Amed Rosario’s position in Cleveland was never certain. From the day he was brought over in the Francisco Lindor trade, no one wrote his name as the team’s shortstop in pen. At best, he would start there until Andres Gimenez was determined to be ready to assume the role, and like what happened with the Mets last year, Rosario’s job would be taken.
Now with Gimenez tearing up spring training and looking every bit like he’s ready to begin the post-Lindor era on Opening Day, Rosario’s place in Cleveland has been shrinking faster than expected.
(Well, faster than most expected. Some smart, handsome, mediocre baseball writers saw the inevitability of this the day Amed was acquired.)
Specific spring stats don’t matter, but Gimenez has hit the ball well against decent competition, and he’s made some dazzling plays at shortstop — as expected. With Oscar Mercado also failing to blow anyone away with his spring performance, it opens the door for Rosario to still get playing time and bring a potentially average bat to a position that Cleveland has historically struggled to fill — either as the team’s starting center fielder or even just an extra utilityman.
Terry Francona today confirmed that Rosario will begin taking fly balls in center and eventually moving around “one position at a time” to find him a new defensive home.
Amed Rosario will start taking fly balls in center field over the next week. He'll gradually start to work out at other spots – "We'll go one position at a time," Terry Francona said. In related news, Andrés Giménez's shortstop stock keeps soaring.— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) March 11, 2021
To date, Rosario has played exactly three (3.0) innings of outfield defense. Those came on Aug. 18, 2019, when he shifted to the outfield grass late as an injury replacement in a blowout win against the Royals. Amazin’ Avenue’s game recap described him as “not comfortable” out there, but by the sounds of the rest of the recap, there was no comfort anywhere in the Mets organization at the time.
Two balls found their way to Rosario in the bottom of the seventh. One was a flyout off the bat of Whit Merrifield, and the next batter, Nicky Lopez, singled on a ball hit to left. Rosario hadn’t prepared or taken reps to be an outfielder, so it is by no means a fair way to judge him, but it still happened.
Other than that brief brush with the outfield, Rosario has been a dedicated shortstop — the other 3306.0 innings have his career have been played at the position. So, needless to say, this is going to be quite the transition. It’s not one that Cleveland has shied away from making (or trying to make) at the last second, though. Their top prospect, Nolan Jones, is blocked at third base and expected to play outfield for the major-league club. Yet we’ve heard almost nothing about him getting reps out there. Former Cleveland prospects Yandy Diaz and Francisco Mejia were asked to play some outfield at one point. Jason Kipnis was once a man thrown into the outfield fire — and do I even need to mention Carlos Santana’s World Series stint?
Instincts will take some time to catch on, but Rosario surely has the tools to be able to catch up to a ball in the outfield. Back when he was a top-5 prospect in baseball, his speed received a 60 grade from scouts. As a major-leaguer, he has had a sprint speed in the 93rd-or-higher percentile every year since his 2017 rookie campaign.
Rosario is an error-prone shortstop, though, and often struggles to make anything but the most routine plays. Based on FanGraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding, he’s made 44.4% of “Even” plays (where 40% to 60% are expected to be turned), and just 7.3% of “Unlikely” plays (where 10% to 40% are expected). At one point in 2019, he committed seven errors in a span of eight days and he finished that year with -10 defensive runs saved and in the bottom of the league in outs above average, a Statcast metric that measures the range of a defender.
All of that goes out the window if Rosario can prove he has the ability to make good first jumps and read the ball from the outfield. The speed piece is there, everything else just needs to follow.
If he does make the cut as the team’s Opening Day center fielder — which also assumes Oscar Mercado and Bradley Zimmer both failed to take hold of the position — he’ll be part of a very suspect defensive outfield.
As of now, it looks like it would be Amed in center, Eddie Rosario in left, and Josh Naylor in right field. Eddie is a world-renowned “not great” defender, but can stay hidden in left field because of his streaky-good bat. Naylor is also not going to be chasing balls all over in right field either, with less-than-impressive speed himself.
In 2019 and 2020, Cleveland pitchers had the third-highest strikeout in the majors at 26% — that’s good news if you have an exploitable outfield. Unfortunately, they also induced the fewest groundballs in the league, keeping the ball out of the air just 39.9% of the time. If sinkerballer Cal Quantrill earns a starting role that might change the calculus a little, but not enough to suddenly make them a groundball machine team.
Is it going to be a circus every time an opposing batter lifts a ball past the infield? Maybe! But if it means getting a couple more competent bats in the lineup, I think it’s a trade Cleveland has to make somewhere. Combined, Cleveland outfielders are tied for the third-worst wRC+ in the American League since 2016. And that includes a couple years of Michael Brantley being really good, Austin Jackson slashing .318/.387./.482 in 2017, and Jordan Luplow consistently mashing lefties. Even with all that, they still average out to a well below-average group. Naylor, Eddie, and whoever wins the center field role all figure to add more thump than they’ve had out there in a while. Even if it is Amed Rosario and his projected 90 wRC+.
In a probably related event, Cleveland also informed outfielder Billy Hamilton today that he will not be making the Opening Day roster. As Francona explained, they made the decision early to give Hamilton, 30, a chance to find a new team by Opening Day. The goal has always been for Mercado and Zimmer to be the starting center fielder, but it’s up to them to earn the role. If not, Rosario — not Hamilton — is now the veteran lurking.