As a team, the Indians roster is in the greatest flux from one season to the next since the Terry Francona era began. Gone are literally all of the regulars who have been around since 2013 with the exception of Jose Ramirez and, adding Roberto Perez and Bradley Zimmer to that short list, the team is nearly entirely different from even the 2018 roster.
Unlike the shortstop battle, which was covered in the first spring training positional battle article, the Indians outfield situation could actually be better in 2021 than it was in 2020. Similarly to shortstop, however, it could feature a completely different crew than played the three positions just a year ago. Currently in the running for the starting positions in 2021 spring training camp are eleven players for four positions (we’re including DH for reasons to become obvious shortly) and one or two bench spots. Nine of these players are currently on the 40 man roster with Ben Gamel and Billy Hamilton being late additions on minor league deals.
The lone regular?
Before sorting through the unknowns, the Indians essentially have two knowns out of the players listed as outfielders. First, free agent signing Eddie Rosario should be a guaranteed starter. He has been a starting outfielder for the Twins since 2015, playing mostly left since 2018. As a slightly better than league average player, Rosario brings a dramatic boost to what has been the Indians weakest position for a very long time. He has a great arm as well and could potentially play right or left. Either way, he’s the most established player going into spring training and should automatically get a starting job.
Outfield in name only
Another automatic starter is Franmil Reyes, although his inclusion as an outfielder is a bit suspect. He was a right fielder with the Padres, but has played just four games in the outfield since joining Cleveland compared to over 100 games as DH. He may continue to play outfield against National League teams in interleague play, but he isn’t legitimately involved in this outfield discussion anymore.
This leaves two starting positions and up to two bench spots for the remaining nine players. Jumping from the top straight to the bottom, we have three players with MLB experience who were absolutely dreadful in their most recent appearances with Cleveland.
The worst of these is Jake Bauers, who was a first baseman with Tampa, but has been mostly used in the outfield with Cleveland. He didn’t make the squad at all in 2020 despite horrible performances all around at the position and hit just .226/.312/.371 in his first season with the team. Depending on how the Indians want to work out the first base position (more on that in the first base article), Bauers could figure into the mix, but ultimately he’s the bottom of the barrel.
Significantly better is the pure platoon bat, Jordan Luplow. While useless against right handers, Luplow demolishes left handed pitchers to the point that he essentially needs to have a roster spot. In 2020, the Indians put Luplow’s platoon role to the test by letting him hit against righties 49 times (compared to 43 PA against lefties) and it lead to what was arguably his worst season. Even so, he has a .275/.379/.603 slash line vs lefties and is very effective when used intelligently.
New kid on the block
Finally, there is the newest of the group, Josh Naylor. Despite being left handed, Naylor also has extreme splits where he is significantly better against left handed pitchers, batting .304/.339/.411 compared to .238/.303/.378. He has the advantage of youth compared to the other two at just 23 years old and deserves another shot at regular appearances despite his poor performance in 2020. There’s a good chance Naylor sees most of his time in 2021 at first base, but he might also find himself in the outfield occasionally.
Gotta be centerfield
That brings the competition to two more players who had extremely poor performances in 2020, but have skills that make them interesting despite their offense. Both Oscar Mercado and Bradley Zimmer are solid defenders and really the first legitimate possibilities for center out of the players listed. They both bring a bit of power and a bit of speed and are young enough that they could still significantly improve (although time is running out quickly for Zimmer), but are bringing a ton of risk offensively. On the surface, it could seem that they could platoon with Mercado as the righty and Zimmer the lefty. Both players have one minor league option left, so the Indians could pick one to break camp with and use a lesser defender, like Luplow, to fill in when necessary. Zimmer has gone through several stance changes and is trying to cut down on the strikeouts while working more walks like he did in the minors.
Mercado’s 2020 was so bad it’s likely unrepeatable due to poor approach 29 K%, 5.4 BB%, and bad BABIP luck (.169) so perhaps it should be thrown out all together.
