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Cleveland’s outfield will be an adventure in 2021

Who needs a center fielder, anyway?

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Cleveland Indians Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the span of one week this spring, top outfield prospect Daniel Johnson was optioned to Triple-A Columbus despite boasting the best OPS of any outfielder invited to camp, former starting center fielder Oscar Mercado was told he will not make the Opening Day roster, and converted shortstop Amed Rosario made three errors in his debut in center field.

Cleveland’s outfield plan for 2021, in a word:

But this is business as usual for the club at this point. Last season, Cleveland’s outfield ranked 29th in the league in wRC+ (54) and WAR (-0.9). Center field, specifically, has been a black hole. Take a gander at the list of players who have led the team in center field starts since 2015:

2020: Delino DeShields Jr.
2019: Oscar Mercado
2018: Greg Allen
2017: Bradley Zimmer
2016: Tyler Naquin
2015: Michael Bourn

Give it time and that list may grow to match the futility of the Cleveland Browns’ revolving door of quarterbacks — prior to the arrival of Baker Mayfield, of course. Especially if Amed Rosario is expected to see significant time in center field for the foreseeable future. While the Amed Rosario experiment is a clear cut example of the team trying to make use of what they have in the refrigerator already because a trip to the grocery store would be too much work, it also makes clear that the club is willing to try and boost offensive production at the expense of their defense.

Consider the other Rosario on the roster. This offseason, Cleveland signed former Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario to a one-year deal. Eddie hasn’t had a positive FanGraphs Defense mark since 2015 and even notched a career-low in 2019 (-11.7). He has been remarkably consistent at the plate, though. His batting average may have declined each of the last four seasons, but he has averaged 111 wRC+ over that span and his slugging percentage has never dipped below .476.

Most importantly, Eddie would have been the most productive outfielder on Cleveland’s roster last season. He may not provide much value defensively, but he is an instant upgrade at the plate.

You could almost say the same about Josh Naylor, who has all but sewn up the starting spot in right field. There was talk of him ending up at first base, but Cleveland seems set on keeping Naylor where he is. And as is the case with Eddie Rosario, good with a glove Naylor is not. Steamer’s projection for FanGraphs Defense is the most optimistic, and even that is -8.5.

But our own Matt Schlichting would have you believe that Naylor is about to make a leap in terms of offensive production that will compensate for his less than impressive defense. He struggled at the plate last season in an abbreviated season split between San Diego and Cleveland, but Steamer and ZiPS both expect 2021 to be the best of his young big league career so far, recording 100 wRC+ for the first time since getting called up in 2019. It remains to be seen how much manager Terry Francona will platoon him with Jordan Luplow, though.

With the corner spots claimed, that brings us back to the sinkhole in center field. Will it be Amed Rosario, Bradley Zimmer, Ben Gamel, or some combination of two of them? Amed is a liability defensively for the moment, but he is in contention because the club likes his bat. His $2.4 million salary also likely affords him some staying power. Zimmer is the best defensive center fielder of the bunch by a wide margin, but he has been battling injuries since 2018. He has been decent at the plate this spring, but his offensive struggles with the big league club during the regular season are well documented and probably hold more weight.

Then there is Ben Gamel. To his credit, Gamel would have also been the most productive outfielder on Cleveland’s roster last season, but that’s a low bar. He probably raises the floor, with career numbers — .261/.331/.388 and 95 wRC+ — that are nothing to scoff at by Cleveland’s standards. That said, his ceiling is nowhere near that of a prospect like Daniel Johnson.

The good news: Cleveland should see better offensive production from their outfielders, which is obviously not difficult to do, but it’s a step in the right direction. The trade-off will of course be a step down in outfield defense, and the uncertainty in center field is a concern. The Cleveland outfield will be nothing if not interesting this season, that much is for sure.