If there is one thing about 2020 that will define whether the Indians strategy is successful or not, it is the outfield. The infield still has two elite players and was reinforced with César Hernández, whereas Cleveland is to pitching development like Paas is to egg dye — they just do it right. So, if there’s a barometer by which to judge the front office it has to be the outfield.
Whether by owner diktat or not, the front office’s strategy clearly involved cutting costs, seeing what the in-house options can offer, and taking a chance on a low-cost veteran. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same damn thing the team did in 2019. Everyone knows how that turned out.
The names in competition for 2020 are a little different, but the outlook for the outfield remains pretty much the same: meh. With the team’s stars-and-scrubs approach to roster construction, one group was bound to be worse than the rest, and the outfield drew the short straw. Of course, there are high-percentile outcomes that could make this outfield group look incredible, but optimism is not in strong supply regarding the guys roaming the outfield grass.
Of the, let’s see, 12 outfielders (13 if you count Domingo Santana!) among the 61 players in camp, only two feel like locks for everyday play: Oscar Mercado and Franmil Reyes. But even with those two, it’s hard to say exactly what their role will be.
Oscar Mercado should be the everyday center fielder. In 482 PA last season, the rookie slashed .269/.318/.443 with a wRC+ of 95. He didn’t light the world on fire, but he was steady, above-average in the field, and the fifth-best regular batter on the team (by wRC+, minimum 300 PA). Mercado has earned his spot and the chance to show what he can do, but the simple presence of Delino DeShields on the roster has complicated his outlook. Mercado’s median projections are somewhat pedestrian, expecting more of the same from 2019 (somewhere in the .250/.310/.395 range with decent K/BB), but he still projects better than any other center field options.
As for Reyes, the thought of him as a daily outfielder is a bit frightening. He’s been worth negative values by any fielding metric so far in his career (-12 DRS, -7.4 UZR, -5.1 FRAA, -18 total zone fielding runs), but we’re fully in the thick of Best Shape of His Life szn and Reyes has been the Indians representative for all such articles. So, perhaps there’s reason to believe in the big man, and even if his defense is simply bad rather than abysmal the bat is enough to justify Reyes getting everyday playing time. Nicholas Castellanos and Starling Marte had UZR worse than -5.2 in 2019 and still managed to get everyday playing time and retain their value this offseason with offensive numbers similar to Reyes’ projections (which average .260/.350/.515 with a 115 wRC+). He’ll likely strike out north of 25% still, but he is projected to walk at league average and pop 35 HR. That’ll play.
As for the third outfield spot, well Terry Francona is on record stating that he’d like to see what Jordan Luplow can do when facing a greater number of right-handed pitchers, which I guess sorta technically makes him the likely third starter. But the questions about his efficacy in such a role are numerous and significant. Last year was his first time cracking 200 PA at the MLB level, and his 48 wRC+ versus righties in ‘19 (106 PA) was worse than his 60 from ‘18 (61 PA) and 72 from ‘17 (58 PA), which were also not great! But at Triple-A, Luplow showed an ability to hit well against right-handed pitching, with OPS of .803 and .869 against righties in 2018 and 2017, respectively (don’t blame me for MiLB stats not having wRC+). Only ZiPS provided a large number of plate appearances for Luplow, so although he’s projected to be an above-average hitter by run production in all systems, it remains to be seen how often or how well he will do facing pitchers of the same handedness.
However, even if Luplow is given more chances to hit righties, he’ll likely still be a part of some kind of platoon, and Tyler Naquin is certain to challenge him for playing time when he regains full health. The projection systems like Naquin as much as any Tribe outfielder, pegging him for about 1.0 WAR and roughly .270/.320/.440, but he’s still working his way back from a torn ACL and likely to return between April and June. His injury opens the door for any one of the post-prospect guys to claim a spot, but of Greg Allen (projected -0.1 WAR), Jake Bauers (projected 0.5 WAR), or Bradley Zimmer (projected 0.4 WAR), I’d guess Bauers will be the guy to claim the open corner backup spot given he’s projected for better power and spent extensive time working on his swing this offseason.
The backup spot in center, however, has Delino DeShields name written all over it. DeShields absolutely screams “Tito’s guy” based on his five-ish seasons in the big leagues. He’s only accumulated 4.8 fWAR thus far and he’s been well below-average offensively (76 wRC+), but he’s been a superb defender and (shudders) he is sixth among active players with 124 bunt attempts (in fewer plate appearances than anyone 1-5). Now, DeShields does not project well, the most optimistic (PECOTA) has his DRC+ at 78 and thinks he might be worth 0.8 WARP. Regardless of his projection, he’s going to be on the roster and I feel resigned to being frustrated by his inclusion at the expense of other players.
