Who has the ugliest looking projected outfield for 2019? If you said the crew patrolling the outfield in the park formerly known as Jacobs Field, you might not be wrong. The Indians team that made the playoffs last year did it on starting pitching and an incredible left side of the infield, but that outfield – wow. With the departure of Michael Brantley the question is do the Indians have any outfielders who would start for the Yankees, or Red Sox, or Rays, or A’s, or… You get the idea. Just who will the Indians run out there and what the heck is the plan for the team most likely of all the teams in baseball to win their division?
Projections are usually pretty bleak for players with little or no experience in the majors. It makes sense when you think about how many talented prospects fall flat when they have to face the competition at the highest level. Looking at ZiPS projections for the Indians 2019 outfield, Leonys Martin is the only starter projected to have a WAR above 1.0. Martin has multiple seasons above 2.0 but he is coming off an interrupted year where he came close to dying from an infection. Martin’s value lies mostly in his glove and he has had only one season with a wRC+ above 100 (103 in 353 plate appearances in 2018) with a career rate of 83. Now 31, Martin’s defense is unlikely to get better so his bat has to be at least close to league average for him to have enough value to start. He has nearly 50 career DRS in center field so his defense is elite if he is back to where he was before he became so seriously ill. Most humans with any kind of heart are pulling for him to play a full season and pick up where he left off.
Martin is probably the only outfielder who is a sure bet to get more than 500 plate appearances. Jake Bauers will likely end up at first base or in left if Hanley Ramirez – yes, that Hanley Ramirez – gets the nod at first base. Bauers has some things to like – decent power, the ability to take a walk, and youth. In 2018 his power was on display with 11 homers and 35 extra base hits in 388 plate appearances for the Rays. Bauers also walked a lot but his strikeout rate was untenable – 54 walks to 108 K’s. He had never flashed a K rate above 20 until 2018 so his 27% rate was probably a shocker to his 24 followers out there. The Indians could really use a guy who can get on base 35% of the time with some power so Bauers should get a chance at 500 plate appearances unless he starts out fanning left and right. He has some speed so if he gets moved to a corner outfield spot he should be decent, although he is a better first baseman at this point in his career. In their fiscal austerity season it would make sense to try to push Bauers to a more challenging part of the defensive spectrum to increase his value until he shows that he can’t do it. He has minor league experience at the outfield corners so it isn’t like they are trying to convert him in the majors.
Bradley Zimmer was an exciting prospect with tons of speed, projectable power, and the shiny veneer that coats all athletic prospects. But Zimmer is 26 now and hasn’t established himself as a major league regular (a slash line of .237/.300/.370 in 446 major league plate appearances). Unlike other top prospects, Zimmer didn’t exactly dominate the minors – his career slash line there is .268/.370/.449. He has shown the ability to get on base via the walk, but just looking at his minor league slash line might make you wonder about his hit tool. Scouts don’t particularly like his hit tool so they are in agreement with what his stats say – Fangraphs has his hit tool at a 30 with the potential to be a 40 on an 80 scale. He looks like he is ready to be a good defensive center fielder right now except that he had shoulder surgery last season and might not be fully ready by opening day (although he finally played a spring training game this week). His arm is one of his better tools so we will have to see if his shoulder is back up to speed when he comes back. With his quality glove, if Zimmer can replicate his minor league slash line in the majors then the Indians have a starting outfielder. But if Zimmer can’t get on base enough to use his speed and he doesn’t start turning his raw power into game power then he will be a 4th outfielder, which would be a huge disappointment for the Indians.
So if Zimmer isn’t the guy or Ramirez doesn’t push Bauers to the outfield then who will the Indians run out there to shag fly balls? There are three youngish guys vying for playing time in the outfield – Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, and Greg Allen – and one not quite as young guy in 28 year old Tyler Naquin. Naquin has had one partial season, his rookie season of 2016, where he looked like a quality starting outfielder, albeit one aided by an unsustainable .411 BABIP. Naquin slashed .296/.372/.514 in 365 plate appearances but then all but dissolved in 2017, in part due to injuries. In 2018 he was nowhere near that 2016 guy – more injuries and ineffectiveness – and at 28 looks like a one-season wonder. Defensive metrics don’t like him in center but show him to be a good corner outfielder, so his bat needs to get close to his 2016 numbers for him to start. This is likely his last chance to claim a starting job or even claim substantial playing time.
Jordan Luplow drew walks, showed good power, and demonstrated the ability to hit lefties and righties in the minors. So far he has only managed 190 plate appearances in the majors and hasn’t really shown the ability to do anything at the plate. That isn’t much time really, and Luplow should get a chance to show what he can do in an outfield where all the options have holes in their game. The offensive bar is a bit higher for him because he is most likely limited to a corner spot, but realistically center is covered anyway between Martin and Zimmer. At 25, Luplow needs to show what he can do pretty soon before he gets caught and passed by some shinier, newer prospect.
Naquin and Luplow have not made the most of their opportunities this spring but two of the youngsters on the list have – Oscar Mercado has crushed the ball as has Greg Allen. Mercado is younger and is a skilled center fielder, but he has no major league experience, whereas Allen has 300 plate appearances in the Cleveland with mixed results. Both men can fly and Allen showed that he could steal bases at a high success rate in the majors last season (21 out of 25). Allen has shown the ability to get on base in the minors but that hasn’t translated to the majors yet. Mercado has hit for average and shown some game power in his last two minor league stops but hasn’t even tasted major league gatorade yet. Both men play center field, and are reported to both be good defenders, but Allen’s numbers in his time patrolling center in the majors weren’t good. So what to do?
The Indians could gamble and keep both Mercado and Allen since Allen hits lefties better and Mercado, who is a righty, has hit right-handers better the last couple of seasons. The advantage to keeping Mercado and Allen is that there is some upside there and they both give you speed and likely good defense with the ability to play center. Naquin is more of a known quantity and he is a corner guy so that limits him. Since Bauers can play first base then you could hang onto Luplow also since he still appears to have some upside and has the best power potential of any of the players in the outfield mix. That would mean passing on Hanley Ramirez which is probably the right thing to do anyway. If Zimmer starts the season in extended spring training or on the DL and Martin is the starter in center, then you could have an excellent defensive outfield and just hope that SOMEONE hits their weight. A platoon between Mercado and Allen in one corner and either Luplow or Bauers in the other depending on the situation with Hanley would at least give fans some reason for hope. It could work. If you are going to run out a bunch of question marks then it makes sense to support your strength – starting pitching – by making sure you put together a good defensive mix behind them as often as possible. If the Indians can get even middle of the pack production out of their outfield then they should be able to hold off the Twins. Maybe the Indians outfield isn’t as ugly as it looks?