged innings in both the infield and outfield in 2018: Brandon Barnes and Jason Kipnis. This is a problem.
For a smart team, whose alumni populate the front offices of so many other teams, it is surprising the Indians have been so far behind this trend, failing to acquire or develop players with such defensive flexibility. On the one hand, failing to acquire a traditional corner bat is somewhat excusable for the Tribe, as those players do not come cheap (for example, Jay Bruce earned $11 million from the Mets in the his first year, costing them $74 million per Baseball Prospectus’ WARP). On the other hand, not finding a diverse utility option, such as Derek Dietrich (who was reportedly available via trade and cost the Marlins just $1.8 million per WARP), was a poor strategy.
The players the Indians put in the outfield in 2018 are the embodiment of a poor strategy. Yes, Michael Brantley was good, but it’s hard to say that betting on him to rebound was a sound strategy (our collective ex post facto justification of picking up his option does not mean we were wrong to be wary last offseason). Even if you credit the front office for the Brantley move, the other pieces to the outfield puzzle are, well, puzzling.
Injuries frustratingly limited Lonnie Chisenhall and Bradley Zimmer to little action and Greg Allen bounced between the big leagues and Columbus, leaving the bulk of the remaining innings to Melky Cabrera, Rajai Davis, Brandon Guyer, and Tyler Naquin (before injury sapped him, as well).
Cabrera was the best of the bunch, which is not saying much, as he was only slightly above average offensively with a 102 wRC+. His offensive production kept the bottom of the Indians lineup from being a total wasteland, but he was limited defensively (both in terms of position, as he can’t play anything but a corner, and in terms of value, as he had -7 defensive runs saved). Likewise, some of his value in the lineup was diminished by the fact that he was better against lefties (127 vs. 90 wRC+), the same as his platoon partner Guyer.
For his part, Guyer repeated his poor 2017 results. Where the Indians hoped for a return to form and to get the player they traded for in 2016, Guyer posted just an 82 wRC+ along with an abysmal .206/.300/.371 slash. His lefty split, Guyer’s most attractive selling point, also remained below 2014-16 levels (though still above league average in terms of wRC+), and his stats against right-handed pitchers cratered to their lowest levels in his career (34 wRC+, .176/.227/.286).
Yet, Guyer’s overall value (0.1 fWAR) was better than Rajai Davis could claim, as he somehow earned 101 appearances as a 37 year old, posting a -0.2 fWAR. Prior to the season, I wrote that “Davis’s tenure with the team this time around may not be as lengthy as in 2016,” and I think that’s something closer to what Indians front office envisioned. However, their lack of a good strategy (i.e., having other options to plug in) kept Davis’s 50-wRC+ bat in the lineup for more than 200 plate appearances — much longer than it deserved (he was worth 2.7 BsR, which is barely above average and not a good defense for his roster spot).
Naquin was a guy who deserved more time, at least at the expense of Davis, but got his chances cut short by injury shortly after the all-star break. Since the second half of 2016 (Naquin had a 153 wRC+ and slash of .314/.374/.591 in the first half), he has been nothing more than a fourth outfielder (87 wRC+, .265/.325/.383), but by performance, age, and cost he’s more worthy of a spot than anyone else among the fourth outfield types the Indians employed in 2018.
Going into 2019, Naquin is the only one of these individuals under contract with the Indians. The other outfielders for the Indians are Allen, Kipnis, Leonys Martin, and Bradley Zimmer (who will miss a good chunk of the year rehabbing his shoulder), meaning a signing is a necessity. That signing should not be Cabrera, Davis, or Guyer.
Signing players with infield and outfield ability would not fix the Indians outfield alone, but adding versatility would be a big improvement and allow Terry Francona more flexibility in his game management. With Yandy Diaz set to get a larger role and Jason Kipnis still on the books (for now), having another versatile option that can move from second or third to the outfield (or vice versa) when the situation calls for it would help the Tribe emulate the sound strategy deployed by the Red Sox, Dodgers, Astros, Cubs, and so on.
Cabrera, Davis, and Guyer combined only cost $5.5 million last season, which might only be one season of Dietrich (reportedly a nontender candidate for Miami) or less than one year’s cost for free agent Marwin Gonzalez. Though not a lot in terms of MLB salaries, that would be a significant outlay for the Tribe, which might push them toward a trade acquisition. Someone like Ian Happ, who is still earning prearbitration wages, would be a good trade candidate should the Tribe choose to go that route.
Whatever the front office chooses, it must choose to add more versatility. Stocking the outfield with players that have one defensive fit or those that necessitate a platoon split has not worked. It’s time for a new strategy, and because MLB is a copycat league the Indians are best served following the example of the teams who won this year.