Franmil Reyes 2020 Projections
Oscar Mercado 2020 Projections
Daniel Johnson 2020 Projections
Tyler Naquin 2020 Projections
Bradley Zimmer 2020 Projections
Greg Allen 2020 Projections
Delino DeShields 2020 Projections
Jordan Luplow 2020 Projections
While the Indians’ system isn’t particularly deep in the outfield, there are several prospect worth getting excited about. Let’s start with Daniel Johnson, who was the key return in the Yan Gomes trade and had a tremendous 2019 season in both Double-A and Triple-A, culminating in an appearance in the Futures Game. Johnson is a potential five-tool player with a unique combination of speed (22 stolen bases in both 2017 and 2018) and power (22 home runs in 2017 and 19 last season) with an 80-grade cannon of a throwing arm. A sprained ankle has limited his opportunities this spring, but Johnson was added to the 40-man roster before November’s Rule 5 Draft, so I fully expect him to make his MLB debut at some point this season.
The top outfield prospect in the Tribe system is George Valera, one of the top international signings from 2017. Valera can play all three outfield positions and has displayed impressive power in a small package (5’10” 160 lbs). Despite limited playing time due to injuries, he’s already advanced to full-season Single-A at age 19. If he can put together a fully healthy season, he could explode through the system.
Johnson and Valera are the most elite prospects, but other prospects in the Tribe’s top 30 on MLB Pipeline are Oscar Gonzalez, a 22-year-old Dominican native who has a strong hit tool and throwing arm, but almost never draws walks and made it to Double-A last season. Will Benson is a former first-round pick in 2016 who obliterated opposing pitchers while repeating at Single-A Lake County last season, including a four-homer game, but struggled after being promoted to High-A Lynchburg.
Other options include Ka’ai Tom, who had a breakout 2019 season with wRC+ of 162 at Double-A and 132 at Triple-A, and Ohio-native Mitch Longo, who has posted a wRC+ above 100 at every level he’s played in his career. Trenton Brooks also had a semi-breakout 2019, with an above average .274/.333/.502 slash in 65 Double-A games. Steven Kwan walked more than he struck out as the Lynchburg leadoff hitter in 2019 and Alexfri Planez stands 6’5 with some serious projectable power as an 18-year-old yet to exit rookie ball.
— Brian Hemminger
Around the AL Central
If anyone wants to tell you how the AL Central has gotten better, please ask them about AL Central outfielders.
Although it is undeniable that Cleveland’s divisional competition is improved for 2020, only the Minnesota Twins have multiple players projected to be above-average. The ZiPS fWAR projections for each team’s top four shows the Indians right in the middle of the pack in the division, in a three-way tie:
- Minnesota: 8.2 (Kepler 3.1, Buxton 2, Rosario 1.9, González 1.2)
- Chicago: 6.1 (Robert 2.3, Jiménez 2.1, García 0.9, Mazara 0.8)
- Cleveland: 6.1 (Reyes 2.1, Luplow 1.8, Mercado 1.2, Naquin 1.0)
- Kansas City: 6.1 (Merrifield 2.9, Dozier 1.5, Gordon 0.9, Phillips 0.8)
- Detroit: 1.3 (Maybin 0.6, Jones 0.5, Reyes 0.2, Stewart 0.0)
The Twins projections require a rather large assumption regarding Byron Buxton’s health, but it’s not hard to believe Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario will be formidable on the corners. If injury were to strike, however, pushing Marwin González into a larger role or calling LaMonte Wade Jr. into action could drag down the Twins outfield as a group.
In Chicago the future is looking bright, with Luis Robert ready to deliver on his top prospect status. It might be a bit much to expect him to be the team’s top outfielder in his first season, but having Eloy Jiménez as your number two is a pretty decent option. Beyond that, Nomar Mazara has consistent 20-home run power but an inability to hit at league-average otherwise; he may find himself losing time to the Sox considerable outfield depth in the minors if he doesn’t hit well.
Whit Merrifield is pretty much the Royals outfield. He can do everything pretty well and it’s rather amazing that KC has held on to him this long instead of cashing in and rebuilding. But there he is, supported by a few Hunter Dozier home runs and pretty much nothing else in the outfield. Alex Gordon is likely to be just what he has been the last six seasons, barely league average, or a little worse, and Brett Phillips also exists. Beyond that, well the mystery of Merrifield’s continued presence in Kansas City continues.
And Detroit will also field a team this year. The less said about whatever they’re doing, the better.
Against this competition maybe the Tribe’s roster management techniques don’t scream negligence, but that is not a heartening message about MLB in 2020.