Spring training is officially underway. The games that don’t really matter but sure feel like they do after months of emptiness have returned to give us hope for the future, a look at some new additions, and of course position battles. Those beautiful, beautiful position battles.
Cleveland’s primary battles right now are the same as they have been since the Obama administration. The bullpen could use some sorting out, first base is up in the air, and the outfield is a mess. Maybe less of a mess than it has been recently, but past newcomer Eddie Rosario, it’s still anybody’s game to take over center field and right field for the long-term.
Franmil Reyes has probably been ruled out. I think he’s faster than most would think given his size, but Baseball Savant’s outs above average had him in the 21st percentile back in 2019. He was decent coming in on the ball (ninth overall in baseball, in fact), but chasing down fly balls in any other direction just wasn’t great for the big man. He figures to be a designated hitter and a damn good one at that.
Defensively, Daniel Johnson is probably the best option, based purely on his rocket arm and 70-grade speed. With only five major-league games under his belt, we’ve yet to see him really test his ability in the field. But there’s hardly anything for him left to prove in the minors, having raked at every level, first with the Nationals and then with Cleveland in Double-A and Triple-A in 2019.
Johnson was miserable at the plate in 2020 but debuting in the most difficult environment maybe ever for a prospect, I think it’s fair to look beyond his 13 plate appearance sample size for whatever talent lies beneath.
Over the weekend, Cleveland manager Terry Francona provided some clarity to the situation — namely that Josh Naylor will be working exclusively as a right fielder in spring training. I can’t seem to track down the exact quote, so right now it’s just “source: trust me bro,” but I saw others mention it was said on Jim Rosenhaus’s pre-game show on Sunday, and Tom Hamilton also brought it up during the game broadcast.
What Terry Francona and the coaches have elected to do — Bauers is not going to play in the outfield this spring. They’re strictly going to put him at first base. Really, the battle is between he and Bobby Bradley. Now Josh Naylor, everybody knows can play first, but Naylor is strictly going to play right field this spring.
I’m counting that as two sources. Journalism.
Assuming it is true (and it obviously is: see above journalism), it doesn’t clear up everything, but it does simplify some things. It means that first base is now a clear contest between Jake Bauers, Bobby Bradley, and no one else. It means that those two, and Naylor, have one less thing to worry about in spring training. They already have to deal with the COVID-19 protocols that are still in place and generally growing as baseball players. Might as well not bounce them around between positions. And like Hammy said in his quote above, everyone already knows Naylor can play first. As long as he’s already comfortable there, it does make sense to give Bauers and Bradley the most time to battle at first base. That part I completely understand.
Realistically, for a team who hopes to keep winning in 2021 Naylor might be the best fit at first, though, and it feels like a potential negative all around to keep him in right field long-term. If that is the plan.
A lot can change in a month, but if Naylor is indeed a permanent fixture in right field — and he plays well enough to stick — that all but closes the door on Daniel Johnson getting playing time right away. He’ll either be optioned back down to Triple-A to start the year or be stuck as the team’s fourth outfielder. Either way, he’s going to have to wait for Oscar Mercado to falter in center field, or Naylor to play his way out of the right field with either poor hitting or fielding.
This conveniently brings me to my next point: Josh Naylor is not a good outfielder. Try whatever metric or eye test you want — he is a lumbering runner and scouting reports as a prospect never imagined him as anything but a first baseman or designated hitter with the Padres if it was ever universally implemented. Now that he landed on an American League team with Franmil Reyes as the entrenched DH, the only logical thing seemed to be to keep him at first base.
Bobby Bradley’s ceiling punches a whole in the stratosphere, but if he can’t reach that, first base will be manned by Bauers, who — unless work at the alternate site drastically improved his bat — will be one of the weaker-hitting first basemen in baseball while one of the worst defenders will be in right.
Naylor at first base with Johnson and Jordan Luplow platooning in right field as needed seems like the ideal layout based on what we know about the players right now. But, again, a lot can change in a month. Hardly anything to get the digital pitchforks out over, but something worth considering.