It was a lengthy process, but the Cleveland Indians tinkered with their outfield rotation to yield a finished product heading into the 2016 postseason. The campaign took its twists and turns with the injury to Michael Brantley, the demotion of Collin Cowgill, the suspensions of Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte, the trade for Brandon Guyer and the late-season signing of Coco Crisp.
Overall, the Tribe fine-tuned a rather flawed area of the roster from day one and molded together a an outfield that could complement a championship caliber roster over the course of seven months.
Not only does 2017 bring many similar faces, but it also could mark the long-awaited return of Michael Brantley and the highly anticipated debut of Bradley Zimmer.
The third installment of positional breakdowns is here with about a week separating the Indians from their first full squad workout in Goodyear, AZ.
CF Tyler Naquin
From start to finish, Tyler Naquin had a night and day year that saw his batting average as high as .338 (22-for-65) and .348 (24-for-69) in the months of June and July, and as low as .193 (11-for-57) and .174 (4-for-23) in August and the postseason. While batting average may not be the best predictor of a hitter’s overall performance, Naquin’s .411 BABIP suggests he is due for a significant regression in 2017.
With all that said, the 25-year-old is a former first round pick and is coming off a season in which he finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Michael Fulmer and Gary Sanchez. Naquin’s .301/.372/.526 slash line and .898 OPS against right-handed pitchers is encouraging and could pave way to him at least serving as a good platoon option this year in center field.
What to expect: An exceptional spring along with several injuries to others on the roster provided a surprising big league opportunity for Naquin once the opening day rosters were released. Players like Austin Jackson and Zimmer are hungry for playing time in center field, but Naquin should be near the top of manager Terry Francona’s priority list going into spring training and should receive an MLB designation to open the season.
RF Lonnie Chisenhall
Tribe fans recall the days when Lonnie Chisenhall was the everyday third baseman, which seems like years ago. That ancient period was when he committed 18 errors in a season (2014) and registered a .931 fielding percentage at the hot corner. Fortunately, Chisenhall has found his niche in right field and settled into a respectable platoon player.
Similar to Naquin, Chisenhall was a first round pick (29th overall) in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Pitt Community College. In 2016, Chisenhall notched career-highs in batting average (.286) and slugging percentage (.439) with a .767 OPS.
Chisenhall’s most notable memory from the season came in Game 2 of the ALDS when he received the surprising start against left-hander David Price and launched a decisive three-run homer to the right field corner at Progressive Field.
What to expect: A role nearly identical to that of 2016 seems to be the likely scenario for the 28-year-old veteran. Chisenhall had .295/.332/.451 averages against right-handed pitching which surpasses his meager .217/.294/.348 slash line opposite southpaws, so if Francona continues to employ platoons as he has done in years past, then Chisenhall will fit seamlessly into the 2017 blueprint.
RF Brandon Guyer
The other half of the right field platoon comes in the form of Brandon Guyer, a late-season acquisition from a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. When Andrew Miller was traded, the city of Cleveland erupted with high hopes of making a deep playoff run. Shortly thereafter, the exchange for Guyer took place and flew under the radar.
His .328/.435/.517 slash line vs left-handed pitching was not a total surprise (.289/.391/.470 vs LHP in his career), but Guyer had unprecedented success against righties and finished 2016 with a remarkable .348/.444/.348 average (.236/.307/.337 vs RHP in his career).
What to expect: This 31-year-old thrives in a platoon role and he should continue to do so in conjunction with Chisenhall in 2017. Having recently signed a two-year deal worth $5-million, Guyer’s major league position is pretty much set in stone for now and 2018. If Guyer can repeat his remarkable 2016 stint with the Indians, then he could be in for a more substantial role hitting against some righties, especially if Brantley were to miss further time due to injury.
LF Michael Brantley
The storyline of spring training is Dr. Smooth.
Simply put, the spotlight is focusing on Brantley in hopes that he can return to being a cog in the middle of the Indians batting order. At 29-years-old, there is still time for Brantley to move forward from the severe shoulder surgery (torn right labrum) that sidelined him for most of the 2016 campaign.
