When you think back to your favorite Indians teams of the Terry Francona era, some odd roster decisions probably come to mind.
Mike Aviles coming to plate 335 times from 2013 to 2015, Melky Cabrera consistently taking at-bats away from Greg Allen, and Michael Martinez doing, well, anyway are some of the first oddities that pop up. Abraham Almonte, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn on even years — there are countless times in the past few years that a backup player seemed to get just a little more playing time than they probably should. Often times it came at the expense of letting a young player develop, and always it came more expensive than just letting a minimum wage rookie take his hacks.
No matter how you want to spin the Indians’ lack of urgency this offseason, they’ve gone out of their way to avoid signing the type of plug-and-play veterans (or the “dumpster diving” as some fans so lovingly put it) that Terry Francona seems to love so much — and it might be for the better. As much I love Tito and all he brings to the table, not giving him these well-over-30 players to block younger players who could contribute for the next five or more years might be the best thing they could do.
It’d be great if Chris Antonetti could just throw up his hands and say screw it, let’s sign Bryce Harper to fix the outfield — but short of that, I’m fine with the team not plunking down money for the likes of Adam Jones, Austin Jackson, or Melky Cabrera (again). Not because I care how the Indians spend their money — it’s not mine, and they have plenty — but the idea of a younger player who is going to be here for several years catching on is much more enticing than seeing Veteran X do well for a month and fade away down the stretch. Again.
By the sounds of it , Chris Antonetti seems like he kind of agrees:
We feel it’s an important element to provide young players an opportunity to contribute at the major league level. We feel there are places on our roster -- whether that is in the bullpen, the back of our rotation or even our position player club -- that some young players will take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.
You can take that statement one of two ways:
- Prospects are cheap, we’re cheap, let’s go with the cheaper route
- We watched Jesus Aguilar leave and become an All-Star because we never played him, let’s not fuck this up again
My best guess for the Indians plans are pretty straightforward: They’re going to let all the young outfielders they have in the majors on the cusp of the majors have a chance to play — succeed or fail — while Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the pitching staff does enough to win games and stay ahead of a godawful division.
Then at the trade deadline — when they have a clearer picture of what they’ll need in the playoffs — they’ll pull the trigger on a half-season of an outfielder and/or relief pitcher. Seeing as no team really wants to pay a ton for half-season rentals anymore, they’re going to get a pretty hefty discount on a potentially valuable piece that they don’t necessarily need long term anyway.
As of this writing, the Indians outfield is projected to be worth 2.7 fWAR by Steamer — the 27th best outfield in the league. Obviously not great, and there are certainly veteran upgrades out there that would give them a modest boost (like Adam Jones’ projected 1.0 wins and 98 wRC+), but nothing short of Bryce Harper is going to save the position on its own. So why not, then, give all these younger guys a shot?
Of the four outfielders projected to have at least 100 plate appearances in 2019 (sorry, Bradley Zimmer, you only have 64), Leonys Martin and his 1.3 fWAR account for nearly halfof the outfield’s expected production. Jordan Luplow — a 25-year-old outfielder acquired as part of the Erik Gonzalez deal with the Pirates — chips in another 0.7 fWAR as the second most productive outfielder. Luplow had fantastic minor league numbers, including a .287/.367/.462 slash in his final year in Triple-A, but they’ve only translated to a career .194/.274/.371 line. Steamer has that coming back to .245/.319/.416 for a 96 wRC+. That’s a higher projected fWAR than every free agent besides Harper, AJ Pollock, Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Gonzalez, and the aforementioned Adam Jones. Oh, and he’s only making $500,000 this season.
There’s also the possibility of Oscar Mercardo, whom the Indians nabbed from the Cardinals at last year’s trade deadline, panning out to be a decent center fielder. And of course don’t forget the possibility of Greg Allen or Bradley Zimmer playing anywhere near their potential with another season — hopefully a healthy one — under their belt. All are tremendous risks, but all are costing the Indians basically nothing to bet on with the safety blanket of the trade deadline waiting for them.
If the plan really is to just gamble on one or more of them panning out into something by July 31, then making a last-minute trade, it makes sense to stack the deck with cheap, young players with upside and not give your manager a chance to block them at every turn.