From the minors
While it has been mostly doom and gloom so far, there is a slight bit of positivity on the horizon. Daniel Johnson made his big league debut in 2020, but played just five games. He had a really great 2019 season between Akron and Columbus, batting .290/.361/.507 and is a good defender who can play right or center. With Rosario likely entrenched in left and a potential platoon of Luplow and someone in right, Johnson could get the starting job in center, although it is more likely that he is the other half of that unknown platoon with Luplow. A lefty, Johnson hit .311/.368/.538 against righties in 2019 and hitting against righties would give the Indians the better defender in right the majority of the time. At 25 years old and done with his minor league development, DJ needs to be included on the roster and should be given enough starts to determine if he can produce at the Major League level. If he’s successful early on, the Indians could even play him in right vs right handers and center vs left handers allowing him to play every day while still taking advantage of Luplow vs lefties.
The near future?
The final internal contender in this race is still listed as an infielder although he will almost certainly play outfield in 2021. Nolan Jones has been in the argument for top Indians prospect for years, bringing patience, power and an advanced bat to the plate. However, he’s average at third base, his primary position, and Jose Ramirez certainly isn’t moving. This lead the Indians to test Jones at first and both corner outfield spots in 2020 instructs. I can say from personal observation that he was solid at first, but wasn’t tested enough to judge in the outfield. Should the Indians chose to run with him in right field, they could take advantage of his strong, but not entirely accurate, arm and his ability to absolutely demolish right handed pitching. He was in the alternate camp in 2020, but hasn’t officially played a game in AAA yet, so the Indians could easily stash him in Columbus to start the season and wait until things sort out a bit naturally before bringing him into the big leagues. In any event, he should certainly make his MLB debut in 2021.
Finally, Ben Gamel and Billy Hamilton were brought in on minor league contracts with an invite to big league spring training camp on February 11th. Gamel was a really strong starter for Seattle in 2017, batting .275/.322/.413 in 134 games during his first full season, but has fallen off steadily ever since. 2020 was his first season as a regular where he didn’t post a positive WAR and, while he has played all three outfield positions in his career, he was mostly used in left. Given the situation laid out above, it makes the most sense for Gamel to be either a bench option or part of the right field discussion. A problem that immediately sticks out, however, is that despite being left handed, he has been significantly better against left handed pitching throughout his career so far. This makes him a poor fit for a platoon with Luplow.
Hamilton was a fan favorite from his first season when he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2014 with Cincinnati. The best base stealer of his era, Hamilton’s perennially low OBP never allowed him to become as dangerous as he could have been on the bases. He was traded to the Mets in 2020 for current Indians pitcher Jordan Humphreys, then hit extremely poorly for 17 games before being placed on waivers and claimed by the Cubs. There, he was incredibly effective over 14 games, batting .300/.364/.600 with three steals. Despite his age, he’s still at least a league average centerfielder and gives the Indians another option for bench bat if they want to further delay Johnson.
Taking in the whole picture, things already look massively better than 2020 with Rosario significantly bolstering the offense and giving the Indians at least one full time starter. Luplow and someone who can hit righties seems an obvious platoon for right field, although whether that someone will be the older names of Gamel, Bauers, Zimmer or the newer Johnson or Jones is yet to be seen. Given that this is expected to be at least a bit of a rebuilding year, it makes the most sense to run with the younger prospects and see what they can do, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Center remains the biggest issue with the most likely option still being Mercado, while Johnson is a potential back-up. This is easily the weakest position on the Major League roster and throughout the farm system. If the Indians can somehow add one more player before the season starts, this would be the place to do it.
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I hope Indian coaches take the time and effort to determine if some of the excessive talent they have in the middle infield can be moved to fill the holes in their outfield. Gabriel Arias is one of several who should be give an opportunity to compete for a position.
Jones is the first experiment there, but I’d expect more to come. Arias is probably too good defensively to waste out there though.