The key is going to be how Brantley’s shoulder reacts when he returns to game action for the first time since May 9, 2016. There is no denying his prosperity from the past (.292/.348/.421 and .769 career OPS), but Brantley’s future will be contingent on the effectiveness of his rehab process and transition to game situations.
What to expect: Out of all the “what to expect” sections on the Tribe roster, this one comes with the most unpredictability. It might be May, June or even July until Brantley finally takes the field depending on how he progresses. The organization appears to be taking more of a cautious approach this go-around but Brantley recently made the assertion that he is further along in his rehab than last year.
LF/CF Abraham Almonte
When Almonte made the leap back to the major league level, it came as a bit of a surprise after serving an 80-game suspension (plus postseason) to begin the year. Cowgill and Byrd departed and opened the door for the Dominican Republic native to make an immediate impact in a consistent outfield role.
The 27-year-old tallied career-bests in doubles (20) and stolen bases (8) in a limited sample size of just 67 games. If he qualified for the playoffs, Almonte would have played even more down the stretch instead of Coco Crisp who served a temporary role.
What to expect: Almonte got the job done and filled the need of an extra outfielder with Brantley shelved for the season. His .264/.294/.401 slash line is certainly not groundbreaking, but the switch-hitter logged at least 10 innings at every outfield position in 2016. This is useful for a team with a multitude of platoons and outfield rotations like the Indians.
CF Austin Jackson
One of the more intriguing options out of the outfield bunch, Jackson represents a proven big league veteran when healthy and the ability to steal some bases. He also comes in with a questionable injury status (medial meniscus tear in right knee) heading into February and March.
Jackson is in the prime of his career (he just turned 30-years-old), but has not accumulated a double-digit home run total since 2013 (12 HR) and has been unable to tally at least 20 stolen bases since 2014 (20 SB). It can be difficult to put a devastating injury in the rear view mirror, but Jackson will need to do so if he wants to make a strong impression on the Cleveland coaching staff this spring.
What to expect: Jackson could either make the club out of spring training or opt-out and sign elsewhere if things do not work out. The Tribe made the decision to sign Jackson to a minor league deal as insurance for Brantley and Naquin if they falter this spring. If he performs up to Francona’s standards, he could make the roster outright and be the beneficiary of approximately $4-million in major league incentives.
CF Bradley Zimmer
Zimmer was front and center when it came to trade talks this past July. Teams like the New York Yankees had the 24-year-old on their list but could not pry Zimmer away from an organization that drafted him 21st overall in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft.
With that in mind, Zimmer has shown a five-tool approach courtesy of a .268/.372/.445 career minor league slash line with 94 stolen bases and countless superb defensive plays in 305 games played. His .249/.349/.305 averages during his first stint with Triple-A Columbus lead many to believe that Zimmer still has room for development before he is tested at the next level of competition.
What to expect: Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Zimmer will start the year at Triple-A Columbus and could get the call as soon as June or July depending on roster construction, player performance and injuries to the MLB roster. Zimmer has all the assets to be a big league ballplayer and the next big impact prospect for the Indians; now he has to apply them at Triple-A if he wants a major league opportunity with the franchise.
LF/INF Yandy Diaz
Unlike Zimmer, Diaz was named to the World Team for the 2016 Futures Game at Petco Park in San Diego, CA. The Cuban native went 1-for-2 with a single in front of the national audience and culminated the 2016 MiLB season with a .318/.408/.446 slash line and .854 OPS between Columbus and Double-A Akron.
In addition to his impressive stats and national television exposure, Diaz experimented with the idea of gaining experience in the outfield by playing 24 games in left field (one error), one game in center field (0 errors) and 28 games in right field (three errors). He is still a work in progress defensively, but the fact that Diaz is being thrust into other positions shows that the franchise is working to find a major league fit and add to his versatility.
What to expect: Diaz has done much more than Zimmer in the minor leagues, but has gotten far less notoriety as a prospect. However, even though Zimmer may be the top prospect in the farm system, Diaz is one of their best young position player prospects and is as close to a finished product as you can get in the minors and stands to get the first opportunity in Cleveland between the two.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.