Could the Indians Outfield Be...Fun?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like it has been a millennium since the Indians had an outfield that was fun and exciting. The last Indians outfielder that was worth getting super excited about was Michael Brantley during his top three MVP finishing season in 2014. Since then, we have had sparks for brilliance in very small sample sizes in the likes of Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin, and Oscar Mercado. For the first time in awhile though, the Indians have an outfielder, and a slew of players, who could make these positions worth watching.

On the night of Sunday, January 31st, 2021 the Indians reportedly had come to an agreement with free agent outfield Eddie Rosario for 1 year, $8 million. Rosario, who is no stranger to the Indians, has spent his entire career within the Minnesota Twins organization. From 2015-2020, Rosario has a career fWAR of 11.4, and a wRC+ of 106. In the pandemic shortened 2020 season, Rosario hit .257/.316/.476 with 13 home runs, a wRC+ of 110, wOBA of .333, and a 0.9 fWAR. While none of these numbers seem to really jump off the page, they are miles ahead of where the Indians were at offensively.

In 2020, the Indians offense was poor, to say the least. They were second to last in fWAR at -0.9, just above the Pittsburgh Pirates at -2.4. The outfield posted a 54 wRC+, and a .255 wOBA. The entire outfield only hit 11 home runs, and knocked in 62 RBI’s. To say this team needed an upgrade in the outfield is an understatement. When you give every day at bats to players like Domingo Santana, Delino DeShields Jr, and infielder who was pretending to be an outfielder Mike Freeman, you’re going to have a bad time. Luckily, none of these guys are coming back this year, and the outfield already looks like there’s more hope to it.

With the signing of Rosario, this team is immediately adding in an everyday outfielder that is average-above average offensively from both sides of the plate. The Indians have not had someone that can put together quality everyday at bats in this position since Brantley departed. With just having this one position locked in, it really makes the remaining two outfield spots very interesting on how they will be fielded. Let us take a dive into what the Indians could do this season with the remaining spots that need to be filled.

Starting with Rosario, he’s probably going to be your everyday left fielder. This is clearly his preferred position, and he hasn’t spent more than 99 innings in right field since 2015. That leaves center, and right field to manage.

In center, the Indians are probably going with Mercado for the time being, with a potential to platoon with Zimmer. However, if neither of them ends up panning out entirely then I expect the Indians to give outfield prospect Daniel Johnson a shot at managing it. Johnson is slatted for a corner outfield position, but he has spent time in the minors in 2019 playing centerfield. After being acquired in the Yan Gomes trade in the same year, Johnson is looking to take a near everyday role in 2021. Another option is moving forward with newly acquired Amed Rosario.

The Mets were planning to move Rosario to the outfield after the emergence of now Indians shortstop Andres Gimenez in 2020. Now that both of these players are members of the Cleveland Indians via the Francisco Lindor trade, Tito will need to figure out if he wants to keep Rosario as a super utility piece or move him to the outfield. With the signing of Cesar Hernandez, Rosario cannot move to second base, so his remaining options are either utility off the bench, starting shortstop to allow the Indians to manipulate Gimenez’ service time clock (gross), or try his hand in the outfield. The downfall with Rosario though is that he is incapable of hitting right-handed pitching, so he would need to be platooned. Which brings us back full circle to pairing him potentially with Johnson. Will the Indians want to do this, or will they trade Rosario for another piece? That remains to be seen.

Right field is where things start to get interesting. Jordan Luplow is a lock to get playing time in the outfield. Despite having a down 2020 season, Luplow still put up a 111 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, which is his forte. In 2019, he mashed lefties at a wRC+ of 200. He is going to get his playing time, and it should never be against right-handed pitching in which he had a measly 54 wRC+. With that in mind, Luplow needs a platoon partner. That could come down to one of a few different options.

The most obvious choice is the aforementioned Johnson. He is a lefty at the dish, which by default makes you believe that he will be better against righties than lefties. If Johnson is going to play nearly every day, right field is going to be his clearest path. However, this will be contingent on if he is needed in centerfield, and if Tito is fine with bringing him up fulltime.

The next option is less of an exciting option, but more as a necessity because of options, which comes in the form of Jake Bauers. In 2019, the Indians traded Yandy Diaz to the Rays and acquired Bauers who at the time was playing left field for the Rays, despite being a natural first basemen. Bauers spent nearly all of 2019 in Cleveland in which he struggled mightily. In 423 plate appearances, Bauers hit .226/.312/.371 with an fWAR of -0.3, a wRC+ of 80, and a wOBA of .296. He was eventually sent down to the minors, and was called up towards the end of the season, but did not seem to improve at the plate. To the point in which he was never called up to Cleveland during the 2020 season. At age 25, and out of options, the Indians will need to make a decision on if they want to give him one last shot, or cut ties at the end of spring training. Gut reaction is that Bauers will get one more shot, and Johnson will start down in minors/alternative site. If his struggles continue through spring training, then Bauers days may be done in Cleveland.

The third and final option for the outfield is Josh Naylor, who was acquired by Cleveland in the Mike Clevinger trade of 2020. Naylor, a former top prospect in the San Diego farm system, immediately slid into left field once acquired by Cleveland. While his time in 2020 was nothing spectacular, .230/.279/.556 in 66 plate appearances, he was a killer during the postseason Wild Card series in which he went 5/7 with a home run, three doubles, and three RBI. A natural first basemen, it makes the most sense for Naylor to move to first base, and leave the outfield for someone else. However, if Bauers, or potentially Bobby Bradley, make the team then that could push Naylor to the outfield. Naylor is going to play most days, there’s no question to that, it’s a matter of where he is going to play. Naylor should be the starting first basemen, but he has shown that he can man the outfield if need be.

There are going to be moving parts in the first few months of the season. More likely than not, Gimenez will start the season in the minors to manipulate his service time, which puts Rosario as the starting shortstop. After Gimenez is called up, Rosario could move to the outfield, or he could not. A move to the outfield would have a trickledown effect in playing time for centerfield, or potentially right field. If Mercado doesn’t perform, do you move on to Johnson? If Johnson doesn’t perform, do you move on to someone else (Nolan Jones?!)? It is going to be fun/frustrating to watch.

Look, this team is not an offensively powerhouse, but they will be is interesting to watch. They are young, and have a ton of potential talent. If everything goes according to plan, this team has a chance to push the limits and squeak into the playoffs. That is a high asking price for a lot of inexperienced bats. 2021 is going to be a year of development, and hopefully leads into a future of consistent contention. For the first time in a long time though, this outfield is going to be something worth paying attention to.

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