Of the five outfielders on the Cleveland Guardians’ roster, only one of them was with the big league club at this time last year. It’s been exciting to watch the club infuse their outfield with youth, promoting the likes of Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, Nolan Jones, and Will Benson to make their big league debuts. But with five outfielders and only three spots in the lineup, there has been much consternation about how manager Terry Francona has allocated at-bats.
The one outfield spot where there has been no second guessing is left field. Steven Kwan owns that real estate as he makes his case for American League Rookie of the Year.
The other two outfield spots have been something of a different story.
Benson has started six games since his promotion, only once starting back-to-back games. Three of his starts have come in center field, with one in left field, another in right, and the other as designated hitter. All six starts have come with a right-handed starting pitcher on the mound, and he has tallied three hits and one walk in 24 plate appearances against right-handers.
It would seem that Francona is platooning Benson with Myles Straw, but it is a fairly lopsided platoon. Straw does fare better against left-handers than right-handers, but “better” is a loose term when you compare slash lines. He is slashing .216/.294/.278 against left-handed pitching this season compared to .198/.275/.249 against right-handed pitching.
But in their last 19 games, the Guardians have faced four left-handed starters, which in turn means they’ve faced 15 right-handers. Straw has started in center field against 12 of them. With Straw struggling at the plate — a ghastly .088/.117/.105 and -45 wRC+ in the month of August — why not give Benson more opportunities in center field?
We can only speculate, and the only logical explanation is that Francona deems Straw’s defense in center field to be vastly superior to Benson’s. If that’s the case, he’s not wrong, as Straw ranks in the 96th percentile in outs above average and 1st among all qualified center fielders in FanGraphs Defense. But if Francona isn’t willing to cede regular at-bats to Benson, a former first-round draft pick, is riding the bench in Cleveland the best place for him to be right now?
In right field, Oscar Gonzalez has all but cemented his place in the lineup. Since returning from the injured list, he has slashed .348/.368/.515 and produced 149 wRC+, faring well against both right- and left-handed pitching. His 14 starts in right field over the last 19 games have come at the expense of Nolan Jones, who has as many starts in right field (4) as he does at designated hitter this month. He hasn’t done much with the at-bats he has been given, good (or bad?) for -14 wRC+ in 30 plate appearances since Aug. 1 after producing 143 wRC+ in July.
That situation seems to have sorted itself out for now with Jones being optioned to Triple-A Columbus, where he’ll be able to get regular at-bats as he works to find his footing at the plate again. Richie Palacios steps into Jones’ vacated roster spot and he’ll likely pick up where he left off as the Guardians’ utility outfielder and late-inning pinch-hitter when he was in Cleveland earlier this season. His profile is better suited to the Guardians’ contact-oriented approach as a lineup.
If I have a grievance with how Francona has configured his outfield this month, it’s that Benson hasn’t been given more opportunities. Six starts is not a fair audition, unless the organization feels that being a fourth outfielder off the bench is Benson’s ceiling. Straw’s offensive struggles have certainly given the Guardians ample reason to explore alternatives at center field. It’s one thing to value defense over offense at the catcher position, but you can’t afford to do the same in center field and have nearly two-thirds of your lineup not contributing offensively.