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Non-tender decisions looming for Indians

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Which below-average outfielder will they keep?

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s non-tender deadline is around the corner on Dec. 2. That gives the Indians just two days to recover from the long Thanksgiving weekend, decide which outfielder they want to keep around, and make a couple phone calls.

Presumably, they have done this work ahead of time and waiting is a formality, but their looming decisions are not going to make or break them ahead of the 2021 season.

The Indians have six players entering arbitration who must be tendered contracts by Wednesday if they are to remain on with the team, with the potential to exchange arbitration figures early next year:

  • Delino DeShields (Arbitration 3)
  • Francisco Lindor (Arbitration 3)
  • Austin Hedges (Arbitration 3)
  • Tyler Naquin (Arbitration 2)
  • Nick Wittgren (Arbitration 2)
  • Phil Maton (Arbitration 1)

Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton seem like easy pickups — the former is slowly becoming a staple in the bullpen, and the latter is not worth losing without at least trying to sign him cheap in his first year of arbitration. Francisco Lindor is another obvious one unless they are going full dumpster fire this offseason. Most likely he will be tendered a contract and traded well before the Jan. 15 deadline to exchange arbitration figures, though.

That leaves three as tough decisions: catcher Austin Hedges and outfielders Delino DeShields and Tyler Naquin.

The Indians still have both Hedges and Beau Taylor on the roster as backups to Roberto Pérez, but that could change this week. If Hedges is the long play to stick around after this season or Roberto’s final option year in 2022, it makes sense to retain him and keep Taylor in the minors, even with Hedges in his third year of arbitration.

Like Pérez, Hedges is a defensive wiz behind the plate, and might even be a better framer than the Indians’ prodigal framing son. They also share the unfortunate similarity in that neither of them can hit. Roberto had his breakout offensive season in 2019, hitting 24 home runs and slashing .239/.321/.452, but 2020 made it seem like that might have been a blip more than a new normal. He is projected by Steamer to fall back to a well below-average hitter, as is Hedges.

Twenty-eight-year-old Hedges is projected by Spotrac to make $3 million in arbitration Pérez will make $5.5 million with his option. For the Indians and their budget constraints, paying upwards of $9 million for two catchers — which could amount to a fifth of their total payroll in 2021 — might be unreasonable.

If Hedges is not the bet for the near-term future, it’s hard to envision who they will be putting behind the plate after Pérez. Bo Naylor is expected to debut in 2022, but he is still incredibly raw and has not made it past High-A yet. He will be celebrating his 21st birthday in February.

The other internal option to backup Roberto, Beau Taylor, is 31 years old and with just 60 plate appearances under his belt is still pre-arbitration.

In the outfield, the Indians will need to decide whose upside they believe in more: the speed of Delino DeShields, or the platoon advantage and low-ball hitting ability of Tyler Naquin. Both have giant holes in their game, and neither would have a home on most playoff teams except as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

DeShields, acquired as part of the Corey Kluber trade last offseason, had his Indians debut delayed and potentially hampered by a COVID-19 diagnosis before the season began. He never seemed to have the same speed he displayed in his five seasons with the Rangers, stealing just three bases and sporting poor defense in the outfield. How much of that the Indians believe can be attributed to the lingering effects of the virus could determine whether or not the Indians choose him over Naquin.

In 29-year-old Tyler Naquin, the Indians should already know what they have. He has never quite lived up to the explosive rookie campaign that landed him second in Rookie of the Year voting, and has instead settled into a platoon role where he hits well against righties — as long as they don’t throw high fastballs. Steamer does project him to bounce back to a 94 wRC+, still below average but well above what he did last season.

Naquin will also be entering arbitration two whereas DeShields in arbitration three, though Spotrac estimates they will get virtually the same dollar amounts in arbitration ($2.2 million for DeShields, $2.1 million for Naquin).

One other thing to keep in mind is that the Indians’ 40-man roster is currently full, barring them from selecting anyone in the upcoming Rule 5 draft. Should they non-tender someone from the list above, they will have a shot at picking up a reliever for cheap, or even taking a chance on an outfielder like 22-year-old Jacob Robson, who is a younger, more inexpensive version of DeShields.