For a team that has averaged 95 wins a year over the last four seasons, the Indians have consistently taken a mix-and-match approach to their outfield amidst this run of success. Of course, having star infielders (i.e. Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez) and a seemingly neverending pipeline of starting talent can allow a club to put less of a focus on its outfielders, and Cleveland would’ve ideally hoped that more of its highly-regarded outfield prospects would have taken the leap to everyday status by this point. Still, the Tribe is now entering a fifth season of outfield uncertainty, and hoping that at least one of its question marks can enjoy a true breakout campaign.
Let’s begin with the one everyday lock in Oscar Mercado, though Mercado’s actual position on a game-by-game basis could be in flux. The 25-year-old is coming off a solid rookie season that saw him perform decently well at the plate (95 wRC+, 96 OPS+) and impressively well with the glove in 698 2/3 innings in center field — +6 Outs Above Average, +5.8 UZR/150, +9 Defensive Runs Saved. It’s safe to assume that Mercado will get the lion’s share of time in center again in 2020, though his ability to play all three positions will allow manager Terry Francona to shift other players into the outfield based on matchups.
Those other players? It’s quite a long list:
- Delino DeShields: Depending on your defensive metric of choice, DeShields was either slightly behind (UZR/150, DRS) Mercado in defensive value last season, or ahead (Statcast ranked DeShields tied for fifth among all outfielders in baseball with +12 OAA in 2019), plus DeShields has a longer track record of outstanding glovework. It stands to reason that DeShields will handle center when Mercado is used in the corners, though it remains to be seen if DeShields will hit enough to move beyond mere fourth-outfielder duty. The 27-year-old hit only .246/.326/.342 over 1936 career plate appearances with the Rangers, though it’s possible the change of scenery from Texas to Cleveland could help.
- Domingo Santana: Signed to a one-year MLB contract (with a 2021 club option) earlier this week, Santana is decidedly not an option in center field, and even the corner outfield might be a stretch for a player who posted some of the worst defensive numbers of any player in baseball. If Santana does indeed end up being used mostly as a designated hitter, the fact that he was signed at all could hint at the Tribe’s belief that…
- Franmil Reyes is capable of better things as a right fielder after two seasons of mediocre fielding. Acquired as part of the three-team Trevor Bauer blockbuster last summer, Reyes hit .249/.310/.512 with 37 home runs over 548 PA between the Padres and Indians in 2019. The power is already there and the overall hitting potential has shown some flashes of improvement, and though Cleveland used Reyes almost exclusively at DH after the trade, the team surely hopes that they can get at least a couple of seasons’ worth of passable fielding work from Reyes to maximize his overall roster value (even if a mostly-DH role is ultimately in his future).
- Jordan Luplow: Among all qualified hitters in 2019, only J.D. Martinez and Alex Bregman had a higher wRC+ against left-handed pitching than Luplow, who crushed southpaws to the tune of a .320/.439/.742 slash line and 198 wRC+ over 155 PA. Even with other big righty bats like Santana and Reyes on hand, Luplow’s incredible splits will ensure that he’ll at least see platoon action, and Luplow has the added defensive edge of being able to play the corners decently well (and could even handle center field in a pinch). If Luplow is to play a larger role, he’ll have to greatly improve his desultory .596 career OPS over 225 PA against right-handed pitching.
- Greg Allen: The switch-hitting Allen offers a bit of balance to all of these right-handed hitters, though he hasn’t much from either side of the plate over 586 Major League plate appearances. Allen can technically play all three outfield positions, though his glovework in the corners is much more highly regarded than his performance in center field. Assuming at least one of the left-handed bats remaining on this listing emerges, Allen may find himself beginning the 2020 season in the minors.
- Tyler Naquin: He likely won’t factor into the Opening Day picture, as much as Naquin is making excellent progress after suffering a torn ACL at the end of August. Still, Naquin looks on pace to return on the shorter end of his original seven-to-nine month recovery period, which adds another left-handed bat to the Indians’ mix. 2019 was shaping up as easily Naquin’s best season since his 2016 rookie year, so a post-hype breakout might yet be in the cards for Naquin if he can get healthy.
- Jake Bauers: Acquired as part of last offseason’s three-team deal that brought Carlos Santana back to Cleveland, Bauers’ first year with the Tribe was a disaster, as he posted an overall sub-replacement season (-0.4 fWAR) while struggling at both the plate and in the field. Bauers is still only 24 years old and is a former top-100 prospect, so it’s clearly far too early for the Indians to give up on him, but he’ll be on a much shorter leash than last season.
- Bradley Zimmer: Speaking of former top prospects, Zimmer missed almost all of the 2018-19 seasons due to shoulder surgery. MLB.com ranked Zimmer as the 22nd-best prospect in baseball entering the 2017 campaign, but a forgettable rookie season and then his extended injury absence turned Zimmer from building block to afterthought. He could be the biggest wild card of any player on this list, assuming Zimmer is healthy.
- Daniel Johnson: A part of the three-player package the Indians received from the Nationals in the November 2018 Yan Gomes trade, Johnson’s first season in Cleveland’s farm system was a successful one, as he hit .290/.361/.507 over 547 combined PA at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. MLB.com’s scouting report notes that Johnson’s strong throwing arm and overall defense alone could earn him steady work as a fourth outfielder at the big league level, so if he can manage to hit as well, there’s certainly room for Johnson gain playing time with the Tribe.
One bit of good news for the Indians in sorting out all these players is that they don’t face any specific roster crunch, as Santana is the only one of these players who no longer has a minor league option. That affords Francona and the front office the opportunity to freely evaluate these players during Spring Training without feeling forced into a tough roster choice based on team control. Given the sheer number of outfielders on hand, it also wouldn’t be entirely shocking if the Tribe dealt away from this surplus. If a few of these names really stand out during camp, Cleveland might feel comfortable enough in its depth to consider one of the other players expendable if another outfield-needy team came calling with an interesting trade offer.