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The Cleveland Indians and Schrödinger’s outfield

How can something be both empty and full at the same time?

Texas Rangers v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

It’s pretty safe to say the Indians outfield is not going to be a strong point. If we use ZiPS’ three highest projections for Cleveland outfielders, we get to 3.5 WAR, or basically half a season of Jose Ramirez that’s spread over 1220 at-bats. Prorated, that’s very, very bad. In Paul Sporer’s piece on RotoGraphs listing the top 50 outfielders in baseball (for fantasy reasons, but still), the Indians listed no times. It’s... not ideal.

And yet, one of the few areas of drama this spring, or at least intrigue, is how the outfield will shake out. Somehow, some way, the Indians have a crowded outfield, despite not having any legitimately great outfielders. Along with Leonys Martin, Tyler Naquin or Greg Allen, you’re hearing chatter about Oscar Mercado and Trayce Thompson along with a small handful of other guys having some semblance of a shot to make the team, if not right out of Arizona, at least some time this year. It’s a curious place the Tribe has found itself in.

Part — well, most if not all — of this stems from a simple lack of elite talent that seals up a job. No Trouts or Stantons or Bettses are around to make things simple and trim the available slots down a bit. It was so easy when Michael Brantley and even Lonnie Chisenhall wer around. Whether platooning or not, you only needed two or so other players, and they could be flawed.

Instead we have a minimum of three open slots in the outfield that anyone can have if they show something more than league average ability. Which is exciting, or at least interesting, right? It’s why we even have chatter surrounding Thompson or Mercado. Add what they’re doing (and their being kind of unknown) to the former prospect-ness and still raw talent of Bradley Zimmer and Tyler Naquin, and Jordan Luplow existing, and you could put together six or seven lineups at least of a starting outfield plus a fourth.

Muddling it all even more is the veil they play behind right now in Arizona. Like, we have no idea of Thompson has made some kind of adjustment and tapped into his familial athleticism to become truly great, or if Mercado is actually another Betts or Yelich, or even just the poor man’s version. Is Naquin finally lofting the ball or getting on top/laying off high fastballs? Who knows? And who the hell is Jordan Luplow? Sample sizes are dumb, video is nonexistent — which itself is incredible in 2019 — and StatCast gives us nothing but suggestions and generalities at best. We have nothing concrete to draw conclusions from, only supposition and possibility.

In a perverse way, the Indians have given their fans a special thrill. Whether that’s actually wanted is another story, but the Death Valley aspect of the outfield is at least a little more in flux than was expected in February. We’re going to see some different faces churn through there through the season, and by rolling the dice again and again and again, the Indians are throwing dashes of hope and expectation at their fans, and giving themselves another couple chances to really hit it big. Until we actually get to see any of these players, whether the vets like Naquin and Martin or the new faces in Mercado and Thompson, all we can do is guess and think that maybe this is the time they stumble on that outfield star from nowhere. for good or bad the choice is actually kind of hard. But they’ve found insane talent like three times already elsewhere on the diamond the last few years. It has to work eventually, right?