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Daniel Johnson could be Indians’ next outfield boost

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Calling up Daniel Johnson could have Mercado-like effects on the team

Cleveland Indians v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Oscar Mercado’s call-up was one of the best moves the Indians have made all year. Not only did it enable the team to cut ties with the struggling Leonys Martin, it also provided a steadying presence to the lineup at a time when it was badly needed. As documented by Merritt Rohlfing, Mercado has been central to the team’s success this year.

For the team to continue to be successful, however, it might be time to make another call. Thank goodness September is almost here.

In the Cleveland outfield right now, perhaps only Yasiel Puig has a guaranteed spot in the daily lineup. Tyler Naquin is having a perfectly average Tyler Naquin season and will likely continue to get his at bats in versus lefties, but beyond that the Tribe outfield could use another boost.

From his debut through the end of June, Oscar Mercado was a force to be reckoned with, sporting a 118 wRC+. Since then, however, he has just a 75 wRC+ and has lately been finding himself on the bench to start the game more frequently. The man who has pushed him aside in the starting lineup remains more of a question than an answer, however.

Greg Allen was terrible the first two times he was called up this season, literally 65% worse than an average player (35 wRC+). He did not provide much help when the team absolutely needed it and he was demoted as a result. As detailed by Waiting For Next Year’s Michael Bode, Allen was a different player upon his third recall on July 6. He looked every bit the part of a first division regular, running a 136 wRC+ between July 6 and August 11. Over the last 14 days Allen has absolutely cratered: since August 12 his wRC+ is nine (9!) and in 47 plate appearances he has reached base just nine times. With that, the sum of Allen’s MLB career is an open question as to what kind of player he really is.

If there is an answer to this, it’s that Allen has never shown sustained above-average ability at the highest level except on defense. In the wake of José Ramírez’s injury, letting Allen play through his struggles seems like a bad idea. And when defense counts less than before, letting someone else have Allen’s shot might be the best thing for the Indians. Luckily, the team has several players champing at the bit for the chance to prove they belong.

Bradley Zimmer, for one, is trying to come in from the wilderness and make another run at the big league outfield. Since injuring his shoulder in July of 2018, Zimmer has suffered many setbacks on his road to recovery, but finally seems to have a little health under his belt. The former top prospect does not seem to have enough repetitions under his belt to warrant a serious look this year, however. In 10 games over fourlevels, Zimmer has just 27 plate appearances, and while his slash is impressive (.375/.444/.708), he’s still pretty far removed from facing big league-quality pitching.

Though sporting a prospect pedigree opposite Zimmer, Ka’ai Tom has turned himself into a fringe big league outfielder this season. The 2015 draftee from Kentucky has posted nearly career-best numbers between Akron and Columbus this year, increasing his power to its greatest level in his career at the toughest levels in the minors. In his two stops, Tom has maintained isolated power above .200 (.227 in 81 games for Akron and .256 in 45 games for Columbus) for the first time. The increased power has come with an uptick in strikeouts (up to 25.3% for the Clippers), but such is the trade-off hitters are making and teams are more comfortable with in 2019.

It may seem odd to think that Tom is nearly a year and a half older than Jake Bauers, but it’s true, and Bauers’ time in the minors this season looks a lot like Tom’s. Though his sample is about half Tom’s at Columbus, Bauers has similar power output (.179 ISO) and strikeout rate (25.3%) but has nearly double the walk rate (14.3%). Of course, Bauers also offers 100% more big league experience than Tom. Though his time in Cleveland in 2019 had its ups and downs — and more of the latter — Bauers has shown an ability to perform against big league pitchers, which might give him an edge on other internal options for promotion.

With respect to the others mentioned, now that Yu Chang is in Cleveland perhaps the position player with the greatest case for an extended look at the big league level is Daniel Johnson. Simply put, all Johnson has done since being drafted is hit. The only time in his professional career that he has been a below-average run creator was in 2016, in his first professional stop, when he had 99 wRC+ for the Nationals’ low A affiliate. As a member of the Indians organization Johnson has quickly shown his tremendous ability, meriting a promotion from Akron after 39 games thanks to a 151 wRC+ with a .281 ISO. In Columbus he hasn’t missed a beat, with his best command of the zone over any level (0.44 BB/K), good power (.190 ISO), and on-base ability (.377 wOBA). Johnson also has the best speed and arm in the organization, with his speed rated 70 and his arm an elite 80 on the scouting scale per FanGraphs.

There’s no way of knowing whether calling up Johnson or any other minor league outfield options and giving them a chance in Cleveland could have the same kind of effect Mercado had upon his arrival. But with Allen’s inconsistent play currently trending down and the team’s big need for offense in the wake of the Ramírez injury, bringing Johnson aboard would be my first move on September 1. Okay, second, but Johnson would be riding with Carlos Carrasco to Progressive Field.