Roster spots are getting slim on the Indians’ Opening Day roster. Assuming an eight-man bullpen and Michael Brantley breaking camp with the team, we are left with only two more spots to fill. Even if Brantley isn’t healthy, his space will likely be filled with another outfielder. So let’s focus on those last two.
Chances are, at least one will be filled with a competent at much, good at nothing type of player. That’s where Michael Martinez found his place in the past, that’s where Erik Gonzalez may find his place now. The utility man is vital to resting players and still competing throughout the season. But those players are boring. They have no zazz. What about someone who’s simply incredible at one thing? Why not just get incredible specimens in both?
Superlative players are fun. One-trick ponies though they may be, guys who can do one thing incredibly are still a sight to behold. Like Andrelton Simmons until the last year or two with defense, or Gio Urshela until the ALDS. Chris Carter or Mark Reynolds for power, perhaps. That speedster on the Royals, Terrance Gore, with his 21 stolen bases in 14 career at-bats. They dazzle and help the team in their own way for short stretches. They keep the other team guessing. The Indians have a pair of players like that hunting roster spots in Rajai Davis and Yandy Diaz. Either of these players could be immensely useful, even if they aren’t able to play four or five positions.
In Davis, you have a 38-year-old who continues to fight off Father Time and be one of the fastest players in baseball. According to MLB.com and Baseball Savant, his sprint speed in 2017 was 11th highest in baseball at 29.3 feet per second. On the Indians, only Bradley Zimmer is faster at 29.9 feet per second. This is a game-changing ability that Davis brings to the table, and the Indians would be fully right to take advantage of it. Whether pinch running or being able to sub in for defensive positions or rest days for other outfielders, he does bring some interesting value with his legs. The bat is quickly fading, his wRC+ going from 100 in 2015 to 85 in 2016 then down to 72 in 117 games last season, and the strikeout rate continues to climb. Last year was probably his worst non-injured season (worth 0.0 fWAR, only topped by a -0.5 in an injury-shortened 2011) and he can only get worse.
Again, he’s 38, ancient by baseball standards. But that speed, man. It’s something special.
Diaz is such an intriguing case, though. if not for Francisco Mejia he’d be outright the best hitting prospect in the Indians organization. Well, if not for Mejia and Diaz’s own constant desire to pound the ball into the ground. It’s been said time and again, but at 91.5 MPH he hits the ball as hard on average as Paul Goldschmidt and his launch angle is more Dee Gordon. Actually, at 0.2 degrees, Gordon has .2 degrees more loft to his swing than Diaz. But man oh man, that potential power. We all know the picture:
The man is a giant. Seriously, those guns gotta play. Even if he doesn’t hit, at least he’ll look good out there. And with a good run of BABIP or a few extra degrees of launch, suddenly it’s not just a gun show, it’s a laser show from Diaz. Plus he’s a pretty good third baseman. On days Kipnis needs off, he could play third and Ramirez slides to second, or the same thing with Lindor’s days off. It’s not the versatility you get from Gonzalez, but it’s certainly got the potential for amazing feats. And admittedly some defensive butchery.
It’s going to be a Gonzalez or something similar that takes one of the last spots. Baseball tradition demands it. Davis might still make the team as a fourth outfielder anyway if the Indians are more enamored with him than Melvin Upton (and the speed tells me they should — Upton isn’t really good at much of anything) but that last slot - why not something amazing? Why not Diaz? Hell, why not both? Middle of the road scrappers are so passé. Get the big guns and speed demons. They can help other places a little. Let’s have fun with it. Let’s be amazed.
It’s not like the 25th man is going to come up to the plate in the most important part of the season anyway.